As Shekhar Mehta prepares to lead the Rotary world in 2021, he dreams of Rotary being honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts in polio eradication, and PRIP Kalyan Banerjee too backs it. “Polio need not be completely finished for Rotary to get a Nobel Prize. With 99 per cent of the world polio-free, it is a matter of time we reach that one per cent and we will do it. It is time to recognise Rotary’s enormous role in conquering the virus. Have a committee in place for 3–4 years so that by the time your tenure is over, a decision will be taken on this,” said PRIP Banerjee at a grand felicitation event in Kolkata in honour of the RIPN. Rotarians of Kolkata, and neighbouring districts, had pulled all the strings to make the event a memorable one for the ‘son of the soil’. It was a star-studded evening and an extra special one as the guests celebrated Mehta’s 60th birthday with great fanfare.
Another suggestion Banerjee made was to consider having several regional sub headquarters so that Rotary can be run continent-wise and country-wise. People in various regions think and act differently. “One plan for the whole world is not the solution. We need to address the differences of the lands differently and still keep growing. This is how we can attract the current generation. Good luck to you. Go and conquer the world.”
He noted the special connection Kolkata has with Rotary “just like how Chicago is special for RI. Today efforts are on to revive the home of Rotary Founder Paul Harris and preserve it as a monument. It is only right that we in India collectively make plans to revive the home where Nitish Laharry lived as a Rotary heritage place. And now as India celebrates its centennial Rotary year, it is only apt to do so. Perhaps Shekhar will show the way,” he said.
It was Shekhar’s initiative that made eradicating illiteracy a viral proposition in India.
– Gulam Vahanvaty, TRF Trustee
PRIP Rajendra Saboo shared his joy through a video message from the US. He commended Mehta’s efforts in reaching shelter kits to the needy during disaster relief. “Shekhar has integrity, ability and commitment. Rotary will be fortunate to have him as a leader. God bless him,” he said.
The event, anchored by RID Kamal Sanghvi, was an interesting potpourri of fun, grandeur and camaraderie, and attended by delegates from various districts across India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Mehta was given a traditional felicitation by the senior leaders. PDG Anirudha Roy Chowdhury welcomed the delegates.
TRF Trustee Gulam Vahanvaty traced Mehta’s role in the formation of RILM, after the Colombo Declaration was adopted at the South Asia Summit for Peace, Development and Cooperation organised in Colombo, when Mehta and Y P Das were RI Directors and Banerjee was RI President. The document led to the formation of the Rotary South Asia Society and the Rotary India Literacy Mission. “It was Shekhar’s initiative that made eradicating illiteracy a viral proposition in India,” he said.
Mehta shared fond memories of the “two lovely years” he served as RI Director, along with PRID Y P Das. “The four of us would go for dinner. Rashi, Manju and I are vegetarians and as we sat for dinner, Das would say, Oh… how I miss the non-veg food! You know the last time when I was in Vietnam, they would serve live snails on our plate. And I would say, Oh god, here we are eating vegetarian food and you talk about snails… He would do that every time we sat down for dinner. But jokes apart, we had a great time together.”
Polio need not be completely finished for Rotary to get a Nobel Prize. With 99 per cent of the world polio-free, we will reach the one per cent soon.
– Kalyan Banerjee, Past RI President
Das recalled how the Indian leaders — Mehta and he as Directors, Banerjee as RI President and Ashok Mahajan as TRF Trustee — were then referred to at the RI headquarters as the ‘Indian Mafia’. “But we enjoyed a wonderful working relationship right from when we were Directors-elect and then Directors. Shekhar is a workaholic, working late in the night. He dreams big and is an achiever. His literacy programme is a tell-all. Rashi is the silent force pushing him in that direction,” he said.
RID Bharat Pandya eloquently highlighted Mehta’s ‘charisma’ — Commitment, Hope, Attitude, Refining his goals, Innovative efforts, Sensitive to others, Motivational leader, Action-oriented —and complimented him for designing the TEACH verticals which make RILM a big success. “Together with Kamal, Gulam and me, we will make the Indian troika, and not an Indian Mafia,” said Pandya.
“When I googled what Shekhar means, it mistook the word for shikhar and threw up the answer that it means ‘peak’. Indeed, he is a pinnacle of dedication. Be it heart surgeries for children or promoting literacy, he works with such devotion,” said PRID Manoj Desai.
