She Flies With Her Own Wings: A Tribute To Meera Sanyal

Posted: January 23, 2019

A singular warmth. Compassion. Optimism. A charming humility, despite being the ex-CEO of The Royal Bank of Scotland. Meera Sanyal was a woman who touched the lives of countless people all her beautiful life. Alis Propriis Volat (She flies with her own wings), says this tribute.

It was a hot and humid June morning in 2015, when I first saw Ms. Meera Sanyal, sitting in a lotus position on a yoga mat. The morning sun had just started to spread a golden dazzle over the Pamba that quietly flowed beside the platform where the yoga was being held. The chirping of the birds, the faint sound of chants wafting from a temple on the other side of the river, and the soft rustle of the leaves, every time the wind teased them – all seemed to be adding to the peaceful corona that surrounded us. And somehow it all seemed to be centered at the point where she sat – doing nothing, just being herself, and breathing in, and breathing out.

I ran back to my room and told my husband, that I thought I saw Ms. Meera Sanyal at yoga. He replied casually, ‘Of course, you did. This is her family’s place.’

We were at Dr. Manik Hiranandani’s campus in an obscure little hamlet in Kerala. We’d just landed there the night before, for a two-month long medical retreat. Dr. Hiranandani, as it turned out, is Ms. Meera Sanyal’s elder brother. Meeting someone I had idolized from my B-School days – seemed like a divine recompense for me dragging myself, grumpily, to yoga that morning. Over the next many weeks that we spent on that campus and the many chats I had with her, I realized that all that I knew about her professional life and idolized her for, paled in comparison to who she was as a person.

It took me a few days to get over my fangirl sentiment and open up in her presence. Until then I would just listen, absolutely mesmerized, as she would seamlessly transition from talking about the state of affairs in the Middle-East to the reasons for the rising prices of moong dal at your local kirana store. I’m yet to meet someone so knowledgeable about such a vast variety of subjects, and yet as eager to hear other people’s thoughts as they were to share their own. She had a way of gently nudging one into a conversation; which was probably what got me talking to her about my then unfinished debut novel – making her one of the first few people other than my husband to know that I was endeavouring to write one. When I told her the main protagonist of my novel is called Meera too, she gave out a soft, pearly laugh. Then she said, ‘I’m sure you will finish it Radhika. I bet it would be fantastic and I promise to be one of your first few readers.’ We’d hardly known each other for a few days by then. And yet her words of encouragement didn’t seem like something someone just says out of common etiquette or politeness. I could feel that she meant them; it was probably because of the warmth in her eyes.

That was the kind of a person she was – the one who puts earnest faith in the talent and promise of a total stranger. The one who wished for the best for everyone she came across; and then did whatever she could to enable them; like the hundreds of thousands of women in rural India, she enabled through the micro-finance schemes she mentored.

I remember the day she talked about the time she spent in Vipassana. And how nonchalantly she had said that she was okay about leaving her phone and laptop behind and walking into a retreat where she wouldn’t be allowed to talk for ten days. Her exact words were, ‘We all must do it, to remind ourselves that we are not as indispensable as we’d like to think. The world seems to function fairly well, even if we suddenly fall off the scene.’ And as I listened to her – an ex-CEO and Chairperson of The Royal Bank of Scotland, an Aam Aadmi Party candidate from South Mumbai, a member of various boards and committees – calling herself dispensable, I fell in love with her some more.

On Onam, a huge saadya was organized by her family for all the patients on campus. She saw me trying to adjust the camera to get the whole of my family in one picture, politely took the camera from me, and captured some really spectacular shots of us. When I complimented her on how well the pictures had come out, she blushed and shrugged it off. In a world which is increasingly about tooting one’s own horn, regardless of how much real substance one holds, Meera Ma’am’s humility was a rarity.

So was her singular warmth and compassion. We had gone to that medical retreat primarily for our son. She never failed to inquire about how his treatment was progressing and to tell me that he was going to be okay, every single time we met her, which was almost every day.

The book I’d discussed with her finally did get written. And she did me one better than her promise to be one of the first few readers. She accepted to be the Guest of Honour at the launch; an event for which she braved three hours of Mumbai traffic, on a day that she was fasting to boot.

Barely a few weeks ago, one fine morning, I woke up thinking of her. I dropped in a ‘Hi’ in a chat. She inquired about our wellbeing and even asked us how long we were in Dhaka for. I wrote that we hoped she can visit us sometime soon; a comment to which she responded ‘Inshallah’ with a laughing emoticon. In my naiveté, I took that comment to mean that she was recovering, hopefully. I came to fully understand the painful irony behind that emoticon only weeks later when I heard of her passing. That was Meera Ma’am, optimistic and delightful, even when fighting a daily battle for her life.

I almost never got to writing this tribute to her. Because every time I’d start to write it, I would find myself overwhelmed with a sense of loss. But then I got talking to Ms. Savitri Iyer, someone I had met and befriended through Meera Ma’am. As we shared our grief, Savitri Ma’am told me how Meera Ma’am had said during her final days, that she was at peace. She knew what was coming and she was ready to embrace it, just like she had embraced all the other opportunities in her life. And that’s when I realized. This is the true hallmark of a life well lived – one is at peace when it comes to an end, however prematurely.

Ms. Meera Sanyal was a personal idol to me. Her loss is irreparable. But true to her nature of enabling others, she left behind a legacy of optimism and inner peace for people like me, who loved and admired her. Of being happy where you are, as who you are. Just the way I’m sure she is happy and at peace, being where she is now.

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