It was a poignant moment in the packed hall at the Biswa Bangla Convention Centre in Kolkata where Rotary’s centennial in India was being celebrated through a mammoth conference attended by over 4,000 delegates from 32 countries. Past RI Presidents Rajendra Saboo and Kalyan Banerjee were being recognised and felicitated for their contribution to Rotary in India.
Introducing Saboo, past RI President and incoming Trustee Chair K R Ravindran said as RI President “he made the presidency look tall”, and as RI Director, was responsible for bringing an RI office to our region. “As his governor, I was transformed into the magical world of Rotary.” As Trustee Chair, it was Saboo’s idea to set up peace centres and thanks to this idea “we now have six Rotary Peace Centres in partnership with several leading universities. This has become one of our flagship programmes.”
But Saboo’s “biggest efforts came after he laid down office as Rotary President and in the last 20 years, he has led over 30 medical missions to African countries.”
But, added Ravindran, “when I talk about Raja there is no Raja without Usha; she is a force and an icon in her own right. I have listened to her at Rotary Convention and IA, and if Raja is a jewel in the crown of Rotary India, or the Raja of Rotary, then to my mind Usha Saboo is the Mother Teresa and a nightingale (because of the service she does in the medical missions as a waiter, nurse, counsellor, mother) of Indian Rotary.”
Accepting the recognition and award in “humility”, PRIP Saboo had a simple message to deliver. “Rotary is my teacher. It gave me the ability to look within me and look beyond myself. I was a self-centered individual… thinking of my business, my family and my ambitions. Rotary had not entered into me then.”
Rotary is my teacher. It gave me the ability to look within me and look beyond myself. I was a self-centered individual… thinking of my business, my family and my ambitions. Rotary made me a citizen of the world.
— PRIP Rajendra Saboo
But once Rotary had opened its door for him, he became more than just an Indian; “I became a citizen of the world. My vision enlarged, got tempered and I started to understand the meaning of humanity. When a Pakistan boy, Tausef, after a successful heart surgery under my Rotary club’s project, said, “I can now say one country gave me birth, the other gave me life. Both countries belong to me. Hail Pakistan, hail India, hail Rotary”, Rotary was teaching me a lesson.”
During polio immunisation, when he holds “a little girl with shabby clothes and a running nose and administer polio drops in her mouth, knowing these precious drops will overcome the dangers of a paralytic life for that little girl, I get another lesson from Rotary.”
Saboo said when he goes to African countries on medical missions, he learns that the colour of blood is red, be it Indian or African. A few years ago, when a 2-year-old Nigerian girl wouldn’t leave his lap, as he tried to put her on the operation table for surgery, he saw in her face the face of his granddaughter; “Rotary then taught me the meaning of empathy.”
When his business was in trouble and “I had to part with the factory I had built brick by brick, people started wondering what would Saboo’s identity be now. I did not suffer at all. I had learnt the Rotary lesson of ethics and integrity and practised it. It became our family brand. Rotary’s gift to me again.”
He could give other examples of “umpteen personal experiences that changed my life, thanks to Rotary. A best cut diamond does not shine in darkness. Only when light is on it, the diamond’s brilliance determines its value. We may all be diamonds, but only when Rotary’s light falls on us, we realise our value.”
Thanking RIPN Shekhar Mehta, the Chair of the Centennial Celebrations Committee, Saboo added: “I recognise here Rotary as my teacher, my mentor, my lifeline.”
Introducing PRIP Kalyan Banerjee, PRID Manoj Desai related a “fairy tale of a brilliant young chemical engineer from IIT, who was not well in Calcutta, where he met and fell in love with a pretty nurse (Binota). They decided to get married and settle down in Vapi, a small town in Gujarat. The man had his dreams, and the charming wife offered him smiling and rock-solid support. He wanted to start humanitarian projects, and he started doing so in his hometown Vapi.”
The result is that today you can barely come across a school, college or hospital in Vapi that does not bear prominently the logo of the Rotary wheel.
“Next, Banerjee went 150 km away from Vapi to the jungle of Dang, where the tribal people could not afford even two square meals a day. He went there and brought about a lasting change exactly the way our Vision Statement defines. He continues his journey and has reached within to embrace humanity (Banerjee’s theme during his presidential year.)”
I rather like the term Rotary India. We are now truly on our way to make Rotary explode into the 21st Century, a year when the youth shall truly inherit the world. This is the age of Malala Yusufzai who promotes literacy and Greta Thunberg, who is fighting for the environment.
— PRIP Kalyan Banerjee
Desai added that the hero of his fairy tale was “a man of few words… a man who has the unique ability to find beauty in other people’s faults. He doesn’t become angry but finds beauty in their faults.”
“Sharmishtha and I have known him for 25 years. He is a legend… a man of high principles, sound judgement, great organisational capacity, and an outstanding leader.”
Accompanied by spouse Binota, Banerjee said, “We are overwhelmed at the honour you do us today, as a Jewel of Rotary India, along with my elder brother in Rotary, Past President Raja Saboo. On this happy occasion, I believe that our first Jewel of India, Past President Nitish Laharry, also from Kolkata, like the two of us, must be blessing this occasion with a smile from wherever he may be, up there.”
This honour, he added, went to the entire Rotary family in India, as a “jewel of Rotary International. I rather like the term ‘Rotary India’ for several reasons; the first being that we in India come from a culture that encompasses everything that Rotary is about. A culture that embraces all faiths and every religious belief, just as we do too in Rotary. The Indian culture represents faiths that love all people, in India as also the whole world — just as Rotary does.”
Just as Rotary, Indians believe in what the Sanskrit phrase — Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam — puts it succinctly… that the whole world is but one large family. “We also believe in Nishkama Karma — working without desire — as also in doing our work/service without expecting any benefits. Isn’t that just what Rotary does too? That’s why I truly believe that Rotary is India and India is Rotary.”
Banerjee said he also loved the phrase, Rotary India, because India believed in living together in larger families, “sharing our joys and our happiness”.
And the final reason for his happiness with ‘Rotary India’ was that “we are now truly on our way to make Rotary explode into the 21st century, a year when the youth shall truly inherit the world. This is the age of Malala Yusufzai who promotes literacy and Greta Thunberg who champions environmental issues — they and their likes shall run the world tomorrow.”
India, added Banerjee, has always been one of the strongest proponents of Rotaract. “We may be the only country in the world today with a quarterly Rotaract magazine called Rotaract News.” Senior Rotarians in India have always wanted their children to join Rotaract first and then Rotary. “That’s really extending our reach. It’s so exciting today to see the Rotary world beginning to go the Rotaract way. That’s a great way to build Rotary’s future and the world’s future too.”
While past RI President D K Lee, handed over the award to PRIP Saboo, Trustee Chair Gary Huang did the honours for PRIP Banerjee.
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat