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I interviewed Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai

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“Joe College Meets the Prime Minister” was my working title for the article you are about to read. It was how I referred to the article when talking with my friends.

In 1978, I was an undergraduate student in the Independent Study program at Southeastern Massachusetts University in North Dartmouth, MA. My major was Communications with a minor in Education. I had successfully petitioned the school to let me take on a two-year, 12 credit project creating a media presentation on Mahatma Gandhi. Two semesters would be spent on research and another two semesters would be devoted to the writing and creation of the program.

During my research phase, I wrote an article in a Hindi newspaper telling people of my project. I asked for help in the way of insights or anecdotes people might be willing to share. The response was overwhelming. One day I came home from school to find 128 pieces of mail waiting for me! Over the next weeks, I received books, tapes, photographs, and stories from Indians at home and abroad.

One letter I received was from a University of Bombay professor. He said that India’s Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, was scheduled to visit the U.S. in June. He pointed out that Prime Minister Desai had known Gandhi personally. He suggested that I write the Ambassador of India and request a meeting with the Prime Minister to gather research.

Yeah, right. The leader of a sixth of the world’s population will simply jump at the chance to meet ME. I shrugged off the idea as absurd.

When I happened to mention the letter to my older brother, Bob, he said, “So write him and ask! So what if he says no? At least you would have tried.” Skeptically, I wrote the Ambassador of India and explained my project and my desire to meet with the Prime Minister of India.

Weeks later, I received his reply. Prime Minister Desai would be in Washington, D.C. with President Carter for two days and in New York for two days addressing the U.N. The bottom line was that the Ambassador would forward my request to the Prime Minister but I shouldn’t hold my breath. The Prime Minister’s dance card was pretty much filled.

Then, about a month later, an amazing thing happened. I got another letter from the Ambassador’s office. It essentially said that the Prime Minister was interested in my project and would like to know more details. What motivated my interest in Mahatma Gandhi? What are my views of Gandhi? What do I see as the overall message of my project? After pacing frantically around my apartment, I sat down and wrote my heart out. After a few days, my reply was on its way.

Then things got interesting. I received a letter from the Ambassador’s office telling me that I could have seven minutes with the Prime Minister in Washington, D.C. I wrote back explaining that as a college student with as many part-time jobs as classes (I didn’t mention that all I drove was a motorcycle) I couldn’t afford to get to Washington. I had requested to meet the Prime Minister when he was in New York City. I could get to New York.

On June 10th I received a phone call from the Ambassador’s office. Be at the United Nations Plaza Hotel at 7:45 tomorrow morning, June 11th. I would have, not seven, but three minutes to interview the Prime Minister. I immediately called Richard St. Aubin, a photographer who worked at the university. Richard had lived in New York City for many years and had friends there that we could stay with. He would photograph the interview and make the five-hour drive to New York City on a moment’s notice. Richard picked me up two hours later and off we went.

When I returned from the trip, many friends encouraged me to write an article about the experience for the school and local newspapers. I wrote a short article and sent it to The Standard-Times, our local paper. The editor, James Ragsdale, called and suggested we meet at his office. He asked me to tell him about my experience meeting Prime Minister Desai. I went on and on about the experience and had him laughing and clearly moved at times. Then he showed me his copy of my meager article and asked, “Why isn’t that story here?” He said I had written my impression of a newspaper article. He suggested I go home and write the story I had just told him. That was the story he wanted to publish. So that is the story I wrote during the summer of 1978. I hope that you enjoy it.

Rick Cormier

August 2007

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