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Ajay Gandhi was no run-of-the-mill chartered accountant. In fact, this bread and butter aspect of him ranked last in his persona. Ajay was a unique person who we were privileged to know. He was unique because of his love for people and ideas. He was unique because he so passionately believed in the power of dialogue and argument. And he was unique because of his insatiable curiosity for knowledge.
The Manthan co-founder passed away on September 22 at the age of 65 in Hyderabad.
As the story goes, in 2005, Ajay along with his friend, M.R.Vikram, started to organise small gatherings of people in Hyderabad to discuss topics of interest. And so, the seeds were planted of what would, in the years to come, would blossom into Manthan – a vibrant platform for exchange of ideas that ranged from art, architecture, poetry, humour to intense discussions on politics, the economy, climate change, religion, science, medicine and much else. Almost 400 men and women have presented their life’s work and thoughts to audiences that would eagerly gather round the banyan tree at Vidyaranya School in Hyderabad. After a cup of tea, a Hyderabadi samosa and Osmania biscuits, the audience would settle down to listen, question and debate.
October 2 is Manthan’s Founders Day, which was a one to two-day festival in which eminent persons, stand-up comedians, writers. musicians, poets, inter alia, are invited to speak and perform. He encouraged the audience to speak up and ask uncomfortable questions, saying that this was what ‘Manthan’ was all about. What excited him most was to see youngsters among the crowd. A sumptuous lunch is served between sessions. Typically, over 2,000 persons register for it. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, changed that exciting in-person event to one on Zoom – but the quality of the event remains undiminished.
Ajay was also a driving force behind the Hyderabad Literary Festival (HLF) that has gained country-wide recognition as a literary festival for it unique informal and friendly spirit. He was an active member of our book club too, for which he would always created time in spite of his incredibly busy schedule. His love of reading and his interest in listening to varied opinions, while also challenging them, made him an integral part of every book club session.
Today, when he is no longer in our midst, we remember him more for the person he was – a person with a great sense of humour, an infectious laugh, an astonishing readiness to help, encourage and nurture. He had a personal connect with everyone he met – be it a gardener or an IAS officer. Simple, unassuming and modest, he always saw the good in people and was clear and committed to the liberal and progressive values he held dear. He is as much admired for building two grand institutions, namely Manthan and HLF, as he is for his rare and remarkable human qualities.
Hyderabad is incomplete without Ajay Gandhi. But his beliefs and his values – that every voice in a democracy must be heard, controversial issues be debated, social justice not be denied, science and rationality be encouraged – will be taken forward by Manthan, HLF, his family, his friends, and all of us who were touched by him, inspired by him and strengthened by him.
“It takes a noble man to plant a seed for a tree that will give shade to people he may never meet” is an apt quote, and we thank you, Ajay, for being that noble man.
K. Sujatha Rao is a Former Union Secretary. Mukti Bosco is the Founder of Healing Fields. Amrita Chak is the Founder of Turn the Page Book Club. Sunita Reddy is a freelance journalist.