He used to be an angry young man, “both personally and professionally and people were scared of me.” Two months
ago a man came with his mother “to my clinic and said I came here 10 years ago, but you were like Durvasa Muni, so angry and we dared not ask you a question. Today you are smiling. What did you do … meditation, yoga? I said I joined Rotary; that gave me a different perspective to life.
Get close and personal with your incoming RI Director Dr Manoj Desai, a spine surgeon par excellence, and the first medical doctor in India to become RI Director. For starters, his handwriting “is very good, unusual for a doctor.” But that he owes to his father, an eminent educationist whose articles and books were in great demand. “My father was a prolific writer and orator and would write very fast. There were no computers then and in the press they wanted somebody who wrote very well but clearly and in good handwriting. So I would rewrite all the scripts for my father’s books and he used to give me 25 paise per page,” he recalls.
Thus Desai got not only his pocket money “but also tremendous knowledge and this inculcated in me the habit of reading and writing, which helped me tremendously when I joined Rotary,” he adds.
The incoming RI Director has an impressive gene pool; both his mother and father were PhDs. His father, Dean of the faculty of Education in Baroda University, trained about 70 PhDs.
While from his father he inherited his oratory and knowledge, “from my mother I learnt time management.
I often joke that ‘Ma, you must have stirred in a watch in the first spoon of milk you gave me.’” Thanks to that legacy, every morning, sharp at 8 a.m., Desai leaves for his hospital. “Sharmishtha occasionally loses her temper saying, ‘eat your breakfast and go,’ and I say, ‘No; its 8 already.’ It is only time management which has brought me to this level in Rotary, where I’ve had fascinating experiences.”
But before looking at that journey, let’s see how Sharmishtha and Desai, known across the entire Rotary world for their infectious smiles and warmth, got married. They’ve been together since kindergarten and she was a “fierce competitor. We sat on the same bench. Her mom would say: ‘When Manoj comes home and says I am No 2, we know Shammi must be No 1’,” he grins.
Later, even though she was in Baroda and he in Surat in their MBBS days, as they were family friends they often met, “exchanged notes, books and were best friends … I looked upon her as the best friend you want to confide in. But we never thought of marriage. Our parents suggested it and we took two days to decide,” he says.
Both are gold medallists; she is a radiologist. “Many people asked my father: ‘Are they really studying seriously? Keep a check on them!’ ”
They got married in 1979; she worked as an assistant professor in the Radiology Department at the SSG Hospital in Baroda, and helped him start his own clinic, and later joined it. They have two sons, the elder, Sapan, is a software engineer in Florida and Neil, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
A journey begins
Desai’s Rotary journey began in 1985 “more out of curiosity” when he joined RC Baroda Metro as a charter member. While travelling daily with two friends on the way to Padra from Baroda, he heard them discuss Rotary frequently and asked if he could join too. They said no, as they already had an orthopaedic surgeon as a member. “That was a kick on my ego, so I joined a new club which was starting and became its president in the third year.” In the first year itself he volunteered to give a free bed in his clinic for polio corrective surgery.
But it was when he became Governor of District 3060 in 1997–98 that he really got involved in Rotary work. “As we travelled together, attended club meetings, Sharmishtha got hooked too and joined Rotary in 2005.” She became a GSE (group study exchange) team leader to Japan and also assistant governor. “She was sent to Japan and loved it so much that I had to go there and bring her back,” he quips.
Desai is grateful for the encouragement and the 10 minutes that the late PRID OP Vaish (Chairman, INPPC) gave him every year from 1995–98 at the INPPC meet at Delhi. “He thought this boy is doing something good and gave me 10 minutes to make my PolioPlus presentation.” For the next five years he was invited to make presentations, “which were always appreciated, that too when I was a nobody.”
After his stint as DG in 1997–98, there was a “lull and nothing exciting” till he was made RRFC in 2002 and that introduced his oratorical skills across a wider Rotary region.
On how he balances his hectic schedule as incoming Director with the demands of his profession as a busy surgeon, and spending time with his family, Desai smiles: “My sincerity and commitment to my patients come to my rescue; I work only with appointments and they know that the guy is crazy but nothing will happen to us and we are safe in his hands! I have operated in the morning, left for US in the evening after visiting the hospital to ensure the patient is fine, and returned from the US to send him home! It is my sincerity that has brought me to this level.”
But less time for work obviously reduces his income. So how does his family take that? Desai grins: “Yes, my sons say that dad had you been in the US you would have owned a helicopter! So I say it is okay, as my CA still takes his fee saying your balance sheet is not yet affected!”
Sharmishtha is very proud and supportive of her husband’s devotion to Rotary. “Right at the beginning, she had told me, ‘I’m fine with whatever you do. But if you join politics, I’ll divorce you!”
Another huge advantage is his expertise and discipline in managing time. Every day from 8 a.m. to 5.15 p.m., he is with his patients. After consultations, he enters the operation theatre at 11.45 a.m. Since there are only 24 hours in a day, he has worked out how to get the best from them. “I have changed my techniques and methodology of surgery after watching videos of my own operations, removing unnecessary steps that can be done better by gadgets in which I’ve invested.” Also, he uses spinal anaesthesia, which is quicker.
After 5.15 p.m., it is his personal time, and “I either go to my farmhouse or it’s my Rotary or family time.” All his famous presentations Aadat se Ibadat, Muskaan, Agnipath, etc, have come from his idyllic farmhouse on a river bed, 9 km from his house. “If I’m in Baroda, I’m there every evening, working on my presentations, relaxing, listening to music … if I feel like cooking, I cook here.”
This is strictly his time, as Sharmishtha goes for dance classes which include Bollywood dancing. “There are 20 of them in her group. She finds this a good form of exercise as well as a stress buster.”
Role of a Director
That brings the discussion to a crucial aspect of RI leadership positions and the responsibilities they bring. Desai says that in the second half of 2014, 18 districts had felicitated him on his nomination as RIDE. “For me this was strange — 18 gajamalas to celebrate my appointment. I felt very strange and asked myself: Is this my goal; is this what I want as RI Director? Not at all. For me, my spine surgery patient walking and going home, with tears in her eyes, is more than enough reward. So does this ego trip help me? No.”
Over the last one year he has been asking himself what his real role was as an RID. “Just to accept gifts, give a motivational speech and depart? Not at all; a direction has to be given. What is the motto of a spine surgeon? Sacrifice the bones but protect the nerves and stability of the structure. So as RI Director my role will be to make Rotary stronger.”
His time table and plans for his district visits are ready; 20 districts in the first year and 18 in the second. “Dhandha is a book on how Gujaratis do business. I’ve told my DGEs that I’ll come to your district only once in a year lekin dhandha karke jaoonga (I’ll do business). You guys don’t have to flatter me by giving me a grand dinner. You do the job, and I’ll be there.”
With PRID Shekhar Mehta concentrating on literacy, Desai wants to deliver the goods on WinS (WASH in Schools); 20,000 toilet blocks in two years. “I am asking Clubs and Districts: Tell me how many toilet blocks you’ll make and maintain.
I need people who are doers not talkers. Everybody wants to come to GETS to give lectures. I tell them first you prove that you are good as a doer, and then I’ll invite you,” says the no-nonsense RIDE.
So what is Rotary’s gift to him? “It has given me a lot — friends, insight and made me much more spiritual than I used to be. When I do a polio surgery without taking money, Nida Fazli’s poem comes to my lips: “Ghar se masjid hei bahut door, Chalo yu kar lei/ Kisi rote huye bachhey ko hasaya jaye.”
At a glance
Joint family: Devoting time to family is very important. For four generations, we have lived under one roof as a joint family and we have family dinner together every evening. Unfortunately we lost father, but my mother stays with us. We spend a lot of time together and the bonding is strong.
Music: Love tranquillity; so enjoy instrumental music, Indian more than western. But in last 7 years, love to sit alone with Sufi music, where one word is recited in 10 different ways till the word exhausts all its meanings. I just love that. This helps me in my speeches — the modulation of voice, same sentence told in three different ways to create different impact.
Cooking: My fundamentals are clear. In Indian it is horizontal stripes, vertical for Chinese and diagonal for Thai cuisine. If I can cut a human being, why not a vegetable! In my hostel days in Surat, we’d often survive on paav-bhaji. I started making it at home and then got into Chinese and next Thai! My speciality is Palak na bhajia …
thin crispy ones.
Technology: I believe that you should play around with what is the latest and not be daunted by it; both my boys are into the latest technology and that helps.
Why doctor: My first love as a child was to become a joker; the role has great philosophy and makes people laugh. Next I wanted to be a pilot; but in Class 8 decided on medicine.
