The exciting conversation from the meeting of SK Sharma and late superstar Rajesh Khanna. Rajesh was fondly remembered as the ‘first superstar’ of the Indian cinema and was born on 29 December 1942.

The year was 2001. The date was 27 December. In those days, I was the Secretary of Delhi Assembly. The election of three Rajya Sabha members from Delhi was due for which there were 70 MLAs as electors. Hence, the EC had appointed me as Returning Officer to conduct and oversee the election. Since it was a quite cold evening of late December, my entire joint family consisting of my brothers, sisters, their spouses and children had lit bonfire in the spacious aangan (courtyard) of our parental house (in Delhi’s urban village Kilokari). Some neighbours and tenants also joined us. The beat of dholak and collective singing of popular Hindi songs enthralled everyone. Being a pre-Lohri occasion, moongfali, gazak and rewari were being served to everyone.

Suddenly, my mobile phone rang. I went a little farther from the din and cacophony to take the call. After confirming my identity, the caller announced, “Sir Rajesh Khanna Sahab baat karenge, please hold kariye” almost stunned and pleasantly shocked, I muttered, “Rajesh Khanna! film star! wanting to talk to me, a sarkari babu! But why?” He was not an MP, MLA or Mantri who invariably called me at odd hours for some official work or to seek a clarification. Then why Rajesh Khanna? “Sharma Sahab, Namaskar. Mein Rajesh Khanna,” came the voice from the other end, which I instantly recognized. It was `Kaka’s voice, without doubt.

I recalled his Punjabi background, and felt comfortable to switch over to that language. “Pairi pona Bhapaji”, I said showing due deference to his celebrity status. Greatly astonished, he shot back “Mein, aur Bhapa ji?” “Ji Sir, you may be a “Kaka” for your parents, elders and buddies. But for me you are an elder brother. Sir, how dare I can call you a `Kaka’?” Sheepishly, he came to the point and imitating me spoke softly in Punjabi, “Sharma Sahab, tuhade naal ek personal kam hai. Kal shaami Panj vaje tusi mere ghar Sarvodya Enclave (a South Delhi Colony near Malviya Nagar) aa Sakde ho?” “Ok Sir, your word is my command. But I will be a bit late say by 6 pm or so because till 5 pm, I will be busy in office due to some important Election Commission assignment.”

Kaka’s call and invitation took away my night sleep as he had not spelt out any reason or purpose for the meeting. So, I kept on guessing and making conjectures. Abruptly, with a glint in my eyes, I nearly jumped up from the bed whispering “wow” Eureka’. Got it”. He could be a Congress Candidate for Rajya Sabha Election 2002 (for which EC had appointed me the Returning Officer). Sure of my conclusion. I threw my head on the pillow and attempted to sleep. The very thought of a one-to-one meeting with Kaka was thrilling and invigorating. During my college days, I had umpteen times bunked classes to watch his movies. To be honest, also lurked somewhere in the back of my mind was an exciting feeling of getting an opportunity to have a private tete-a-tete or to be in close proximity of his charming and gorgeous wife and oomph girl Dimple Kapadia who, in her debut movie `Bobby’, had set the silver screen on fire, courtesy Raj Kapoor.

The next day was 28 December. As promised at 6 pm, I reported at Kaka’s South Delhi home where, in the outhouse, his secretary Anil Bhardwaj, (who happened to know me already and who had, later on, become an MLA from Tri Nagar, received me warmly and ushered me into Kaka’s drawing-room. He also introduced me to another waiting gentleman one Mr. x, Secretary to the Election Commission. My face fell as the bungalow- cum-flat was nearly deserted. Only others present included two attendants– cum servants.

