Unusual Retirements

‘You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching’

Posted on Updated on

logo_172x100FIRST STIRRINGS: Shovana Narayan

FINDING an unusual retired woman civil servant proved to be a challenge. Some have achieved high visibility but I needed a compelling story, not a list of achievements. And then the name of Kathak maestro Shovana Narayan, recipient of Padma Shri (1992) and until 2011 a full-time member of the Indian Audit and Accounts Service, came to mind! And the cherry on my story would be her marriage to Herbert Traxl, an Austrian diplomat. To have fulfilled three pursuits–dancer, officer and diplomat’s wife–concurrently, and without a crinkle of controversy, would certainly make an unusual story.

The questions were obvious: What led her to dance and what drove her to excel? How difficult was it to manage two professional careers as a classical dancer and as a member of the Indian Audit and Accounts Service? Did marriage and long periods of separation affect the couple’s relationship?

shobna_narayan

Shovana calls herself a “plodder” and attributes her success to two factors—hard work and determination. Looking at her family background, that may not be entirely true. Although she may not have been born with a silver spoon in her mouth, she certainly had bells on her toes before, as a toddler, she got shoes!

Shovana was greatly influenced by her mother and the atmosphere in which she grew up. She belonged to an enlightened Bihari zamindar family where two influences were at work.

On the one hand, mehfils and kavisammelans were a constant feature in the household. On the other, a strong sense of nationalism was infused in the older generation. Shovana’s maternal grandfather, Bapu Shyama Charan, and two of her uncles lost their lives in the freedom struggle. Her grandfather was the first Indian to be jailed as a part of the nationalist movement in Bihar. Her mother was a close associate of Indira Gandhi and connected with the All India Congress Committee.

When Shovana had hardly started to walk, her mother—herself a product of the Benares Hindu University and a music-lover—took her to Sadhona Bose, a prominent dancer-actress of the 1950s. Shovana’s initiation into dancing began right then, when the diva held her tiny feet and thumped them to the reverberation of ta thai that tat—sounds that were destined to resonate in Shovana’s ears for the rest of her life. A 1957 black-andwhite photograph shows six-year-old Shovana with her little chest bearing an array of medals and an even larger shield alongside.

The government house in Bharti Nagar where her parents lived was visited by famous singers and musicians, including Bhimsen Joshi and Hari Prasad Chaurasia. Once she was a little older, Shovana’s mother took her to the Sangeet Natak Academy and the Bharatiya Kala Kendra for coaching. It was here that the young girl was initiated as a pupil of Birju Maharaj, who accepted his new pupil but did not appear impressed by her studious looks. She was handed over to a senior student who took her under his charge. But even Birju Maharaj could not ignore the girl’s persistence and doggedness. Reluctantly at first, Birjuji became aware of his pupil. The rehearsals were gruelling and became more and more demanding as time went by.

Even as this tutelage continued, Shovana pursued her education. Her good performance in science led her to join Physics Honours at Delhi University. Hardly a winning combination for a dancer, but Shovana was made of sterner stuff. With a Physics Masters under her belt, she secured a CSIR junior research fellowship for solid-state physics, a pursuit which could not be further removed from classical dance!

AS Shovana started accompanying Birju Maharaj onstage, it gave her extraordinary exposure and high visibility; but a dancer does not emerge into her own until she can command a solo performance accompanied by her own musicians. The first such opportunity arose in 1971 at the Shanmukhananda Hall in Bombay. It was there that she got a chance to test her talent for connecting with the audience and to face the distinction between the theory and practice of dance. As she performed what she had rehearsed so many times before, she sensed that the audience was getting restive. It was a desperate moment for her and one that needed a quick response. In that moment, beset with forebodings about what loomed ahead as a maiden failure, she learnt a universal truth: every performing artiste must inevitably discover the untaught technique of stagecraft—and quite literally dance to the tune of those who care to listen and watch. It became the turning point of her independent dancing career as she whirled round and round, faster and faster, pirouetting to a perfect finish and a resounding applause.

Shovana’s reputation as a gifted danseuse soared from then on. But it was her first tour abroad which actually catapulted her into the international limelight. Performing the role of Kapalkundala, the whirlwind female fiend of mythology, she bared her teeth and spread her nails reminiscent of eagle claws before whirling herself frenziedly across the stage. There was tumultuous applause as the curtain came down. On her return to Delhi, the doors of Rashtrapati Bhavan were opened for the first time—the ultimate State recognition. Thereon, her audience comprised visiting heads of State and foreign dignitaries— Prince Charles, Lord Mountbatten, President Kenneth Kaunda and President Jimmy Carter. Later, in 1982, at Moscow she danced before Indira Gandhi and President Brezhnev. It was here that an infatuated guest broke the security cordon, simply to shower flowers at her feet.

Meanwhile, in 1975, Shovana had appeared for the civil services and had been selected for the Indian Audit and Accounts Services. She proudly recounts how at certain stages of her official career, particularly in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat, she handled double and triple charges to cushion an acute shortage of officers. Throughout a 35-year-long career and thanks to the advice of the doyenne of culture, Kapila Vatsayan, Shovana scrupulously avoided postings which had anything to do with the world of culture. Even so, combining official life with Kathak was like performing a trapeze act day after day. While working hours could be devoted to office, rehearsals and performances had perforce to be fitted into the early mornings and evenings.

SHOVANA realised early enough that she had to be scrupulously punctual as the slightest laxity could jeopardise her dancing career. The prevailing mindset expected 24-hour commitment from an officer and hobbies and extra-curricular pursuits of a serious kind were considered a waste of time. The only way to sustain her dancing schedules was to lead a double life and do it as quietly as possible. Shovana left office on time and drove directly to the auditorium every day—her costume, accessories, ghungroos and musical instruments crammed into the back seat.

Despite following a gruelling schedule, t was abundantly clear that she would not be taken seriously either as a civil servant or a classical dancer, if one world heard of the other. While she crossed the career hoops on schedule, this was often attributed to her prominence as a dancer. Cultural organisations considered non-khandani artistes as interlopers and her other role as a stodgy bureaucrat would not have endeared her to them. Shovana, therefore, had to maintain discretion by never revealing one world to the other. To add to her chagrin, her success as a dancer was often attributed to her European diplomat husband, who was credited with opening doors for his wife! That he lived thousands of miles away from India and had his own career to pursue never stopped tongues wagging.

Throughout a 35-year-long career and thanks to the advice of the doyenne of culture, Kapila Vatsayan, Shovana scrupulously avoided postings which had anything to do with the world of culture. Even so, combining official life with Kathak was like performing a trapeze act day after day

Indeed, her marriage to Traxl, an Austrian diplomat, is a story in itself. In 1979, a fortune-teller predicted that she would soon be marrying a non-Indian. That December, Shovana met Herbert. What followed was a longdistance courtship and the dilemma of deciding whether to give up the civil service, her dancing career, her family life in Delhi and follow her Austrian husband-to-be around the world. As she puts it, it was Herbert’s sincerity and goodness that vanquished all her doubts and they got married in 1982. Bhupinder Prasad, Shovana’s batchmate who registered the marriage, recalled the various wedding ceremonies and also recounted a rather tragic story and the courage her dancer friend had shown. Shovana’s father had been killed in a railway accident and it was left to the eldest daughter to single-handedly unearth his mangled body from a mass of corpses.

On the few occasions that Shovana lived with her husband in Europe, she did manage to get a ringside view of Western music and dance. This enabled her to start collaborations, which culminated in an extraordinary repertoire of fusion dance that blended Kathak with Western ballet, the Spanish flamenco and the
American tap dance.

In 1992, Shovana was awarded the Padma Shri for her contribution to dance. Her regret was that her mother who had given her all the opportunities to excel was by then no more. She missed her mother’s presence at the ceremony and the emotional upheaval she experienced engulfed her once more when she received the Sangeet Natak Academy Award a few years later

No story would be complete without a word from Shovana’s husband. I skyped Ambassador Traxl in Vienna and asked him how he fell in love with Shovana. He laughed and told me:
“Initially I was intrigued by Shovana’s rare talent for dancing, combined with the career of a senior civil servant. What puzzled me even more was that she had a Masters in Physics which made her a unique combination of science, art and civil service. I got to know and admire her more and more, but one thing was clear: Shovana needed her environment in Delhi. If I uprooted her, I would be taking away what made her happy. So we decided to live as we have done. A strong relationship does not depend on physical proximity, it needs trust and understanding.”

Receiving the Padma Shri from President R Venkataraman in 1992
Receiving the Padma Shri from President R Venkataraman in 1992

IN 1992, Shovana was awarded the Padma Shri for her contribution to dance. Her regret was that her mother who had given her all the opportunities to excel was by then no more. She missed her mother’s presence at the ceremony and the emotional upheaval she experienced engulfed her once more when she received the Sangeet Natak Academy Award a few years later.

All through their courtship and married life and as long as they pursued individual careers, Shovana and Herbert lived on different continents. They bridged the gap by exchanging audio cassettes with each day’s highs and lows, long before Skype became a reality. A five-year posting which brought Herbert as Ambassador to India was a reward for having lived separately for years. Shovana gives full marks to her husband for what she calls his “ego-less frictionless self” without which her marriage and dancing career would have been on the rocks.

Shovana married Herbert Traxl in 1982
Shovana married Herbert Traxl in 1982

Their time together was not without lighter moments. On a visit to Mauritius, Herbert was met on the tarmac by an official from the Protocol Department of the Foreign Ministry. Shovana followed her European ambassador husband, clad in a sari. When the officer noticed Shovana tagging along, he asked her to go back and join others in the arrival hall. It was only then that the Austrian Ambassador informed him, “That’s my wife.” “Are you sure, Sir?” was the response!

AS Shovana puts it, to be married to a diplomat was like being married to a gypsy. Her husband had selected postings as near Delhi as possible, which gave the choice of Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mauritius, South Yemen, Djibouti (Iran) and Thailand, with accreditation to Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Two years after they were married, Shovana became pregnant, which presented a new dilemma—in the world of dance there is great insecurity and an absence to handle maternal responsibilities could have grounded her dancing career, making a comeback far from easy.

