Rahul Bhai was harsh on the outside but soft inside, with tremendous humanity
Rahul Bajaj, the doyen of Indian industry and the man who put India on the world map as one of the largest producer of two- and three-wheelers in the world, died in Pune on February 12, 2022. He was 83 years old and was ailing for some time. I paid my last respects to him on February 13 in Akurdi.
Many articles have been written about his contributions to the industry, his fearless utterances on various occasions and his public persona. I am going to narrate my interactions with him, and these personal anecdotes probably tell more about the man than the material written in the public domain.
The first time I saw Rahul Bajaj was in 1983. I was put on some Government of India committees like the Advisory Board of Energy and Planning Commission and so had to take a flight almost once a month to Delhi from Pune airport. The ramshackle Pune airport in the early 1980s was basically a tin shed with just one or two Indian Airlines flights each day.
Most of the time the Indian Airlines flights were delayed. Since I was stuck at the airport, I could see the comings and goings of all the important people of Pune. Almost every time I used to see a young, tall and handsome gentleman come to the airport with his colleagues. On enquiring, I found out that he was Rahul Bajaj.
My first contact with him took place in November 2001 when I was given the Jamnalal Bajaj Award for Application of Science and Technology for rural areas. This was the custom of the Bajaj Foundation in those days that the dinner on the eve of the award day was held in Rahul Bajaj’s home in Mumbai. I was deeply touched by the warmth and cordiality of the Bajaj family where the ladies of the house personally served the food to the guests. That was hospitality at its most gracious level.
During the award ceremony, I and Madhur Bajaj - younger cousin of Rahul Bajaj and Vice Chairman of Bajaj Auto - got to know each other and developed a friendship. We were of the same age and so developed a sense of kinship. I feel very happy and blessed to have known Madhur Bhai for the last 20 years. He is a very dear friend of mine.
During the award function, Madhur Bhai discussed with me the idea of getting former Bajaj awardees together and using their expertise for rural upliftment.
So, I wrote a letter to Rahul Bhai - that was my first letter to him - about it and he immediately shot down the idea saying that he and Bajaj group have better things to do than arrange for a get-together of Bajaj awardees. That was my first interaction with him!
But unknown to me, Madhur and Rahul Bhai inducted me in the Bajaj awards committee. So, for the last 18 years, I have been its member.
It was also very kind of Madhur and Rahul Bhai to invite me every year to the awards dinner, given on the eve of the awards ceremony. I was accepted as a part of the Bajaj family. It is this courteous behaviour of the Bajaj family that I have always cherished. It also allowed me to meet Rahul Bhai and chat with him.
With time I also started sending Rahul Bhai my articles. Just like Gandhiji, he replied to each of them either himself or through his secretary. And to my very pleasant surprise, he started editing them and thus I gained a fantastic editor!
Rahul the editor!
This continued for quite a few years when suddenly one Sunday - I think about 1.5 years ago - I got a call from him. We talked for 2.5 hours (I clocked it). He was mad at me that I kept on sending him my articles for editing. I told him that if he stopped editing them, then I will stop sending them to him before publication and will only send them after they are published.
In between his ranting and raving, he also told me very interesting episodes from his life, including his three brain surgeries. And in between he kept on telling me to change that or this word in para so and so; after 2.5 hours of discussion, I had my edited article! That is how Rahul Bhai was – harsh on the outside but soft inside. I will miss his banter, give-and-take, and his tremendous humanity.
I also used to send him my articles on spirituality, but many times he was quite blunt – and told me that our paths were different, and he had nothing to contribute on this subject. I respected his frankness. Nevertheless, we communicated regularly via SMS and emails. Many times he forwarded my articles on homeopathy and yoga to his son Rajiv.
Rahul Bhai was very perceptive. Whenever he saw a good idea, he immediately appreciated it.
For example, I had written an article in 2016 on how a Fourth Industrial Revolution will benefit rural India. He really liked it and told me to send it to his friend Prof. Klaus Schwab, Chairman of World Economic Forum and the initiator of the idea of Fourth Industrial Revolution. Since I did not know Prof. Schwab’s email ID, Rahul Bhai sent it to me. Prof. Schwab really liked my article and also sent me a nice thank you note.
Similarly, when I sent Rahul Bhai the news of my getting the Distinguished Alumnus Award of University of Florida he wrote a long letter of congratulations and also told me that he had received the award of the distinguished alumnus of Harvard Business School.
Anytime I asked him for his advice he generously gave it. Besides, Rahul Bhai magnanimously provided funds for the Bajaj Center and the Bajaj Fellowships at our Institute. He was always a great well-wisher of our Institute for which we will be eternally grateful.
On January 27, I got a very nice email from him congratulating me on my getting the Padma Shri. Little did I know that he would be gone forever in another 15 days.
I feel blessed to have known such a great soul and that I could call him Rahul Bhai. In his death, I have lost a dear friend and a well-wisher.
(The writer is Director, Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute, Phaltan, Maharashtra. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)