Enough of bashing India. It is time we blow our own trumpet. Why should we put ourselves down in international meetings?
– Shekhar Mehta, RI President Nominee
PRID P T Prabhakar, who was part of the Nominating Committee that elected Mehta as RIPN, explained the procedure. It is a stringent process and not even the RI President or General Secretary can enter. “It is a norm that when the committee meets the President should not be in Chicago.” The committee is asked to choose the best candidate irrespective of gender, age or region. “So we cannot choose a woman candidate just because we have not had a woman president so far.” One of the questions to the candidates was, ‘Where do you see Rotary in the next 10 years?’ Answers ranged from ‘Rotary will have 1.3 million membership’; ‘The Foundation will have double the contributions’. “Shekhar stole the show with his answer: Rotary will be honoured with a Nobel Prize in three years from now for our work in polio eradication, and the committee was floored by his answer,” he said.
As the programme drew to an end, an overwhelmed Mehta thanked everyone for the good wishes and blessings, and specially thanked all the senior leaders “for shaping me. I am influenced and inspired by each one of you one way or the other.”
He spelt out some of the ideas he wanted to introduce during his year. “Enough of bashing India. It is time we blow our own trumpet. Why should we put ourselves down in international meetings? After all, we stand tall in membership and contribution and we are doing a great job with several global grant projects here.” He spoke about his plans to increase membership to 1.3 million and urged each Rotarian to introduce one member in the next three years. “We can do it. Remember when we promised Kalyanda that we will contribute $300 million to TRF when he was its Chair, and we did it.” Another idea he shared was a common India Central Disaster Management Fund instead of different trusts to raise funds for disaster victims.
Pictures by Jaishree
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The audience was treated to wit and humour as RID Sanghvi quizzed Mehta, Rashi and their family on a range of topics. The couple knew each other from school days as both their families were good friends and they courted for seven years before they married. “We all know Shekhar as a literacy man, a man building toilets, but this is the other side of Shekhar, the lover boy. It is beyond our imagination,” said Sanghvi.
Rashi recalled how “he used to make me wait for hours. If he had said he will come at 11 am, he would come only at 1 pm and I would just wait for him.” Referring to his affection for his two sisters, Rashi recalled how he wanted to take them along during their honeymoon!
“What is the one thing that you have not said to your son Chirag and you want to tell him now?” asked Sanghvi. As Mehta pondered, pat came the reply from PDG Ravi Vadlamani from the other side of the hall: “Join Rotary.” Mehta caught that and said, “Yes, bang on! I have never said that to him. Join Rotary.”
Reflecting on the moment when he transformed into a true-blue Rotarian, Mehta talked about a mobility aids camp that his club RC Calcutta Mahanagar had organised for physically-challenged people where they were given calipers, artificial limbs, crutches or wheelchairs. His job was to check if the people had strong hands to push the wheelchairs to move around. He would check their strength by asking them to pull his hands. “The first person came crawling.
I saw that his hands were soiled. And I reluctantly stretched out my hand for him to put his hand on mine.
I didn’t like it at all, but I had to. The next was a leprosy patient. I had no option. But as the exercise progressed I came to terms with it and empathised with them, realising that they had a huge challenge of mobility which they overcame by whatever means they could. That project changed me into a Rotarian from just a club member.”
What do you like the best about your club? “They stand by me like a rock and support my craziest ideas. Thank you. You are the place where I learnt everything,” he said.
Mehta wants to write a book, and a sensational chapter in it will be “on the clichés of Rotary. When they say ‘a short introduction’ it is always a long one; they say ‘now we will present a small momento, not memento, and four people will be bringing that small memento… these are few samples.”
When asked about his choice for a dinner date, a role model and a guru, it was “Kalyanda” for all three. Next Sanghvi asked: “If you are stranded on an island, and can save just one person, who would you choose among your mother, wife, Katrina Kaif and Kalyanda?
Mehta replied: “I will still choose Kalyanda, for he will show the way to save the other three.
A few other witty, yet wise rejoinders to Sanghvi’s rapid fire questions included a choice between Kamal Sanghvi or Mahanagar, his answer was “Kamal Sanghvi in Mahanagar”; and between Rashi or his Ma, “Ma — both mine and Chirag’s.”