Monday, 3 January 2022

Proving myself alive

If anyone were to ask me how I spent the last week of November '21, I would say that I was trying to prove that I am alive. The events that led up to this state of affairs are quite intriguing. I quit my job prematurely in July '21. As a Central Govt employee, I could've gone on for about a year and a half more. There were big changes coming in the workplace. I neither had enough time left to be part of the change nor the drive to drive the change. Since I had reached a somewhat senior position in the great Indian bureaucracy, accommodating me in the midst of changes would have been a tough call for employers and would be an unpleasant experience for me also. So here I am spending my days reading, dabbling a little bit in the stock market, playing the guitar (ever so rarely) and playing with our pet dog kuttan, who was rescued off the streets

      I get a pension from the Government at the end of the month. About a month and a half into retirement, I started getting my pension. I was told that it used to take three months in the cases of employees who take voluntary retirement. The new reforms of digital processing of Defence pensions through a portal called Sparsh (Touch in Hindi), it was processed super fast. With my frugal lifestyle, the pension is more than enough to sustain me. I have no debt and we own a mortgage-free apartment to live. The Missus is still employed. Although she regularly threatens to quit. Our son Vasudev (aka Chathu) has a job in an IT firm in Bangalore and he has been working from our home in Calcutta/Chennai for the last one year and more. He also regularly threatens to quit. 

    There is a system called Life Certificate in Government. This is a process by which the pensioner presents himself before a Bank and signs a certificate stating that he is alive and for the Banker to certify that he has indeed seen the pensioner alive . I was very happy to learn of the new reforms that involved digital process of generating Life certificate without elderly pensioners having to visit the Bank. This meant generation of Life certificate remotely by digital/ biometric means. The local Post Office/ Banks etc are partners in the process and if we place a request online, they will send a representative to visit your home with biometric readers. I studied the entire process and put in a request to the local Post Office to send the postman with the biometric reader. The postman arrived promptly and my Life certificate was generated. The next day, I received a message from SBI stating  “Dear Pensioner , your pension account registered with Jeevan Pramaan not found with SBI. Please resubmit with correct disbursing agency details”. I requested the postman to come once again. (A nice friendly guy called Rajkumar, who is ever so keen to oblige). I did this all over again but it I got the same message.

The next day I went to the SBI branch from where I draw my pension. I was told by them that in the new cases processed through Sparsh portal, the disbursing agency is not the Bank but the pension sanctioning authority itself. They said that the biometric validation failed because I had entered disbursing agency as SBI. They also said that the validation cannot be done manually for Sparsh cases and it has to be done by biometrics only. They went on to validate my biometric particulars with details entered as they suggested but they did not succeed despite several attempts. It appears that in Sparsh cases, they have no means of acknowledging life certificate manually but only by digital/biometric validation. They expressed their helplessness. I was advised to try video life certificate with SBI.

            Disheartened by the whole experience I went home and tried video Life certificate process by entering details in pension seva portal of SBI on the same day. An error message came stating that my account number is not eligible for Video Life certificate. Finally I discovered a provision to manually upload a Digital Life certificate. After several aborted attempts, I managed to do that, with a little help from colleagues in the Defence Accounts Department. 
I hope that now, finally, the Government is convinced that I am alive and kicking

Sunday, 29 August 2021


    I don't recollect where I saw Isher Judge Ahluwalia. Maybe in an airport or in some meeting. She carried herself with a lot of dignity.....White haired and tall. Although I knew of her work as an academic, her identity was that of an appendage..... She was the famous Montek Singh Ahluwalia's wife. And Montek was known as India's top policy maker during the UPA years and part of the team that reformed India's economy.

           Much later I started reading a series of articles penned by her on solid waste management in collaboration with Ayush Khare in the Indian Express. The subject was of deep interest to me and I found the observations therein quite interesting. One of those things that struck me was the recommendation to stop the use of compactors in our cities which reduce the volume of garbage but ends up mixing wet and dry waste. The authors emphasize the importance of waste segregation which requires deep involvement of local bodies and citizens. Although much of her work in the field of Economics was in other areas. But the past few years she was engrossed in studying the challenges of urbanisation and drawing up policy prescriptions.That's another story altogether

