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.....

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

One card

    Talking of Government policies in these fractured times can invite trouble in Babudom. In the last few years things have changed…. For better in some respects; for worse in some other. For one, individuals have been weaponised with broadcast/publishing powers with the spread of camera phones and internet. It takes just a millisecond to view natural disasters, fires, tragedies, movie stars in airports etc in the public domain.
    The Home Minister has floated the idea of a single multi-purpose card for all Indians. All identity documents rolled into one; Aadhaar, driving licence, PAN, voter ID, ration card etc. The 2021 census is expected to be conducted paperless. Let us examine the proposal, shorn of its’ political overtones.
   The Govt is already pushing a scheme for a ration card which can be used to draw rations from anywhere in the country. Many State Govts are already on board in this exercise while some states have not joined the scheme. This is certainly a laudable initiative since truly deserving migrant labour in various states will be able to draw rations in their place of work, without changing their domicile status.
   Do we need a single card? Will it serve any purpose? Will it make life easier for individuals to go about their daily lives? Well, it depends on how it is conceived and handled. The Aadhaar was conceived as a welfare initiative, to ensure that identibeneficiaries are de-duplicated and to prevent pilferage of govt resources to ghost beneficiaries. A process which has resulted in lining the pockets of bureaucrats and middlemen all these years. The govt has discovered many more uses for Aadhaar by linking it to PAN no:s, for allotment of LPG fuel and in some states for issue of rations. The one measure which has been lacking in the rollout of Aadhaar was the absence of standalone machines in public offices which would enable identification of individuals
   Now let us come to the core  issue. Would you like to carry one card in your wallet which would not only identify you but also give the entire gamut of services needed for various things like travel, ration etc ?  Might sound like a good idea but then in these times of data privacy issues and identity thefts, it could pose several other problems. India doesn’t have a data privacy law. It is still a work in progress. The single card, while making things easier for the ordinary citizen, could also raise concerns regarding futuristic threats which are still in the realm of the unknown.
   But let us not dismiss the idea straightaway. This blogger believes that there is some merit in seamless integration of data contained in various documents. While keeping the documents per se separate, it is yet a great idea to link all the documents to Aadhaar number and enable citizens to change their address on a single window system which would then automatically update the information in the backend database of all other documents like driving licence, PAN, ration card, passport etc. This would automatically obviate the need to carry out address change for migrant labour (Central Govt employees like me are also no different from migrant labour in that we end up living in many places in India; although with a lot of help from the Govt.)
    There was a time not long ago when share certificates were in physical form and any change in address had to be intimated separately to the registrar of each company. Some companies would fail to update details, resulting in loss of dividend, intimations etc. With the advent of dematerialization and trading portals, it has become a distant memory. We have to incorporate change in address or Bank account number only once and it is updated everywhere else. One more revolution of a similar kind is required for seamless updating of data of various documents which are issued to citizens by diverse authorities. These documents are issued by many central and state govt departments and would require coordination of the highest order. It remains to be seen how feasible it is to bring them all under one common platform to trigger this change which is sure to benefit the common citizen

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

The Bibliophile


I don’t know whether I should be grateful that I work in the Central Govt. of the Indian Republic. Several of my good friends who work in the State Govt, Armed forces and academia have hung up their boots and are leading a life of leisure. I continue to slog in a job not of my liking. I’m in Calcutta now, a city that I always loved to live in. The job fails to interest me much but I still have a good three and a half years of this drudgery to undergo before I retire from work.

