Once Rotary and Rotarians have finished the long journey of polio eradication from the entire world, “different regions could have different priorities. We are looking at a federal structure in Rotary, where India/Asia could be one region, Africa, Europe and Americas could each be different regions. Probably for Africa the focus could be on AIDS and literacy, for Asia literacy and health. I believe regionalisation and federalism are the way forward,” RI Director Bharat Pandya said, addressing the grand felicitation event of Rotary Club of Calcutta as it celebrated its 100th birthday on Jan1, 2020.
Going forward, he added, Rotary will have to strictly follow four crucial principles — remain relevant, forge partnerships, tackle lack of continuity in programmes and projects, and regionalisation or a federal structure.
We take pride in the past but it is time to move into the future. The torch of leadership is in Purnendu Roy Choudhury’s hand. I urge you to hold that torch a little higher, make it burn a little brighter and pass it on to future generations.
Pandya said the best prayer in the world was “helping others which you have been doing for 100 years, and you have so many achievements to your credit. As your serving director, I compliment and congratulate all the club members on behalf of the RI Board.”
Wherever he goes, Rotarians ask him what Rotary wants from them. “My reply is — cleaner minds and dirtier fingernails. We need to set an example by practising integrity in what we say and do. I do not stress on ethics because ethics may change from century to century, but integrity in thoughts, action and deeds is timeless.”
He urged all Rotarians to think of integrity in their “clubs, service, administration and elections at the district, zone and international levels. At the risk of repetition, I say the only thing that walks back from the graveyard with the mourners is a man’s character. It outlives the man.”
Undoubtedly, the club’s past has been splendid; “we take pride in the past but it is time to move into the future. The torch of leadership is in the hands of Purnendu Roy Choudhury. I urge you to hold that torch a little higher, make it burn a little brighter and pass it on to future generations.”
Pandya said all rivers have a humble beginning; “as it flows down the mountain, other small streams join a river and by the time it comes to the plains, it swells into a mighty river. It is the same with Rotary. A hundred years ago, the world was undergoing tremendous changes. World War I
had ended, the first plastic surgery was done, and so many changes were happening, and in this corner of India, a fledgling Rotary club was born. As the Chinese proverb goes, a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a small step. RC Calcutta also began its journey with that step in Jan 1920.”
And as the journey progressed, “other outstanding men, and then women, joined it and their thoughts, ideas and inputs came in and today this club is a leading club not only in RID 3291, but all of India, if not entire South Asia.”
The journey would have been a roller coaster, with many highs, some lows, challenges, “but at the end of it all, it has been an enjoyable, satisfying, enriching journey… a journey of service above self.”
The RI Director added: “If you ask me to describe Rotary in two words, I’d say they are “hope and opportunity; hope that the community has in Rotary that it will do something to improve the community and make the world a little better. And the opportunity that you and I get to fulfill that hope to make our world a little better place.”
Rotary had achieved a lot in the last century, not the least of which was coming so close to eradicating polio from the world. But yet, it faced four challenges — could it remain relevant to our times; could it ensure continuity of programmes and projects (“not doing this gives us the image of a touch-and-go organisation”); greater focus and partnerships.
Congratulating the club on completing 100 years of its charter, PRIP Rajendra Saboo said he had a complaint against “the man who never visited RC Calcutta”, and that was Rotary Founder Paul Harris. Addressing him, he added: “With due respect, you have made a mess of all of us here. Because normal people, who otherwise would be pursuing their business or profession, are all here… from the UK, Australia and other parts of the world, spending their money and talking about fellowship, service, etc. We were chasing happiness that we get from our work, business, making money and spending our time with our families. But look what we are doing here! But we still thank you in total sincerity because you sowed that seed in our hearts that we don’t live for ourselves but people who need us.”
Recounting a little history of the club, Saboo recalled how initially there was difficulty in getting 45 people together to form RC Calcutta. The club bulletin Chaka was started in 1925 and continues to have its pioneering status. “This club is privileged to have Sir Surendranath Banerjee as its member and to get addressed by Mahatma Gandhi. So many important persons in Kolkata were either its members or have addressed it. And of course, you had Nitish Laharry as your first Indian club secretary.”
Saboo disclosed that his late father was also a member of RC Calcutta, even though he was not a regular attendee of the club meetings thanks to his hectic travel. “But I first heard the name Rotary from him and what it stood for. In our household, he talked of Rotary and I once asked him why don’t you attend their meetings, and he said they have been kind enough to give me leave of absence every time!”
When he shifted from Kolkata to Chandigarh in 1960, and was invited to join Rotary, he already had a connect with the organisation. “And I was privileged also to come here as the RI president, and am happy to be here when the fourth president of RI from India — Shekhar Mehta — will be taking over and he is the son of Kolkata too!”