    She died recently after a long battle with brain cancer. The book 'Breaking through' is her memoir that she finished during the lockdown, ostensibly to enable her grandchildren understand her better. Many of my notions about this woman fell apart. I always thought of her as an 'entitled Lutyens resident'. Rubbing shoulders with the elite of Delhi society and leading a life of privilege. Apparently she came from a large, very middle class, Sikh family based in Calcutta. With sustained efforts, she did a Phd from the MIT and worked with great economists. In fact Montek's achievements pale before hers. And all this, during a time when women would not dare cross the seas for an education. She won scholarships and completed her education with very little financial support. Marriage to Montek happened and then life took twists and turns. Unusually enough, this accomplished couple decided to come back to India and raise their kids here 

    She chose to work in the field of economic policy while her husband worked in the government and achieved great heights. She always saw herself as a Hindi-medium person but believed that she had to work twice as hard to break that glass ceiling of patriarchy. She turned around ICRIER, a think tank, into a voice that the world listened to. In spite of her association with the famous Lutyens types, one could sense that she always had her feet on the ground.

   I think women ought to read this book. I suppose men too ought to......

Friday, 27 August 2021

Quiet departure

   It was a warm july day when I walked out of my workplace, putting an end to a rather  unspectacular career of 31 years.  On that big day, strangely enough, I felt nothing. I should have been overcome with emotions, felt nostalgic and ruminated about the early days at work. No, I felt nothing.  Thanks to Covid, there weren't long functions, farewell speeches etc. I still had 16 months time to go, of legitimate/left-over government  service. I didn't want to stay on. Big changes were happening at workplace and very soon I was going to be a company employee and not a civil servant. While I was ambivalent about the change in status, I neither had enough time to drive the organisational change nor be a part of the change. So the logical thing to do was to hang up one's boots and say goodbye. I was entering a period of uncertainty. 

      The days after college are normally a time of serendipity for youth of a certain vintage. A time to contemplate on the bleak, uncertain future and the scary prospect of perpetual unemployment. In our time (Oh! that term puts me squarely in the league of champion bores) the software industry wasn't offering any jobs. Most jobs in private sector for plain Arts/ science graduates were in the capacity of Pharma representatives. So the done thing was to roam around the countryside, play cards with friends under the banyan tree and generally shoot the breeze, all at parents' expense. I wan't lucky to experience that staid and peaceful bout of unemployment. I joined a public sector Bank (Indian Bank) as a Probationary Officer at the young age of 22, even before the results of the Post Graduate degree in Economics, that I was then pursuing, was declared. Most of my friends saw me as an achiever. I wasn't sure what I was getting into. I spent a long four and half years with the Bank, during which I tried to crack the civil services examinations. I spurned several other offers (including one from the RBI) I had grown to hate banking and was getting allergic to dealing with numbers all day long. A low rank in Civil Services Examination got me into the Indian Ordnance Factories Service and it was the best I could do. The Govt had imposed restrictions on number of attempts at the exams during those years. After much thought, I quit and joined the Indian Ordnance Factories as an Asst Works Manager.

    Civil servants normally do a foundation course where they meet and bond with Officers of other services. I did no such thing. I joined late and hence missed the privilege of spending time with colleagues of various services. I ended up as a technocrat in a production organisation than a bureaucrat in Govt. While working in Defence Ministry on deputation, I realised how distant the bureaucracy is from reality on the ground. As a result of this unlikely background, I had no pretensions of self-importance that civil servants normally have. Around 11 years back, something happened that led to re-consider my priorities in life. I shall not name the persona involved in this, but I felt that ultimately there is not much point in spending a lifetime focussed totally in one's career. Especially in a govt department where merit is often given the go-by.   I tried to focus on staying together with family. I learnt to play the classical guitar and am proud to have cleared the Trinity Grade 8 performance exam at the ripe old age of 56. I tried to green the environment around the work place. I took a lot of interest in the lives of sanitation workers who lead a miserable life. I think I did justice to my vocation too...I took a cool posting in Chennai because I didn't want to be in North India, separated from the Missus while she was posted down South. 

   Finally it was while I was at my most privileged and peaceful time in my life that I decided to throw away my job and retire early. It is one of those inexplicable decisions more based on instincts than on carefully thought out strategy. So here I am, with time on my hands and no place to go every day. Finally, I am enjoying that bout of unemployment that I missed when I completed college. It is a nice feeling. I intend to take a trip to my village and spend days in quiet solitude. I wanted to spend more time with Chathu, my son, but he has sort of outgrown me and is going through his existential and work crises. He has reached that stage where he feels stifled by  parents' protective and suffocating presence. The Missus is still working and she has onerous responsibilities as she grows in the hierarchy.

