It was a gay and colourful twin birthday party that was celebrated at the South Asia Reception in Atlanta — Trustee Chair Kalyan Banerjee’s 75th birthday and The Rotary Foundation’s 100th. But while a celebration of the latter is what the Atlanta Convention was all about, at this well organised Indian dinner event, Banerjee was the toast of the evening.
The colourful evening radiated a unique warmth with the event chief, RI Director Manoj Desai, choosing Indian Rotary stalwart and Past Rotary International President Rajendra Saboo to introduce the birthday boy. At his eloquent best, Saboo termed this “a very special day as it brings back some fond old memories.” He recalled how just a few years ago, in the wee hours of August 11, “I got a call around 25 minutes past midnight from Kalyan, and I asked him: Kalyan, have you got the phone call (nominating him RI President), and he said yes. And I said this is the best gift that you have given me on my 75th birthday. Today is your 75th birthday and what a privilege it is to be here and wish you on your 75th birthday. But we all miss Binota.”
RI general officers from our zone have decided to contribute $10,000 to TRF in the name of Kalyan Banerjee.
— PRIP Rajendra K Saboo
Saboo said that while in 2011–12, Banerjee had led the Rotary world with distinction, today in its 100th year, he was the Trustee Chair of the Foundation. It was amazing “how under such trying circumstances this year, he has been able to carry on and provide the leadership to The Rotary Foundation. We are missing Binota here, but the thunderous appreciation that you are extending here to Kalyan will be heard by Binota, not physically by her ears, but deep in her heart.”
A birthday gift
He announced that as a birthday gift to Banerjee, “RI general officers from our zone have decided to contribute $10,000 to TRF in the name of Kalyan Banerjee.”
As the top leadership of the Rotary world — from RI President John Germ and Judy, RIPE Ian Riseley and Juliet, RIPN Sam Owori and Norah, IPRIP K R Ravindran and Vanathy, TRF Trustee Sushil Gupta and Vinita, RIDE Basker and Mala, and some other representatives of the RI Board and TRF, and of course RID Manoj Desai and Sharmishtha — and also philanthropist Rajashree Birla, wished and toasted to his health, a visibly overwhelmed Banerjee admitted: “Frankly, I am at a loss for words… I’ve never celebrated my birthday and here I am on my 75th with over 400 people from the world, most of them from India and the subcontinent, celebrating my birthday. I wish Binota was here, because this is something she would not have liked to miss. Thank you Manoj and Raja for putting this event together so beautifully.”
Best and worst of times
He said for him this has been “a very strange and unusual year… Charles Dickens started his book A Tale of Two Cities by saying ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ For me, this year has been something like that. The best of times as it is the 100th anniversary of The Rotary Foundation… what an honour and privilege to serve as its Trustee Chair in this very special year!”
It was also a time when polio has almost gone from the world. “I believe Pakistan has not seen any polio cases for over a month as also Afghanistan… so we are getting there. That’s how it happens and happened in India… first one week or two weeks, then a month, two months, six months and then a year, and polio is gone!”
But, he added, “For Binota and me, it has been the most difficult time of our lives; it (her health setback) was unseen, unexpected. We had actually started out last week but somewhere along the way, she didn’t feel too good so I decided she should go back, rest and recover, in order to be able to come back the next year. She and I are talking about three times a day and she is absolutely delighted, she keeps asking what is happening, who is there, and so on.”
What you have done in polio eradication, and what you’re doing in education in schools, water and sanitation, are indeed remarkable and we look upon you for guidance in many areas.
— RIPN Sam Owori
Thanking Saboo for his warm, personal and nostalgic tribute and wishes, describing him as “a mentor”, Banerjee said, “When I got nominated — I come from a small rural town called Vapi — I used to wear just shirts and trousers… and it was Raja who took me to some of the best tailors in India… you have been a true mentor for me in so many ways!
“I am extremely grateful to you for all your support, quiet, but always there, you have always been more concerned about how Binota has been, more than anyone else I can think of. It is something that I am always going to carry with me.”
