Defeat and Distraction - Section 13

But the unpleasant affair had taken a toll on Anu, as much as it had on me. As the corruption accusations escalated and the newspapers started spitting out disparaging articles about me, Anu started receiving threatening calls. Once these kinds of things start, they tend to get vicious quickly, and they did. She heard threats about how our children were going to be kidnapped, how Anu herself would be raped and beaten. She began to panic.

‘I want to take the children back to Chicago,’ she said to me.

In the end I persuaded her not to go, but not long after that, Salil and Rajal themselves decided that they wanted to go back to the US.

I had brought the family to India in 1985. Salil was ten at the time, Rajal seven. It had not been an easy decision. Even then, I was only too aware that with all my travelling back and forth between India and Chicago, I had left them fatherless for too long a period of time. And now I was going to rip them away from the lives they were used to. I had felt so concerned about moving that I had promised I would do everything I could to keep the transition from affecting the way our children were used to living their lives. I knew the sacrifice they would be making so I could follow my own dreams. I was always busy in India with C-DOT, the Technology Missions, the Telecom Commission, and other interesting and exciting assignments. In the process, I had seen my kids grow ‘horizontally’ rather than vertically—I left early in the day, when they were still sleeping, and came home late, after they had fallen asleep.

Going against the advice of many friends, I had admitted the children into the American Embassy School in Delhi. Then I procured a membership to the American Club so they would be able to have a hamburger or a pizza whenever they wanted. I shipped over all their furniture, their air conditioners, their VCRs. Every few weeks I would have friends airmail videos of the Chicago Bears’ football games for them. If one saw my house in Delhi, it was just like being back in Chicago. This might have been a little extreme, but I wanted the children to feel as comfortable as they possibly could. I did all this because I simply felt guilty. I had to come to India, but I didn’t want them to have to give up what they enjoyed because of what I had to do. And I told them both, ‘Whenever you really want to go back to Chicago, you can go back.’

Now, as the Unnikrishnan affair was winding down, Salil was about to start eleventh grade, two years away from college. ‘Dad,’ he said, ‘I want to go back to the US.’

‘All right, but why?’

‘Because in India they don’t offer enough advanced-level courses.’

I had no idea what he was talking about. He had to explain it to me.

‘Okay, if you want to do that, you can go. You’ll have a family there with Yash [Anu’s younger brother], his wife and your grandfather. The house is intact; we can make arrangements for whatever’s necessary.’

While we were having this discussion, Rajal was listening intently. I asked her, ‘What would you like to do, Rajal?’

‘I want to go back with Salil,’ she said.

Anu and I argued about it. Rajal was still very young, how could we send her back?

‘She’ll have your father and your brother and his family,’ I said to her. ‘She wants to go back. I have confidence in both her and Salil. Let her do it.’ I remembered my parents for a moment, and how they had done the same thing for Manek and me when we were young and sent us on a train to Gujarat to study.

Both the kids returned to Chicago, and we were left with a big empty house. Anu was mad about it. She hadn’t wanted Rajal to leave. But the fact was that the children missed their home. Their futures were most likely in the US, and so it made sense for them to start building a foundation there. They had also, I’m sure, been affected by Unnikrishnan’s attacks on me. His assault had made India seem a less welcoming place—not a place they wanted to live and felt comfortable in. Salil told me he wanted to go because of the courses available to him in the US, but had I been more sensitive I would have understood that there were deeper things going on for the children too.

Unnikrishnan’s dismissal wasn’t quite the end of the story. One day Prime Minister Singh’s secretary called. ‘Mr Pitroda, you have too many titles. You are adviser to C-DOT. Adviser to the prime minister on the Technology Missions. Chairman of the Telecom Commission. Secretary to the Department of Telecom. These are simply too many titles for you to have.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Fine. What do you have in mind? Tell me what you want.’

‘We want you to be only chairman of the Telecom Commission and secretary of the department.’


They thought that if I wasn’t adviser to C-DOT, my influence there would be eliminated. I didn’t consider that a problem at all. C-DOT had been fully established, and in any event that phase was all but over for me. But in addition they had also removed me as adviser on the Technology Missions. And, sadly, after that, the missions died a slow death. A mission doesn’t mean anything unless you have a missionary, and the government hadn’t placed anyone in that role.

I was under the impression that I had been handling the stress from all the tumultuous times fairly well. True, my integrity had never been attacked before, but this was hardly the first time in my life where I had been under a lot of pressure. And when I was in that kind of a situation I always thought of Mahatma Gandhi. If I was worried about myself, if I was upset about how something or the other was developing, I would think, Who are you? Look at Gandhi’s life, the scorn and humiliation he faced and took in his stride in South Africa. Look at how he endured, how he was so committed to his cause that he was able to shrug off the hatred and imprisonment. What moral strength the man had! I tried to use that as my personal compass.

Reflecting on Gandhi had helped me weather this particular siege with what I thought of as decent levels of equanimity. But if I was okay emotionally, the same couldn’t be said for my physical well-being.

Anu had just returned from Chicago after settling the children in, when late one night I was awakened by pain in my stomach, as if I had a bad case of indigestion. ‘Anu,’ I said, ‘I’m not feeling well.’ I got up and took an antacid. But it didn’t seem to help.

Anu insisted on calling the doctor, even at three in the morning. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘take another dose of antacid and see what happens.’ I was aware that pain like this could be a symptom for cardiac issues, but I had taken a stress test just a few days earlier and everything had been normal. Whatever this is, at least it isn’t my heart, I thought.