 I think I should be grateful for the life I had.... having met/worked with some wonderful people, lived in various parts of the country and travelled to several countries on work. I was privileged to be part of Indian delegations that visited France (several times) Korea and USA (yeah, I have been inside the Pentagon, but some friends don't believe me...).  I was also privileged to get a scholarship to pursue a one year course  at Australian National University in Canberra..... I have nothing to complain and I ought to be grateful for all that life has given me in abundance. 

       I have minor ailments. An often debilitating nuero system, diabetes and perennial back problems. I do not look forward to living with these for too long. Till then I need to see the sky every day, breathe in the early morning air,  stay calm in meditative silence, read books, play the guitar and be nice to others.... Death will come knocking one day. I shall not be found reluctant to answer that call.

Monday, 8 February 2021

Kurien: The Gladiator


    He worked as a despatch clerk in Bombay. He failed to get admission to regular colleges and hence had to pursue a graduate course studying part time. When he wrote and passed  the Civil services examination (meant to select the top bureaucrats in India) his Mom was ecstatic. Now she had visions of her son going around in a white Ambassodor car, lording over Pune where he was initially posted. When she landed in Pune in a cab (to spring a surprise on him), there he was on the road, his bike parked under a tree, commanding an army of  leaf rakers and rag pickers. That was life in Ordnance Factories where he was allotted his posting. He would regale us with this story frequently.

It was when I went to the Ammunition Factory in Pune in 1991 for training that I first met Kurien. Tall, well built with streaks of white hair, he looked older than the 30 odd years that he had walked the planet. What I remembered most about him was the fact that he insisted on speaking to me in Malayalam....Here I was, preening to be a cosmopolitan in a Central service, brought up in kerala, but wouldn’t speak vernacular in earshot of others.  And Kurien, on the other hand, was brought up in truly cosmopolitan Bombay with tenuous links to kerala. He was fluent in Marathi and Hindi and possessed a repertoire of slang and chaste abuses in several languages. He was an AWM, the lowest rung of the Officer hierarchy, as I was, but he was  a couple of years senior to me from the Civil services examination.

   He lived in a huge bungalow next to the GM’s bungalow, while other AWMs lived in cramped quarters elsewhere. I dare not ask him how....  But I asked someone else... Is it by misusing his powers as the Officer in charge of the estate ?  No, the story goes like this..... It so happened that the huge bungalow next to the GM was lying unoccupied for several months. Rumours were doing the rounds that the huge 6 bedroom bungalow, meant for senior officers was known for ghost sightings and other para-normal phenomena. As a result, the bungalow remained unoccupied. Kurien went up to the GM and volunteered to stay there. He firmly believed that either the ghost or he himself, would prevail.  That was an offer that the GM could not refuse and the bungalow was allotted to him. Kurien went on to live there for several years with his wife Susan until he was transferred out of Pune.I still recall watching Amadeus, the life of Mozart on the VCR in his home late at night and chatting about classical music. He was also an accomplished choir singer (one of the best, according to some)

            In a staid govt department like the one I work in, kurien comes as a whiff of fresh air. His style of oratory is unique. He would start expounding unrelated things, slowly building up the momentum, linking concurrent issues  and he would keep his audience enthralled. I haven’t seen him reading much. But he was an original thinker. He would always see the unseen. ....the detail that would escape normal humans. He could always conjure up a background to see present issues in a different perspective. I didn’t like the idea of bonding with a Mallu since I believed that once we are in Central service we need to cast away our tribal affinities and try to cultivate a pan-indian identity. (I no more hold such silly beliefs. I see that with each passing generation, regional/ caste affinities play a big role in professional careers in every Indian civil service). But Kurien couldn’t care less. It was more than affinities. For him it was us vs them. Us, being people like us, who think professionally, act decisively and get things moving. Not Mallus or UPites or Maharashtrians. And them, the careerists who party their way to the top. Later on, when he became the face of Marketing in OFB, everyone got a taste of his style. He could be sarcastic/humourous, innovative and effective at the same time. He couldn’t stand ceremony associated with hierarchy. For starters , he broke down the walls which separated cubicles of the Officers and merged  them into a single unit with a glass partition. Everyone could see what goes on behind the partition.  The Director, Jt Director, typist and even the peon would be sitting together. He placed some nice paintings and gave the place a corporate look.  Since marketing follows international timings, it was in late evening that his office would acquire vibrancy and life. He never drove so I would give him a lift to Cossipore where he lived.

