Thursday, December 15, 2005

Desmond Tutu

As I rode my bike on the windy evening this past Monday from my house to the J.N Tata auditorium, I was filled with a sense of apprehension. I had that morning read in the newspaper that Archbishop Reverend Desmond Tutu was to deliver a lecture and when I had called up the organizers for further details, I was told that the lecture was for dignitaries and special invitees only. Upon a little coaxing the person on the phone finally referred me to the person who was in charge of organizing the event and told me to contact her if I wanted to attend the lecture. But expectedly, she was probably very busy with the organization of the event and I could not contact her during anytime in the morning or afternoon. I was miffed; here was a famous international personality about to deliver a speech and I would not have a chance to attend it for a trivial reason such as not being able to reach the event organizer on the phone. But later in the evening about an hour before the lecture was scheduled, I decided to go to the auditorium an try my luck at getting in. I had read in the newspapers about the strict rules and entry restrictions when Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates had dropped in just two days previously and felt little hope of gate-crashing into this lecture. Hence with a sense of ill will towards the organizers but nevertheless armed with my notepad and pencil I headed towards the auditorium.

The J.N Tata auditorium is located in the vicinity of the large campus of the Indian Institute of Sciences in Bangalore and is a part of the same organization. The Indian institute of Sciences or IISc as it is known around the world, with its beautiful buildings of the British era, and dense growth of trees which arch over the roads, is without doubt the best centre for research in science and technology in the country. As I was more accustomed to having visited the main campus of the institute, where as a courtesy of a friend I had had the opportunity to attend a few similar events before, I parked my bike inside and walked across the road towards the auditorium. I had decided that I would walk in and not stop unless someone inquired about my invitation. I soon realized by the presence of the many policemen that there was some government official present, but as I walked to the entrance I was warmly greeted by a person who without asking for any invitations inquired if I had come for the lecture. Upon my affirmation, he informed me that there was still time and I could make myself comfortable and help myself to a cup of coffee before heading towards the acoustic enclosure of the auditorium. Thanking my luck and not wanting to be very conspicuous I collected the leaflet that was being handed to everyone and made my way into the seating area to find a proper seat for myself.

The large auditorium with its plush red seats can easily accommodate up to 500 people and around 300 were already seated. The front rows were marked off with signs indicating that they were reserved for VIPs and VVIPs. I jealously eyed the front seats which were marked off for the press, fully packed with a bunch of journalists with digital cameras and wondered if and when I could get down there and sit as a member of the press. I also spotted a few noted persons already occupying the front seats marked for VIPs. Amongst them were U.R. Ananthamurthy, noted personality from Bangalore, Justice Bopanna also from Bangalore and Subrato Bagchi, the chairman of Mindtree. The leaflet informed me that the proceedings were to start soon with the inaugural speech by Dr. Kasturirangan, the man behind India’s space program and to be followed by short speeches from T. N. Chaturvedi, the governor of Karnataka, and Mr. Dharam Singh, the Chief Minister of Karnataka. I was informed by my neighbor that we were waiting for the arrival of the Chief Minister, after which the proceedings would begin. But fortunately or unfortunately, the chief minister could not, for reasons known to him find time in his schedule to attend the lecture.

But after a wait of around fifteen minutes, the compeer, most probably the lady who I had not been able to contact on phone earlier that morning announced that the event was to begin soon. And soon enough, to the applause of the audience gathered, Archbishop Reverend Desmond Tutu along with Dr. Devaki Jain, Dr. Kasturirangan and the Governor T.N. Chaturvedi walked onto the Dias. The archbishop a short-ish man with a bald round face and white hair, was dressed in a gray suit and had a hurried gait and comical look over his face as he seated himself on the chairs arranged on the Dias. Dr. Kasturirangan, who was also present in the capacity as the Director of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, a part of the IISc organization which was organizing the event started the proceedings. This, he informed was the seventh and concluding lecture being conducted in the honor of the late J.R.D. Tata, who was the founder of the institute. Throughout this speech and the speeches by the governor and by Dr. Jain, the internationally acclaimed peace activist and Noble laureate for peace, the archbishop was not very expressive and I felt that he looked bored. Even though Dr. Jain, who was responsible for persuading Reverend Tutu to make Bangalore a part of his itinerary, mentioned in her speech that the archbishop’s wit and sense of humor was well known, looking at him I felt that I would soon be bored by a dull speech.

But I was comprehensively wrong. Just as Dr. Jain was completing her speech, Reverend Tutu amused the audience by hurriedly reaching the microphone and not letting the compeer give him a formal invitation to deliver his speech. What followed was one of the best oratory performances I have ever seen. Starting his speech as Your Excellency and other Excellencies” and with his expressive actions and witty anecdotes he soon had the audience, me included, fully engrossed. He began by telling the audience that he knew that Indians were very shy. When he did not receive applause for thanking the Indians for their role in freeing South Africa from apartheid, he told the audience that “With a magic wand I have magically converted all of you into South Africans. Let us now give these Indians a rousing South African applause! The audience responded with a loud applause but it did not satisfy the reverend. He again waved his wand and said that the applause was not South African enough. This time he was greeted with an even thunderous applause for which the reverend quipped that this was only better than before!

The speech which followed was delivered with great panache and fluency. Ranging from serious topics about racial prejudice, economic imbalance and unjust wars to witty anecdotes and funny gestures he held sway over the audience which listened with rapt attention. Some highlights of the speech were when he strongly condemned the US led war in Iraq and said that if countries took matters into their own hands, then gross atrocities like the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be repeated without moral justification. The tears in the eyes of some of the audience members was clear proof of the insight of his speech when he talked about the magnanimity of a black teenager whose father had been killed before her eyes but found it within herself to forgive her father’s killers. He also had the audience in stitches describing the days of apartheid as bad old days and recounting an anecdote about a road sign in South Africa for the white rulers of the day which read Beware, natives cross here”, which was changed by a few natives to Beware, natives very cross here”.

He went on to describe all the oppressors from Hitler to P.W Botha and all the major holocausts the world has witnessed and said that these perpetrators would remain as nothing but footnotes in the book of history. Although I disagree with his views on issues about global trade and how redistribution of wealth is a necessity in today’s world, his intentions were not unjust. With his contention that eradication of poverty and not letting people feel insignificant was not altruism but the best form of self interest he did give credit to the thought that blatant altruism was indeed an unnecessary evil.

Although I am a staunch agnostic who strongly disbelieves in any oneness with a divine or supernatural force, Archbishop Reverend Desmond Tutu’s theological speech was very interesting. He ended his compelling speech with an awe inspiring analogy of human capability as a powerful eagle which flies high and disappears into the rising sun. The speech ended with a thunderous standing ovation by the audience which was overwhelmed by the cogency of the speaker. A further loud applause followed when Dr. Ahuja, dean of the National Institute of advanced studies in his vote of thanks implored the audience to greet the reverend with a South African Applause. As I and other members of the audience headed home, I am sure everybody in the audience felt that they had witnessed one of the best examples of oration in their respective lives.

(The full speech albeit with many spelling mistakes, is available on the NIAS webpage at the following URL. )

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