Pranabda, Grace Personified

If one would even most faintly be noticed, and shown the slightest appreciation by a person of the stature of Bharat Ratna Pranab Mukherjee, one would be more than doubly blessed. This happened to me about seventeen years ago.

One fine morning I received a call from one Mr Abhijit Mukherjee, who wanted to see me in my office. As is my wont, I immediately said that he was free to see me anytime of his choosing, and that I would be in my seat the whole day long. When he came around lunchtime, he introduced himself as the son of Mr. Pranab Mukherjee; he was not in the Government as it was BJP that was in power. He had brought along a diary from SAIL, where he said he was an executive. I was surprised at the simplicity of this gentleman. After exchanging pleasantries somewhat mildly he surprised me more by inviting me to “Chhappan Bogh” lunch at his residence a few days later. He made it a point to clarify that “Pitaji” would also be there and that it was at his behest that he was inviting me.

I kept thinking for the next 24 hours. On the pretext of knowing what time would suit Pitaji, I initiated a telephonic conversation next day virtually seeking to know the reason of the kindness being showered upon me by the great family. He Said that Pranabda had read one of my articles published in the Bhavan’s Journal, the theme of which was like ‘rules are for men, not men for rules’. In the article I had lamented the largely prevailing arrogance among the bureaucracy and had reasoned that a civil servant must be an ideal citizen and helpfulness should be the creed of a bureaucrat; and that in genuine situations ways could and should be found around the rules to do real service to the people. Abhijit added that “Pitaji” had occasion to watch a number of Kashmiri Pandit bureaucrats during Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s tenure, and that he had been impressed by all of them. He seemed to have formed an impression that they are intelligent, committed, honest and upright officers who would stick to the rules. My article had shown me to be slightly of a different genre in the sense that I would not be fettered by the rule book and would fiddle with these should the situation warrant.

My son had offered to join me and I had readily agreed that we both could go together on the appointed day for the luncheon meeting. I had expected that Pranabda would discuss the article with me and appreciate me; but nothing of the sort happened. He just received me with the warmth of a smile and asked, “How are you?” We had “Chhappan Bogh lunch” and it was time to leave. Abhijeet, who was busy looking after so many other guests noticed me and asked me to stay for some more time. In the mean time, Pranabda left. I became curious as to why I had to stay when “Pitaji” had already left; but could not do much except wait. When the luncheon was almost wound up, Abhijeet took me to his room and told me that “Pitaji” was happy that I had come and had told him to keep in regular touch with me. We parted on this note that we would remain in touch. This was followed by some visits we would make to each other’s offices mostly during the lunch hour and would host each other a customary cup of tea or at the most a canteen lunch, if necessary. After several such meetings I felt encouraged to tell Abhijit that “Pitaji” had not said anything; and he replied that he had not to say anything specific, he had just liked you and before inviting you for the lunch he had got all the enquiries made about me and his estimate about me had been confirmed. We, however, remained in touch.

Came 2004 and Congress came to power at the Centre. Pranabda had won the Lok Sabha election and he had been made the Defence Minister of India. I expressed my desire to congratulate “Pitaji” to Abhijit. “Meet him in South Block; I shall have the clearances issued.” Having had worked in the Central Secretariat Service before transiting to the Indian Revenue Service, I did not need to be guided more. When I went there at the time fixed, the personal staff did not make me wait, as is usual, but straightway led me to Pranabda’s room. Pranabda received me with the same old warm smile and after asking me: “How are you?” offered me the chair and asked for tea. He shared the tea with me and spent about 7 minutes with me without saying anything when I begged to leave and he bid me bye by nodding his head while smiling.

Having completed my tenure in Delhi, Abhijit suggested that I could go as a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Defence but I hesitated partly out of the fear that the impression Pranabda had got about me, may not be washed out and partly because of the apprehension I had been harbouring on the basis of my CSS experience that most of the IAS bosses would blame their own failures and misdeeds on the non-IAS officers working under them. I chose to leave Delhi and served in Utter Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh even though I was given postings not commensurate with my seniority.

It was in the course of my Bhopal posting that I was obliged to pass an appellate order which was not to the liking of a powerful political lobby of MP. They made an issue of it and the news made headlines during the whole week. I was saddled with a notice demanding five crore rupees for defamation. My boss asked me to see him with the file. He found nothing in it; he felt that even though I had not followed my predecessors, the reasoning given by me was more justified and that I merited a reward. But the notice had to be replied. So I went to Jabalpur, the seat of MP High Court and had a reply given to the notice and at the same time giving a cross notice of criminal intimidation to a public servant in the bonafide discharge of his public duties. The group was surprised at this cross notice. In the mean time, The Director General of Police, M P, sent a Chartered Accountant to me saying that he wanted to see me. Since I was staying all alone, I could not entertain him at my house and since those were the days of tension, I could not do much about it. The CA said that the DGP wanted you to visit him but hesitated to say so knowing you to be very sensitive. I agreed for a lunch at DGP’s residence the next day.

