The year, 2007. The month, September.
I was asked to cover one of my most exciting assignments for news television: the 10th, and by far the largest, edition of the five-nation joint naval exercise, Operation Malabar. And even as I held on for dear life in a fighter jet as it landed on the runway strip of USS Kitty Hawk — the US Navy-owned world’s largest, now decommissioned, supercarrier of the time — in an undisclosed location in the middle of the Bay of Bengal, little did I imagine that I would encounter a familiar face atop the flying deck of the ship amid deafening jet blasts from the hooked aircraft, which my earplugs hopelessly failed to resist.
“What on earth are you doing here?” I screamed, more perhaps in bewilderment than pleasant surprise, at a smiling Subrata Mukherjee, the last person I expected to meet in one of the world’s most hazardous places.
“This is too big a thing to miss. How could I not be here?” Mukherjee replied with all the strength he could muster in his vocal cords without that smile ever leaving his face.
Years later at his South Kolkata residence, when Mukherjee was sharing the experiences of his trip to Antarctica, from where he had recently returned, with child-like enthusiasm, I could easily recall that sense of bewilderment that this man continued to elicit from me even in his mid-sixties.
Amid many character traits that made veteran Bengal politician Subrata Mukherjee so popular, his lust for adventure was perhaps most deeply ingrained. And carefully hidden.
Mukherjee’s recorded message in Bangla in Voyager 1, which continues to traverse interstellar space 44 years after it was launched by NASA in 1977, or his obsession with Mohun Bagan whose football matches he wouldn’t miss even if it entailed overnight road travels in the middle of his political programmes are, perhaps, extensions and examples of this longing for adventure.
Else there couldn’t be a suitable explanation for a firebrand Congress (I) trade union leader of his time plunging into a swimming pool with actor Moon Moon Sen and trying this hand at the alternative craft of acting in one of the most sensation-creating television serials of the mid-1980s, Chowdhury Pharmaceuticals, whose plot was abundantly sprinkled with sex and violence.
Politics may not have made strange pool fellows, after all, since although Sen’s foray into politics much later was far short-lived than Mukherjee’s, the bond of friendship the two struck then is believed to have lasted until the day he passed away.
Mukherjee’s penchant for plain-speaking was also a trait that was as impressive as it was amusing. His witty snippets on his one-time leader and mentor in the Congress party, Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, told to his trusted listeners – count myself among the guilty – are already cult. But what I often marvelled at was his knack to criticise his party’s topmost leaders, mostly off-record at the numerous social meets we’d bump into each other, on matters, policies and even political lines adopted by his party that were of supreme importance and matters of much speculation in the media.
Mukherjee easily ran the risk of being quoted and misinterpreted by listeners and build serious roadblocks to his career. But, I think, he hardly cared.
If there was one regret that Mukherjee must have held until his final days before his colourful life was abruptly cut short, it was his inability to write a book on his adventure trip to the South Pole, besides, of course, a book each on Indira Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee, which he had so thoroughly planned.