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ROLE MODELS - A TRIBUTE

Muhammad Ali is credited with having recited the shortest poem in the English language. At a Harvard University commencement ceremony where he was the chief guest he delivered one of his trademark speeches although he was already suffering from Parkinson's disease. At the end of the speech somebody from the hall yelled asking him to deliver a poem. He was legendary for delivering off-the-cuff rhymes like "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee." To the hush that followed Ali volunteered, "Me, Whee"! There could not have been a more succinct way to describe his own persona, from a boxing legend to a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam, from Nation of Islam member to being the greatest sporting icon of the 20th century; Ali has followed his conscience come hell or high water. Yes, indeed, whee, what a person! This poem with only two syllables allegedly beat "Adam Had'em", considered the shortest poem until then with three syllables referring to the lowly flea and attributed to the humorist Ogden Nash.

Ali has been one of my role models from the time when, even as Cassius Clay, he destroyed Sonny Liston to lay claim to the World Boxing Heavyweight Crown. In the TV-less generation we grew up in sporting action, just as tragedies like Kennedy's assassination, came stale on lame couriers. I remember reading the coverage in Time Magazine weeks after the fight but from then on I have been Ali's fan. I followed his travails like it were my own. In the twilight of his glory days he was given the singular honor of lighting up the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996, a fitting tribute to a sportsman whose inner flame would not be extinguished by life's vicissitudes.

Col. Jimmy Irwin
I remember my father's role model. He was Colonel Jimmy Irwin of the British Army. It was from the Burma days. Sixteen Nepalese army battalions fought in World War II, led by my father the late General Kiran and my uncle Field Marshall Nir Shumshere Rana. Four of these battalions fought in the Eastern Active Service Area in India to thwart the final Japanese push from Burma into Assam. It was in this front where my father would observe modern warfare at close quarters and he was greatly impressed by the Englishman Colonel Irwin, his mentor. I remember at Kiran Bhawan there was a big portrait of Sir Winston Churchill hanging on the wall of my father's study along with a small autographed photograph of Colonel Irwin, the only foreigners jostling for pride of place in a house studded with a potpourri of pictures of Shah Kings, Rana bigwigs and family. Years later in 1976, while he was serving as Nepal's ambassador to Great Britain, I accompanied my father on a train journey from London to the Midlands to meet with the widow of the Colonel. Over tea and port wine they swapped memories. There must have been something to cherish in this relationship that time would not erase.

My father General Kiran Shumsher with his mentor Colonel Jimmy Irwin
My own mentor in flesh and blood was Mike Blackall, my boss and general manager of the Everest Sheraton Hotel in its heydays. Mike came to the hotel in 1983 and walked willy-nilly into a general strike! He was not the cause of it for sure but I watched at close quarters the determination he showed in overcoming a possible debacle. Even then the debate between staff and management was acrimonious and we feared the worst. When the dust finally settled Blackall had won over the staff and we entered the best and most productive period the hotel has known.

Mike Blackall was dynamic and combative, a go-getter with a big heart. He led by example. He was strict but fair. I remember our lunch break; when we were piling up our plate from the buffet, Mike went to swim instead! Department Head meetings started daily at 9:00 AM sharp, there could be no excuses for being late. Once I was reprimanded for being late by 5 minutes and not filling in the previous evening's duty manager's logbook; I meekly accepted the admonition because I could not divulge the secret that I was drinking with Mike until 2:00 AM at his residence the previous night! Noel Coward's "Mad dogs and Englishmen......" strikes a chord! No wonder they ruled an empire where the sun never set!

Mike Blackall
Years later after Everest, in 1996, I and another English friend Robin Marston met him in St. Petersburg, Russia. He was managing the Nevsky Hotel where recently, he told us, a mafia style hit had taken place in the hotel's coffee shop and two persons were killed. He was as feisty as ever and he had undertaken a project to teach himself Russian! Only if I had a quarter of his energy I would have become a different man. What a "me, whee" of a man was our Mike! He lives a retired life in England with his wife Vicky and the last I heard his only daughter Claire was in Australia. As a member of the Royal Geographic Society he now leads specialized tours to Russia and the Baltic States as a pastime. Thanks for everything Mike and cheers!

Comments

  1. Well written Subodh-enjoyed reading it.
    Three cheers for all the mentors and Gurujis!!
    Govind

    ReplyDelete
  2. Mentors enrich our lives indeed.

    Two days ago, I had an argument with my daughter on Muhammad Ali vs. Tiger Woods. I have joined the Tiger fan club in Face Book and she was saying that he can't hold a light to Muhammad Ali as a sports icon. What Tiger has done for golf is nothing to what Ali did for boxing, she said. So even the younger generation is so impressed by Ali. "Me...whee!" Wow!

    I had just one mentor. A Dutchman, Hans Wagener. He worked for the UN and had been posted in Nepal and Indonesia and loved the people of those countries. He had just returned from Nepal when I was knocking doors at the UN in New York, looking for a job in 1978. Hans was the Personnel Chief at UNFPA. He saw my CV and smiled right away - we shared the same birthday. Lucky coincidence for me. My qualifications passed muster. Soon I was in Nigeria, as a Dutch-sponsored junior officer with UNDP. When I got into trouble with my bosses there, it was Hans who arranged for me to move to UNFPA in New York where I really started my career. He simply trusted my abilities. His calm demeanor and that unfailing trust made my UN career. I had lunch with him in the 90's at The Hague. He had retired and I did not know how sick he was. He passed away a few months later. While in NY, he gave me a print of Gautam Buddha on Nepali paper and told me that it would protect me from all the challenges of a UN career. The framed print hangs today in front of my desk.

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