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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Flying out MGR safe ~ and something on MGR samadhi

Do you remember or know of a song which years after its release was screened in all the theatres of Tamilnadu in 1980s.  It was the song ‘Andavane unthan pathangalil naan kanneeral” from the film Oli Vilakku [ஒளி விளக்கு ] released in 1968.  Melakkath Gopalan Ramachandran (1917 – 1987) [was that Marudhur Gopalan Ramachandran !!], popularly known as MGR, was a legendary film actor who rose to dizzy heights of popularity becoming the Chief Minister of Tamilnadu successively for three terms. Those visiting Chennai from rural parts of Tamilnadu visit Marina primarily for visiting the samadhis of two of  erstwhile Chief Ministers Annadurai and MGR.  The tomb of MGR has recently been refurbished and has become a court case for different reasons has nothing to do with this post. 

Sathi Leelavathi, released in 1936 had MG Ramachandran in a supporting role but that was to change the fate of the State was not known for sure.  He graduated to leading roles and for the next three decades dominatin the tinseldom as ‘Do Gooder Hero’ who could nothing wrong and who would always care for the poor.  He became a member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and rose rapidly through its ranks.  He successfully used his popularity as a film hero to build a large political base. In 1972, he  challenged those at the helm and was promptly expelled  from DMK, came out to  form his own party the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK).

In 1977 he became the chief minister of Tamil Nadu - the first film actor in India to become the chief minister of a state. He remained as chief minister till his death in 1987.  He had built a mass following and glorious  reputation for philanthropism idolized by his followers  as Puratchi Thalaivar ( Revolutionary leader).  MGR was posthumously honoured with the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian award.

In October 1984, MGR was diagnosed with kidney failure, which was further complicated by diabetes, a mild heart attack and a massive stroke.  MGR died on December 24, 1987 after his prolonged illness. He was 70. His death sparked off a frenzy of looting and rioting all over the state of Tamil Nadu. Shops, movie theatres, buses and other public and private property became the target of violence let loose all over the state.  Around one million people followed his remains, around 30 followers committed suicide and people had their heads tonsured.

Here is something extracted from an article in “The Hindu’ dated 25.11.1984 ~ titled “Flying out MGR safe: an epic effort”.  Remember that way back in the 1980s, the steel birds flying into and taking off from Meenambakkam were so scarce; only very few elites in the city could boast of an air travel and few more would claim to have seen an aircraft landing……… those were the days, when any villager coming to Chennai would make a visit to the vicinity of airport to have glimpse from afar, of the aeroplane taking off or landing…………..

Oct / Nov 1984 was the time when the Chief Minster loved by millions of people in Tamilnadu was ailing in Apollo Hospital and rumour mills were churning out bad news of his health.  Those were the days, when there were so many Cinema theatres and all of them were running full houses attracting people ~ before the Cinema the  song ‘aandavane unthan pathangalil’  from the film ‘Oli Vilakku’ -   was screened as a prelude, more of the people of Tamilnadu praying to God for saving the life of CM MG Ramachandran, who though hailed from ‘rationalist party’ never spoke against God and at some point of time reportedly was a devotee of Kollur Mookambigai too… 

After days of treatment  in Apollo [when Greames Road reportedly was not allowed for commoners ~ huge crowds thronged the Road to get nearer MGR, anxious of his health], on the night of 5th Nov 1984, MGR left for New York. It is another sad story that the then PM Indira Gandhi had visited MGR at hospital on 16/10/84, when MGR had been paralysed by a stroke.  Mrs Gandhi promised all help in treating him, including an aircraft to take him to hospital if needed.  The sad part was Mrs Indira could not see MGR recover as she was cruelly assassinated on 31st Oct 1984, a fortnight  after the meeting.  The planning and logistics involved in moving MGR was exceptional ~ again remember that air traffic was a microscopic % of what it is today !!!  Here are some excerpts from that article in ‘The Hindu’ dt 25/11/1984……

Mrs Gandhi’s offer for aircraft was accepted by the TN Cabinet; a team of American doctors flew in by PM’s Indian Air Foce aircraft and stepped into Apollo Hospital on Oct 17;  Air India exclusively made available one Boeing aircraft and kept it  at Meenambakkam and by express orders the crew were staying on the craft itself, ready to fly any moment.  The leader of the Medical experts from America Dr Eli Friedman reportedly told that MGR was not fit for travel and will have to be observed for 10 days; the Boeing returned to  Bombay ~ before it went, a team of Doctors had an on board inspection suggesting the facilities that were required.