The proud mother: Shovana with son Ishan
The proud mother: Shovana with son Ishan

Shovana continued to dance till the end of the fifth month when the bulge began to show. Forebodings about abnormalities kept gnawing at her, but no gynaecologist would certify anything. When she was 34 years old, she gave birth to a boy, who grew up sharing nine months of the year with his mother and three months alternating between his Indian and Austrian grandmothers.

As the years passed, complex questions arose: Which language should the boy speak in? Where should he be brought up? Where should his schooling take place? The solution left the little boy in Vienna with a grandmother and two aunts and an Indian maid servant’s son, Chotu, 13 years older than him, as a playmate. What longing and yearning must have visited mother, father and child can only be imagined. I spoke to Ishan, now 28, with two Masters in Economics and Law under his belt. I asked him whether he felt the pangs of separation and whether he hated the pity that must come his way. His answer was measured, but cool: “By the age of 8, I understood very well why my parents stayed in different countries. Once I knew the reason, I accepted it and never felt sorry for myself. No one in Vienna ever pitied me; they were interested in how I was doing, nothing more.”

In the 1990s, what had sounded like a charmed life, suddenly changed. Shovana noticed that her face was getting very dark and had begun to peel, even bleed. The condition spread to the neck and despite undergoing every conceivable medical treatment, nothing worked. It just got worse. Around the same time, Shovana also suffered a hairline fracture, tedious for anyone but critical for a dancer. And then the final blow came in 2000, when she awoke with the loss of peripheral vision in both eyes, akin to wearing blinkers all the time. At a functional level, her condition forced a dependency on drivers. Far worse than that, Shovana was destined to hide behind layers of make-up to conceal the discolouration. Remarks about her heavily powdered face were hurtful and continue even today. Reba Som, a music academic and a friend of Shovana’s, told me:

“What Shovana has been through could have sent her into despair and depression. It could have ended her dancing career, to say the least. But the way she has faced up shows her detachment from her outward beauty while her attachment to dance continues. It is a blessing of sadhana. Whenever I think of Shovana, I think of her brilliant smile. It is not a façade behind which she hides. Behind that smile, there is enormous depth that enables her to talk easily about her situation with no rancour or self-pity. It is remarkable.”

The last five years of a 35-year-long career in the civil service gave Shovana the opportunity she needed before retirement—association with the organisation of the Commonwealth Games as Special Director General, directly involved with the delivery of the opening and closing ceremonies. Indeed, the life of this unusual woman can be summed up with a memorable quote:

“You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching,
Love like you’ll never be hurt,
Sing like there’s nobody listening,
And live like it’s heaven on earth.”
-William W. Purkey

 

Advertisements

Om Narain Vaid: Leaving the past to predict the future

Posted on

logo_172x100FIRST STIRRINGS:

WHEN it comes to unusual retired civil servants, Om Narain Vaid outdoes most. A topper of the 1968 batch of the IAS and with three years of service left (not to speak of countless post-retirement sinecures), he deliberately chose to leave the IAS in 2001 to become a professional astrologer!

One Sunday afternoon I was having lunch with a bunch of old friends when I mentioned that I was searching for stories on unusual civil service retirees. The name of Om Narain Vaid cropped up. My batchmate, BK Chaturvedi, former Cabinet Secretary, recounted thus:

Om Narain Vaid in his earlier avatar
Om Narain Vaid in his earlier avatar

“Om Narain owes something to me for getting into the IAS. One afternoon we met to say goodbye to a common friend, who was off to the US. I mentioned to Vaid that I had qualified for the IAS, upon which he pressed me for tips on preparation. I told him not to waste time mastering new subjects but to stick to mathematics and physics, subjects he was already proficient in. Sure enough, he qualified and broke all records and topped the IAS!”

I began looking for people who knew Vaid well. I discovered that Sushil Tripathi, one of Vaid’s batchmates, had remained in touch with him. One afternoon, as we enjoyed grilled fish and garlic toast in the sunny lounge at the India International Centre, Sushil filled me in with nuggets of information. He also admitted he had every reason to feel grateful to Vaid. In the IAS examination, Vaid’s marks were so unbelievably high that he left his nearest rival behind by 100 marks! And that rival was none else than Sushil Tripathi himself! Once Vaid left the service, Sushil inherited the first position in the batch, immediately heightening his chances of becoming the Cabinet Secretary! (It is another matter that Tripathi became Secretary, Petroleum, one of the most sensitive assignments at the Centre.)

Sushil gave me a few more insights. Vaid had humble beginnings. Having attended a government school in Haryana’s Bhiwani district, he completed his high school, college and university education in Lucknow, where his father had moved to take up a clerical job in a private company. Young Vaid bagged the gold medal for physics at the university.

Sushil described his friend thus: “Vaid gave his heart and soul to mastering the subject of astrology, which we both studied together. So profound was his knowledge and application, he qualified as a Jyotish Alankar (Graduate in Astrology), bagging another gold medal. Later, he also qualified as Jyotishacharya (Postgraduate in Vedic Astrology).”

I was impressed, but I needed more first-hand information to write a story. I also needed to be introduced to Vaid because that is the way the IAS functions. It was BK Chaturvedi’s wife Vibha, who helped me get in touch with Vaid since she too was another astrology student at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Delhi. I rang Vaid, expecting him to be warm and friendly Rather unexpectedly, he sounded somewhat brusque, but still asked me to come to his flat in South Extension the next evening.

After taking several wrong turns, I stood in front of an unpretentious looking beauty parlour, located at the far end of the market. I peered at the boards and numbers and finally spotted a staircase to the second floor. The nameplate of Vishnu Bhaskar hung outside the door and I recalled that Chaturvedi had mentioned that Vaid had changed his name. The doorbell was answered by a smiling woman who welcomed me inside.

Vaid (right) with Congress President Sonia Gandhi
Vaid (right) with Congress President Sonia Gandhi

The living room was frugal by all standards, certainly compared to those maintained by senior retired officers. It was almost austere and devoid of the usual bric-a-brac and souvenirs which stand displayed in illuminated showcases in plush drawing rooms. Vaid’s sitting-cum-dining room did not have a single embellishment—he himself sat on an office chair while his wife and I shared a couch. I introduced myself and told him the purpose of my visit while opening a notepad. I had allotted no more than two hours for the interview and it was already 6.30 pm.

Vaid showed absolutely no interest in me, my official or personal background, or even the purpose of my visit. He also did not carry the confident swagger that comes automatically to anyone who has exercised power and authority. His demeanour was neither cold nor warm, just indifferent. Without a word, he began rummaging in a small side-table and eventually pulled out a much-used notebook and showed me the jottings.

The notebook had notations in red ink, which to my untrained eye looked like a lot of symbols and words written in Devnagari script. Without so much as an explanation, Vaid closed his eyes and began to recite a bhajan, quite oblivious to my presence or the fact that I too had a blank notebook in front of me.

HIS round-faced wife, Bimla, bustled in and out, ever smiling. I asked her in sign language what was going on. She came and sat next to me, but signalled me to remain quiet. After what seemed like 15 minutes and sensing that I was getting restless, she patted my arm and gestured to me to be patient. But how patient could I be when I was unsure whether Vaid was even aware of my presence? It did not appear as though he had any intention of talking to me. After what seemed an age, Vaid opened his eyes; but only to start rummaging for another notebook. Without glancing at the jottings, he proceeded to sing yet another devotional piece. The wall clock showed that it was past 7.15 pm. My thoughts were on how I should inform my husband that I would be late. I fumbled through my purse, only to realise that I had left my cellphone in the car. Would this man ever speak to me, I wondered. Supposing he expected me to leave as soon as he finished singing?

As soon as Vaid finished the second bhajan, I lost no time and hurtled into my repertoire of questions. I gave him an account of all the people that I had already written about, hoping to convey that I was not interested in pursuing any form of religion, astrology or philosophy. I ventured to admit that my level of spiritual understanding was in its infancy. That is the first time that Vaid looked at me and said, in Hindi, “You have a very long way to go spiritually.”

I felt rebuked, but he smiled for the first time and asked me to accompany him to the dining table. There he became a different person, warm, friendly and hospitable. He piled my plate with several snacks and watched me intently, making sure that I finished everything. I asked him a few questions about his family and whether leaving the service created any misgivings in his mind; whether his wife minded. Also, whether his children stopped him at any point. Vaid has three daughters and a son.

As he put it, “They had unflinching faith in my decision to quit the IAS to study astrology in depth. There were many highs and lows in family life, but not at a single time did they criticise my decision—there is no other person in the country that has done what I have,” he said, referring to his decision to pursue astrology.

I wanted to know more about him, first as an officer. Ravinder Gupta, who was from the UP cadre, described him thus: “Vaid was a big favourite of the then Chief Minister of undivided Uttar Pradesh, Narain Dutt Tiwari. He was always known for his gargantuan memory. He was very fond of Vaid, who was then the Commissioner of Kumaon Division because he was meticulous about giving information and following things up. Tiwari valued these qualities greatly and was always upset when he found others pulling fast ones.”

Sometime later, Ravindra Gupta became Vaid’s boss in the Department of Electronics. He added: “Vaid was extremely hardworking and upright to a fault. Those are not the qualities that take you very far. Subordinates dislike a hard-working boss. Added to that, if he has high standards of integrity, it makes it difficult for others to stay afloat.”

WHEN Vaid had served for over three decades and still had some years to go, this physics gold medallist and IAS topper decided to call it quits. His severance from the service was on “a divine instruction” to enable him to undertake the kind of deep meditation that must precede the pursuit of higher astrology.

On instructions from his Guru, Vaid assumed the pen name, Vishnu Bhaskar. But, he did not confine himself only to practising astrology. He began guiding senior astrologers in their research projects. While publishing intricate papers in the Journal of Astrology, he also prepared prediction sheets to guide aspiring astrologers—not only on Vedic astrology, but also Prashna Shastra, Jaimini astrology, vaastu shastra, numerology, palmistry and tarot reading.

