This incident happened in November 2021, but today is his birthday, hence this re-post.
I had the rare opportunity to travel as a passenger on another airline’s flight, instead of flying in the cockpit of a plane of my airline as usual.
Personally, I prefer the cockpit anytime, for that is my office at 40,000 feet. It is exclusive, expensive, sophisticated, state-of-the art, and offers exquisite views. (Not cuisine!)
But sometimes it can get lonely in that office. Other than the co-pilot and the faceless voices of the controllers and the occasional visits to the cockpit by the cabin crew, there’s no one to talk to, in the long periods of cruise away from the noise and rattle of the world below.
So, when I travel in uniform in the passenger cabin, I like chatting with other passengers who always have lots of doubts.
I especially enjoy answering children who ask unexpected, brilliant questions.
“Uncle, do you have a horn in the plane? What do you do if someone comes in front?”
“Can you lock the doors at night when you park the plane?”
“Have you ever jumped from a plane?”
“Are you afraid when you fly?”
In return, I always ask them, “Do you want to become a pilot?”
And all of them reply ‘Yes’ with a bright smile.
Then I say, “For that, you’ll have to study hard, okay?”
And then, the kids stop smiling and their parents start grinning!
This was an early morning flight and my neighbour, after a nod and a smile, began to snore the moment the airplane got airborne, and I got busy with my reading.
When I sensed that the airplane had begun its descent for landing, I decided to visit the washroom.
I looked up from my reading and noticed an elderly gentleman from Row 1 get up slowly and walk to the washroom. He turned and said something to his neighbour before entering.
Despite his mask, I recognised the unmistakable mane of silver hair all turned backwards, an affable smile that also showed in his bespectacled eyes, and a humble, kindly demeanour. It was Mr Azim Premji in person!
Couldn’t he just charter an aircraft? Couldn’t he easily afford a private jet? I know of many small corporates who own airplanes, small and big. With his net worth, he could even own an airline.
I recalled a news headline about him being the top donor to charity in India, giving away a whopping 9,713 Crore Rupees last financial year, which comes to an incredible 27 Crore Rupees per day!
Now, despite my seemingly well-paying job, I shall never see 27 Crore rupees in this lifetime, so I was thoroughly impressed by the man’s quiet philanthropy, and here he was, right in front of me.
Seeing him in that airplane reminded me of other flamboyant employers who abandoned their unpaid employees, dissolved their companies, robbed the banks of their loans and flew away from the not-so-long arm of the Indian law.
Normally, if I were to go to the Wipro Corporate Office, the security staff won’t even allow me in, let alone permit me anywhere near him. But here we were, fellow passengers, and for that moment at least, we were together as (almost) equals in what an esteemed ex Minister, known both for his magnificent vocabulary and his irrepressible compulsion to flaunt it, had termed as ‘cattle-class.’
And I had the advantage of being in my Captain’s uniform, which granted me the courage to walk up to him.
When he saw me and my uniform, he smiled at me, and I said, “Sir, I wanted to salute you.”
He flashed his saintly smile at me and sat down in his seat.
After landing, I bid goodbye to the Captain of the flight, from one aviator to another, and walked fast to catch up with Mr Premji at the baggage belt.
There were a few people with him, but he stood in the corner like any other passenger, awaiting his bags. He had no snobbish airs, no cronies, and no security guards.
The king of a multi-industrial empire worth billions of dollars stood like an ordinary man.
What an extraordinary man!
I went to him and asked, “Sir, may I request a photograph with you?”
He smiled and said, “I’ll remove my mask for you.”
And he did.
But the lady with him, who graciously took my mobile phone to click a picture, told him with stern affection, “Please wear your mask.”
And he hurriedly wore it, looking like a student admonished by the headmaster.
Doing that, he looked so childlike and so innocent that I was mesmerised by his simplicity. And that reminded me of a Marathi poem by BB Borkar, which, loosely translated, means:
Wherever a sign of divinity I behold,
There my hands, by themselves, fold.
And when I sought his permission to use his photo to write this piece, he only smiled and nodded.
Thank you, sir. You’re a true philanthropist. You’ve given the world and our country a lot over the years and you’ve given me an invaluable lesson in humility, in just a few moments.
All I can give you is my humble salute.
And I wish you a very happy birthday, sir. May God grant you a long and healthy life.
This article was first published at https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/azim-premji-business-tycoon-and-philanthropist-553014.html
Cockpit image by DCstudio on Freepik