    A nice way to look me up in Google would be to input the string" bald bureaucrat, with an unexplained interest in Roadside barbers, fountain pens, Carnatic music and Classical Guitar".....Well, that would just about describe me adequately. My reading has taken a huge plunge. I blame it on the quiet invasion of social media. That urge to read links sent by well meaning friends, to reply to messages etc have overtaken my life. I have no excuses for this long break from the blog. Writing is something that grows on you initially with inspiration, later with practice. I lost the urge to write. In the humdrum at workplace, I get to worry about procedural inanities, turf wars and ego hassles. I was persuaded to re-start this blog because I saw a longish note in Facebook written by a student called Ashley, on my bibliophile-friend Professor Nagesh who retired recently.[0]=668523365&p[1]=10156216125293366&sharer_type=all_modes&av=1356305017

                    I met Nagesh in the late 1980s through a circle of young Bank-Officers staying in lodging houses in and around Ernakulam town where we both worked. Nagesh lived alone in a big house in the heart of the city which belonged to his Mom’s family (His late Mom, a wonderful lady, was a Professor of Malayalam in a College in Calicut). I lived in a lodging house called Keerthi Mahal in Jew Street, Ernakulam. We both hated our jobs. We were working as Bank Officers, although in different public sector  banks. We were both from the category of Probationary Officers, freshly minted from college and directly recruited to Officer cadre, without the drudgery of working as clerks for several years. Having been para-dropped into the bank branches, we were struggling with our jobs. The job gave a certain dignity in the midst of much unemployment. Liberalization was still some time away and the software revolution yet to take place.

                      I really don’t know if Nagesh aspired to become a civil servant as Ashley seemed to think. I never asked him that. But he helped me a lot with my reading on India for the UPSC interview (for which I appeared twice with not so encouraging results). But he was more well-read and knowledgeable than the many civil servants I came across in my uneventful life. It is true that he won a national Quiz contest. It wasn’t conducted by Sidhartha Basu but he represented his Bank (I think, my memory plays tricks with me nowadays) in Discover India Quiz and won a trip to any location in India with 5-star hotel stay thrown in. It is a hilarious story how he went about en-cashing that prize and I played a small part in it. I remember trying to handle the Bureaucracy in the tourism department through my friends’ circle to hold them to their promise. It was with great difficulty that the prize was realized. Not to mention the troubles he had when he landed in the hotel (with his nephew along) and the hotel pleaded ignorance about his booking.  But he had his moment in the sun with that quiz and a lot of people knew him as that guy who won the national quiz on TV!!

      Eventually I drifted into Civil Services and he threw away his bank job to join Devagiri college in Calicut as a Lecturer in English. We both took a big hit on our pay packets, he a greater one. Somewhere along the way we lost touch with each other. He remained single, while I married a batch-mate from the Civil Services. I traversed the country on many transfers while he remained rooted to his small town and his teaching career, research and reading. I am not surprised that he asked his student whether he shares the same values with the girl he proposes to marry. That’s just our generation’s thinking. The Missus, also a good reader, is impressed with his range of reading.           

      We rediscovered each other’s coordinates when I visited Calicut long back and met a relative who was teaching in Devagiri college as a temporary lecturer. She put me on to him. It was nice catching up and we maintained contact ever since. I visited his home and was awe-struck by his library which overflowed with books. He took me around various eating joints in Calicut. He, a vegetarian, would peck at his food while I’d sample the veritable feasts laid before me. Every year we gift each other books on our birthdays. That’s probably a much tougher task for me. He invariably finds something interesting for me to read. While I’d be left guessing whether he already owns or have read the book I wish to gift him.

   Nagesh's range of reading was vast. He could name the editor of Punch from the 1950s and could quote from his works. While my tastes were eclectic (with some British crime fiction, Malayalam literature, penguin classics and some soft porn) his range was vast apart from English literature, in which he specialized. A conversation with him could be quite revealing. One could come away feeling that we are dummies and have still a long way to go to get anywhere near that erudition. Also, his modesty strikes you as very unusual for a man so well-read….. The last time we met at his home, I asked him what he thought of Arundhati Roy’s latest work (which I hadn’t read. I’ve started finding her a bit distasteful after she went politically bombastic). He then went on to give a 15 minute-long insight into the book. I was flabbergasted at his analysis. No critique could be as succinct and as illuminating. At the end of it, I had only one thing to say. He should write. I mean really sit down and pen his thoughts. 
    I still remember something he told me about our common avarice to buy books and let them rest near the bedside without reading. It is about an actress who put on a lot of weight. When someone asked her why.... she said honestly that it is all about a childhood with very little food on the family table. Hence the tendency to gorge on whatever is laid in front of her. He lived in small towns with little access to books.   There was nothing much on TV when he grew up nor was there social media. Acquiring books was a gargantuan task since there wasn't Amazon or Flipkart in those days. He maybe the last of the voracious readers from that generation......a true Bibliophile.

Monday, 21 May 2018


It was sometime in the summer of 2009 that I read Stanley Wolpert’s work “Jinnah of Pakistan”.  It was a work that gave insights into the mind of a man whose name is much sullied in India. At the end of the reading I came away thinking here is a man, much misunderstood. From someone who stood against the communalization of Indian politics, the transformation to Muslim India’s apostle was a journey of many twists and turns. In the end the fight turned to an intense one for a separate state for Indian Muslims. And the tragedy of Pakistan was that he didn’t live long enough to lay down the ideals of a nation and live by it, a nation established as a homeland for Muslims where they could live with dignity.  That book is not easily available in India. And I read somewhere that it is not so easily available in Pakistan too, for reasons not clear.
          I bought a very information rich book called “Creating a New Medina” by Venkat Dhulipalia. This book contains the fight for UP in the hinterland of the United Province (as the UP was called then) and the various debates on the creation of Pakistan, culled from research material, from varied sources. While Jinnah visualised a homeland for Indian Muslims, there was also an alternate narrative of an Islamic State. It was Shabir Ahmed Usmani the cleric who visualized Pakistan as a new Medina. I read this book off and on, drawing from the rich sources and getting a sense of the time. It still lies near the bedside for an occasional flip, over some aspect of the partition debate.
    But the book that captivated me in recent times was “Mr and Mrs Jinnah” by Sheela Reddy. Jinnah’s stormy marriage to Rutttie Petit, daughter of a rich Parsi Industrialist in Bombay, 24 years younger to him. A marriage that created unrest in Bombay society and set tongues wagging. Jinnah was a man of steely character. He worked hard at his lawyer briefs and also at building his political career. While the book centres on the stormy marriage with Ruttie, one couldn’t escape the feeling that Jinnah's life would have charted a different course if his peers had been less patronising and ready to concede political space. The other central character that pervades the marriage of Jinnah and Ruttie like a bright silvery cloud is Sarojini Naidu and her children. It was an unusual friendship, that of Sarojini with Jinnah and Ruttie. She was the friend who understood Jinnah only too well, the conscience keeper of his marriage, the family Ruttie had, after her own banished her. Ruttie’s is a sad story, for it was her fickle mind, moony notions of love and marriage and a life of luxury that often led the reader to think of Jinnah as the tragic character, in personal life and by extension, his hardened political positions that characterised his life.
            Reading about his life from various sources, one can't escape the feeling that he might have retained his commitment to the nationalist cause and continued to play the role of Hindu-Muslim unity in undivided India - if only history had taken different turns, leaders had exercised restraint, Congress had accommodated Muslim League in the power sharing formula .....But things, as they turned out, were not so simple. More than a leadership tussle, it was the feeling of alienation from the Hindu mainstream that manifested in many ways and resulted in his marginalization, first from the Home Rule League and later, the Congress itself that drove him in search of his political constituency.
         In the end, one comes away thinking that the loss of Ruttie hardened Jinnah, he was never the same person. Or was it the marginalisation by Congress that hardened him? Was it Ruttie, with her wayward life and tragic death, that made his life an emotional roller-coaster, ending it in a steely and determined position on muslim statehood? At the outset one might think of Ruttie and Jinnah were as  different as two persons can be. The marriage was clearly dying, and in a strange way, it reflected on his politics. While Ayesha Jalal's political analysis terms Pakistan as a political bargaining tool which Jinnah himself never imagined would come true, Dhulipalia analyses the dynamics of the demand of nationhood that took a life of its' own.... at a terrible price, of course. But Sheela Reddy's book gives a valuable insight into the man, shorn of his lawyer-politician veneer, a man who fell in love and stood firm in the face of adversities in life. Let that portrait hang in the University hall.... he is as much ours as he is theirs