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By Nelson Mandela was, above all, a great statesman and an enduring symbol of justice and liberty, writes Bikash Sinha The author is Homi Bhabha professor in the Department of Atomic Energy
  • Published 2.01.14

So many, of late, have spoken so eloquently about one of the most unique men in the history of mankind. Now is the time to introspect and reflect on the phenomenon called Nelson Mandela. I must go down memory lane to the days I spent in Cambridge and in London, and then to the year 1995, when I had my first real life encounter with the legend himself in Cape Town.

In 1964, when I arrived at Cambridge, the academic and intellectual ambience of the place was both eclectic and electric. It was imbued with the flavour of a left wing philosophy infatuated with communism. The famous economists at that time were almost invariably left wing, with the likes of Joan Robinson and Amartya Sen leading the force. Naturally, I was very taken with it, and turned almost dizzy with the romantic appeal of communism. In those days, the narrow lane connecting my college to the market square, called Petty Cury, was occasionally adorned with straight red flags, and even more occasionally the red marchers shouted slogans that were hardly relevant to the Beatlemania overwhelming the contemporary cultural milieu of Cambridge. It was a carnival all the way. Along with the joys of learning the natural sciences, my subject, we danced, we dreamt and lived with Marxism.

In one of the debates at the Cambridge Union, some of us proposed the topic, “Who cares for apartheid?” Among the speakers, most of whom were quite well known, there was the famous James Baldwin. The atmosphere at the house was charged. The historic struggle against apartheid came alive with a battlefield’s drama through the work and struggle of Nelson Mandela, who was relatively unknown to the world at that time. Baldwin, in his characteristic way, declared “Mandela is invincible; he will deliver, I tell you, Mr Speaker”.

That loud, yet convincing, statement charged me up and changed me. At that impressionable age, Nelson Mandela became my hero, my role model, the saviour of mankind, the solution to the unfathomable torture and agony of apartheid in South Africa.

Later, at the King’s College in London, I joined a group which was not as vociferous as the one in Cambridge, but with very certain left-off-the-centre leanings. They were of the view that just shouting against apartheid in London clubs or even in the House of Commons would not help the cause beyond a certain point — one would have to join the movement to bring about real change.

It was around that time that I also joined the famous India League just next door to the college, housed at the incredibly cheap and wonderfully refreshing India Club, where, as the rumour went, a rather handsome, former Hungarian princess used to serve lunch. The immaculate Krishna Menon attended one day, and my ever-sleepy friend, the distinguished Tarapada Basu, ordered me to come. Menon, with his fierce look and wholesome shoulders, was irresistible to the affluent, left-wing ladies of London. His chant-like accent was an extraordinary mix of Keralite and London Hyde Park, and he presented an almost brilliant speech against apartheid at a meeting in a committee room at the House of Commons. Tarada, as he was known in those days, invited me. I went, but he remained asleep.

Menon was electrifying both in his rhetoric and body language, concluding — somewhat unrealistically — that Nelson Mandela must be released from imprisonment immediately, after which he can take his country to freedom. The photograph of Nelson Mandela with his fist clenched, hanging in that room of the House of Commons, just for that meeting, hypnotized me.

To me, Mandela was not ordinary; he was not a rabble-rouser, he was far above the trivial and the petty, and he clearly wanted his people to get freedom from apartheid. It was also very clear to me that a section of the white population also wanted apartheid to end. I also perceived that Mandela was no hot-headed revolutionary; he was, above all, a great statesman, ready for freedom with the spirit of reconciliation. I was convinced that evening that the likes of Mandela are rare in this world.

In the year 1995, when I was the director of the Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre in Calcutta, I was invited to the International Cyclotron Conference at Cape Town. During the reception in the evening, we were informed that the conference would be inaugurated the next morning by President Nelson Mandela in the same hotel. Some of us were taken aback that a cyclotron conference was to be inaugurated by a charismatic world figure like Mandela. But Mandela had gained a depth of timeless perception, over the many years he spent in the small cell of his prison at Robben Island. Who were we, mere bystanders of that epic struggle, to judge him?

The next morning, I took my seat, taking care to sit on the last chair on the left hand side, since I guessed that Mandela would come that way and then leave after his inaugural speech via the same route. It so happened that I was the only Indian present there.

At exactly the appointed hour, Nelson Mandela came in, looking majestic in his colourful shirt. He was tall, irresistibly handsome, with broad shoulders, walking with measured steps along the way, fearless and enormously confident. To me, Mandela was not just the president of South Africa, but a leader of the world’s tortured and oppressed populations; he was the living symbol of freedom and liberty.

As Mandela got up to deliver his speech, he put down the prepared version and started speaking extempore. His powerful personality, and his voice, coming from the depths of suffering and yet imbued with endless hope, were so overwhelming that it was difficult to control one’s tears. He endured long years of intense suffering in prison; because of his frame, he had to sleep in his small prison cell with his feet on the wall for nearly three decades; yet, in his voice that morning, not long after his release from prison, there was not a trace of rancour, no shouting or screaming, no blaming, not even a trace on his extraordinary face of any anger or frustration, or even anguish. There was only an enormous, ageless dignity. As he got up, his voice was calm, echoing years of agony, yet full of ecstatic hope for the future.

Mandela started off in his booming voice, penetrating our souls with his words. “When I was in Robben Island, I heard of the brilliant discoveries in particle physics, of charm quarks... that spirit of the discovery of the unknown realm of nature; it provided me with the strength to persevere, looking out of the prison bars of the Robben Island....”

I was enchanted. It was a speech I shall never forget. Immediately, the infinite greatness of the man flashed through my mind. There was no bitterness or blame in his words; he only spoke of the glory of the creation of a new order through the prism of particle physics. He spoke of the spirit of the new world order, and that is exactly what he created.

At the end, as I had anticipated, Mandela left to go same way as he came. I stood up, without any fear, and extended my hand for a handshake. Mandela’s grasp was quite remarkable. It was an incredibly warm handshake. He said, “You come from India. Greetings to the land of Mahatma Gandhi.” In response I was only able to mumble, “Yes sir, certainly.” This brief encounter remains one of my most cherished memories.

I wrote to the South African presidential office requesting a photograph of Mandela with his autograph. The photograph arrived at my home in Calcutta in a beautifully decorated envelope. I cherish that photograph as though I received it only yesterday.