Over the years, he has been tutoring students from the US, Canada, Brazil and several European countries. He was specially invited to Japan and the US for astrological consultations and he began giving consultations on the Internet too. He established the International Institute of Vedic Astrology, considered to be a finishing school for astrologers to help them refine their predictive skills. Some say that although Vishnu Bhaskar is undoubtedly among the most learned and well-read astrologers in the country, he did not succeed in setting up a team for building an organisation which would sustain his work.

Be that as it may, there are others who feel that Vishnu Bhaskar has made some stunning predictions. Among them, BS Lamba, another IAS batchmate, tells a story of how he got swindled of a lot of money by trusting a foreign national. Overcome by the deception played on him, he asked for advice from Vishnu Bhaskar. The astrologer did not take much time to cast his horoscope and ask a few questions. Said Lamba: “He told me, I would get all my money back in January the next year. The prediction came absolutely true. Something that was fraught with never-ending legal obstacles, concluded exactly as Vishnu Bhaskar had predicted. Early in the year 2006, I got back all the money which I had lost.”

Vishnu Bhaskar presented me a large number of books when I left his house. It was apparent that he addressed all kinds of situations and predicaments—questions concerning war, accidents, court disputes, imprisonment and debt, apart from matters relating to relations with the boss, career progression and the sale and purchase of property. Most important of all, he covered relations with the spouse, siblings and children. His calculations considered adverse happenings, like infertility, disease and delayed marriage, divorce, adultery and marital discord—things which affect many families, who find solace as well as answers in astrology.

The story of Vishnu Bhaskar, alias Om Narain Vaid has left me with mixed feelings. Here is a man with a brilliant mind. Here is a person who has the ability to focus on almost any subject and pursue it relentlessly until he masters it. But, equally, here is a man who is much too straightforward to be able to walk the tightrope that runs through officialdom. Perhaps Vishnu Bhaskar realised this and decided to do what only he could do. As he told his peers: “Accurate prediction is a divine gift that requires calmness of mind, intuition and deep meditation to be applied to the mathematical and astrological analysis that is undertaken.”

Some colleagues have even expressed sympathy for Vaid’s predicament. As one of them put it, “It is precisely because of Vaid’s profound learning and the sheer depth of his analysis that the clarity of his predictions get clouded over.” At the end, one cannot help but ask, has this brilliant officer-astrologer become the victim of his own intensity?

Sunil Patnaik: IAS officer who became a monk!

Posted on Updated on

logo_172x100FIRST STIRRINGS:

I had heard of civil servants doing extraordinary things, but becoming a full-time servant of God was exceptional. This, then, is the story of an IAS officer who became a monk! He is today the vice-president of the Divine Life Society with its headquarters at the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh. I wondered how monk-hood could offer the same satisfaction as making and implementing policy at the national or State-level. How difficult was it to abandon the unquestioned authority he must have once enjoyed in exchange for continuous communication with God?

I had hazy recollections of a batchmate, Sunil Patnaik, when we were training at the National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie. He was a tall, mid-complexioned Oriya—a very quiet person and generally seen in the company of serious thinkers. Although he played billiards, he remained aloof from the rest of us talkative, talented and fun loving probationers. Several years later I learnt that Patnaik had become a monk, but I did not give it another thought. After all, I had never exchanged a single word with him. But now I needed to talk to him. Would he be lofty and monosyllabic? Would he be cool and standoffish?

Sunil Patnaik as an IAS officer (above) and as Swami Nirliptananda Saraswati
Sunil Patnaik as an IAS officer (above)
and as Swami Nirliptananda Saraswati

nitya2

Once I was able to track down Swamiji, I started by asking him (on email) about his family background and factors that influenced him to join the IAS; also the emotions and apprehensions he experienced when he decided to leave prematurely. After all, Sunil had a full 14 years of meaningful service still ahead of him when he took the plunge. What inspired him to join the Sivananda order of monks? What were the requirements for work and prayer expected of him? Did he miss human relationships, physical comforts and the normal aspiration for recognition? Did severance from a meaningful and promising career leave him with doubts? Did he feel up to facing celibacy forever?

Unlike all the people I have interviewed, Swamiji read each question and answered it exactly to the point. But the flip side was that he did not offer a single extra word from his side. I, therefore, had to ask a variety of persons to fill in the blanks.

Sunil Patnaik was the second son of a head clerk employed in the Zilla Parishad in Ganjam district of Odisha, who retired as the District Inspector of schools. Sunil’s mother was a housewife with little schooling, but, even so, whatever young Sunil learnt of religion during his childhood was from her. He had six brothers and three sisters, but he alone pursued the spiritual path and took renunciation from worldly life.

After completing a Master’s from Allahabad University, his older brother had suggested that he should try for the IAS–until then no member of the family had taken the competitive exam. Around the same time, a friend invited him to attend a satsang at a devotee’s house and presented him with two books on Swami Sivananda’s teachings. One of the books stirred something inside Sunil which compelled him to re-read it many times.

The IAS exam was over but the interview was around the corner. Despite his humble background, Sunil cleared the examination and was allotted to his home state, Odisha. But, even as he readied himself for training at the National Academy, the teachings of Sivananda would resonate in his ears.

While lectures on the Constitution, the economy and law went on, his thoughts would keep going back to the meaning of life. One weekend, when the entire Academy made a beeline to enjoy city life, Sunil persuaded two friends to join him to visit the Sivananda Ashram at Rishikesh. This visit was a defining moment for him; but it still took 22 more years for Sunil to join the Ashram as a permanent inmate.

Back home, the prospect of marriage was being constantly suggested to him. But the wall he built around himself was too strong for anyone to penetrate. Eventually, people just gave up. After the initial training period was over, an early posting as the Zonal Administrator for the Dandakaranya project gave him in insights into the trials of resettling tens of thousands of poor families uprooted from former East Pakistan. Later, as Collector of Bolangir district (now part of the KBK region of Odisha), Patnaik had to confront conditions of extreme scarcity which still beset the region. Four decades later, local people remember him because he would never use the dak bungalow beds or fuss over clean sheets and pillows. He would carry his own chatai, spread it on the floor, lay his own coverlet on top and just go to sleep.

Sunil’s mother was a housewife with little schooling, but, even so, whatever young Sunil learnt of religion during his childhood was from her

About his own career this is what he told me:

“I never had a strong attachment to the service or to any particular job. I wanted first a little free time to myself, and ultimately to overcome all the limitations of the self to which we are all subject. I wanted to find permanent peace, eternal happiness, and moksha through self-realisation, or God realisation. This was the fundamental teaching of Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj. I never discussed the idea of leaving the service with anyone and it was entirely my own decision.”

I wondered what was special about Swami Sivananda Maharaj and was surprised to find that he had practised medicine for 10 years in Malaysia. His inner voice kept reminding him: medicine provides healing at an external level; but what about the void that exists at a spiritual level? It was then that this practising doctor, who had studied medicine at Tanjore, returned to India and established the Sivananda Ashram on the bank of the Ganga, some three kilometres from Rishikesh. It became the headquarters of the Divine Life Society.

Continuing my interview with Sunil, now known as Swami Nirliptananda Saraswati, I asked him about the time he left the service

“I finally bid goodbye to government service and my colleagues after 23 years as an IAS officer—when I still had 14 years of service left. My decision was not a sudden awakening, or a call from God. I had been thinking of making the break for several years and as every day passed, the teachings of Swami Sivananda were making a deeper and deeper impression on my mind.

“I arrived at Rishikesh and stepped into the Ashram as an ordinary sadhak. I was initiated into sanyas in 1990 when my name was changed to Nirliptananda.”

WHAT Swami Nirliptananda did not tell me, however, was that he was tutored over the years under Swami Krishnadandji Saraswati, himself the author of more than 50 books and eight score religious treatises and a scholar of both Western philosophy as well as the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. About his early assignments, he told me:

“Within a few months of my joining, Swami Chidananda Maharaj, the President of the Ashram, sent me a telegram from South Africa, asking me to meet him at Bombay. When I met him, he directed me to go down south and take charge of a 30-bedded hospital in a village in Pattamadai village, in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. This was the birthplace of Swami Sivananda Maharaj. I was taken by surprise, but I left immediately. I ran the hospital for the next six years before returning to Rishikesh in 1996.”

Today, Swami Nirliptanandaji is gfiles inside the government the vice-president of the Divine Life Society. When he was younger, he served the Ashram by supervising the Ashram hospital, the dining hall, temples, goshalas and leprosy relief work, and imparting instruction on the scriptures. Today, he delivers discourses to hundreds of devotees, attends conferences and edits two monthly magazines. Selflessness and a sense of duty dominate his thoughts and speech.

“Human beings cannot exist in a vacuum and necessarily depend on each other. That is why it is so important to perform one’s duty. When people follow their own whims and fancies, the outcome is a clash of interest which leads to conflict. It is, therefore, important to realise the need to fulfil one’s duties as a father, mother, son, daughter, husband and wife, but also as a part of society. At all times there is a responsibility to God, the Creator. It is only when an individual ceases to be obsessed with rewards and contributes for the sake of duty that he becomes detached from the material world. The only way to find happiness is through detachment because attachment brings suffering-attachment is the root cause of suffering.”

I asked him about the relevance of the IAS in today’s times and this is what he had to say:

“The IAS plays a central role in governing the country and can do a lot for people’s welfare. Nothing prevents an officer from doing good work until he ruffles some vested interest.”

As the interview continued, I became uncomfortable about asking some personal questions. But I persisted nevertheless.

