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"WHEN CAN you come?" The voice over the long distance from Delhi to Pretoria was soft in timbre, tough in substance. K.R. Narayanan (KRN) had been elected India's tenth President and was looking for a secretary. I had just done a year in my assignment and was riveted by Nelson Mandela's leadership of the new South Africa. But one does not remonstrate with the President. And when he added, "I need you around here." I knew my air ticket had been stamped. I reported under a month.
It was a privilege and no play, working for that intellectual powerhouse. No file left his desk unassimilated and untransformed by his eyes, mind, and pen. The interstices of a proposal, the goblins of hidden motivation, and the gremlins of more obvious ones, which escaped all of us, would be the first things the President noticed. A fiercely questioning mind, irreverent in spirit but not in manner, would rip through the matter at hand. Not surprising in the 77-year-old, considering that when he was 25 he had asked of the Mahatma questions that shine over the answers. He had just been awarded a Tata scholarship and was going to London. You have simplified for us the choice between truth and untruth, he asked, but what would you advise when the choice is between two truths? And then, when in England I am asked about the untouchability issue in India, should I reply honestly or should I `defend' India? The questions and answers are part of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi.
Not recorded anywhere is a conversation that occurred when KRN finished his course of study in London with a First Division. "The Kerala people there threw a party to felicitate me," he related. "And Krishna Menon was invited to be the chief guest. Leaning on his walking stick at the doorway, Menon said to me: `So, Narayanan, I hear you have got a First. You know, some people get it by a fluke.' I do not know how but I managed to say, `Is that how you got yours?'"
KRN did not use his gift of repartee too often. In fact, he once said to me: "You should never try to win an argument. That is a low form of conversation. You should let the other person speak his mind and then just let in your piece, leaving it to the words to do their work gently." On another occasion he quoted Quiller-Couch: "You know, `Q' has said famously that when writing you should `murder your darlings,' meaning thereby that if you have your favourite terms of phrase, your pet phrases, shibboleths, words you think will score over the other person, you should quietly sacrifice them in the interests of brevity and modesty."
But that was about the manner. When it came to the matter, there was no compromise. KRN's banquet speech for President Bill Clinton, written by him in his spidery hand barely a couple of hours prior to the serving of soup, will be read and re-read in the future. It bespoke an admiration for America and a dismissal of unipolarity. "They are calling me a cold warrior on account of the speech," he said to me. "Where is our sense of sovereignty?" That was important for President Narayanan, a sense of sovereignty.
When on his State Visit to China in May 2000, he spoke to President Jiang Zemin with pride about India and appreciation about China, one could imagine a conversation taking place in the 4th century A.D. between Kumarajiva and Fahien. Here was not just a former Ambassador of India to China but a student of the two civilisations (an immensely nation-proud former Director at the China desk of our MEA, whose typewritten note on the future of Sino-Indian ties was not given its due then but is of the stuff of seminal archives). Jiang, welcoming his guest, said KRN was "an expert in State and diplomatic affairs," while he himself was "an engineer in mechanics and dynamics but one who knows that a single pole unipolarity is not practical." The two were on the same wavelength at once, with KRN telling his host that he, President Jiang, was "not only a mechanical engineer but a social and political engineer." Prime Minister Zhu Rhongji, an intellectual of no mean standing, after listening to KRN's description of the antiquity of India-China ties said, rather untypically in Chinese leadership dialogues, that "there was more than a touch of India in the Chinese civilization." These bilateral nettings were the result of KRN's personal impact.
"People don't apply their minds," he would often lament. "And you haven't, in the matter of this seating plan for dinner," he once chided me. "I am sorry, sir, I can't do better." "The trouble is," he continued with his hands jabbing the air, "you can but won't." KRN had the most expressive hands. They were small and unremarkable as such, but the way he wielded them in discussion was extraordinary. He would move his fingertips as if turning a rosary when thinking or accentuating a thought, run them over the ridge of a table or chair, do a dust-off motion when rejecting a plan or person. And how those hands could scorch by a gesture. But when he joined them in a namaskar as when conferring the Bharat Ratna on M.S. Subbulakshmi, it was something else. `It' became an offering.
"Never underestimate a person," he said often, "you never know where his talent lies. And never overestimate a person because of his appearance." Behind this no doubt was KRN's experience of adversity. At the funeral, his daughter Chitra told me of a student days' entry in his diary that speaks of his having had to skip a function in town for lack of "a good shirt." When LeftWord brought out a publication of essays on the Communist Manifesto in 1999, KRN read it through with avidity. "Ramaswami Naicker is so right," he said, "about the caste factor in India complicating the class factor." And added, "That way, Narayana Guru and Ayyankali had a better understanding of our society."
If Prime Ministers and political heavyweights engaged him, so did innumerable "regular people" like writers who are not big names, `un-empanelled' artistes, retired diplomats, superannuated bureaucrats in need of a conversation. It is remarkable how the very `ordinary' came in large numbers to pay their last respects, the bereaved family spending as much time and space with them as with the famous. KRN was so incisive as to make routine diplomats uncomfortable, so industrious as to make run of the mill bureaucrats uneasy, so integritous as to make politicians of the face-half-hidden variety nervous. But never did a simple man or woman go away from a meeting with KRN feeling slighted or trimmed.
KRN's reflexive commitment to social justice is so well known and documented that to repeat it would be to paint the lily. What is not so well known is that he did not confound drabness with simplicity, mediocrity with dispossession, purblind affiliation with affinity. Like Hiren Mukerjee, he was an aesthete, a connoisseur of quality. Classical western music, Mediterranean olives, cheeses, wines, and literature found in him a discerning client. Secular in the truest sense of the word, KRN had a phenomenal knowledge of Sanskrit, an irritation to diehard Sanatanists.
There was something in KRN's civil deportment that could be described, without offence to ourselves, as western in the best sense of that term. Most notably, in the way he showed courtesy and considerateness to his wife, Usha. Almost formal, that respect of a husband for his wife simply stood out from the all-too-familiar Indian practice of taking the wife's presence for granted. KRN and Mrs. Narayanan were, as a couple, out of the ordinary.
When I saw KRN fleetingly in the ICU, his hands were covered. But I could see they were still and did not beckon me. He seemed to say, "Now you do not have to come; I do not need help around here or where I am going; I think I can manage on my own." Go well, sir, as they would say in South African English. Go well to the High Table where there is better company and conversation or just plain silence. For who knows? You have not got there by a fluke.
(The author, who was Secretary to President K.R. Narayanan between 1997 and 2000, is the Governor of West Bengal.)
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