In a video message RI President Mark Maloney congratulated the club on its centennial. “It has such a distinguished history; when organised on Sep 26, 1919, it was the only Rotary club between the English Channel and the China Sea. And it is a Rotary club with the longest continuous existence in Asia. It is also responsible for the organisation of Rotary clubs in Lahore, Bombay, Madras, Delhi and Dhaka. I, along with Gay, look forward to celebrating with you in person in February,” he added.
David Palmer from RI District 1130, who has been instrumental in RC Calcutta forging some meaningful partnerships with clubs in that district and elsewhere in the UK, regaled the audience with his great sense of humour. He began his speech by saying that one of the Rotarians in the room — “you know who you are” — had posted a picture of “me in very close proximity with a Russian belly dancer last night (New Year’s night where a grand celebration was held).” This had resulted in his daughter calling and asking: “What are you doing in Russia… we thought you were in India for a Rotary event!”
Recalling his meeting with past president of the club and Centennial Committee Chair Saumen Ray, he said, “a combination of good luck and chance meeting with Ray” had resulted in his district forging a great partnership with RC Calcutta. He recalled how they had first set up a meeting “at the Paddington railway station (in London) and like a pack of cold war spies we decided he should wear a carnation or rose in his pocket and I would hold up a newspaper in my hand. Now Saumen being who he is, completely misunderstood this and was last seen walking around Paddington station which is frequented by a certain type of persons in London, not wearing but waving his rose, not a wise thing to do at the Paddington station! I did recognise him and saved him from the embarrassment that could have followed and even a brush with the constabulary!”
They chatted for a while “and I was astonished to learn of the sheer volume of Foundation work undertaken by the Rotarians of just one club in Calcutta.”
So he talked about their work in his district; “the results were immediate, many of the clubs showed positive interest in linking with him.” More recently, when he was the chair of his district conference, he invited Ray to “address us on how an open approach to TRF and its funding could give such dramatic results. The impact of his talk was incredible on the district members.” Ray asked for his help to design the Centennial bell. This bell has been sponsored by PDG Prabhat Krishna Rohatgi.
Delivering a talk on WinS, PDG Ravi Sehgal related an interesting story of how partnerships for service projects are formed. About 20 years ago, a GSE team of Rotarians from Georgia visited a project being done by RID 3291. After inaugurating a tube well, “while walking back, they saw a long queue of children standing in the sun and eating from their tiffin boxes.” It naturally raised a question, and so “we went inside the school and asked, and found there was only one tube well for 600 children in the entire school. And by the time they finished their tiffin, many of the children didn’t have time to drink water. So when they got their turn, they would just take a sip of water, whether they had finished their food or not. That’s all they got. There were tears in the eyes of the GSE team leader, who told me that in the US they took everything for granted. You put the switch on and get electricity; turn the tap on, water comes. It is sad to see this state of affairs.”
Unfortunately, such a situation existed in many schools even today. Over 110 million school children are getting midday meals from the government, but they don’t have proper drinking water facilities. Five years ago, Rotary took up the challenge and was working along with the GoI to improve/provide handwashing and toilet facilities in schools.
Saumen Ray conducted the meeting and regaled the audience with several anecdotes from the past. Club President Purnendu Roy Choudhury said during its centennial the club had plans to do projects worth ₹20 crore. Earlier in the day it had given a camera worth ₹25 lakh to a local hospital which would help prevent blindness in premature babies. A special cover was released by the postal department on the occasion. RIPN Shekhar Mehta, DG Ajay Agarwal, and US Consul General in Kolkata Patti Hoffman felicitated the club members.
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat
Nostalgia for grandeur at the Grand Hotel
The event was attended by numerous foreign delegates from the UK, US, Australia, Egypt, Bangladesh and other countries. But the predominant presence was from the Rotary clubs in Scotland, RI District 1130, with which RC Calcutta has a strong partnership for doing community service projects over long years. It was organised in the plush banquet hall of Hotel Grand in Kolkata, where vintage and senior members of the club have several nostalgic memories as the club held its meeting at this venue for over 40 years. But once the Rotary Sadan was built by RC Calcutta, its meetings have shifted to that venue.
“But many senior members often express their longing for a return to this hotel; forget the food, which is delicious, nobody in Kolkata can make biscuits and pastries like the Grand Hotel,” said a senior member.
There was a different kind of nostalgia too, as the speakers and senior Rotary leaders recalled the hoary past of the club. This included Mahatma Gandhi addressing the club in 1920, when all the members of the club were white males, on the importance of the charkha. In his honour, only vegetarian food was served at that meeting, and one can visualise the twinkle in the Mahatma’s eyes when he remarked: “Today the Rotarians are having a Bengali widow’s luncheon!”
There was of course a lot of mention and recall with pride of how the first Indian to become an RI President — Nitish Laharry — joined their club in early 1926 and went on to become the first Indian secretary of the club in 1926–27, “though at that time he was a quiet and even a shy young man,” says the club’s histroy book. But more of Laharry in the next issue!