Photography: I am a decent photographer; mostly use a Nikon, I have a collection of some 600 sunsets!
Articulation: Probably genetic; from my father and then there is Ma Saraswati ka aashirwad. But I work hard on my speeches.
Urdu couplets: I love literature and Urdu poetry and sufi music. I find it very relaxing.
Role Model in Rotary: Past RI President and TRF Trustee Kalyan Banerjee. He gave me immense encouragement and paid a rich tribute for our work in building the two villages Aastha and Nishtha after the Gujarat earthquake. I regard Kalyanda and Binotaben as mentors who have taught both Sharmishtha and me how to walk on the path of Rotary.
Need for youngsters: To attract them into Rotary, give them specific projects. They are doers, not talkers. If they’re touched and get satisfaction out of Rotary, they’ll come. But if we continue with the old orthodox Rotary where only lectures are given, youngsters won’t be attracted.”
Changing Rotary: Of course; my own club (Baroda Metro) is innovative, flexible, doing different things; we’re adopting a village, spending Rs 70 lakhs and will change its whole face.
Missing women leaders: Because they came later, but the DGEs are slowly coming in. I say it as a joke, but it is a reality that when Rotary was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2006 by the Wall Street Journal, do you know why Rotary didn’t get it? Because (Grameen Bank founder) Muhammed Yunus took the award and said from the dais that I give this to the ladies of Grameen!
Plans as RI Director
RIDE Manoj Desai will lay great importance to district visits and says there isn’t a single RI Director who has visited all the districts in India during his term. He has decided to do it, dividing the district visits in meeting the DG for an hour, and DGE and DGN for 30 minutes each, “after which I’ll meet all three. I call it the troika meeting, during which I’ll draw a strategy plan for the district.”
In the afternoon, after lunch and rest for an hour, he’d visit projects and “then from 4–6 p.m. I will allow any Rotarian to meet me for 10 minutes with prior appointment; ‘come, talk, go. The RI Director is listening to you.’ ” The next day will be a discussion on ‘Vision 2020 — where do we want to go.’
The two high points in his Rotary days that left a huge impact and really engaged incoming RI Director Manoj Desai in Rotary work were: first the polio corrective surgeries he did and the Gujarat earthquake relief work.
He recalls the time when his team was geared up to do 300 surgeries near Bahraich close to Nepalganj in Nepal, “but we found 1,300 patients waiting there for us. In seven days, with 16 generators and no electricity we did 316 operations of those who were fit and operable.” The four orthopaedic surgeons from Baroda would go to the hotel at 9 p.m., get electricity at 10 p.m., which allowed them to sleep till 4 a.m. before it was cut.
“So we’d get up at 5 a.m. and start working again. This experience gave me a different perspective to life … its reality is so harsh and everybody doesn’t enjoy what God has given me.” He began questioning himself — if God had given him so much “should I not share and help others. If instead of doing such work, I stayed in Baroda for the three days, I’d earn Rs 3–4 lakh more, but the children said: ‘Dad, do what you want and spend your money, we don’t want your money.’ So I thought if they don’t need or want it, who am I hoarding it for, so why not be a change maker?”
Building villages in Gujarat
But what really rattled him and changed his “philosophy of life” was the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat.
“I saw that in the fraction of a second everything goes … the misery and pain I saw … people with limbs or heads missing, and wondered at this great love we have for materialistic pleasures.” He started pondering on how he could change the lives of people, and “asked myself do I need a Mercedes, and my heart said no. Even now I have an SUV (Mahindra) and I am happy with it, and have never yearned for fancy cars.”
And then, one night while returning from the Bhuj relief work at 2 a.m. with four friends, he told them: “Let’s build a whole village. They were sleeping and said: ‘Are you crazy?’ ”
But Desai headed the initiative and “would travel 500 km to and fro from the earthquake affected villages while work was on. “We did one village in one year flat and second one the next year, spending about Rs 5.5 crore and with no Foundation money at all. We raised the funds.”
He himself went to Dallas, Texas, talked to the Patidar Samaj community and “they gave us $50,000. For the second village, when I showed the results of what we had done, they gave us another $70,000. A single community donated $120,000 for building two villages.”
It was the ability to plan mega projects such as this one, and his oratorical skills, which ultimately brought Desai this coveted role of RID.