Today, he delivers discourses to hundreds of devotees, attends conferences and edits two monthly magazines. Selflessness and a sense of duty dominate his thoughts and speech
Today, he delivers discourses to hundreds of devotees, attends conferences and edits two monthly magazines. Selflessness and a sense of duty dominate his thoughts and speech

“Do you watch television or read books, other than spiritual teachings? Do you play any games, visit relatives and friends or play a musical instrument? What is the food like? What kind of clothes do you own and how often can you replace them?“ were some of my questions. This is what I learnt:

“My life in the Ashram is like this. I usually get up around 4 am. After a wash, I sit in prayer doing jap and meditation until 6 o’clock. Once I have bathed, I perform yogasanas and recite hymns. I have breakfast in my room at 8 o’clock, consisting of something light and tea. I go to the office until 11 am, meet visitors or undertake Ashram work. Lunch is between 11 and 12 noon and dinner at 8 pm. I eat both meals in my room and we get dal or sambar, a curry, chapati and buttermilk. Khichadi is served at night. In the evening I do some light exercise followed by prayer, jap and meditation. In the afternoons and after dinner I check emails and attend to correspondence. I read a spiritual book before going to bed at about 10 pm. Most of my free time goes in sadhna.”

And then he added, almost with child-like innocence:

“I already have two pairs of clothing and can have more if I need. I visit friends and family on special occasions. I generally do not watch television. On special occasions the devotees bring home-cooked paneer or halwa to the dining hall, which we all enjoy. We are allowed to keep small offerings and can use them for personal expenses. I travel to many countries as assigned because there are several Sivananda centres in the world.” I learnt purely by accident that Swamiji continues to be a pensioner under the All India Service Pension Rules. The sum is not insubstantial but true to character, it goes to the Ashram.

Swami Nirliptananda giving a discourse to devotees
Swami Nirliptananda giving a discourse to devotees

“What is your message for civil servants?” I asked. His response sounded harsh, but perhaps some of us need plain speaking.

‘God will punish civil servants who use their position for personal gain in violation of ethical norms. These people will have to reap the consequences of what they sow. It is not right to get attached to government position and privileges as attachment becomes the cause of sorrow. Like all things shortlived, these too are perishable. To find lasting peace and happiness one has to cultivate devotion to God and also work without expecting anything in return. Pride, lust, anger, greed, hatred and selfishness ruin life. Meditation quietens the mind and helps one to realise God. It is necessary, therefore, to always remember God which alone can bring lasting happiness.”

‘God will punish civil servants who use their position for personal gain in violation of ethical norms,’ says Swami Nirliptananda, when asked for his message to civil servants

SEVA Ram Sharma, a retired IAS batchmate who was instrumental in bringing me in contact with Swamiji, was the Home Secretary in the Delhi Government when he retired. For the last score of years he hosts Swamiji on his occasional visits to Delhi and prostrates before him like every other devotee. “Swami Nirliptananda is a true monk,” he says, his eyes shining with fidelity. Sharma’s wife, Sarita, herself an accomplished Hindi writer (she writes under the penname Saryu), added this:

“I am amazed at how devotees come with so many problems- nothing extraordinary but critical for the person seeking Swamiji’s advice. Whether it is about estrangement from children, relationship between husband and wife, or tussles in the office, Swamiji listens for as long as the devotee speaks and never interrupts. Only when the whole story is told, does he advise the disciple, speaking in a very personal, constructive and direct manner. What he says always has the desired effect. It is remarkable to watch this every time.”

Seva Ram told me that 45 years ago, when they were just probationers at the Academy, Sunil had taught him a shloka from the Bhagvad Gita which resonates in his ears even today:

“One who treats friends and
enemies equally, balanced in
honour and disgrace, heat and
cold, happiness and anguish, free
from attachment, unconcerned
about blame and praise,
controlled in speech, content,
without any fixed residence,
even-minded and engaged in
devotional service, such a person
is dear to Me.”

 

Rathikant Basu: Utterly unusual

Posted on Updated on

logo_172x100

FIRST STIRRINGS:

With the charming Bhaskar
Ghose as his Secretary and the royal KP Singh Deo as his Minister in Information and Broadcasting Ministry, it was a propitious start for Basu in Doordarshan

AMONG my list of unusual civil servants, I was particularly keen to do a story on Rathikant Basu. This man had left the IAS when he had several years to go; also at a time when this was not a popular thing to do. But his departure was doubly remarkable because he straightaway plunged into the cut-throat world of electronic media where even finding one’s feet can be precarious.

Even today, after 17 years, Basu’s name evokes two diametrically opposite responses: admiration and envy.

““Oh don’t you know how he dumped the government and joined Rupert Murdoch”” is invariably the first reaction.

“No, but he brought the difference between night and day to television”” is the other reaction.

basun

Since I too was witness to Doordarshan’s metamorphosis in the early 1990s, I knew he was worth writing about. Rathikant Basu spent much of his early career doing nothing very spectacular besides being Ahmedabad city’s highly visible Municipal Commissioner. As his colleague and Gujarat cadre-mate Dipanker Basu, also a fellow Stephanian, put it, “every officer in Gujarat was expected to deliver but Rathi just did it a whole
side better than anyone else.”

Basu’s posting as the Director-General of Doordarshan, coupled with the dual charge of Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in 1993, conferred on him enormous powers, rarely exercised even by secretaries or ministers. With the charming and winsome Bhaskar Ghose as his Secretary and the royal KP Singh Deo as his Minister in Information and Broadcasting Ministry, it was a propitious start for Basu. Of course, he had the unenviable task of clearing DD’s Aegean Stables even as Amita Malik’s acerbic columns gave weekly bulletins on DD’s never-ending fiascos. But in the civil service it is said that it is better to inherit rot because whatever one does thereafter glows by comparison. And so it was with Basu.

Those were unusual times. The satellite TV invasion had just begun. DD had been in limbo for several months without a DG; litigation abounded, mostly against the selection of sponsored programmes. A CBI inquiry was making its rounds. No new programmes were being aired and the repeats of aged programmes had become unwatchable. An illadvised attempt to use the (now infamous) first-come-first-serve for selecting new programmes was
stillborn, landing the organisation into further litigation. All this was compounded by unrelenting bad press. Revenue from sponsored programmes and advertising was plummeting. Altogether, it was a perfect case for dumping the leftovers into the cold storage.

Against this background, the turnaround of DD could have been put on the backburner with no negative consequences. But, Basu was made of sterner stuff. He started with a slew of new programmes like Shanti, Newstrack’s India’s first daily soap, which became an instant hit. The launching of DDs first international satellite channel (christened DD INDIA with the choicest programmes selected from the National Channel, enraptured the South Asian diaspora. Within the country, 18 regional language satellite channels, carrying the contributions of local terrestrial DD stations, became a delight to watch.

Basu also embraced the press, something civil servants are taught to abhor. “Just don’t talk to the press,” was the training given to all government employees in those days. But, Basu did just the contrary. He promptly gave entry to every reporter, howsoever small, and was readily accessible to anyone. DD’s image got a makeover in no time even as top newspapers and magazines began recounting DD’s success stories.

Given the times, perhaps one of Basu’s best achievement lay in persuading the finest journalists in Delhi—Madhu Trehan, Vir Sanghvi, Karan Thapar, Raghav Bahl and Dileep Padgaonkar—to anchor DD’s current affairs programmes. Objective news became the new mantra as the bold and the beautiful entered the homes of middle-class Indians, bringing in a level of urbanity and sophistication they had never seen. What a far cry from those monotonous newsreaders, the beauteous Salma Sultana pink rose and all!

One of Basu’s bravest steps was to sign up with CNN to broadcast a co-branded channel called DD-CNN! Of course, Minister Singh Deo was hauled over the coals in Parliament, but his response was accepted at face value when he quite simply spoke the truth: the DG had full powers to source programming and had exercised authority! As Bhasker Ghose puts it, “”Basu had great clarity of thinking. He was a real go-getter but had astuteness to consider the long-term implications of every move.””

But even as Basu’s contribution and DD’s make-over made first-rate copy, it came with a cost which has been the nemesis of many a live-wire civil servant. Jealousy was palpable. Snide comments followed him everywhere; as always, those hurt more, given all the hard work that he put in. Unknown to him, rumblings had already stated behind the scenes.

It was January 1996. Basu was engaged in opposing a devious move which would have deprived DD of its exclusive rights to broadcast the cricket world cup being played on South Asian turf. DD’s appeal came up before the division bench of the High Court and everything was going in DD’s favour. But a day before the final hearing, Basu got orders to join instantaneously as Secretary, Department of Electronics. That left the door open to wheedle a compromise, one in which DD surrendered its exclusive broadcast rights and substantial revenue to boot.

RELEGATED to the Department of Electronics in the dreary CGO complex, Basu missed Shastri Bhavan and Mandi House where he had been the monarch of all he surveyed. But, visitors from his former world kept dropping in and offers to join private TV channels and media houses multiplied. Initially he rejected these overtures out of hand. But in May 1996 a new visitor turned up—Gene Swinsted, Star TV’s Hong-Kong based country representative. He made an unexpected request. He wanted Basu to travel to New York or London or any place of his choosing for an interview with Rupert Murdoch, Chairman of News Corporation, the parent company of Star TV. Basu told him in no uncertain terms that he was Secretary to Government of India and reported to no one less than the PM. He simply could not go rushing off abroad, not even on a personal visit. If Murdoch wanted to meet him, he would have to come to Delhi.

A month later, Swinsted called early in the morning to say Murdoch had come to Delhi and could a meeting be arranged? When they met at the Presidential Suite of the Hyatt Regency, Murdoch stood long and tall above him and asked Basu, ““What is your vision for TV broadcasting in India?””

Basu launched forth into what had become his passion: the growth of satellite channels and the need for a Direct-To-Home distribution service, somehow bypassing hundreds of unorganised cable operators who were fighting turf wars amongst themselves and harassing consumers. Even as he was outlining his vision for a DTH network, Murdoch occasionally slipped into his bedroom to make calls. Three hours later, as Basu was still holding forth, Murdoch returned from yet another foray into the bedroom, clapped his hands like a child and announced: ““The $500 million you estimated as the project cost of bringing DTH has been organised. Panamsat has been booked, as suggested by you. Encryption technology and set-top boxes are ready for shipment. Twenty-five international channels have agreed to form part of the first bouquet of channels. You can find other partners in India.”And, almost like an order, he asked, “Will you join me?””

