Long before the advent of the eponymous website where you can don different avatars in the virtual world, Vijay Crishna discovered the pleasures of living a “second life”—in the real world.
For the last 30 years, he has been managing director of Lawkim Ltd, which manufactures specialized motors for a host of consumer appliance makers, such as Onida, LG, Hitachi and Godrej. The privately held company is a part of the 109-year-old Godrej Group, which grosses over $1.35 billion (Rs5,454 crore) and is one of India’s most trusted brands.
In the last four decades, Crishna has also established himself as an actor of repute in the English theatre circuit, with over 100 theatre productions and some half a dozen films and serials to his credit. The public would more readily remember him for his cameo role of the zamindar father who slapped “son” Shah Rukh Khan, in the Bollywood blockbuster Devdas.
While that was fun, says Crishna, mischievously, his claim to world fame was his bit role in the Oscar-winning film, Gandhi, where he played Jinnah’s chauffeur. A fellow actor and family friend who, in the 1960s, shared a desk with Crishna at a Kolkata freight-broker’s office and in the evenings acted in plays with him—“We did the Zoo Story, lots of Pinter”—has reached far greater heights: He is Amitabh Bachchan.
For most people, this might have been enough drama for a lifetime: but not for the polymath Crishna. His school principal at Mayo College, Ajmer, Jack Gibson, was an avid mountaineer and inspired in him a passion for nature, sports and trekking in the wild. A life member of The Himalayan Club since 1973, Crishna has been on treks to Garhwal, Kailash Mansarovar, Annapurna base camp, Northern Sikkim and Ladakh.
Last September, he made the journey of a lifetime: a two-week voyage into Tibet, covering 1,200km in a Toyota Landcruiser, accompanied by his wife Smita, daughter Freyan and a professional mountaineer and friend, Vineeta Muni. After their return, Crishna drew on his experience to make a, audio-visual presentation, which he first delivered in his rich baritone to The Himalayan Club, Kolkata. At present, he is busy sharing “Tibet of Our Minds—A Journey’s End” with audiences all over the country. Like the script of a good play, Crishna’s rendition of the Tibet story has multiple dimensions. One common refrain: “In the mountains, you don’t always see what you expect”. There is, of course, the portrayal of the epic landscape of Tibet.
The journey begins with Lhasa, where the group remains for three days to acclimatize itself to the high altitudes. Nothing prepares them for the shock of seeing “tonnes of Chinese tourists pouring in on the brand new Beijing-Lhasa Express, the five-star hotels, the thousands of new Chinese immigrants being resettled”.
The old Tibet can still be witnessed in the Ganden monastery, for instance, in its empty prayer hall. As Crishna savoured the tranquillity, he heard a cellphone ring and saw a monk “pulling out not one but three phones, peering at them in the semi-darkness, trying to see which one was ringing!”
There is also sadness in the discovery that most of the monasteries are rebuilt versions as the original structures were razed when the Chinese “liberated” Tibet in the 1950s. The group visited the Jokhang Temple—the epicentre of Tibetan Buddhism—and the magnificent Potala Palace, the winter palace of the Dalai Lama, and the Norbulingka, the summer palace, from where His Holiness began his escape to India in 1959.
Why do people undertake arduous journeys of this kind in the Himalayan region? Members of the audience at Crishna’s lectures have interesting, if varied, responses. Suman Dubey, president of The Himalayan Club, who recently retired as a journalist to spend time in the mountains, muses: “It’s a vocation. There is something about going to a place, and seeing it as nature intended it to be. In the process, you get to challenge yourself and to see yourself clearly.” Tanil Kilachand, chairman and managing director, Polychem Ltd, who did the Kailash Mansarovar parikrama on foot, says: “In this yatra, you come close to nature. All your five senses are engaged, plus one more, your sixth sense, or spirituality.”
And why should the world care about Tibet today? It’s important, says Crishna, because it represents the potential to change things.
“The fascinating thing is that China itself is changing, a fact not fully appreciated even by many of us doing business in China. There are pressures on the Communist Party of China to change. As the rivers begin to dry up, there could be a huge backlash from the peasants who live north of the Yellow River. So, you see that the party has stopped banning religion, they are bringing in private property laws, all of which are dramatic changes. Tibet is the roof of the world, and the climatic changes there, studied in depth by Chinese scientists, will have a tremendous impact on the world’s climate,” he says.
Another audience member, Lama Doboom Tulku, director of Tibet House, who came to India with the Dalai Lama in 1959, says: “Just as Tibetans cannot remain isolated, the Chinese, too, cannot stay isolated. Everybody is interlinked. Democracy, in my belief, is something that happens not by revolution, but will evolve.”
For Crishna, interwoven in Tibet’s story is also a huge chunk of family history, and pride. In 1957, his maternal uncle and mentor, General Thimmayya, then chief commanding officer of the Indian Army, warned defence minister Krishna Menon about the fallout of the Tibetan takeover and Chinese build-up on the Sino-Indian border.
But, taken in by Menon, a communist himself, and by Chou En Lai, the Chinese prime minister, Nehru ignored and humiliated his commanding officer.
In 1962, the Chinese attacked India, and today, observes Crishna, we still have an unresolved border of 2,500km, the costliest line to maintain between the two most populous countries in the world.
At the end of the trip, Crishna and his group arrived at the Everest Base Camp. Muni, who has had a 25-year career of 22 mountaineering expeditions, with a world record of traversing the entire length of the Himalayas, cannot get over this irony: “Here, we are in one of the loneliest spots in the world, and it’s crowded with people of all nationalities, waiting for clear weather to sight Mt Everest. It’s the most unexpected place to socialize in.”
At the end of the trip, the weather became so cold and cloudy that the group was forced to turn back, without seeing Mt Everest even as they camped at its feet.
Then, as they flew towards Kathmandu, the clouds lifted, and the peak revealed itself in all its glory.
Crishna’s journey to Tibet, then, is not just about its beginning or an end, but about the unexpected vistas that it opened up. “The mountains,” adds Muni, “always teach you to respect that.”
LET’S KNOW VIJAY CRISHNA
Name: Vijay Crishna
Title: Managing director, Lawkim Ltd and Godrej Upstream Ltd
Education: BA (Economics), St Stephen’s College, University of Delhi
Pursuits: Theatre, trekking, driving and staying fit. Studying history
Claim to fame: Setting up three new greenfield factories in Maharashtra and Punjab; creating an institute for the study and propagation of rare and endangered species of medicinal plants endemic to the Western Ghats