Soon after I joined Rotary News as an editor in 2014, I got a letter written on an elegant letterhead from Past RI Director Sudarshan Agarwal. The style of writing, its courteous tone and tenor struck me and that letter made a statement about the writer. Being new to Rotary itself, having covered the odd Rotary Club of Madras meetings in Chennai some four decades earlier as a cub reporter at the Indian Express, I asked my team members who he was.
With reverence and awe, a colleague informed me that he was a former Governor of Uttarakhand, a former Secretary General of the Rajya Sabha and a very well-connected and powerful man. And one of the senior-most past directors of Rotary in India. “When we went to Kedarnath for darshan once, we asked for his help and he made such excellent arrangements for us. We did not have to wait in the long queue and had good darshan,” she recalled gratefully.
In that letter Agarwal requested me to visit the Him Jyoti School in Dehradun that he had set up for girls from extremely poor families, mainly in the hilly region of Uttarakhand. I did so after a month, clubbing the visit conveniently with the one to see the remarkable work done by Rotary under the leadership of PRID Y P Das in rebuilding the devastated schools in the Garhwal Himalayas following the floods in the region the previous year.
Spending a day at Him Jyoti, which is a residential school and interacting with the students, I was blown away. Watching them deliver their dialogue in English in a flawless accent and clipped tones while enacting a scene from a Shakespeare play, I wondered at the transformation these children from a humble background had undergone thanks to the vision and benevolence of a single man. The girls sang and danced for me, talked to me, had lunch with me… all this with the confidence that comes only from self-confidence that great education gives you.
Over the last few years I met Agarwal, who as a past RI Director, was one of the Trustees of the Rotary News Trust that brings out this magazine, and at various Rotary events such as Zone Institutes and Literacy summits. I always found him to be soft-spoken, kind and courteous, friendly and with a great sense of humour. That he will be sorely missed by the Rotary fraternity in India can be gauged from the spontaneous tributes that are pouring out on social media and have come from senior Rotary leaders.
A great team builder
Says Past RI President Kalyan Banerjee, “Almost everybody talks about his being very well-connected and his great influence as he had been a Governor of Uttaranchal and Secretary General of the Rajya Sabha. He created the Delhi blood bank from virtually nothing and ran it very well. People say he had influence so he could get support from various people and that helped. But the important thing is that he used his influence and that support all the time for good causes.”
While the blood bank was one of his major achievements, the second one was the Him Jyoti School, that gave girls from poor and disadvantaged families “a totally different kind of life; a life of relative prosperity and that which brought about a complete change in their standing in their community. It was something unique and it worked very well.”
He adds, “Sudarshan had a great gift for attracting and selecting the right people to form the teams for whatever he had started. The important thing is that once he had selected them, he would support them thoroughly and mentor them as well… he was a great and successful team builder.”
PRIP K R Ravindran recalls that he met Agarwal for the first time at the Philadelphia Convention when he was his club’s president. “Seeing Vanathy in a silk saree, he possibly thought we were from India and got talking to us. When we told him we were from Sri Lanka he promptly invited us to his suite for a reception he was hosting in the evening.”
A genial host
Once Ravindran became a DG, he got to know Agarwal better, “enjoyed his friendship, stayed in his home and basked in his hospitality. Sudarshan and Usha Agarwal were genial hosts. The first thing that occurred to you when you met him was his extravagant charm, intense generosity and a big-hearted view of leadership.”
“After the Chandigarh Institute, when I was a PDG, he invited me with all my Sri Lankan past governors to come over to Nainital to the Raj Bhavan to spend two days with him and Usha. It certainly was an experience of a lifetime for us to be hosted by the Governor of a State and the master of a Scottish Castle in the Kumaon hills. What Sudarshan did not tell us was that the place would be freezing cold in December! But that did not deter us from having one of the finest holidays in a manor the British had built for their rulers. He took me in his Governor’s helicopter to visit some of the schools he was supporting in the State.”
Banerjee endorses this view on Agarwal’s genial and warm hospitality, whether in his chamber in the Rajya Sabha or his home in Delhi, and says he wore his position and authority lightly. As the Secretary General of the Rajya Sabha he was very respected by the MPs cutting through political parties and he was a very gracious host. “If you went to Parliament at any time, he would welcome you warmly. Even if he was not in his room, his people would make you sit, give you tea till he came. And he would chat with you like he would do with any Rotarian anywhere else. He would not behave like a Secretary General of the Rajya Sabha.
Even when we went to his home, either at his official residence in Pandara Road or his own home later, the first thing he would do was to get you a cup of tea himself, and something to eat. He and Usha were great hosts.”
Describing Agarwal’s generosity as “legendary”, Ravindran says he was “quick to give personally, quick to take up varied issues and quick to empathise with and support a completely unrelated community cause someone brought to him.” After the 2004 tsunami which had ravaged Sri Lanka, he spontaneously announced a donation “of a million rupees from the podium at the Colombo Institute. He had even come prepared with a cheque as a surprise to us.”
A gem of a person
Paying a tribute to Agarwal, Past RI Director Sushil Gupta says “he was not only a great Rotarian but a great human being. I had known him for more than 40 years and he had been a great support to me in my Rotary journey. He was a gem of a person; ever-smiling, ever-ready to serve and always full of creative ideas. The Rotary Blood Bank in Delhi and the Him Jyoti School in Dehradun are a testimony of his great contribution for the welfare of society and the downtrodden. His passing away is a big loss to entire humanity.”
Pointing out his rare ability to differentiate friendship from key issues, Ravindran recalls how in 2009, when the RI Board, on which he was a Director, admonished all the past officers of Agarwal’s district, including himself, “he naturally held me responsible for that unhappy situation.” Later, Ravindran called on him as “I thought it my duty to meet him personally, even though I knew he’d be extremely upset with me.”
A tongue lashing!
Sudarshan received Ravindran at the car most warmly and courteously and “then in the privacy of his office, castigated me unmercifully. It was a tongue-lashing I have never had in my life! But with Sudarshan being who he was, I listened without uttering a word in defence. I’d even say I almost enjoyed it because it was just like being hauled over the coals in my school days by my father, over something I may have done.”
But soon he was back to his old self, “treating me with immense affection. He also agreed that under the circumstances, the events that had transpired were necessary.”
As RI President, he rarely visited personal projects of individuals, but made an exception for the Him Jyoti school that Agarwal had set up “brick- by-brick, column-by-column. The students are daughters of dhobis, ayahs, farm labourers, bookbinders, rickshaw pullers. They put on for me a scene from Shakespeare. These girls who came with no English were playacting Shakespeare, and so beautifully; what an incredible spectacle it was!”
But the biggest thrill, Ravindran adds, “was watching Sudarshan’s face — the pride and affection that only a father can show for his children. This astonishing school was a creation of his vision. He was brave enough to think different; bold enough to believe he would build something successful and talented enough to do it. Yes, Sudarshan will be missed, but his soul will live on and every child who passes out of that school will forever be stamped by his spirit. What a legacy!”
I could see that legacy lives on when at his intallation, RID 3012 DG Deepak Gupta announced his dream to build a residential school for 300 poor students modelled on Him Jyoti built by Agarwal. “It will cost ₹40 crore but I will become like Sudarshan Agarwal, who used to call himself a professional beggar. I will knock on every door to realise my dream for such a school in our district.”
Ravindran adds that over 2,000 years ago Sophocles wrote “one must wait till evening to see how splendid the day has been.” If Sudarshan could look back, he would indeed say: “The day has been splendid.”