New Delhi, April 29: Last week the Dalai Lama visited George Fernandes in the two-storey house in Panchsheel Park where he lives in the care of his wife Leila even as a custody battle continues in court. The Dalai Lama lingered in the small, sanitised ground-floor room for about 15 minutes.
’George Fernández is a real hero and a very patriotic leader’ said His Holiness the Dalai Lama. George was lying on his back in bed, its upper half lifted to help him into a sitting position. “His eyes were open,” recounts Leila, as the distinguished visitor spoke of the gratitude the Tibetan people still feel for the once fiery socialist leader who had made their cause his own.
As he wrote a few sentences in the visitors’ book, and signed it with a curl and a flourish, the Dalai Lama said that Buddhism believes in renewal and rebirth. “George will be born again in Tibet, he said, to which I added ‘only in independent Tibet’,” says Leila. At another time, Fernandes himself might have come up with a riposte.
For the Dalai Lama, as for other visitors, a tall poster on the wall in front of the bed is a reminder of the vibrant, ruffled-hair politician who now receives their respectful and affectionate homage in silence. In the picture, George Fernandes, then India’s energetic 73-year-old defence minister who conveyed the impression of chafing against the formalities and constraints of his office, stands straight-backed in blue overalls, a helmet pressed to his hip, moments before or after he took the Sukhoi flight in June 2003.
Now laid low by a combination of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, made worse by diabetes, George often looks at that poster searchingly, and sometimes murmurs his own name.
Visitors cannot just turn up unannounced at his doorstep like they used to. Delhi legend has it that the leader had kept an open house even after he became defence minister. The strict discipline of the medical regime that structures his days rules out any semblance of the informality he had once made into his personal style statement. Visitors must make an appointment a day in advance.
Those who come to see him cannot expect a conversation. Perhaps that is why, over the past two years, politicians have stayed away. There have been occasional political visits - by party comrade Sharad Yadav and NDA colleagues Jaswant Singh and L K Advani. But most of all, in the last two years that George been in her care, Leila remembers the two visits recorded in the visitors’ book as “Vaiko from Chennai”, the last one from 4.15 to 5 pm on August 4, 2011.
“He exuded affection,” she says of the MDMK leader. Durga, George George’s Man Friday of over 20 years, who still hovers protectively by his bed, remembers earlier meetings between the two men: “He (Vaiko) would come, invariably after 10pm, after the day had fallen silent.” The two men, fiery fighters both, would keep talking well past midnight. In August, Vaiko came bearing a DVD as gift, titled “Genocide of Eelam Tamils: Hearts bleed!”
Also recorded in the book, on the same day as Vaiko, is Father Susai Sebastian’s visit. The priest comes regularly. “George had started going back to church in 2009 after his Bihar election collapse,” says Leila. She is referring to his defeat from Muzaffarpur as an Independent, in the last election of his political life.
The setback may have made “Giantkiller George”, who famously made his parliamentary debut by defeating Congress heavyweight S K Patil from Mumbai in 1967, turn again to the church. Long years ago, as a teenager, he had spent two-and-a-half years in a Bangalore seminary, before leaving it for Lohia and socialism.
Photo : Aditya Jha/ Indian Express