G V Subba Rao
Binge watching the web series ‘The Crown’ during the recent Cyclone in Chennai, I was fascinated by a strange distress of the Duke of Edinburgh Prince Philip meeting astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin in 1969. The famous trio were guests in Buckingham Palace, briefly, during their whirlwind 20 nation goodwill tour after their momentous achievement of walking on the lunar surface and subsequent successful return to earth. Their feat had captivated an estimated 600 million television viewers around the world in those days, a rare phenomenon even by modern standards. The Prince was overwhelmed and honored that they had consented for a 15-minute private meeting. For the royalty it was nothing short of a miracle, a chance to meet demigods or giants in his view. He had burnt midnight oil framing questions he would seek answers for. He was nervous.The event also came with a little background story.
Few weeks prior, a clergyman by name Dean Robin Woods approached the Duke with a request, ‘Can we make use of unoccupied house in the sprawling Palace for group discussions amongst disillusioned underachievers from all walks of life in different age groups who believe to have hit a ceiling?’ The Duke, although unable to grasp their purpose, generously gave his consent. ‘If you want to utilize an empty property in the premises be my guest’ he said to him.
A few days later Mr. Woods turned up yet again, ‘would your royal highness drop in for 5 minutes just to say hello?’ The Duke reluctantly went along. He was clearly unimpressed with the motley crowd’s pretentious, self-piteous nonsense. ‘In order to achieve something,’ he interrupted, ‘you guys need to get off your backsides, go out and do something useful to the society. Action gentlemen,’ he admonished, ‘is what that defines us, not suffering. Model yourself with men of action’ he roared before storming out in a huff.
Coming back to his meeting with celebrity astronauts, they all sat down for a chat after warm handshakes. Ironically, the trio were in equal awe, face to face they were with royalty in an imposing Palace. The Duke’s background a rich legacy of tradition in the romantic poetry of John Keats,
‘What is there in thee, the moon that thou should move my heart so potently…?’
He began rather hesitantly, unsure of himself, ‘So tell me, how… was it… there? What was going on in your minds having conquered The Moon! What… what were…the thoughts?’ The trio nursing bad colds glanced at one another.
Neil Armstrong spoke first, ‘Sir, after the moon walk we returned to the module. We knew we had limited time and were due to take off again in couple of hours. It was tight schedule of check-tick, check-tick. I couldn’t rest because there was a constant hammering outside bang… bang… bang.’
‘Oh my god!’ The Duke exclaimed in bewilderment, ‘what was that?’
‘Faulty water cooler Sir,’ Armstrong explained coolly, ‘I mean think of all the advancements in science and technology to get there and be stuck with a malfunctioning water cooler!!’ He paused to sneeze.
The Duke sat still stunned into silence.
‘Any more questions Sir?’
‘Err… No… nothing’ he said quietly folding the paper with the questionnaire.
‘In that case your royal highness,’ another astronaut said, ‘we’ve a few questions ourselves…’
‘How does it feel to be living in a Palace with 1000 rooms…? 4 miles of carpeted corridors in total. Your pet dogs, do they sleep with you…?’
The Duke answered all of them wallowing in disappointment. Later that night he lamented to the Queen, ‘these men went up all the way to the moon, but caught colds travelling to London! Their lack of flair, imagination appalled me. Entirely anticlimactic when you meet them in person.’
The Queen summed it up succinctly, ‘Perhaps perfect for the job with a sense of duty, modesty and reliability. Delivered as astronauts but disappointed as human beings. They never aspired to be celebrities. We made them so. They’ll have to spend rest of their lives in goldfish bowls. Scared to open their mouths for they’ll reveal who they actually are and that they’ll inevitably disappoint. And for that they deserve our pity.’
Spot on, Your Royal Highness! She couldn’t have been more precise. Beneath the glistening surface of greatness and fame of every luminary figure is the fact that he/she is still a human with frailties, only more vulnerable to unfair scrutiny. The Duke later sought clergymen’s help in the restoration of his lost ‘Faith’ in spiritual growth.
In 2008, I faced a similar moment. The recipient of Gollapudi Srinivas Foundation’s annual ‘Best Debut Director’ of feature film was a certain renowned star. Befitting the occasion, we fancied approaching the former President of India Bharat Ratna Shri. Abdul Kalam, anational iconto be the Chief Guest of the function. A family friend and grand old matriarch who happened to know the former President personally, graciously offered to take me along for a brief meeting. I was thrilled. The former President was an epitome of simplicity and humility. Warm and cordial he happily clicked pictures with us conversing in Tamil. I had a few minutes interlude to explain about the award and its purpose. He listened intently and assured that his office would revert after going through his schedule. Just as we were leaving, the lady asked him if he would like to see the award-winning film.
‘If you show (arrange for the screening) I would love to see (watch the film) ma’am…’ he said enthusiastically in informal Tamil. For those in the room well versed with the language, momentarily held our breaths in awkward silence. We quietly dispersed. It’s a different story, our loss actually, that the great man couldn’t find time for either the screening or the event. Nonetheless, I recall coming away from that meeting rather amusingly underwhelmed.