I found Mr Rout, the DGP, in a new avatar; he received me warmly and appreciated my fearlessness and lamented that being an officer always attached to the state government, they could not be so bold and forthcoming. In the course of the lunch – I recall having been served strawberries that had been brought fresh from Ratlam – he revealed that the group was very powerful and would never take no for an answer. Even though I would win in the court and my cross notice had also set them thinking, it was proper to be careful because they had an army of goons at their command. I took the hint and even though I had completed only half the tenure at Bhopal, I became desirous of a transfer from Bhopal. Fortuitously, the Commissioner of Income Tax, J & K, was also due for transfer and Pranabda had shifted to the Ministry of Finance. On the pretext of re-connecting with my relatives and friends at Jammu because my retirement was due in the next two years, I sounded Abhijit after officially making a representation. And I got posted to Jammu, which was followed by a stint on promotion at Chandigarh from where I hung my boots and retired.

Feeling very encouraged, I thought of extending the invitation to Pranabda on the occasion of the marriage of my elder son, Ashish, in February, 2011. Usha and I went with a invitation card at the prefixed time of 10 p.m – Pranabda was very busy handling several Parliamentary Committees and doing fire-fighting jobs for the Congress Party apart from being a Minister – and he made us sit, treated us to tea even at that late hour, discussed the ancient history of Kashmir and saffron growing in Pampore. But he never came for the wedding or the reception even as Abhijit came as a friend.

Blessing the author at the wedding reception of Nitin Razdan

It was my younger son, Nitin’s marriage within a year of the event. While inviting Abhijit, I told him that “Pitaji” was awfully busy like the preceding year and that still I should invite him. Abhijit asked me to personally invite “Pitaji” along with my wife like the earlier year because he had told him one day that he could have taken ten minutes time off his busy schedule and that he should have blessed my son. The story repeated this time round at 10 p.m. at his office chamber at the residence, a cup of tea, ancient Kashmir’s Bengal connection and a smiling adieu.

Came the D day and I receive a call from Ministry of Finance that the Minister would be attending the reception of Nitin at 8 p.m. I was surprised but my joy knew no bounds. My son and daughter in law were still far away from the venue. I asked everybody to gear up. By way of abundant caution, I requested Abhijit to help by delaying their arrival a bit. Nitin and other family members could barely make it in time and Pranabda graced the occasion along with his family members. He was among the first to arrive, handed over a flower bouquet to Subhada, my daughter in law, posed for a family photograph and spent over half an hour with us. We were both overwhelmed, humbled and truly blessed on that day.

In Delhi, to my surprise, I was invited to watch the President’s first address to the Joint Session of Parliament. My seat had been kept in the chamber booked for the family of the President, to which august post Pranabda had been elevated. I went rushing and heard the President. There were more surprises for me. My family started receiving invitations to all functions and celebrations in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Abhijeet told me that “Pitaji” had asked for your name to be kept on the guest list and mailing list of Rashtrapati Bhawan. For full five years, I and my family were privileged to mingle with the high and mighty and the glitterati of Delhi, and India.

Then came the sad day when Pranabda’s wife, Mrs Suvra Mukherjee, a gifted artist, writer and a painter, who had been keeping unwell for a long time, bade farewell to the world. While her body lay in state, I also went to pay my respects. Even in that hour of grief, and of all people, Pranabda asked me the usual. “How are you?”; perhaps because I had not shown up in the Rashtrpati Bhawan for a long while despite invitations.

My friend, Prof K L Moza, had presented me a manuscript of the English translation of Shiv Parinayiah, my great grandfather, Swami Krishna Joo Razdan’s poetry, already translated into Sanskrit and published by the Asiatic Society, Calcutta, on the occasion of the Yageopavit ceremony of my sons in Jammu over a decade back and I had decided to have it published. The manuscript was written in pencil and it took a long time for printers to read it and decipher the English literary words the writer in Prof. Moza had chosen to bejewel it, with and then for me to correct the mistakes that were committed largely because of the faint pencil writings. Finally, when the book was ready and Prof. Moza was on the verge of losing patience (though he never complained), I wanted to have it released by the President of India. Even though he was very busy those days, a small function was ordered to be organized on 25th July, 2013, in Rashtrapati Bhawan itself, as the earliest possible opportunity, and Pranabda released the book.

I found myself singularly fortunate to have chanced to come in the good books of Pranabda, who may not have talked to me, and given his stature may have naturally remained at a distance, yet shown so much warmth and grace, which I never thought I deserved. I am beholden for the grace shown to me and express my gratitude in silence. My tearful and reverential adieu to Pranabda!