BASU was dumbfounded by the speed of Murdoch’s decisionmaking and the proposition. As he put it, “”I was really speechless. I mumbled something about needing time, and was immediately ashamed of myself for dithering.””

He told Murdoch that he would convey his decision in a week. During the next few days, he consulted his wife, who was willing to shore up any decision he took. He also combed through the IAS Service Rules and consulted a senior lawyer. The legal opinion was that the provision about obtaining the government’s permission for taking up employment after retirement was in the AIS Pension Rules and those rules applied only to pensioners. So, if an officer after retirement renounced his pension, he could not be termed a pensioner. In effect, the rules would not apply to Basu once he relinquished his pensionary benefits. This interpretation was later confirmed by senior lawyer Ram Jethmalani.

With general elections round the corner in 1998, Basu snapped up a proposal from Prannoy Roy to create the first Indian 24×7 news channel.

But, even so, one of the first lessons of bureaucracy is to watch your back and buy insurance whenever you can. Precisely for that reason, Basu met I K Gujral, who was then the Minister for External Affairs and whom he knew socially. From behind an imposing desk in the wood panelled interiors of the Foreign Minister’s office, Gujral told Basu to accept the offer without a second thought. But Basu was still worried. “How do you think the government will react?” he asked. The reply was typical of the old man. “The government should only be proud. One of its officers is being picked up for an extremely prestigious job, instead of an outsider.” The next morning, Basu sent his acceptance and within no time the contract arrived. On June 30, 1996, Basu filed his application seeking premature retirement and waited in trepidation during the three-month notice period. On the afternoon of September 30, he walked out to join Star India as its first CEO. As Bhasker Ghose recounts, “Yes, at an unbelievable salary of half a million dollars a year!” But, Basu still harboured a few middle-class aspirations. He wanted the ultimate insignia to herald his arrival into Bombay. His Mercedes Benz arrived and performed that duty royally.

The initial change from the cosy security of a government job left Basu feeling lonesome and exposed. He carried with him four female officers from DD, but for all their elegance and charm they could not replace the comfort of running to a Bhaskar Ghose or securing the last word on the subject from his minister! Nonetheless, as CEO he had complete hire and fire authority and full financial powers; reporting only to Murdoch, who travelled between homes and offices all over the world. He virtually became a one-man show and, within a couple of weeks, the Star Plus team was well in place. He looked to NDTV for news and the Prime Channel and UTV, among others, for entertainment. The first half-hour band of Hindi programming commenced almost immediately after the English programmes. Meanwhile, from its very first week, NDTV’s daily English news programme became a runway hit. While Star Plus was thus gathering momentum, Basu began chasing the launch of ISkyB, the first DTH service to India. But unknown to him, storm clouds were gathering in Delhi. The then Cabinet Secretary fired the first missile for accepting employment without permission. Close on its heels came another peremptory shot, directing him to resign forthwith. Then another, demanding that Murdoch remove Basu forthwith from his employment! Selected newspapers got the front page headlines on a platter.

Fortunately, the private sector has its own conventions and style. Basu’s legal advisers told him to take no notice. The orders lacked the force of law, and that’s all that mattered. But the negative press coverage appearing day after day began to get insufferable.Basu revisited his mentor IK Gujral, by then the Prime Minister of India. All it took to halt the vituperative crusade was one phone call from the PM’s Principal Secretary. Meanwhile, the Hindi content on Star Plus was reaping unanticipated bonanza for Star group. Simultaneously, the ISkyB DTH project also began gaining momentum and was all set to make its debut. The press conference to announce the launch was scheduled for March 26, 1997. The international press had been invited. But, mysteriously, on the evening before the event, the government announced that broadcast in the Ku Band frequencies was prohibited. This, Basu believes, was instigated by Star’s competitors, aided and abetted by his band of detractors in the government. The ban came despite the absence of an enabling law—since the uplink was from Hong Kong and the satellite was American, it was nothing short of high-handedness. But nonetheless the launch had to be abandoned. As a face saver, the press was shown a demonstration of DTH using a C-band dish. Poor show, but all was not lost.

WITH general elections round the corner in 1998, Basu snapped up a proposal from Prannoy Roy to create the first Indian 24X7 news channel. It was a big gamble. The estimated cost was US$50 million over five years! But, undoubtedly, it would give Star all the eyeballs it could possibly crave for. Basu called Murdoch. The tycoon sounded thrilled but also apprehensive about the cost. Basu repeated it slowly and clearly, “It will cost $50 million over five years, or $10 million a year.” Murdoch could not believe his ears and retorted, “Less than a million a month for a 24X7 channel does not even merit a discussion. Just do it man,” he thundered, additionally offering support from Sky News, UK.

Rathikant Basu greeting the guests at the launch of Tara Bangla in 2000
Rathikant Basu greeting the guests at the launch of Tara Bangla in 2000

In a matter of weeks, Star News channel was ready to roll. Basu then used his ace of trumps! He invited Prime Minister Gujral to launch the channel! And Gujral agreed. Star News became the first and only private channel to be launched from 7, Race Course Road. While endless imitations came and went, Star News remained the benchmark for many years to come. Meanwhile, the fight for DTH continued in the courts with the government claiming that it was planning a comprehensive broadcast law, even producing a hastily put-together draft to stall things. But, as it happens, the government changed and a new minister for I &B took over. He too pushed for a law until Pramod Mahajan replaced him as the minister. Basu’s meeting with the flamboyant and media-savvy Mahajan left no doubt that the minister favoured DTH. But even so, a Group of Ministers was appointed to go into its ramifications. The broadcast law has not been heard of since.

Basu could not help recalling that for all his success, he had joined Murdoch to fan out DTH. But his lone battle against the system began telling even on his booming enthusiasm. He sounded Murdoch out, telling him that DTH’s clearance was getting increasingly difficult. Murdoch’s response was typical of the man.

“If it is not difficult for you and me, it is not worth doing. There are plenty of others to do the easy things!””

Basu then changed track. Star TV’s partner Zee TV had been Star’s main competitor. Armed with a win-win offer, he proposed that Star and Zee channels merge into a single company, dividing the equity 50:50 between the two holding companies. Basu met Subhash Chandra in Hong Kong and Murdoch in London. Fortunately, both thought it was an excellent plan.

A joint meeting in London ended in a businessman’s handshake. But at Subhash’s insistence, it was decided to conduct a valuation of their assets through an international consultant. Unexpectedly, the valuations turned out to be adverse for Zee. Although Murdoch was willing to go back to Basu’s original proposal of 50:50, Subhash was not agreeable. The merger plan was aborted and ended in Zee buying out Murdoch’s stake in the company.

It was a blessing in disguise. With the end of restriction on Hindi content, Zee TV could now be easily overtaken by Star. While the old rivalry over DTH continued, the illfated merger plan yielded a valuation report that might not have come into sight otherwise. The Star News channel had been valued at $300 million. Murdoch had spent just about $20milllion until then. He had been compensated fully, simply by Basu riding the horse of pure entrepreneurship.

HAVING failed to realise his DTH dream, Basu began to tire of the continued struggle against the establishment at Delhi. He approached Murdoch and requested to be relieved. Murdoch asked him what he proposed to do next. “I want to start a clutch of regional language TV channels on my own,” said Basu.

Murdoch agreed with three conditions: He would invest $1 million in Basu’s new company in exchange for a 5 per cent share in the equity; Basu would continue to be on the payroll of Star and draw his salary and perks until the end of his five-year contract; and, Basu would not start any Hindi or English channel for the next two years. On January 1, 2000, Basu set up the office of Broadcast Worldwide Private Limited at the World Trade Centre, Mumbai. He assigned the preparation of a business plan to Ashok Wadhwa’s Ambit Corporate Finance and started raising funds for the new venture.

The media explosion in India was just beginning. Raghav Behl’s muchhyped IPO for TV 18 had fired the imagination of sponsors on the look out for new investment options. As soon as it was known that Rathikant Basu was starting a TV network of his own, he was besieged with offers from potential investors. The initial requirement of Rs 18 crore was soon subscribed, and the date for launch of Tara Bangla was set for April 28, 2000. Basu roped in a friend from his DD days, iconic film star Amitabh Bachchan, to launch the channel in Kolkata. Along with Bengali film personality Aparna Sen, it could not have been a more stunning event. Precisely at 7 pm, Bachchan pushed the button and the first transmission of a private Bengali TV channel burst forth from a teleport in distant Thailand. Basu’s cup of joy was filled to the brim!

Basu won the 2008 Kolkata bid for the ICCR cafe. Naming it Café Thé, he now spends his afternoons checking the quality of tea and fine-tuning the recipes of the delicacies on offer.

By 2004, Basu replaced the original Tara Bangla with two new channels, the first 24X7 Bengali news channel Tara Newz to provide unbiased and immediate news, and the first 24X7 music channel Tara Muzik to promote and preserve Bengali culture. The latter became the most popular music channel among Bengalis worldwide, especially in neighbouring Bangladesh. In 2007, Basu created the first multinational TV platform in the world, TV South Asia, with participation from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh, all from the non-governmental sector. The project was presented at an UNESCO conference in Sao Paulo, at a session chaired by the UN Secretary-General, who personally acclaimed the initiative. By the time he sold off Broadcast Worldwide Limited in 2011, Basu had successfully created the largest private TV network in Bengal. If there is such a thing as media diplomacy, Basu had pulled it off.

Basu still remains active and engaged. Having developed a taste for high-end exotic teas, he secured the bid for the Tea Board’s Tea Centre in Mumbai, which he ran for six years in preparation for his ultimate retirement. But not before winning the 2008 Kolkata bid for the ICCR cafe. Naming it Café Thé, he now spends his afternoons checking the quality of tea and fine-tuning the recipes of the delicacies on offer.