Kaka entered the room, wearing a nightgown over his kurta- pajama, accompanied by his secretary Anil and shook hands with me. The Election Commission gentleman stood up and addressing Kaka said, `Sir, Sharmaji has come. We in the Election Commission, have appointed him as the man in the Cockpit. We have given him the charge of conducting the entire election. Henceforward, he will be your EC. He will answer all your remaining queries. I came at sharp 5 pm, hence am already late’. So saying, he shook hands and departed. I looked around, cursorily and surveyed the house and for a moment pitied Kaka. What kind of life he is leading? The poor fellow, once heartthrob and maddening craze of millions, is living in this barren flat without his wife and children. So sad, I thought. A servant appeared in a waiter’s uniform carrying a tray containing bowls of dry fruits, snacks, ice cubes, two empty designer glasses and placed them gently on the table before us. Now only I and Kaka were there. I turned to Kaka and enquired : “Khanna Sahab, have you got any signal from your party that you may be a Rajya Sabha Candidate?” Kaka did not answer in words. He simply half-closed his eyes, smiled, feebly, and replied giving a usual jerk to his head (as he often used to do in his movies) while lip-syncing songs such as “mere sapno ki Rani kab Aayegi tu”. Obviously, Kaka’s reply was in the affirmative. “This is wonderful news”, I said expressing joy. “Sir, `you take care of formal and final clearance of your candidature and I promise to take care of your nomination form the documents required to be annexed and other formalities”. You don’t worry. I will ensure that your nomination is not knocked out due to any technical flaw or infirmity. Sir, `you are a luminary. Lok Sabha is certainly not the place for you and you know it well being once a Member of LS from New Delhi Constituency. Every morning, hundreds of constituents will throng to your house making all kinds of demands – school and college admissions, ration cards, bus tickets, railway reservations, police cases, local issues. Bijali, paani, sadak, sewer, community hall, and so on; someone’s buffalo has died. Someone’s bicycle has been stolen. Even problems concerning the area Councillor or MLA are brought to LS MP for resolution, so much so that even husband–wife disputes. Kaka, repeatedly nodding his head and making a lip pout, kept listening attentively.

“During election time, you have to make rounds of Jhuggi- Jhopri clusters, open stinking drains and nullahs, dust and rubble, slums, and gandi bastis, broken pathways, dilapidated roads, hear and swallow all kinds of adjectives and epithets, freely hurled, tolerate awkward embraces and hugs of many drunkard voters reeking with country liquor or infected otherwise – all because you need their votes. Hence you cannot afford to annoy or displease them. “But no hassles if you become a member of Rajya Sabha, called the House of Elders. On the contrary, too many plus points for a celebrity like You’.” I enjoyed inflicting sermons on Kaka. “For an RS Candidate, no going around from door to door, no begging for votes, no tantrums of party workers, no morning assembly of hundreds of constituents attempting to gatecrash your house demanding favours as if their birth-right. The constituency and party work is also comparatively negligible’. “There are many other gains and advantages that will accrue. Lok Sabha’s term is for 5 years; can be cut short earlier also. Rajya Sabha’s fixed for 6 years; the powers privileges and immunities of both are the same.MPLAD Development Fund is also the same. Election for three RS seats from Delhi will be held separately, and not in one go. As such, whichever candidate gets 36 votes in a 70-member House, will be declared elected. Since your Party commands a strength of 53 members, the election of all 3 ruling party candidates is 100% certainty.’

`Sir, based on my experience in the institution of Parliament and DelhiAssembly I, or my part, will suggest, though I know your party may adopt different yardstick, that at least 2 persons from Delhi eminently deserve to be nominated for upper House. One is a local Veteran Jagparvesh Chandra, the grand old man of Delhi. He has spent half a century doing local politics only.

He has held every elective office, is a crudité, scholarly person and has a reputation of being incorruptible and an ajatshatru. Now turned octogenarian, he deserves to end his political inning in Parliament before hanging his boots. The other day, he made known his hidden desire to me in private. He shares with me many of his secrets being MLA from my area and having family ties also’.

`The second person I have in mind, and I say this very candidly and at your face’ is you. Because you are a superstar, a charismatic personality, a crowd puller, and a vote catcher. You can be a real asset to the party. Your popularity and appeal travel beyond regions and religions. The party in its wisdom, should use you as a star campaigner, whenever it needs.”