       There are many “kurienisms”, that I can recall. Long ago, our organisation had paid for some land close to the Mental Hospital in Calcutta to start a guest house. While the move came in for a lot of criticism, Kurien staunchly defended it. Firstly, he said the dividing line between prospective residents in our guest houses (ie senior officers in the service) and the inhabitants of the mental hospital was very thin. It was a good idea to keep them in close proximity....Secondly he relished the idea of getting into a cab in the airport and telling the driver to drop him at the Pagal khana (mad house). Once he fixed an appointment for me  with a dentist who was located very close to Sonagachi, the famous red light district of Calcutta. He cheerfully advised me to get into a cab and tell the driver to take you to Sona Gachi and assured me that the driver would be pleased to do so.

       A Kerala restaurant had opened in Calcutta and we were tempted to sample the food. So one evening we landed there in the middle of much activity. They were shooting an ad film for the restaurant with pretty girls and guys. The hero, wearing dhoti and sporting long hair, was doing a cliched generic imitation of South Indians speaking English. Somehow this representation of a Malayali (which was so off the mark) offended the aesthetic senses of kurien. He started castigating the hero (calling him a hermaphrodite, a rather uncharitable reference to his long hair) and also the lack of good sense or even good humour in representing Keralites. The restaurant management was forced to stop the shooting. I have also heard tales of how he started chanting the Islamic Prayer loudly  in an international flight during takeoff, when he sensed his co-passengers were spouting a lot of Jai sriram stuff in loud conversation. He put them to substantial discomfort.. Once I’ve even heard that he beat up a Police Officer who had the cheek to beat his office driver. The poor office car driver was driving a bit slowly without giving way and  the police officer was in a hurry to get somewhere. Anyway retaliation was instant from Kurien which ended in a huge embarrassment to the police officer. 

    The greatest quality in him was something unique. It was the biggest Kurienism of all. Anyone who went to him with a problem would know this. From that moment on, it becomes his problem. I still remember how he got admission to my son in a top school in Calcutta. He was connected to the Principal through a piano player in a five star hotel. We landed there one evening and listened to a recital of Chopin and he explained my problem. We came back disappointed on being told that he wouldn’t use his personal friendships for such things. A few days later I was informed by Kurien that it is done. He was not someone who took no for an answer. While I had given up on it, he was still pursuing it until he found success.

    He would often call me for help; never for himself; always for others That was kurien. Often I’d receive a call from him seeking help from the Foreign Ministry (where he believes I had some clout, but frankly I didn’t have much). If it was a crisis, like a death or a funeral, then he would speak to everyone who can be of any assistance. He was a devout Christian who could quote chapter and verse of the Bible. I have not seen him frequenting the church. He would do anything to win something for his organisation. He would often tread the path between righteousness and sin for his Organisation, but never for his personal gain. I could see him chatting up arms dealers and regaling them with stories. All for the sake of his department. But did the department treat him well? Often he was at the receiving end of slander from the high and mighty. I have often seen him going through mood swings and minor bouts of depression. His wife truly stood behind him like a rock although he was posted away from Pune for a large part of his professional life. She had the task of raising their only son, Mark.

   In government service where age and date of birth mattered more than merit, he had to bear huge responsibilities but got very little credit. And when he became the top honcho of a factory, he rather nonchalantly shrugged it off for a purely professional reason that he wasn’t contributing enough. He was worried of Mark, his son who wasn’t doing too well at school. I’d tell him that he would blossom one day just like his father. Much later, he told me that it was his PA (Personal Assistant), who one day suggested that Mark could try his hand at Architecture. The PA downloaded the forms filled them up and got Mark to sign them. Mark went on to complete the course and found his career thereafter. So Kurien’s  belief in God wasn’t misplaced. Hidden hands were at work to see his son through life. My son remembers Kurien telling him the story of Gladiator. It was Kurien’s favourite movie. To me, Kurien was the Gladiator.....He looked the part. The Roman General  who fought the forces of deceit, treachery and cunning for the sake of the honour of his country. I could see him doing deep research into weapons and ammunition for presenting before the customers. He was a graduate in English literature with no formal college training. He could outsmart experts in their technical subjects.

    He died two days back. He passed leaving behind his wife and son. Every once in a while I used to call him. I called him in the first week of Dec of 2020.. He didn’t reply. I called again on Christmas. No reply. I didn’t know he was ailing again. I can’t believe that I didn’t persist. Kurien would have persisted if he was in my place. If I was not well and I didn’t answer his calls, he would have found some way to get to me.  I watched his son speak of his late father at the funeral church service in YouTube with moist eyes. Somehow I felt I let him down. 

