It was nostalgia galore on the evening of Sep 26 in the hall in Kolkata, where Rotary Club of Calcutta was celebrating its 100th birthday. There was a combination of different cultures and vibrant colours… the jamdanis of Dhaka were there, worn by delegates from Bangladesh, matched by the elegant off-white and gold bordered sarees from Kerala, worn by members of Rotary Club of Lucknow; both RCs Dhaka and Lucknow have been sponsored by RC Calcutta!
The event was held as the club’s 4,427th meeting, the Centennial bell was there and the compere for the evening, Centenary Committee Chair Saumen Ray, past president, took the audience down memory lane by highlighting the salient points in the club’s 100-year journey.
Founded on Sep 26, 1919, the club was chartered on Jan 1, 1920, and is the oldest running Rotary club in mainland Asia. It has sponsored 28 clubs in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In the audience I spot PDG (1984–85) Somendra Chandra Nandy, the oldest living member of the club, who tells me he joined the club in May 1964. Asked about the greatest gift the club has given him, he smiles and says: “I learnt to write English. I was the editor of The Chaka, our club bulletin, for many years. And I wrote so many books.”
In my 55 years of Rotary journey I enjoyed making new friends, and meeting so many different people.
– PDG Somendra Chandra Nandy, the oldest living member of RC Calcutta
What did he enjoy the most during his 55 years’ membership? “Making new friends, and meeting so many different people. It has been a fantastic journey.”
That journey and nostalgia were captured over the next few hours, with 12 of the 28 clubs that RC Calcutta has sponsored sending their representatives to the event. There was a large contingent from Bangladesh led by RID 3281 PDG Sam Showket Hossain (RC Dhaka Central), and Rotary Clubs of Dhaka, Patna, Lucknow, Darjeeling, etc.
Conducting the meeting, Club President Purnendu Roy Chowdhury said 20 past presidents of the club were there that day, and “we are forming a new club today of young professionals and businessmen. Their meetings will be short, sweet and crisp and followed by networking sessions.”
Expressing his gratitude for the “overwhelming response” from RI District 3291, and many of its sponsored club, he said, “in Rotary there are no barriers. It’s Rotary’s centenary in India, so let all of us jointly celebrate.” He was lucky to have the “rock solid support” of 20 past presidents; “I am extremely privileged to be the 100th president, we’ve had 99 excellent presidents and I can name all of them but please don’t quiz me now!”
He added that the Rotary Sadan in Kolkata now bears the names of “all the 28 clubs we’ve sponsored so that people can recognise our reach and extent to connect with Rotary in this part of the world.” His team had already visited Colombo, and would be going from Oct 16 to 21 to Shanghai where RC Shanghai was also celebrating 100 years of Rotary, though it had not existed continually, having been shut down and then reopened.
Soumen Ray said the first club RC Calcutta had sponsored was Lahore. There were many octogenarian clubs in the hall such as Jamshedpur, sponsored in 1936; Dhaka (1937); and Lucknow (where former Prime Minister A B Vajpayee was an honorary member.
Listing some of his club’s significant projects, Chowdhury said one of these was the Annual Children’s Treat “which we started in 1925 and it is running non-stop for 95 years. We also have an archive which is a treasure trove and our past president Nandita Sen, who is the first woman president of our cub, and is present here today, has taken keen interest, along with past president Dr Dipak R Sarbadhikari to maintain it.
Not many Rotarians might know this but it was RC Calcutta that brought cultivation of broccoli into India; next on the cards is to expand asparagus cultivation in India by going to the hills of Darjeeling, a perfect region, with the help of Rotarians of Netherlands. “There is a huge demand in this city for asparagus,” he said.
Chowdhury also shared that in 2011, with the active involvement of past president Soumen Ray, Rotarians had advocated changes in the Indian Railways sanitation facilities. “As a result, most Indian Railway coaches have been upgraded with the control discharge toilet system and bio toilets.”
