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Like all great men, he had the ability to express the complex with simplicity.
Meeting Nelson Mandela was one of my first acts as high commissioner to South Africa. The Indian government wanted to donate money to the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The cheque was with me and I asked to present it to him personally. Though he saw diplomats rarely, the mention of the large-ish sum got me the appointment in double quick time. I arrived in his ante-chamber in the foundation office all agog. Sitting down, I could not help notice a photograph of a naked African girl skipping along a jungle-rimmed beach. Sheer joy was written all over her face. I was told that she symbolised Africa's joie de vivre to Mandela when he was at Robben Island prison. Robben Island is a bleak rocky outcrop off the Cape Town coast.
Andaman-like isolation from the mainland must have attracted the British colonial authorities to set it up as a high security prison. Hardened criminals and political prisoners were brought here to be packed into barracks. The more dangerous were put in solitary confinement in window-less six-foot cells. Mandela had been incarcerated in one of these cells for the better part of three decades. The picture of the African girl torn out from the National Geographic had kept him company. It was only later that I discovered that she was not African at all. An Andamanese, she had been snapped by Raghubir Singh, a photographer friend of mine, for the magazine. Nor was she the only Indian woman in Mandela's life. When president, he had proposed to Amina Cachalia, a prominent ANC leader and an old friend. Had she accepted, South Africa might well have had a first lady Indian in origin.
Soon a door opened and I was greeted by a tall lanky man with crinkly white hair and a colourful bush shirt. His frail frame, supported by a walking stick, radiated magnetic energy. Mandela spoke softly, as if surprised by the sound of his own voice. A result perhaps of the long silences he had got used to in prison. He talked of his fondness for India and Indian food. The story is that on finally being released from Victor Verster Prison, he kept a huge crowd collected to hear him outside Cape Town city hall waiting. The reason? In the middle of being mobbed en route, he developed an irresistible urge to eat biryani. Mandela also spoke of being inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's struggles in South Africa and India. And admiration for the Gandhian spirit Nehru and other Congress leaders had displayed in forgiving Gandhi's assassin. I tried to set the record straight. Nathuram Godse was hanged, not pardoned, I murmured. He carried on regardless. Asking fondly about Indira and Sonia Gandhi, he seemed to be under the impression that they were related to the Mahatma. Oh well! Why bother about such details? He had an infectious smile. He spoke crisply. And had child-like simplicity. Like all great men, he had the ability to express the complex simply.