This centenarian’s life story — at least the earlier years, reads like Gulliver’s Travels. Well almost; with tensions, pulls and pressures associated with World War II. But the most fascinating part of his saga is that even as he turns 100, this charter member of RC Bombay Mid-Town regularly attends club meetings.
Meet Ramgopal Mehra, who became a charter member of his club in 1968 when RC Bombay ceded part of its
territory to the new club it sponsored. He joined Rotary because somebody living in his building was a Rotarian, “and during my Rotary years I have met so many interesting people and listened to such great speakers that you can’t even imagine,” he says in a telephonic interview.
The man who started Huechem Textiles, which has been in the textile and knitted clothing business since its inception in 1982, first left India for Japan as a teenager of only 18, but with some experience in textiles. This helped him get a good job in a Japanese textile company with a much better salary. “In India my salary then was only Rs 30, but in my new job I got a salary of Rs 80, along with a house, telephone and all expenses paid … they paid even for my clothes! They were very generous to me.”
He would travel all over East and South East Asia — Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, etc — to market their textiles and after five years came to India on a steamer. He landed in his hometown of Bombay just before the World War II began and was in two minds on whether to stay back or return. “But my brother advised me to return to Japan” and he set sail.
And here is where his adventure began! By the time he and his fellow Indian passengers reached Sri Lanka, the War had begun. As they were British subjects “the British put us up in a hotel and gave us a daily allowance of £10 and even from that we saved,” he chuckles. They were made to stay in Sri Lanka for a month. He has several interesting stories to relate of how a tug of war started between the Indians and the British who wanted to first send them back to India. But they insisted that they wanted to go to Japan.
Eventually, Mehra left Japan “for Shanghai, where I could be safe during the War. Next he went to East Africa. Eventually, in 1942, he returned to India “where Gandhiji’s movement on India’s Independence was catching up.” He came home with a deep understanding of world cultures and global business practices.
So what did he enjoy the most about being a Rotarian?
“Oh, meeting so many wonderful people; but for Rotary I wouldn’t have met so many people, some of them very interesting foreigners. Also, when I joined, the speakers used to be very noted people who spoke on a range of subjects which were very novel and fascinating to me.”
Changes in Rotary
But he feels some of the sheen has gone out of Rotary. “In my days people used to join Rotary not for furthering personal interests but to make new friends and do service. I am afraid these days some people join Rotary only to further their business interests,” he sighs.
Saying he is a “Rotarian first” and then anything else, he adds, “In our days there were so many good Rotarians who were committed to Rotary and devoted to social service. Can you imagine that I never fought an election and never tried to become President? I don’t see the same kind of commitment to Rotary these days.”
Even at this age, he continues to attend Rotary meetings and last year clocked cent per cent club attendance.
Right from 12, Mehra has been doing yoga and till recently his passion was “long walks.” From his years in Japan he learnt the virtue of qualities such as hard work, discipline and punctuality. His discipline ensured that he followed a strict diet, did yoga and took long walks, obviously the secrets to his long life. But recently, thanks to an unfortunate fall, his walks have been curtailed.
He is married to Urmila and it’s been a partnership of 71 years. Their son Vipal is a Rotarian too, but not wanting to join the same club as his father, he joined RC Mumbai Cuffe Parade.
Though Mehra is happy that “today India is in safe hands,” he is disturbed at the growing culture of corruption in the country and the ease with which Indian youth compromise with honesty and truth for making a fast buck.
On what other Rotarians can learn from this vintage Rotarian, fellow club member and PDG Dr Shirish Sheth says: “Wonder how many Rotarians in their 90s, forget 100-year-old, would be attending Rotary Club meetings. Hats off to Ramgopal Mehra; his devotion says a lot about what Rotary really is!”
His example should inspire Rotarians of all ages to show similar devotion to Rotary, he adds.