In September 1925 Gandhiji addressed a meet of RC Calcutta on the “Economic and Spiritual value of the Charkha”.
Over 100 years, the club had done extensive work in healthcare, water and sanitation, literacy and education, and had an extensive outreach through its projects in slums and villages. Having saved the lives of vulnerable children who lived on the streets through its health outreach programmes, now the club plans to build small ‘platform schools’ to support the education of children of ragpickers, daily wage workers, construction workers, etc. They will later be integrated into regular schools. “The brightness and energy of those children is infectious; you should see them when they try to speak to us in English! We will ensure they keep on studying.”
Some of the Centennial projects of the club include a heart surgery project (1,000 surgeries), a school hostel for 200 tribal students, making 25 villages ODF, building a “platform school”, prevention of blindness in children, water, sanitation and other health projects.
A highlight of the evening was a short enactment of a skit that took the audience back to the hallowed history of the club with past presidents — both British and Indian — dressed in period costumes, including top hats, recalling some salient moments from the club’s rich past.
Expressing his admiration for its 10 decades of “magnificent existence and service”, and congratulating RC Calcutta for the “wonderful, gala, celebratory event of your 100th Foundation Day, a once-in-a-lifetime occasion,” PRIP Kalyan Banerjee said Rotarians in India had always believed that Rotary came to India first in 1920. That RC Calcutta was the second Rotary club in Asia, RC Manila in Philippines being the first. “But you had assembled your club here in 1919, before Manila. So, maybe you were the first provisional club in Asia, before you were chartered. But whatever the historical facts, to me, blind supporter that I am, it is always Calcutta first, Calcutta next, Calcutta always. So, happy birthday!”
He was amazed that from the day of its organisation 100 years ago, the club had held its weekly meetings unfailingly every week, “come war, famine, pestilence or floods. What a magnificent performance!”
Giving more interesting details of the club’s rich history (see box), Banerjee complimented its members for their projects such as “your unique Rotary Sadan, your magnificent library; I don’t want to talk about the leaders you have given us nor the leadership you have provided again and again. Your projects and your people, they all speak for themselves. But I want to thank you DG Ajay Agarwal and President Purnendu Roy Chowdhury and your club’s 80 plus Rotarians for the wonderful and lasting vision you have created through your benign leadership, your imaginative service, your upholding of the traditions of Rotary.”
RIPN Shekhar Mehta, who has been talking tirelessly about Rotary India’s upcoming centennial, said, “We’ve been waiting for this evening for two years, meeting regularly and I’ve always urged you to do something really big and how well you’ve taken it up. Purnendu, as Kalyanda rightly said, is not only dynamic but also dynamite; he is everywhere… a perfect ambassador of RC Calcutta in its 100th year!”
Mehta said the ripple effect of this celebration was going to reverberate throughout India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Elsewhere, a Rotary club that had completed 100 years, had just one dinner and “that was it. But here, only one club is going to do projects worth ₹20 crore in one year! This is outstanding.”
The district was extremely enthused about the celebrations; “When DG Ajay and I coined the term “100 years, ₹100 crore’, we soon had to revise the figure to ₹150 crore. And within 15 days of my talk with DG Ajay, I came to know about a man (D Ravishankar) who had himself donated ₹100 crore to TRF. And he is sitting right here!”
When he started talking to other DGs, “the ripple down effect went up to ₹2,400 crore! Yes, that is the value of projects our governors will do this year to celebrate 100 years of Rotary in India.”
Mehta added that hearing this colossal figure, many people were sceptical. “But last week I met the DGs at an Ignite session; and they reiterated that they will do projects worth ₹2,400 crore. Ravishankar’s DG (Sameer Hariani) even revised his original figure of ₹800 crore to ₹1,000 crore. This is the ripple effect of what your club is doing. That is the leadership you torchbearers have provided!”
Mehta then spelt out his vision for Rotary in the next few years; to get a Nobel Peace Prize for its work in polio eradication; grow Rotary’s membership to at least 1.3 million, and evolve into the biggest service organisation in the world. He also wants India to become No 1 in TRF giving. “When Kalyanda was RI President, India got rid of polio. Who knows when another Indian is RI President, the world might get rid of polio,” he said, amidst applause, adding “Insha Allah!”
Striking a lighter note RI Director Kamal Sanghvi said PRIP Banerjee had touched upon Kolkata producing so many RI Presidents. “I’d like to say it’s the genes, pani-poori and jhal-muri !”
He congratulated RC Calcutta for its “strong legacy, incredible journey, celebration of culture at its best… you wrote the first page of Rotary in India. This is an occasion for stocktaking and review; as you celebrate your past, it is very important to plan for the future.”
Sanghvi said that in today’s world “where needs are huge and diverse, service is a serious business; it’s not something you flirt with on an evening.” So they would have to do bigger and more meaningful projects.
Addressing the meet RID 3291 DG Ajay Agarwal said it gave him goosebumps to go down memory lane that evening and absorb the full implications of the way Rotary has grown in India and our zones. From a start of only 20 Rotarians, we have grown to around 170,000, and “all this due to the ‘Old No 1’ — that’s how RC Calcutta was referred to in earlier days.”
One could imagine how hard the man behind this club’s formation, R J Coombes, must have worked to establish Rotary in India. Agarwal also urged the Rotarians in India to reset their goals and priorities. “I am sure we will have another historic 100 years of greatness after this centennial year,” he added.
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat
Rotary history in the City of Joy
Addressing the Centennial celebrations of RC Calcutta, PRIP Kalyan Banerjee said that while preparing to celebrate with the club’s Rotarians he had referred to some Rotary history and “I read that in 1919, an expatriate businessman dealing in steel, R J Coombes, had returned to Calcutta from a business trip to the US with authority from Rotary headquarters to organise a club in Calcutta.” He had succeeded in roping in a few of his European friends mostly Freemasons, and at a luncheon meeting of some 45 men, a formal resolution was passed to organise a Rotary club in Calcutta. Dr William Willoughby Kennedy, a physician and surgeon, became its first president.
Quoting from Rtn James Davidson’s book Making New Friends, on his Rotary travel to the Middle and Far East to establish new Rotary clubs east of Suez Canal, Bannerjee said on Aug 23, 1928, on board the ship Duchess of Athol, that sailed from Montreal, were Davidson, Honorary General Commissioner of RI, and his wife and their daughter. On a 3-year mission from RI, they travelled by steamers plying between London and Tokyo, meeting 2,000 business and professional men, explaining Rotary and its principles.
In Calcutta, Davidson was very impressed with the “only offspring of our youthful international organisation between the English Channel and the China sea,” with no other Rotary contacts for thousands and thousands of miles, and no RI representative having visited it over nine years of its existence. He said in his official report to RI: “RC Calcutta awakened in me both pride in Rotary and amazement. Rtn W K Battey, the only surviving charter member resident in Calcutta and still a tower of strength, speaking at the club’s 10th anniversary celebration, described it as ‘a very feeble infant which at times seemed likely to expire from lack of nourishment.’ He recalled one memorable meeting when only five were present, two of them guests!”
But, a prominent charity event in the city had attracted strong support. Davidson was happy to find at the two luncheons he attended, “the happy atmosphere and good fellowship prevailing between the European and Indian members, now some 80.” He also mentioned the “many services the club has rendered to the community and their long list of distinguished visitors is a roster of the strong men of India, both Europeans and Indians, among whom have been several viceroys, including the great-hearted, person, Lord Irwin.”
Of course, in 1928, Gandhiji had not yet become the father of the nation or won the sobriquet ‘Mahatma’. But the fact remains that in September 1925 Gandhiji addressed a meet of RC Calcutta on the “Economic and Spiritual value of the Charkha!”
Returning to Davidson, Banerjee said, he was happy to find that among the club’s members, 30 were Indian, including the president.. “a man of such culture and courtesy as Rtn Abdul Ali.” His successor was Alfred Watson, editor of The Statesman.