Reiterating that this 75th birthday he’d always remember, Banerjee concluded, “Now before I break down, I’d better stop.”
RI President John Germ, who was introduced by TRF Trustee Sushil Gupta, thanked Indian Rotarians for the great projects they did and said, “because of you, India is in a better place today.” He complimented RID Desai for doing a good job as a Director and leading “with confidence, credibility and integrity.”
Introducing RIPE Ian Riseley, IPRIP Ravindran said he was both “witty, intelligent and efficient,” and last year, as the Chair of the Seoul Convention, he had made a profit of $2.5 million.
Phenomenal polio work
Felicitating the assembled Rotarians from South Asia, RIPE Ian Riseley said it was always a “pleasure to spend time with Indian Rotarians” and congratulated the Rotarians from all the South Asian countries. “Rotary’s successes in this region have been nothing short of amazing. The impressive polio work in India, led by Rotarians and supported by generous persons such as Rajashree Birla, Chairperson of the Aditya Birla Foundation for Community Initiatives and Rural Development, was phenomenal.”
Thanking Indian Rotarians for their contributions to TRF, which had transformed India from a receiving to a giving country, Riseley recalled his visits to India. Particularly the one to Dehradun as the RI President’s Rep when thanks to the persuasive powers of PRIP Saboo and PRID Yash Pal Das, “we went up to the foothills of the Himalayas and took part in the representation of the last of the few schools built there after the devastating floods. It was inspirational in every way… and again both Raja and Yash said ‘you must, you must, you must, go to the Taj,’ and we went to the Taj Mahal under a full moon. We are grateful to them for that experience.”
Convener of the glittering Reception, which laid out a mouthwatering spread of umpteen starters and a delicious Indian dinner, RID Manoj Desai said this was his last official meeting before he laid down office as Director at the end of the month. India had done phenomenally well, adding over 10,000 plus members this year, taking the total membership of the zone to 152,653 members. “Last year, we gave $15.2 million to TRF, this year, perhaps somewhere, due to the demonetisation factor, the figure till now is over $9 million, but I’m sure we’ll do much better by the end of this Rotary year,” he said.
Desai added that the two black points of Indian Rotary were election complaints and court cases. He was happy to report that 100 elections had been done through electronic voting and there were no complaints this year. “But we have two court cases, and that takes our image down in the Rotary world.”
He congratulated Indian Rotarians for the “fantastic work done in both Literacy and WinS, and I am confident that going forward we will get a lot of funds under CSR to do projects that make a difference.”
Introducing RIPN Sam Owori, incoming RI Director C Basker said that only recently he had made his acquaintance during the RI orientation course and was “struck by the depth of his knowledge and wisdom… on a wide range of issues from world economy and business fortunes. He was the CEO of the top Uganda Bank, which is like being Governor of our RBI, and has studied at Oxford and Harvard Business School.”
Responsibility to lead
In his address, Owori said to him and his wife Norah, Indian culture “is not strange as we know many Indians in East Africa and Uganda and I’ve studied in an Indian secondary school in Uganda, so we can handle the spices!”
He added that India, as a country of over “1.2 billion people, has a responsibility to lead, by the sheer numbers you have and many of us look upon you as an example. And along with the numbers you have the capacity and the skills to lead. And you have indeed led us; what you have done in polio eradication, and what you’re doing in education in schools, water and sanitation, are indeed remarkable and we look upon you for guidance in many areas. But while Indian Rotarians have the capacity and numbers, that go with the responsibility to lead us in the right direction. In literacy and education, what you’re doing is extremely exciting and that mobilisation and the kind of population you have to deal with cannot be taken lightly. It’s a challenge and we are looking to you for guidance.”
In a moment of a grand celebration, all the RI leaders from the world and India came together to cut the Centennial cake.
A book Doing good in the world, put together by PDG Ravi Vadlamani and a booklet on the key findings from the Dubai Zone Institute, written by PDG Rekha Shetty, were released on the occasion. Also, the Literacy flame, which had traversed through 12,000 miles and 22 States of the USA to spread the word on literacy and TEACH, was received.
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat