|The Administrative Block, National Academy, Mussourie|
It was already dark and was well past seven in the evening. There sitting at his desk was a frail elderly man, SAT Narayanan, the Administrative Officer, working away on his files by a lamplight. A man of few words, he shoved in-front of me some papers to sign and hollered for one Gainda Lal who made his appearance soon enough and was asked to take me to Room No. 85 in the Happy Valley block. Narayanan bid me good bye after telling me that he had given me a good room. (I later saw, true to his words, he had indeed given me a good room. It had an extra window that not only overlooked the Happy Valley but also let in some very welcome sun.)
Retrieving my baggage from the taxi, Gainda Lal hauled the pieces down a few flights of stairs to the room. Since that evening this humble young man from the hills became my part-time butler serving as he did eight probationers in four rooms. He would fetch me my bed-tea, polish my shoes, make my bed, provide hot water for the bath, geysers then being non-existent in the bathrooms, have my cottons washed and woollens ironed and run other sundry errands whenever the occasion demanded. Mercifully, he was around with me for only five months of the Course as in that short period he almost spoilt me, as, I imagine, he would have others.
Next morning, after breakfast, I happened to meet Narayanan again and asked him if I could call on the Director. “Not necessary”, he said and added that the Director was out there “under the greenwood tree” and pointed towards the front lawn telling me to walk across. Sure enough a clutch of young men were gathered under a big tree around a tall, hefty, impressive looking man in a light-coloured suit pulling at his pipe. That was Dr. AN Jha, the director of the then NAA. He was holding forth on something which apparently was humorous as there was quite a bit of laughter. As I walked over to the group Dr. Jha noticed me and asked me my name. As I told him my surname he rattled off my full name “Proloy Kumar Bagchi”. He seemed to have scanned the entire list of trainees – more than 250 of them – and remembered my full name, an amazing feat of memory. He shook my hands and asked whether I was from Agra. Agra had sent two Bagchis into the ICS, and, hence, perhaps the question. I answered in the negative and told him I was from Gwalior. That was my first and last meeting with the director.
During the first week all trainees were asked to take lessons in musketry. We had to leg it down the kuccha pathways past the newly established camp for the Tibetan refugees. I wasn’t an adventurous type and was somewhat diffident about handling a gun. In any case, I thought it wouldn’t be useful in any manner in the central services. When the man next to me screamed with pain after the recoil from the .303 rifle and sat up holding his right shoulder in great agony, I decided guns were not for me. That ended my musketry training.
Lectures were mostly boring except, of course, those rare ones delivered by the Director. He had a way with words and he could make any subject interesting. Besides, his good humour held the attention of his audience. The other person whose talks carry an impression with me till today are the ones delivered by Swami Ranganathanada of the Rama Krishna Mission. He delivered a series of, if I recall, four lectures and all were very elevating. His fluency was remarkable, content captivating and English impeccable.
I must make a mention of Prof. Ramaswami who used to take the Economics classes. For those of us who were strangers to the subject what he said in his deep bass flew over our heads. What I remember, as indeed many of my colleagues would, is his lengthy discourses over numerous sessions on the economic developmental model propounded by Walt Rostow which made no sense to us having hardly any knowledge of economic models for growth. He dilated at length on Rostovian concept of the “take off” stage of an economy. The Indian economy was nowhere near it 50 years ago, limping along as it was then at the “Hindu Rate of Growth” that was perhaps more than neutralised by the predilection of our people to produce more children than goods and services.
Although riding classes were compulsory for the IAS probationers those of the Central Services could also join them. It was quite an opportunity but I let it go, but my friend from the Customs & Excise Service, Sukumar Mukhopadhyay, always keen to try new things, grasped it with both hands.