On Oct 19, came anxious moments as MGR lapsed into low levels of consciousness because of a tennis ball sized swelling in the brain.  Around this time, Dr Kanno, a Neurosurgeon from Japan was on his way from Tokyo.  He and his assistant Dr Nakamura were booked to fly on Singapore Airlines to Singapore, then connect with an Air India flight to Bombay; arrive at Madras.  The critical condition made the Cabinet members feel that Dr Kanno should come sooner.   It was then decided to have the aircraft land at Madras enroute than going to Mumbai direct…… the control tower from Meenambakkam messaged commander of AI craft and things fell in place.  The commander then paged the 2 Doctors through the public address system within the aircraft but none responded; after 45 minutes of search, it was revealed that the 2 Doctors were not on board.
The Singapore airlines flight from Tokyo to Singapore had been late by 2 ½ hours by which time the connecting AI flight had left.  There was no flight to Madras for the next 20 hours… and in Madras the tension was mounting ~ as the flying time from Singapore – Bombay – Madras was almost 10 hours.  Then came the thought to have the AI flight from Bombay to Singapore but that aircraft parked in Bombay did not have the range to fly to Singapore.

The last alternative was Singapore Airlines and the effort in chartering an aircraft !.  A Boeing 747 Jumbo was available; the cost of the charter would be around Rs.1.5 lakhs an hour………. a huge amount those days !  The Hindu quoting an Airlines official writes that ‘it was the most extraordinary case of decentralization of authority and business-like approach’.  For 8 hours of flying time, the bill was 10 lakhs ~ quoted as a reasonable one at cost.

Sure,  those were not the days of wire transfers and easy cash availability ~ even to the Government, finding that huge money [of 10 lakhs] at midnight was ticklish issue. The Indian envoy at Singapore was contacted but he pleaded that he needed External Affairs Ministry’s clearance. AIADMK was prepared to foot the bill; it was a time when the cities of Madras and Delhi were asleep; the Foreign Secretary could not be reached [again those were not the days of mobile phones ~ even STD was difficult] then a Minister called the Private Secretary of Mr G Parthasarathi, the Cabinet ranking chairman of Policy Planning Commission.  That official who lived closer by, offered to drive down to the house of Mr GP ~ before he could reach, contact with Singapore had been made at 0130 am..

Thus by a grand charter a plane was arranged and Dr Kanno and his assistance came on board in the 350 seater aircraft – they were the only passengers and were vastly outnumbered by the crew of 6; the flight across Bay of Bengal lasted 3 and ½ hours.  They were received at the airport by TN Health Minister Dr HV Hande and driven direct to hospital.  The CM showed signs of recovery in the next few days; arrangements were planned to take MGR to US for kidney transplant in the first week of Nov; but fate thought otherwise.  The cruel assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi forced a change.  Meanwhile, AI’s 19 year old Boeing 707 ‘Lhotse’ returned to Bombay base rushed the President Mr Zail Singh back to Delhi to swear in Mr Rajiv Gandhi.  subsequently it was refurbished to the task of carrying MGR as per directions of experts in aviation medicine in Bangalore which at first blush seemed impossible.
The special bed used in Apollo had been manufactured in Bombay but the circumstances prevailing after the assassination made that difficult. 2 oxygen cylinders were to be taken on board but one available contained moisture and hence search for dry oxygen became immediate priority.  The refurbished aircraft flew to Madras at 2.45 pm on Nov 4, 1984.  Everything was in place and special efforts were planned to manage the crowds en route to airport from hospital.  Under Federal Aviation Authority rules Boeing 707 was not permitted to land in New York, as it was small and noisy aircraft – a special permission was granted.

The CM was taken on a stretcher in an ambulance to airport and on board, the aircraft moved out of the tarmac, coasted along the taxi track preparing for take-off.  At this point it was found that there was phlegm  formation in the lungs of CM and treatment took 15 minutes after which equipments were rechecked. This 30 minute delay was most unnerving for all.   It took off at 10.46 pm and landed at Bombay 90 minutes later.  At Mumbai, there was slight malfunction of  radar; then the rod of tractor  pulling plane broke; more delay and more tension. MGR was served with a special liquid diet; at London blood analysis was done; the results were obtained whilst airborne through radio from control tower at Heathrow airport.

After all this, the flight safely landed at New York and was taken to Brooklyn Hospital by Dr Sreepada Rao. 

That he returned back to Madras, won the elections in and ruled the State for some more time, eventually died on Dec 24, 1987 is history.  There are thousands of his followers who adore, admire and remember him still ~ it is almost 25 years since his death, even now, one can see people especially rickshawmen placing his picture and offering their obeisance on his death anniversary. 

With regards – S. Sampathkumar.
15th Dec 2012.


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