Basu is fond of entertaining his friends, both at his cafe and at his home in Kolkata. He now plans to return to his adopted roots in Gujarat, to stay in a tiny house he had built in Gandhinagar—which he considers as his home—in the early nineties. He misses his wife, who succumbed to a botched-up surgery in 2006. He will continue to visit Kolkata to look after his café and hopes to start another in the Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar circuit. His ultimate dream is a European destination like Helsinki! Basu has not drawn any pension since his voluntary retirement, but lives comfortably. As he says, ““the good things in life are anyway free!”

When the saints go marching in

Posted on

logo_172x100INITIATIVE, all-india services (rajasthan) pensioners association
APRAIS is the perfect answer to the pensioner’s prayer. The association has been assisting AIS pensioners for the last 44 years!

FOR as long as I can recall, retired officers have settled down in smaller cities like Jaipur, Pune, Indore and Bhopal. Even after apartment living became an option, smaller cities continue to hold charm; the prospect of a laid-back lifestyle, a garden dotted with winter flowers, and the enjoyment of eating homegrown vegetables sounds like a recipe for contentment. But, unforeseen by some, the need for support systems surfaces as the years pass. This article describes the challenges that older pensioners face and the things the All India Services (AIS) (Rajasthan) Pensioners Association (let’s call them APRAIS for short) has done to surmount those struggles.

But, first, why should AIS retirees need special propping up? Surely everyone has to face the prospect of ageing? What is so different about these pensioners? The main difference is the transferable life that these officers lead, providing them little opportunity to bond with the community, or build durable relationships. Relocated from one district to another, constantly changing departments and offices and, later, alternating between the State capital and Delhi, each move means making a fresh start. No wonder, then, that a retired State Director of Horticulture, who has worked for three decades in the same department, often has more support systems than a retired Chief Secretary!

What do these AIS septuagenarians and octogenarians do once old age sets in? What happens when circulars emanate from New Delhi affecting their pensions and health entitlements? Every question invariably leads to an “it’s all on the website” response. But how does an 80-yearold open the website when he never learned to use a computer? Who will disentangle all the ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ and ‘althoughs’ that invariably bind bureaucratictext? Only someone conversant with the stuff can unravel those communications. Alas, at the age of 90, where does one find such a genie?

APRAIS is that genie, the perfect answer to the pensioner’s prayer. The remarkable part is that the association has provided this service not just for a year or two; it has been assisting AIS pensioners for the last 44 years! Striking is also the fact that the association is a coalition of three All-India Services (Administrative, Police and Forests), whose members shared little in common during their service When the saints go marching in years. Only retirement and pensionhood brought them together and keep them connected.

The association was the brainchild of Rajasthan Chief Secretary RD Mathur. When he retired in 1969, he had the astuteness to bring all the retirees from the three services together—with one aim—to apprise them (pun intentional) about changes in their pension and health entitlements. Mathur’s commitment kept the movement alive for the next 20 years until his failing health could no longer cope. It was then that he suggested that formal elections be held, which is how the first elected president, secretary and treasurer took office, along with one vice-president representing each service. Ever since, elections have been held every alternate year and today the association represents the shared interests of more than 600 members (stationed as far as the NCR and Chennai). The number includes 133 spouses of deceased officers (called ‘family pensioners’ in government parlance). The present executive committee will continue until 2014 with Rajendra Shekhar (Retd IPS, 1957) as its president and Prabhat Dayal (Retd IAS, 1982) as the secretary.

Pensioners and pay commissions

So what has APRAIS achieved? Several things, and all meaningful and necessary. When the Fifth and APRAIS is the perfect answer to the pensioner’s prayer. The association has been assisting AIS pensioners for the last 44 years! Sixth Central Pay Commissions were set up, the association highlighted a slew of pension anomalies before a committee headed by the Cabinet Secretary, until solutions were found. It also raised the subject of family pension and got it enhanced for those who have little voice (where and how would the widows have broached this subject?).

But even as numbers carry strength, not everything falls into place easily. That is exactly what the head of the forest service in Rajasthan found to his chagrin. Although the post of the Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) had been re-designated as the Principal CCF and he had been officially promoted to the higher post, when it came to his pension, it was pegged with the lower post. His representations to the State government went unheeded.

An identical case of an officer from Himachal Pradesh had been battled in the High Court and the pensioner had won. But even that order was not given effect to. Instead, the State as well as the Central governments went in appeal to the Supreme Court! Even more astonishing, after the apex court upheld the High Court’s decision, orders were not issued. The former head of the forest service in Rajasthan continued to draw a lower pension. It was only when justice simply could not be denied any longer that his pension was revised from 2011.

Retired bureaucrats: Vocation for welfare
Retired bureaucrats: Vocation for welfare

The very fact that arrears were paid from 1988 illustrates how long the process took. It is noteworthy that, throughout those hard times, APRAIS supported the beleaguered retired Principal Chief Conservator at every step!

But, sometimes, even when the Government orders are well-intended and explicit, the benefits fail to flow. Despite an enhancement in the pensions of those who attained the age of 80, 85, 90, 95 and 100 having been ordered, the banks continued to ignore the instructions. In May this year, APRAIS’ executive committee met the Chief Secretary, which led to automatic enhancement of the pension for every individual on the due date without insisting on personal presence. How many octogenarians and nonagenarians would have had the physical energy to have pursued this on their own?

Pensioners’ health

Sometimes, quite unwittingly, the use of technology throws up new challenges. Rajasthan prescribed bar-coded medical diaries for pensioners, which soon became a stone around the neck for some. Although well-intentioned, no one realised how cumbersome the bar-coding process could be. It required producing all original documents before the treasury officer, the ultimate mover and shaker for pension matters. For some obtuse reason, this worthy is located in the old city of Jaipur (akin to making a foray into Delhi’s Chandni Chowk).

Center
B Ram

B Ram (IAS, 1958), a one-time member of the Rajasthan Board of Revenue and now 80 years old, managed to submit his application, but still no diary arrived. In the case of his senior (in age), Mangal Behari (IAS, SCS, 1958), ironically a former Finance Secretary of Rajasthan, a volunteer collected the papers. But even so, Behari (by then 90 years old) could not locate his original pension payment order. This is akin to losing a passport but, miraculously, with the intercession of APRAIS, both the pensioners received their bar-coded diaries. And without having to make expeditions to the old city of Jaipur! In the case of Mangal Behari, the association actually persuaded the bank to loan its copy of the original pension payment order! That the bank obliged speaks volumes for the credibility that the association has built for itself!

Center
Mangal Behari

But more pitiable than these stories was the plight of AIS widows living in Pune and Kolkata. In their case, formalities would have ordinarily involved not just the State finance department but also the Accountants General in Rajasthan, Pune and Kolkata. The correspondence could easily have been prolonged for another lifetime. But, once again, APRAIS Retired bureaucrats: Vocation for welfare INITIATIVE all-india services (rajasthan) pensioners association played the fairy godmother and resurrected the cases just as they were doomed to dust.

On the general health coverage of AIS pensioners, APRAIS has managed to wheedle out a welcome decision. They are now permitted to avail of medical treatment, both under the Central health scheme as well as the State government’s facilities —provided the pensioners pay dual subscriptions. Why should this matter so much? Because, when an elderly person has been under the treatment of a particular government specialist for years, it is but natural to want to continue with the doctor and the treatment. If that means avoiding the CGHS’ rigmarole of referrals and reimbursements in the bargain, who can object?

Pensioners and State guesthouses

Fortunately, not all things in the lives of retirees revolve around their pensions and health. Travel within the State and to Delhi is a welcome diversion, but occasionally even these forays can pose a challenge. Where to stay and what to pay become big issues for those accustomed to staying at the State guesthouses throughout their long career span. Being treated like outsiders and paying accordingly can hurt one’s pride as well as one’s pocket. But APRAIS managed to convince the Government that retired AIS officers, who stay in State guesthouses, should be charged the same as serving officers on leave. This has given the pensioners some financial relief and certainly recognition for their past services!

Contributions

The Officers’ Training School has allotted office space and a telephone to the association. Every working day, five APRAIS members are available to respond to questions across the table or on telephone. Nine neighbourhood groups have also been formed, comprising 30-40 members. Smaller clusters respond to seemingly trivial, but critically important, tussles like the need for a driver, domestic help or simply watering the garden. Of course, such issues affect everyone, but older people living alone have no links to fall back on. It is here that the friendly neighbourhood groups suggest temporary solutions until regular arrangements fall into place.

FOR all its good work, the onetime membership fee of Rs 1,000 per member was proving to be inadequate to do anything meaningful, which went beyond the members’ own interests. But, fortunately, the pay commission arrears and enhanced pension helped create a corpus fund which has collected Rs 8 lakh from 160 members.

The association is now reaching out to the less fortunate among the State pensioners. In partnership with Sumedha, an NGO set up some 10 years ago by a former Chief Secretary, the effort is to support children whose families have an annual income less than Rs 1.5 lakh per year, provided the child has secured at least 70 per cent marks in the last public examination and is pursuing a professional course. While sharing the contribution of Rs 10,000 per child, APRAIS will confine its support to the children of retired State government employees only.

Pensioners’ school time

In the meantime, it is back to learning for some members. Starting September this year, the association has organised a one-month computer training programme for interested members, lasting two hours a day. Already 15 ‘trainees’ have enrolled, the oldest nearing the age of 80! The enthusiasm is palpable and the association has decided to increase the capacity if interest grows.

Pensioners’ fun time

Every January, the members meet for lunch at one of the Forest Department’s idyllic retreats. Felicitations are given to those who have crossed the 80th milestone. Thoughtfully, someone quietly digs into the past achievements of each elder and publishes them in Sampark, a newsletter which has been published annually for the last 17 years. This unpretentious little bulletin not only carries key information about pensioners’ benefits and entitlements, but also gives updated contact details of all retired officers and their widowed spouses. The first step towards re-connecting!