One late afternoon I was hanging around with a few friends in front of the Club House in the Happy Valley. At the far end of the ground the riding instructor, Nawal Singh, was busy giving lessons. All of a sudden, one of the horses just took off with the rider on its mount. Soon it started galloping and turning 1800 it headed towards us. We scampered away as it neared the Club House. Close to the Club suddenly it froze in its tracks. Seconds later whatever happened was spectacular but could have been really tragic. As the horse ‘braked’ and came to a dead-stop, this time it was the rider who, in his khaki breeches and sola topee, took off from the horseback and sailed over the horse’s head and taking a somersault in the air landed on his back, mercifully, only inches away from a huge boulder. Seeing him promptly assume the vertical position we were relieved that he was unhurt. It was none other than Sukumar. Not quite broken, some newer horses in the Academy in 1961, reportedly, still had a bit of their wild streak.
Soon after the monsoons struck, and they strike the Himalayan foothills on which Mussourie is situated I fell sick. I told my room-mate to inform the PT instructor that I wouldn't be around as I was feeling unwell. Surprisingly, soon enough the instructor turned up armed with a thermometre. As the temperature was high the official car was requisitioned and I was sent to Kulrie around 4 miles away to the Academy physician. While a throat swab was sent to Dehra Dun, the doctor, as a measure of caution, suggested my hospitalisation for treatment against diphtheria. For me it happened to be St. Mary's Hospital up on the hills above the Mall where four well-built rickshaw-pullers hauled me up and deposited me there. It was empty - bereft of patients, most unlike hospitals in the plains. Clearly, it was off-season for the hill station. I was put in a beautiful well-lighted room but it smelt of DDT. The only physician on duty went through his chores and pumped twenty shots of painful Sodium Penicillin on my backside in the course 72 hours. He was a good soul, had lost his wife a few days before I turned up and had become a little spiritual. Despite the pain he administered to me I came to like him. The anti-climax happened on the third day when the report on the swab arrived saying it was not diphtheria, after all. But I had already gone through the pain and the back side was still sore.
The instructional tour took us to the then very impressive Bhakra and Nangal dams which Nehru had described as temples of modern India. We also visited Chandigarh and familiarised ourselves with the concept of a planned city designed by the French architect, designer and urbanist Le Corbusier. We were also taken to Delhi which coincided with the Independence Day. We attended the ceremony at Red Fort, participated at the reception given by the President Radhakrishnan. It was enriching to see all the powerful and influential in person, including, inter alia, Nehru, Shastri, Krishna Menon and the tall John Kenneth Galbraith, the then American Ambassador, who sitting on a low sofa, seemingly, didn’t know what to do with his extraordinarily long legs.
Most interesting for me, however, was the visit to Nehru’s house where we had been taken to be addressed by the Prime Minister himself. At the Teen Murthi we were herded into a massive hall that was upstairs and was decorated with the gifts given to the PM by the visiting foreign personages. A heavily-cushioned chair was kept near a window with a mike in front. Obviously all of us were supposed to sit on the carpeted floor around the sofa. I positioned myself alongside a wall next to a closed shiny wooden door and stood there all the while. I think it was around 4.00 PM that I heard a click of a bolt and, lo and behold, through the door emerged the Prime Minister himself. He was in his churidar and kurta; without his Jawahar jacket, or his trademark Gandhi cap. He had, presumably, had a snooze and was looking fresh and glowing as also perky. Standing at the door he sized up the gathering and muttered to himself in Hindi “arey, yahan to bara majma ikattha hua hai! (Quite a big gathering!)”
Those five months of the Foundation Course did change me a lot. I may not have paid much attention to the lectures or may not have learnt the ropes that would be useful to me in my later career but I certainly changed. I tend to accept now what Dr. RK Trivedi, Sr. Dy. Director had once told us. He had said that he had seen college boys coming through the portals of the Academy and go out as officers. True to the hilt! There was a change in my deportment as indeed it would have been in others. Coming out of a small town, for the first time away from the protected environs of home, the change in environment made a huge difference and so did the exposure to an elevated intellectual ambiance as also to colleagues from all corners of the country. Somebody had said at the end of the Course that it was a “long paid holiday”. May be true, but during those five months whatever was directed at us had somehow seeped in and kept working imperceptibly inside us through our long official careers.