 I’m often reminded of another ancient story.... that of Karna in Mahabharat. Born as the son of the Sun God, raised as a charioteer’s son. He never got what he deserved. But Karna’s story is the story of each one of us who thinks we didn’t get what we deserved. Kurien’s story was pretty much that of  Karna, who was born of the sun and never found his place in the sun. He never got what he deserved in professional life. But he always had a place in the hearts of people whose lives he touched. 

Thursday, 15 October 2020

The Classical Guitar

        I often ask myself.... why did I take up a hobby that demands several hours of practice, cost me pots of hard earned money and very little hope of success? The classical guitar has been my constant companion for the last ten years. An affliction, more than a hobby. I have gone through many ups and downs with this beautiful instrument. Where did it all begin?

 The story goes like this. My son Chathu (aka Vasudev Nayar) got this guitar bug when he was in school. The sight of long-haired rock singers jumping with sleek guitars, setting the stage ablaze must have sparked interest in him to learn the instrument. We bought him an acoustic guitar for his birthday. We dropped in at a Music Institute  near our home. We met Peter, our first instructor. We discussed a little bit about guitars and I told him about how I played in a small town rock band ages ago and also that I could passably play some chords. I also told him that my dream was to play fingerstyle and tried learning it from Youtube but got nowhere with it.

         After the second or third session, he saw me waiting in my car to pick up my son. He asked why don't you join the class? Classical guitar is what I teach, which is much advanced, he said and also that fingerstyle is just something which comes naturally if you play classical guitar. I was very apprehensive about the idea. A 48 year old man learning an instrument with his 15 year old son sounded downright hilarious. 

   Anyway I threw my hat in the ring. Peter taught me to read music well. Something which I attempted on my own several times in the past and failed. I took the Trinity Theory exams first. Chathu  and I progressed up to Grade 5 exam of Trinity College of London. Chathu lost interest and he dropped out in the midst of challenges of getting into some professional college.

   I plodded on. The thing with me is, I practice a lot, but when I am asked to perform before the examiner, I get the heejeebeejees. And the Trinity examiner is often an elderly Caucasian male or female who don't take very kindly to old upstarts like me. In my workplace I often have to give speeches from among any three languages that I am fluent in. I can do that with a straight face without batting an eyelid. But when it comes to performing with the classical guitar before the Trinity examiner, it is another story altogether.

   Now about the classical guitar, it looks and feels like any ordinary steel-stringed acoustic guitar. The difference lies in the strings, construction and style of playing. Nylon strings are used instead of steel strings. The material is similar but it is constructed differently. The fretboard in wider. The guitar itself is held at an angle of 45 degrees close to the chest of the player. Not a very stylish thing to do and could dash the hopes of those who try to play like Van Helen. This posture is often achieved by using a footstool to raise the left leg and placing the guitar on the left thigh. (I use a whole lot of contraptions to avoid using the footstool since it gives me back pain)The four fingers of the left hand are used to press the notes on various frets. The trick lies in the nails in  right hand. The thumb and three other fingers (except the pinky ), or rather the nails of these fingers, are used to play the strings. While in the steel stringed acoustic guitar, often a plectrum is used or a fingerstyle guitarist may use the flesh on the fingers of right hand to hit the strings, in Classical guitar, nails are used to play the strings. Often I wonder whether it was intended to be a woman's hobby. So nail management is the key. An elderly male who regularly files and polishes his nails can be a sight that evokes much curiosity. And in my professional life I have to shake hands a lot. (the pandemic has saved me that trouble) I would often worry about my nails scratching the other persons hands. I also refuse to do the dishes to help the Missus at home since it might get my nails dirty

       If a nail breaks, it would mean that your practice is interrupted for the next fifteen days. So it has been a tough journey. I also have to put up with friends who ask me to play Hindi songs on the classical guitar spite of the fact that my guitar journey is a closely held secret in my professional circles. But three years back, I got myself a silent classical guitar. It has only a frame and no wooden box. You have to plug in a headphone, switch on the electricals and practice. I started keeping the silent guitar in office and practice for about 20 minutes after lunch. Helps me de-stress and forget about all the pettiness at the workplace. I often get curious looks from visitors to my office as to what is this strange object and sheet music stand  doing in my office 

       Last year I passed the Trinity Grade 8 performance exam. My job in Calcutta gave me long weekends, although not much privacy in office to practice at lunchtime. My instructor (Biplab Singh Rajput) in Calcutta was a sincere sort. He provoked me into investing a lot more time into practice and eventually perfecting the pieces. Although I don't think I can play all that well, I have a certificate to show that I have the highest grade certification in Classical guitar from the reputed Trinity college of London. Now I practice only to be worthy of that certificate.  And that certificate is worth more than any academic certificate I have.....