An association member, Inderjit Khanna, a former Chief Secretary, had this to say, “If only All-India Services pensioners in other cities understood the benefits of working together as a group! Protection and security are the best takeaways.”

The Older They Get, the Bolder They Get: 2

Posted on Updated on

logo_172x100

FIRST STIRRINGS:

‘Life is not a bed of roses, roses also have thorns’


jog

TWO months ago, when I set out to write about unusual retired civil servants, I hunted for suggestions. An IAS officer, generally known for his acerbic tongue and derisive comments, told me to write on SS Jog, a former Director-General of Police in Maharashtra. The suggestion itself was atypical; when I discovered that Jog had settled down in Amravati, I sensed an unusual story.

But, getting hold of Suryakant Jog was not easy. At 87, he does not use email and his hearing is also now impaired. So, I had to find some other way of getting an authentic story. Decorated with an array of medals, including three President’s police medals — for distinguished service, for gallantry and for meritorious service — and the Asiad Vashishta Sewa medal, Jog is off the radar of Google and Wikipedia. Anyone who has remained so modest must have some stuff, I thought.

Jog did his schooling in the local municipal school followed by college in Amravati. He only moved to Nagpur for post-graduation in chemistry and stood first in the university. But, his accomplishments as a sportsman sound even more impressive. To have represented Madhya Pradesh in the Ranji Trophy and the Governor’s XI is no mean feat. When the Commonwealth XI cricket team toured India and Pakistan in 1949-50, the team played 17 first-class matches. SS Jog was on the first and second Commonwealth XI teams as well as the India XI team. Simultaneously, he represented the state of MP in football too.

After he joined the IPS in 1953, securing the third rank, his early years were spent in Madhya Pradesh at a time when Maharashtra state was yet to be formed. After an initial posting as SP, Buldhana, he moved to Sambre, then in Karnataka, where he was drawn into the Goa liberation movement. He proudly recalls: “For services rendered before, during and after Operation Vijay, I was given the police medal in the 9th year of service — an exception.” Soon after, he was appointed Secretary to the Lieutenant Governor of Goa, where he had to also function as the Exposition commissioner for the relics of Saint Francis Xavier. The mortal remains of the saint, who died in 1552, are kept in a casket in the Basilica of the Bom Jesus church in Old Goa. Every ten years, they are brought out for closer public viewing. At that time, thousands of devotees from all over the world congregate to pay homage, a huge challenge for the little township of Panaji.

Jog’s first posting in Maharashtra was as the Superintendent of Police in Aurangabad, which was, in his view, an eye-opener. A district, which was recognised for communal harmony, saw an unexpected flare-up. Local politicians got him bundled out. Having attended his farewell party, he was half-way to Akola district to join his next posting even as his successor was about to reach Aurangabad. When he was midway, orders came, directing him to go back to Aurangabad. The Chief Minister had given in to a counter public demand not to transfer the SP.

Jog’s postings in the city of Bombay (then) were for him the best years of his career in many ways. He handled all key assignments any policeman looks forward to: as in-charge of pecial Branch, Crime and Traffic. The Bombay Police was kno n the world over for its efficiency and discipline. He attributes his own success to two factors: a great Chief Minister, Vasant Rao Naik, and loyal subordinates.

With a change of Chief Minister — after Yashwant Rao Chavan became the CM — Jog found himself moved from one unimportant assignment to another. A posting on central deputation brought nothing better until he was appointed Joint Secretary in charge of Police, in the Ministry of Home Affairs. He makes an interesting observation: “In the police, seniority and hierarchy overtake everything, whereas the Cabinet Secretary (an ICS officer) would ask my opinion directly when I was a mere Joint Secretary.”

After Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, Jog was appointed the Police Commissioner of Delhi. He was the first to argue that the job should go to a cadre officer, but was overruled. Unfortunately, the high-profile posting was not propitious for him as the ensuing years brought him neverending grief. Soon after taking over as Police Commissioner, his wife began to be treated for an illness that seemed to have no diagnosis. After six months he was posted back to Maharashtra as the State DGP. The first shock came a few months later when his 23-year old son, his youngest child, crashed while flying a MiG-21 at Tezpur. That was 1985. A year later, some say to that very day which was October 3, his wife succumbed to cancer.

The residential school started by SS Jog in Chikaldara sub-division
The residential school started by SS Jog in Chikaldara sub-division

ANAMI Roy was DGP in Maharashtra some 20 years later. He had this to say: “I worked as the AIG directly attached to Jog sahib. I was his staff officer. I was present when his wife died on exactly the date of his son’s first death anniversary. For some time the DG stayed at home, but returned on one condition which he put to me as his staff officer. If he passed any order which was harsh or uncharacteristic, I was to withhold the file and resubmit it as he did not want his decision-making to be clouded by his own mental agony.”

Roy adds, “Jog sahib was a methodical person. A bit scary, because he had a photographic memory and could recall facts, figures, faces and even numbers from 20 years before when he too worked as staff officer to the then DG. I have seen so many magnetic personalities in the police service. Some were born leaders, usually larger than life — they seemed to command things to happen without doing much personally. Jog sahib was different. Meetings lasted just a few minutes when his memory would swivel back to exactly the file, the precise noting, the exact year, when something relevant took place — whether it was a law and order matter or a police investigation. You had to be perfect with facts when you faced him. But every time I came out of his room, I came out wiser. Every minute with him was a learning experience.”

When Jog retired, he sought nothing from the government; nor did he look for benefactors in the private sector. Instead, after 38 years he returned to Amravati. “What is so great about going back to your hometown where you already own a house?” a Maharashtra colleague, with whom I discussed Jog’s story, asked me.

But a glance at Amravati (map on next page) shows just how far this district is from Mumbai. That it is among the 12 backward districts of Maharashtra and has been receiving funds from the central Backward Regions programme, is an indication that Amravati is no land of bounty. How many of us have retired to anywhere excepting the state capitals, I thought.

Jog too had initial doubts about Amravati; only circumstances willed otherwise. As he puts it: “I expected to find many friends but discovered they had all moved away. I wondered whether I had made the right decision in coming here. I spent my nights scribbling what I could do to make a difference, only to score it out the next morning. One day I decided to find a way to engage youngsters. I started organising youth camps in Semadoh village, which is located in the dense Melghat forest, by taking advantage of my police connections. My aims were three: Push them to become adventurous; implant a sense of discipline and instruct them about forests and wildlife. My greatest achievement was that I spurred them to do it. If they scaled 10 feet in a day, they yearned to reach 20. A 10-kilometre trek was never enough for them, they had to double the record that very day. The camps were a great success, but critics doubted what could be achieved in 15 days, the duration of each camp. I told them that every young man was selected after an interview and, at the end of the camp, each one got a sense of pride and discovered his potential. My financial burden was greatly reduced when the Central scheme for youth affairs began to extend support.”

“Around that time,” continued Jog, “the Chief Minister announced that Sainik schools would be set up in every district. I jumped at the opportunity, but all I could muster was Rs 11,000. I went about collecting every tiny contribution — nothing was too small for this cause. At last, I was able to get a residential school to start in the Chikaldara sub-division, some 100 km from Amravati. Thereafter, I persuaded every Chief Minister to make a donation and the school could expand and finally move up to the Class 12 stage. It has now completed 22 years, has nearly 300 boarders and has a 100 per cent success rate.”

This story becomes heartrending when one realises that Chikaldara falls in Melghat subdivision, which records one of the highest rates of malnutrition in the country. As recently as August 2013, the Times of India headlined more than 400 deaths in Melghat from malnutrition (confirmed by government statistics). string2
Jog had another passion, rainwater collection. A small investment on the hostel roof had performed miracles. He pursued the idea with the dream of resurrecting the orange orchards of Amravati that once stood second only to the famed oranges of Nagpur. He tells of how he looked for support from Oxfam, NABARD and the Aga Khan Foundation, but all his letters of entreaty met with failure. But when his mission seemed doomed to collapse, it was the Council for the Promotion ofApplied Rural Technology (CAPART) which proffered support. Soon the village wells and tanks began brimming with water. But his dream of reviving the orange country was not to be: the villagers decided to grow vegetables instead to rake in Rs 50,000 a year in preference to a five-year wait for the orange trees to fruit.

This policeman-turned-farmer friend was also a great advocate of the check-dam strategy. But not everything he touched became a success. Jog pursued the local MP and MLAs to contribute, but not a single legislator parted with even one rupee for a scheme which could have provided a perennial source of water to the villages. Although a government resolution was passed making it a model scheme, disappointingly, when the officers changed the scheme went into disuse. The story only reinforces what we see happening time and again.

FOR some more years Jog continued to find ways of fulfilling his passion for giving back something to his beloved Amravati. In the meantime, his second son had joined the Indian Police Service and was posted as the DCP (Crime) — one of the key assignments in the police setup in Mumbai. But, with not even a hint of what was to come, he suffered a severe cardiac arrest and died instantly. Living as he was in Amravati, Jog could only reach Mumbai in time for his son’s funeral. This was the third calamity that Jog had to contend with in less than 10 years.

When one talks to the man, there is no sign of bitterness or remorse. No complaints about God’s ways. And unlike so many who take sympathy and support for granted, even afterso many years he is grateful that the then Chief Secretary of Maharashtra spontaneously asked him to continue to live in his son’s official house for as long as he needed to. In less than two years Jog left the house, carrying with him the responsibility for his son’s widow and two fatherless grandchildren.

Very recently Jog was hospitalised in Amravati due to an illness. At 87, he is a shadow of his former self. But even so he has this to say: “Your life is not a bed of roses. The roses also have thorns. One’s life will always have ups and downs. One has to face them with courage; suffer the unfortunate tragedies of life with fortitude and carry on to the best of one’s ability.”

The Older They Get, the Bolder They Get

Posted on Updated on

logo_172x100Every month, a fresh bunch of civil servants retires.