If you finally make it, a six-year term is assured. If, thereafter, the party finds your performance satisfactory and repeats you, then 12 years. And if, God willing, you yet a third term also, it will be 18 years. Just think”. `Sharma ji, you have intensified my temptation,’ Kaka said looking up at the roof above, his eyes half-closed and face glowing. `But Khanna Sahab, one request. Please don’t go by hearsay or what your sycophants tell you. Start regular interaction with your high command and those party big – wigs who matter, from tomorrow onwards. I find your party culture so weird. One who, in the beginning appears to be a front-runner, gets pushed back to become a back- bencher later. One who is not at all in the reckoning emerges from nowhere to become a dark horse. And Sir, please beware of treacherous and saboteurs in your party masquerading as well-wishers,” I enjoyed inflicting lecture on him on diplomacy and statecraft. `So please make it a do or die mission. Don’t hesitate to pull all your influential wires’. I finished my unsolicited advice. “One minute Sharma ji,” Kaka abruptly stood up as if reminded of something, went into the adjacent room and returned holding a thick file. It contained dozens of appreciation letters, commendations, certificates and communications from PCC Presidents, Chief Ministers, AICC functionaries and so on, eulogizing Kaka as a star campaigner and acknowledging his contribution in ensuring party’s victory in State Assembly elections. Kaka pulled out a particular letter. Putting his index finger on it he showed it to me. It was a personal communication from his Party President addressed to Kaka in which she had profusely thanked Kaka and given rich credit to him for party’s victory in Orissa Poll “Twanu ki lagda hai Sharma Saheb. Party mainu haley vee na Kar Sakdi hai ?” asked Kaka bubbling in confidence.

`Sorry Sir, can’t comment on your internal party matter. But still, my advice would be “No lethargy, No slackness. Lobby hard. Make it a do or die mission,” so saying I went silent.

Digressing from the topic, I then told Kaka “Sir, I feel very comfortable and at ease interacting with you in Punjabi. Strangely Sir, the other day I overheard in Central Hall of Parliament House that even non-Punjabis such as Dr. Karan Singh and Farookh Abdullah speak fluent and impeccable Punjabi.

`Oh! You mentioned Farookh Abdullah. I tell you Sharmaji, this man is a gem of a person, a great guy and a wonderful personal friend. Many years ago, when he was Chief Minister and I was neck-deep in films, I had taken my Bauji and Chaiji (Dad and Mom) for Vaishnodevi Darshan. Farook Abdullah extended all courtesies and hospitality. Even placed the state govt plane at our disposal. I can’t forget what he did for us.”

As he said this, Kaka’s esteem in my eyes went up by a few notches. He had candidly acknowledged and generously acclaimed the gratitude and virtues of a friend in his absence. “Manana padega Yeh banda yaaron ka yaar hai,” I muttered under my breath. Sir, pleasant to hear that you call your parents as `Bauji’ and `Chaai ji’. I, too, address my in-laws likewise. My words reflected my sycophancy also. You have two daughters; I have two sons. You were earlier in Parliament House for five years as an MP, I also operated from that building for a long time as a staffer and as an official before joining Delhi Assembly. On top of it, our common link – Amritsar. “Twahnu pata nahi, Khanna Sahab, merey Sorrey Vee Ambarsariye ne”. (you don’t known my in-laws too are Ambarsarias’) I brashly broke the news to Kaka. Kaka smiled mischievously, came a bit closer and nearly whispered into my ears as if avoiding being heard by others “yaar Sharmaji, tusi Jija banan di koshish te nahi kar rahe ?” Kaka’s lively and hilarious banter brought the house down. We both sprang up almost simultaneously guffawing and striking each other’s palms above our heads producing a loud clap sound. The boisterous burst of laughter instantly changed the room atmosphere (mausam badal gaya).

When Kaka enquired about the area in Amritsar where my `Sasural’, was located, I expressed plain ignorance since I had visited Amritsar once and that too on an official assignment. I however told him that my in-laws hailed from a place called Dera Baba Nanak (now across the Amritsar border). Soon after my marriage and when he was alive, my father-in-law (Kishore

Chand) had once boasted that he and his childhood-buddy Amar Nath (whom we all children used to reverentially addressed as `Pitaji’) had, as teenagers, associated and hobnobbed with the activities of revolutionaries, the likes of Chandrashekar Azad, Bhagat Singh. But when such activities came to the noticed of police and an arrest warrant issued against him, he fled to Lahore and hid in the house of a relative for several months. My father-in-law had also once narrated to me the deplorable event that took place on 30 January, 1948. When the news of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi was announced on the radio, he and his revolutionary friend

Amar Nath (Pitaji) rode on their by-cycles pedaling from their residence in Delhi University area to Birla House for Bapu’s antim darshan’. This incident, as personally narrated to me, makes one thing clear that revolutionaries too, considered Mahatma Gandhi to be the tallest, most

revered and the unquestioned leader of Indian masses.