But Anu wasn’t happy with the doctor’s advice. ‘No,’ she said, ‘we’re going to the heart hospital right now.’

Normally, I had a driver who slept over in the house. But that day he happened to be away. We called a cab to take us to the Escorts heart hospital. The pain wasn’t going away. If anything, it was becoming more severe. In the emergency room a flurry of activity started as soon as we walked in.

When the doctor arrived, I told him I didn’t think it was anything serious, but that I was in some pain. My stomach was hurting. He had me lie down immediately. He took my blood pressure and listened to my breathing. Then he hooked me up to an EKG machine.

‘Mr Pitroda,’ he told me, ‘you are having a heart attack.’

‘No. That can’t be,’ I said. ‘I’m okay.’

‘Just wait,’ he said. And as he uttered the words, I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I tried desperately to get air into my lungs, but I couldn’t. I was drowning. I knew I was going to die. It happened in a moment. I had no time to prepare, no time to say anything to Anu.

Then the doctor put a needle in my arm, and just as suddenly as my breathing had stopped, it started up again. The blood clot had dissolved. I felt okay. More than okay, I felt good.

That was so close, I thought, thankful that Anu had insisted we go to the hospital and, in particular, to a speciality heart hospital. Now I felt fine. I had meetings set up in the morning at the ministry, but I thought I probably should give myself a little time to rest. I’d have my secretary push everything back a couple of hours. I could probably get in by ten or so.

In hindsight, I did not understand the gravity of the situation. I believed I could get back to work the next day, but I was wrong.

‘No,’ said the chief doctor, Dr Naresh Trehan, who had now entered the scenario. ‘We’re not letting you go back to work for thirty days.’

I thought maybe I had misheard. I felt completely fine. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘You’ve had a heart attack. We can’t take any surgical measures for at least twenty days. But I’m going to do an angiogram. I’m sure you have blocked arteries.’

They did the angiogram. I had eight blocked arteries.

‘Normally, I’d prescribe medications,’ Dr Trehan said, ‘then have you come back in. But in your case, we can’t take a chance. You have to stay in the hospital.’

So I remained in the hospital. I had a telephone installed. I had my secretary come in and see me. I set up a regular office, so I wouldn’t have to put off any work.

When Rajiv Gandhi found out he came to see me in the hospital. ‘What happened to you?’ he said. ‘This is just terrible.’

They only waited twenty-one days before they performed a quadruple bypass. I felt quite okay, but the doctors thought they had to take action, and they did.

I somehow didn’t understand that the surgery would be so complicated, even though the doctors explained everything to me: Breaking the breastbone, the breathing action performed by the heart–lung machine, the harvesting of other veins, the grafting. When I woke up I’d be wired to this and that. I’d have a tube here, a tube there. Until my bladder was back to its normal function, I’d need a urine bag. It all sounded awful. But the fact was that I had always been healthy; that was how I saw myself—my default. So even now I thought, Okay, these things will happen, but before long I’ll be up and running and as good as new.

Since the doctors needed blood for transfusions they put out a call. I had no relatives nearby, except my mother. But people came and lined up and down the hallways, C-DOT engineers and others. I was so moved. These people, many of them complete strangers, were helping to save my life. Anu told me that prayers were being recited for me in temples. I had never had much to do with religion at all. Hearing this was almost too much for my fragile emotional state.

At that time—this was October 1990—the techniques for open-heart surgery were not nearly as sophisticated as they later became, in particular the anaesthesiology. After the operation it took me a long time to regain consciousness, which I was informed of later. I didn’t know that, but when I did start to emerge from the haze, my face felt strange, deformed, my features weren’t in the right place. My eyes, my mouth, my nose—they felt twisted, deranged. No one had warned me about this, but before I had a chance to panic I fell back to sleep. Then I came out of it again for a few minutes, and again I fell back under.

When I finally came around for good, there were all kinds of tubes sticking out of me and blood all over. I was a mess.

Some days later they wheeled me out of the ICU and into a room. Anu was with me much of the time; my mother came, and other relatives arrived from different places.

I had three drivers at the time: my regular driver from the telecom ministry—he was the one who slept in the house—but two others also, one from C-DOT and one from the Technology Missions. I had finished my work at these places, but the drivers hadn’t been reassigned to anyone else yet. Every day that I was in the hospital, they would all come to our house and just sit there. Anu told them to go home, it was festival time, Diwali. ‘Please go home,’ she said. ‘You should be with your families.’ But they refused to leave.

Anu called me. ‘Your drivers are not going home. Tell them to go home. We all feel bad.’

I said to my mother, ‘Mom, why don’t you tell them; they’ll listen to you.’

My mom told them, ‘Look, please go home. Your wives are waiting, so are your children. Why are you here? You need to go.’

They finally went home after that. But just an hour later all three were back. ‘Why are you back here?’ Anu asked. The drivers replied, ‘Our wives threw us out. They scolded us, saying, “What kind of a person are you? Your boss is dying in the hospital and you want to celebrate Diwali? Go back.”’ 

When I heard this, I thought, This can only happen in India. This was the India I had left on a boat in 1964. This was the India and the people I treasured.

I was in the hospital for almost a month until, finally, I couldn’t take it any more. ‘You can’t go home yet,’ Dr Trehan said. ‘You’re not completely healed, the roads aren’t good, it will be too much of a strain.’

I left anyway. I checked myself out and went home. And slowly I recovered my strength and rejoined my work as chairman of the Telecom Commission.