With the security and comfort of a respectable house bought or built over the years, reasonable pension and fairly good health cover, the majority of us ( and I include myself ) pursue a life of semi-leisure, reading, occasional writing, some exercise. Travelling and of course re-living life through one’s grandchildren often go hand-in-hand while discovery travel is increasingly on the cards. Pleasurable as this leisurely lifestyle is, it is, quite simply, “typical”.

I have sometimes wondered what spurred some of us to pursue something unusual. And with such passion. I wanted to write about such retired civil servants imbued with the zeal to do something different and who then did it exceedingly well. Sometimes there may be no great achievement to show, but even the willingness to share one’s cloudy spells shows a degree of candour not normally seen in our clan.

Older they get

My template for inclusion in the repertoire was, first, the account had to be compelling. I needed to convince myself that, indeed, there was a story to tell. My second benchmark was to find people whose achievements were triggered by interesting factors or a turn of unforeseen events. I needed to focus on understanding the feelings and sensitivities of my subjects and, most important, to identify the triggers that drew them to a different kind of journey.

Every individual that I have selected to write about is interesting in his own way. But there the similarity ends. One of my subjects was a celebrated civil servant who started a world renowned NGO while still young, in service, and continues to manage it for nearly 40 years. What spurred him then and what spurs him even now? He will soon be 76.

Another person, after remaining a die-hard atheist, resolutely turned to the power of prayer but only after chilling circumstances opened his eyes to what he believes to be miracles.

A third story is about an officer who renounced many years of active service ahead of him to espouse the spiritual path, to join a religious order and become a monk. The story is a first-hand account as told to me directly. It has a message for all civil servants.

The fourth is about a man who took on the striking Bombay Municipal Corporation employees and their profligate benefactors, single-handedly and without despairing in the face of collective odds that the political system presents. At first he failed in his battle. One day he won.

The fifth subject is an IPS officer, now 77, who has been silently working for the tribals of Amravati since his retirement some 26 years ago. He is heroworshipped by police officers who worked under him even today.

The sixth story is about an association of All-India Services retirees who work for the legitimate interests of over 600 retired cadre-mates while quietly contributing personal resources to educate underprivileged children, on the side. Many individuals do good work but it is indeed a rarity to see a large group of retirees getting together and making a positive go of social service.

The seventh story describes an officer who overcame the early loss of his spouse, picked up the pieces and went on to achieve significant success as a prolific writer, artist and a singer too. I also have hopes of adding a person who took early retirement to become a full-time astrologer and another who broke the stranglehold of public sector-dominated TV to throw open the doors to private TV channels.

Here, friends, is my first story.

‘Share what you have, give what you can’

WHEN I decided to write about unusual pursuits of retired civil servants, three officers were insistent that I write on Mr DR Mehta (IAS, Rajasthan, 1961) He is known for two achievements:As the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank and Chairman of SEBI for six years until 2002, he is credited with introducing game-changing financial reforms. But much more than these achievements, Mehta remains the face of the world-famous Jaipur foot and his brainchild, the Bhagwan Mahavira Viklang Sahayata Society (BMVSS), in Jaipur. This organisation has fitted artificial limbs on tens of thousands of patients over the last 38 years.

Precisely because all this is well-documented and generally known, I was not very enthusiastic about writing Mehta’s story. After all, he had received the Padma Bhushan besides an array of international and national awards and huge media coverage. The BBC has filmed videos on his work and MIT, Stanford, CSIR and several IITs had been collaborating to improve the quality of the artificial limb. Forbes magazine has written a highly congratulatory article on Mehta’s project. Why then should I repeat what is so well-known?

Only for one reason: No one seems to have asked Mehta what triggered him to follow this unusual path with such steadfastness. What were the factors that motivated him? How has he sustained this passion? Face it, the entire venture has been growing from 1975 and Mehta himself is now 75 years old. What could I tell civil servants which Wikipedia, Google and so many citations could not?

I got hold of Mehta’s telephone number and gave him a call. I thought he would suggest a time some days later. Instead, there and then, he launched into a story which lasted two sessions of over 3 ½ hours, where he did all the talking.

Mehta accelerates his words like a mixer-blender at top speed; there is no punctuation leave alone consideration for the listener-writer unaccustomed to taking long-hand dictation over a cell phone. Three times I requested him to continue the session the next day. Six times he retorted, “Just another two minutes please, only two minutes,” and added yet another dimension to his story. But the simplicity of the man and his child-like excitement sounded refreshingly different.

Suffice it to say that the contribution of DR Mehta had nothing to do with either the invention or the expertise needed to fit the limb. The credit for developing a successful and user friendly artificial limb goes to three orthopaedic surgeons at the SMS Medical College Hospital, Jaipur, and a highly innovative craftsman. The story of how this four-man team observed, conceived, moulded and started fitting the Jaipur foot on legless patients as far back as 1968 makes compelling reading. But this story is not about them – it is about Mehta.

DR Mehta walks beside a child fitted with a Jaipur Foot, the most widely used prosthetic device in the world today
DR Mehta walks beside a child fitted with a Jaipur Foot, the most widely used prosthetic device in the world today

Mehta is a simple man who travels in a hatchback and, apparently, for all his connections, manages his venture parsimoniously. His message for civil servants is: “Understand that there is no greater happiness than giving to those in need.”

It was Mehta who brought to the table what perhaps only a civil servant could have – the brain, the conviction and managerial brilliance. It was Mehta who was ultimately responsible for converting an admirable but insignificant initiative into a world-famous model. In the first seven years, despite its extraordinary qualities, only 50 patients could be benefitted by the Jaipur foot. It was Mehta’s BMVSS which scaled it up to 10,000 limbs a year, a figure which has now doubled itself. The Jaipur foot is today the most widely used prosthetic device in the world.

I asked Mehta about the influences and events which made him pursue this venture which he steers even today as though there is no tomorrow. Mehta told his story thus:

My father died when I was five years old. My brother’s influence was enormous but we were both brought up by our uncle in a joint family. Not only did he educate us and fulfil the responsibility of marrying our sister, but in the process had to sell the ancestral property to clear the loans. Why did he help us? Because in a joint family you have to be concerned about every member of the family. The first value we learnt as children was that of sharing. My mother had hardly anything to give but even she would put by small offerings and ask me to carry a bundle to the nearby orphanage every day. We learnt to share because that’s what we saw.

I joined the IAS in 1961. In 1967 a famine of horrific proportions devastated parts of Bihar. The photograph of an old woman with sunken cheeks, looking more like a skeleton than a human being, appeared on the front page of the Statesman. So shocked was I by that picture that I sought an appointment with the Chief Secretary and volunteered to ihar. My proposal was refused for obvious reasons – no state accepts officers from another state as it is taken as a sign of incompetence of one’s own officers. But my offer was not forgotten.

When a terrible drought scorched Jaisalmer some years later, my offer was recalled. I was Collector of Sikar district adjacent to Jaipur when I got a call from the Chief Secretary. There were reports that the drought had resulted in the deaths of scores of children. Indira Gandhi was said to be extremely upset and was likely to visit the district. There was a fear that the Government would be sacked. As the new Collector I was tasked with organising the relief operations.

Acute scarcity of drinking water, near absence of medical care and unrelenting misery were evident everywhere. Most unbearable for me was the sight of people dying before my eyes and my being unable to help. One day, a little interlude brought some cheer. A social worker from nearby Pokhran, also in Jaisalmer, came and told me that
labourers in his village had decided to donate one rupee a day to build two rooms for a local school. He added that a blind man also wanted to contribute by offering stones which his daughter would deliver on their donkey’s back. I was struck by the sacrifice of these people who owned nothing and yet were prepared to share what they could. I decided to visit his village to see how I could help.

But it was an ill-fated trip. On the way, a truck hit my station wagon. It was a major accident. I suffered multiple fractures and, after an interminable wait for three hours when I writhed in agony, I was moved to a hospital in Jodhpur. My companions thought I would die. I lived, but only to confront the imminent possibility of having one leg amputated. It was God’s grace that that did not happen but I remained inert for more than five months. In my motionless state I read whatever I could lay my hands on. All the while I was tortured by the thought of what happens to those less fortunate than us.

Apart from the teachings of Bhagwan Mahavir and the example of my own mother, it was reading about the life of Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer that had a profound influence on me. As a young doctor, Schweitzer had sacrificed all by taking his wife and young son to the disease-infested Congo (now known as Gabon), to set up a hospital to treat hundreds of patients suffering from fatal tropical maladies. I felt I had to do something which would exemplify his words, “Let us join the fraternity of those who bear the mark of pain,” words which resonate in my ears even today. Another life-story which mpacted me deeply was that of Sir Douglas Bader, an RAF pilot who lost both his legs in an air crash. This legless pilot recovered as best possible, actually retook flight training and got reactivated as a pilot when the Second World War started.

The inspiration was aflame inside me but it needed an outlet. In 1975 an extraordinary opportunity arose which I used to advantage. As Secretary to the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, I was appointed the member-secretary of the committee in charge of the 2500th anniversary of Bhagwan Mahavir’s Nirvan celebrations. I suggested that we should set up a society to give free limbs to poor people. The CM agreed and contributed Rs 2 lakh but asked me to raise the remaining money from the public. With that the BMVSS was formed and I became its Founder and continue as its Chief Patron.

People are getting anxious about BMVSS’ future. For ensuring its sustainability, user charges and a business model have been suggested to me by many. But, as long as I live, the free model will stay. We continue to live on the interest from our corpus, on our donations and on growing goodwill. I ask them, has a single business model survived for 38 years in the rehabilitation sector?

Mehta is a simple man who travels in a hatchback and, apparently, for all his connections, manages his venture parsimoniously. His message for civil servants is: “Understand that there is no greater happiness than giving to those in need. But only true compassion and a respect for the dignity of the poor will work. Start as soon as you can by using your free time to advantage. No Government or boss can stop you if you decide to show sensitivity and compassion. And that is all you need. The rest will come the day you learn to care and to give.”

This article  by Shailaja Chandra is based on what Mr DR Mehta told her during an  an interview with the author.