When things come back to square one

When things come back to square one

Students of mathematics are taught what is known as a 'cyclical permutation'. It is a little like a dog chasing its own tail, in the sense that, the...

Students of mathematics are taught what is known as a "cyclical permutation". It is a little like a dog chasing its own tail, in the sense that, the after the end, it is the beginning again, and the process keeps repeating itself.

We had a Chief Secretary called N. Swamy (name changed for reasons of anonymity), who had this habit of going through all files cover to cover. He would explain to us that, if the file contained technical issues, it would already have been examined by the best experts in the field before coming to his table. Therefore, he would have little to contribute further to the matter.

If, on the other hand, the file dealt with a routine administrative matter, it would have been seen by the most experienced senior officials in the secretariat before it was submitted to him. So, once again, he could do little beyond agreeing with what had been said.

In both the cases, therefore, having studiously gone through every word on every page of the case, he could do little more than append his signature at the end of the 'note file'. Needless to say, one desisted from enquiring why, if what he had stated was really the case, he at all took the trouble of such close and intense scrutiny of the case!

My late brother, a chemical engineer, had gone to Canada in 1955 for a spell of training in paper manufacturing technology. Those were the days when letters were the accepted means of communication except in emergencies and he wrote regularly to all of us. And there would be mouthwatering descriptions of the dishes he savoured and the drinks he shared with his colleagues.

One, therefore, expected him to have returned with a completely changed attitude towards culinary preferences. And what did he ask my mother for first thing after arrival? "Taravani", of all things! Taravani, in case you haven't heard of it before, is a kind of rice gruel fermented overnight. It is, in fact, a little like toddy in taste and also has a soporific effect.

Mixed with gingelly oil and the classic south Indian "avakaya", it packs a wallop! So, after all the scotch whiskey, Canadian beer, hamburgers, hotdogs and what have you it was back to square one for brother! Not unlike Swamy!

At age 74 one has seen nearly everything that is worthwhile, in many places of the world and in extremely varying circumstances. From the streets of Asmara in Eritrea, London, and Brasilia to Vientiane, one's morning walks have covered them all. The British Museum, the Smithsonian Institute, the roof of the Empire State building or the snowcapped peak of Mount Fujiyama – one has been there, done it.

One has savoured 'sake' with geishas in Tokyo, drunk beer in the Members Bar at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and sat at the High Table in banquets at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Service, however, has not all been a bed of roses. One has conducted inquests and exhumed dead bodies, travelled in boats to assess damages in flood ravaged villages, faced missiles hurled at one (in the shape of soda bottles filled with gramophone needles) in students' agitation and spent nights without sleeping a wink during the conduct of elections.

One has also shared meals with the poorest of people squatting on the floor in thatched huts, and at the other end of the spectrum, dined in poshest restaurants in New York and Paris - where a meal costs almost as much as the monthly income of a middle-class Indian.

But today? All one yearns for is the newspaper at the breakfast table, the short nap after lunch, the game of billiards at the club in the evening (lockdown conditions permitting of course!), and the little drinkie, come evening! Once again, a bit like Swamy and my brother what?

What with having been "locked down", (or is it "locked up!"?), one is prone to indulging in a bit of a reverie now and then and undertaking journeys down memory lane. I recall how my senior colleague P.V. Rao (PV as he is fondly known to friends) was once engaged in a racy dialogue with Chief Minister Channa Reddy. Channa Reddy had just taken over as Chief Minister for the second time and was conducting a review with all the secretaries to the government.

When PV's turn came there was a bit of a lack of communication between him and the Chief Minister. Sensing a possible adverse turn of the situation I intervened and told the Chief Minister, "Sir, you are looking for an answer while PV is happy providing a reply!" Channa Reddy smiled and atmosphere lightened a little bit.

It was during the same meeting that the irrepressible B.P.R. Vithal told the gathering that he had lost many things after retirement, such as some physical fitness and a little bit of the mental alertness and also, importantly, some delusions!

I have mentioned elsewhere in the circumstances under which I returned to the state (from my stint as Secretary to Vice President Justice Hidayatullah), at the request of N.T. Ramarao.

Within a few days after my joining NTR's office the first ever 'Mahanadu' of the Telugu Desam Party took place. I accompanied NTR, on his request, to Vijayawada. Around 9 PM on the night before the event was to take place, he said "Mohan, do you think you can come and meet me at 4 AM tomorrow"? I naturally said yes (although the last I had been up at that hour was for Diwali years ago!).

I went back to the guest house, had a quick meal, and slept off. After rising early the next morning, I got ready and reached the hut (a rather classy affair got up especially for the occasion) where he was staying. We spent an hour discussing the contents of the speech he was to make that morning (after having made it clear, upon his query, that I had no compunctions about being a translator of his ideas into English, although I had no part in the politics contained in it)

I was just about to take his leave when his surprised me by saying "Mohan, join me for lunch"? Lunch? At 4:45 am!? But, then, I was a lowly civil servant and NTR was the Lord and Master of everything he surveyed! I humbly acquiesced. Imagine my shock when I found a long array of freshly prepared hot piping food with the fare ranging from Dal, Rasam and Sambar to an assortment of vegetables, and South Indian pickles, papads and most exotic sweet dishes! For the first time food gave me a kick and, upon return to the guest house, I remember having slept dreamlessly for six hours at a stretch!

One also recalls the conversation between K.M. Ahmed (a senior and highly respected service colleague), and then Governor of Andhra Pradesh Kumudben Joshi, somewhere in the early 1980s. Ms. Joshi was looking for a secretary and had thought of Ahmed. After hearing her out patiently, Ahmed replied, "Madam, I am now senior enough to be a Governor"!

Going further down the memory lane, to my days as an Assistant Collector under training, I remember M.T. Raju, then Chief Secretary, asking me, after a regional conference of Collectors in Vijayawada in 1969, what the cricket score was. And, for a cricket aficionado who was to go on to become the President of the Hyderabad Cricket Association in future years, yours faithfully drew a blank!

On a somewhat more solemn note, one recalls the historic meeting between Justice Hidayatullah and the prominent leaders of the opposition parties of that time (1982), when the question of Hidayatullah contesting for the ensuing presidential election was discussed. Many eminent persons as H.N. Bahuguna, L.K. Advani and Surjit were present. The Vice President gave them all a patient hearing and declined with politeness and grace saying in Urdu, "Zeb nahin deta".

(The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh)

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