As the room atmosphere became softer and lighter, I decided to take the liberty to confirm from the horse’s mouth some titillating stories about Kaka. So I asked, `Khanna Sahab, is it a fact that in your heydays, your female fans often painted your white car red by planting lipstick marks all over and many even sent you letters written in their blood? Kaka didn’t answer straight but went nostalgic and blushed. Giving a friendly fist-blow on my back remarked: “Choddo yaar, kyon puraniya gallan yaad dila rahe ho.” As I finished my drink in one last gulp and put the empty glass upside down, Kaka didn’t like this. Showing annoyance and expanding his nostrils he said “what is this”? I apologetically explained, “Pardon me Sir, I take only occasionally and have already given you company”. Still furious, Kaka took me to task with the remark “Tusi merey dushman ho”? Yaar ek te dushman layndey ne,’. Kaka sounded quite serious. With a sheepish grin, I hastily overturned my empty glass this time downside up, saying `Ok Sir, if you insist, I will have another one’.

More than three hours had passed and we still enjoyed chatting non-stop. Strangely Kaka remained undisturbed by any phone call or appearance of any visitor during the period.

Suddenly, my mobile phone rang. The caller was my wife who questioned me for being late. I looked at the wall clock above and remarked “OMG! Sorry, aata hoon, kisi jaroori meeting me tha”. “Sharma ji your facial expression and body language tell me that the caller is your wife”. `Yes, Sir, today she will definitely take my class and give me left and right for being so late’. Kaka suggested an alibi `Do one thing (1Ek kai karo Tusi keh dena Rajesh Khanna de ghar gaya see, Bandey ne hillan hi nahi ditta, pakad ke bithaye rakka Mein ki karda’?

`What will happen if I do so? I questioned his logic. “Nothing much’ Kaka replied. “Jhaad te pucca payegi, par thoda ghat paigi” (you will definitely receive firing but a bit milder).

I heartily laughed admiring his sense of humour and timing. As I began to pick up my belongings to leave, Kaka made me sit to proudly share a hitherto undisclosed secret. “Sharma ji, kal 29 December hai aur mera birthday hai. Coincidentally kaal hi meri bitiya Twinkle da vee birthday hai. I have to make arrangements for her gift also. I wished Kaka in advance, also expressed surprise that both father and daughter share the common date of birth. Kaka stood up suddenly became sad and looked gloomy and sullen. He then stared motionless at the roof above. Gradually, he transformed, into a morose and melancholy man. Tears welled up in the corner of his eyes which were visible making a feeble attempt to control, he said in Hindi “Sharma ji, mein apani betiyon se bahut pyaar karta hoon, miss bhi karta hoon’. (This fact stood testified after his death. He had left behind a WILL bequeathing his entire property to his daughters Twinkle and Rinkie, as his legal heirs. This included his bungalow `Ashirwad’ also).

My heart ached. OMG ! what a longing of a loving father for his daughters! India’s unmatched No. 1 Superstar rotting all alone in this empty flat yearning for the love, affection and company of his family. Uff! It became increasingly unbearable to restrain the silent weeping of an affectionate father. Still making a fragile attempt to control I said, “Sir, mein bhi ek baap hoon Aapki feelings samajh sakta hoon. Yeh to hamara culture hai, hamare, samaj ki reality hai. Har pita beti se hi jyada pyar karta hai. Aur betiyan bhi apney pita sey hi emotionally jyada attached hoti hain’. I half-filled the glass with plain water and offered to sobbing Kaka. Then raised my little finger (cheechi ungli) and headed towards the loo leaving Kaka, alone to hold back his emotional flooding.

During the return journey back home. I repeatedly mulled over Kaka’s plight. What was particularly disturbing was his broken and shattered family life and the pangs of separation that he was undergoing. Why the estranged couple could not stay together under a common roof with their children was too sensitive and personal a matter concerning the spouse only.

By raking up that issue, I did not want to put Kaka into discomfiture and myself appear stupid and brainless. So, I kept quiet. During my nearly four hours of chitter-chatter, I carefully avoided making any reference to it. But his loneliness, without doubt, anguished me beyond words.

The author is former Secretary of the Lok Sabha and Delhi Assembly.

The article is part one of the two-part series.