That Davidson had a keen eye can be seen from his singling out “an enthusiastic, exceedingly well-informed Indian member, N C Laharry, who has served the club faithfully for years in many capacities, such as secretary, treasurer, editor of The Chaka — the club’s exceptionally fine weekly magazine, and on various committees.” Added Banerjee, “Well, it is obvious that the Rotary spark had already been kindled in Laharry, who later served RI as its first Indian President in 1961–62. And your Chaka still keeps wheeling along.”
Since then, India produced two more RI presidents, both with a Kolkata connection — Rajendra Saboo and Kalyan Banerjee. “Director Sushil Gupta was elected to serve as the fourth RI President in 2020–21. Unfortunately, his unexpected ill health forced him to withdraw from the assignment. But we pray he regains his health and gets back to Rotary soon. And now, Kolkata has again its own world President of Rotary in Shekhar Mehta to serve in 2021–22. Well, Kolkata seems to have produced really a wonderful array of Rotary leaders; maybe it has something to do with the Holy Ganga waters here!”
In a lighter vein he noted: “I have heard that quite a few Rotarians are planning to settle in Kolkata in the belief that if you want to get to the top of the ladder in Rotary, then Kolkata is the place to start climbing from.”
Banerjee added that as RI President he had the privilege to attend the Centennial ceremony of several great clubs outside the US — Belfast in Ireland, the first Rotary club in Europe, followed by Rotary Club of London and the Rotary club of Birmingham, both in the UK. “But nowhere did I find Rotarians to be as proud and serene as here in Calcutta, where you all have a gravitas and an attachment and affection for your club that is unique. May this attachment continue forever.”
When “grassroots wisdom” got TRF $20,000
When past president of RC Bangalore Orchards D Ravishankar, famous for his ₹100 crore donation to TRF, did some plain speaking at the 100th Foundation Day of RC Calcutta, PRIP Kalyan Banerjee, who followed his Q&A session with PDG Anirudha Chowdhury, commented: “It’s always a delight to hear Ravishankar speak; he always brings in some grassroots wisdom that you don’t normally find in other places. Keep doing that Ravi, you are making a difference to Rotary in India.”
A special guest at the event, Ravishankar, while answering questions posed by PDG Chowdhury, said that he had decided to give away ₹100 crore as he had to return substantially to his city (Bengaluru) and society which had made him what he was today as well as Mother Earth. “And I thought Rotary was the best platform to give, and I am very happy with my decision.” During his year as president, his club had brought down a government school for some 160 children in Bengaluru and rebuilt it to accommodate 800 children. It had also made 126 Happy Schools at Kolar, about 160 km away from the city and pledged to plant one crore trees.
When queried on his pet peeve on how the “educated” give or donate, he said, “I am not educated, so I can’t make fun of those who are. But I think they, the educated, think they are very smart in avoiding being generous and sharing what they have. By amassing wealth and keeping it to themselves, they miss experiencing the joy of giving. This is what I think, and every time I am proved right.”
He then turned around and asked Chowdhury: “I don’t know about your district. How many AKS members do you have?” When the answer was ‘one” he quipped: “I think I am in the wrong place and wasting my time.” When asked for “tips” on how a club or district could raise funds for TRF or projects, he said, “I know Kolkata very well, it has given me the sweetest gift in my wife Paola, who was educated at Loretto, and who taught me English so I can today talk to you today.” He also knew there were many rich people in Kolkata, including those in the audience. “They all need to go home and think how much they have taken from society and how much they will be able to take with them when it is their time to go. They have to ask themselves and decide.”
Soon after Ravishankar said this, Club President Punendru Choudhary announced that one of his club members, Sourav Khemani, had taken an on-the-spot decision to become an AKS member and wanted to know the modality of doing so. He was announcing a donation of $20,000 that day. Congratulating and embracing him, Ravishankar said, “Today this man has saved your district’s prestige!”