Vinay Jha IAS, Class of 1967
It was perhaps in the winter of 1964-65 that I met Iris Murdoch in the Arts Faculty of Delhi University where I was studying for my MA in English Literature. On the sides of the meeting I showed her some of my poems. Her comments encouraged me to continue my conversation with Nissim Ezekiel which finally led to the publication of half a dozen poems of Vidyapati that I had translated from the original Maithili into English. This was followed by some of my other poems being published in MEASURE 3, an anthology of new Indian poetry and in some issues of the PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists) India Journal. The following winter I was invited to the P.E.N All India Writers Conference hosted by Chandigarh University. It was an exhilarating experience for a 20-year-old. I was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Sophia Wadia, Mahashweta Devi, P. Lal, Khushwant Singh, Bhabani Bhattacharya, Prabhakar Machwe and of course Nissim Ezekiel who had ‘discovered’ me! I participated in a session that discussed problems of translation from Indian languages into English. I got to read some of my poems in one of the unstructured sessions. And in the long evenings that followed the formal sessions a young student guide introduced me to the charms of Chandigarh in her squeaky Fiat car. Could it get better?
By this time the urbane academic-diplomat-academic Dr Balachandra Rajan, critic and novelist, Dean of Arts Faculty and Head of Department of English had been succeeded by Dr Sarup Singh. A tutorial class chat with him opened a window to the dreaming spires of Oxford on completion of my MA. My life as a poet, a critic and teacher seemed laid out before me as clear as an airport runway.
My father clearly had other ideas and was not to be denied. He was of the firm belief that a career in the IAS was what destiny (and he) had planned for me. No prizes for guessing what followed in the subsequent pages of my life! A poet lost and a civil servant gained. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history!
And so, it was that I (along with a hundred others) found myself on the platform of Delhi Junction on the night of 12th July 1967. My dreams, my trepidations and not least my regrets and disappointments packed neatly in a shiny black tin trunk and a canvas hold-all with leather trimmings. The excitement of the preceding few months which had been triggered by the receipt of a nondescript cyclostyled letter signed by A.N. Batabyal, Under Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India by order of the President of India had reached fever pitch. Soon the train to Dehradun would steam down the tracks of a memorable journey!
I never did really settle down to life in Charleville. I suppose the pace set by the Academy does not allow anyone to settle down. From sunrise to midnight a daily dose of 5BX, riding, classes, formal dinners and walks in the woods of Mussoorie. Life was an unending blur of activity from dawn to dusk unfolding each day with unfailing regularity but nevertheless exciting. New learning and new friends were ingredients of a heady cocktail almost too much to bear!
Weeks became months, Bharat Darshan came and went. Soon it was end of course exams, army attachment and time to report for duty to the Government of Kerala. If I learnt anything of administration from the endless lectures, seminars and tutorials it was purely symbiotically! The entire year appeared to have been a dream-like extension of life in the Arts Faculty of DU made glorious by not just the monthly paycheck, modest as it may have been, but also secure in the knowledge that if I did nothing to blot my copy book the invisible hand of Bharat Sarkar would guide me through the rest of my life! Sometimes in unguarded moments fleeting images of a poet and teacher would cross my mind. But with increasing infrequency. That young poet was gone perhaps never to return.
From this life in the clouds I came down to earth alighting from Trivandrum Mail one early morning in June 1968. A new chapter had begun. A life as different from the familiar home I had left. A land as different as it could have been. Food, language, dress of an alien culture. My father’s astrologer had foretold of my working in a land of ‘yavanas’ the ‘foreigners’. The one time I felt a connect was when passing a temple, I heard the familiar chanting of priests. Much later I would recall a deeper ‘connect’. The story of Adi Shankara’s journey from Kerala to Mithila, the land of my forefathers, to the village of the redoubtable scholar Pandit Mandan Mishra, where village maidens gave directions to Adi Shankara in chaste Sanskrit and where even the parrots ‘parroted’ Sanskrit verses. A marathon shastrartha ensued which was won by Adi Shankara only for him to lose out to Mandan Mishra’s wife! But that’s a story for another time!
The first day at work I reported for duty to the Public Department in the Kerala Secretariat. The welcome ‘ragging’ by a bunch of senior officers, the meeting with a suave M. Gopal Menon ICS, the Chief Secretary, who after a few words of welcome and wisdom told me to call on the Chief Minister, the legendary EMS. The small made man rose from behind a huge desk to usher me to a comfortable sofa and ordered coffee. He welcomed me to his state and proceeded to talk about its people, the culture and its demography and social structure that determined the politics. A half-hour spell binding introduction to the state in a soft voice and a barely perceptible stammer. I was truly in awe of this man. A Chief Minister, who could find time to welcome a young trainee and thank him for coming far away from his home to serve the people of a distant part of the country.
Serve the people. So that’s what it was all about. Public service. It began to sink in as I recalled the lectures at the academy for which I had found so little time the previous year. Work for the greater good of the greater number.
Barely two weeks later I was in Kozhikode literally thrown into the deep end and asked to swim. Soon enough I had an answer from my District Collector. No different from what I had been taught in the Academy. Do the right thing. If you carried out your duties diligently and with integrity keeping in mind the public interest only good would be the outcome. But then it did not always happen like this. Remember Krishna’s sage advice to Arjuna on the battlefield. Follow your Dharma without worrying about the outcome. Very important lessons for a young man starting out in life.
The migration from Kerala to Tamil Nadu was seamless. I had spent enough long weekends across the border for me to ‘merge’ into my new cadre without skipping a beat. As a matter of fact, Fort St. George, in a rare display of uncharacteristic humour posted me to relieve Rathi who was on maternity leave. I began sub-collectoring in Cheranmahadevi with all the energy and zeal that is natural to a 26-year-old.
It was in1984 that my karma pitchforked me into an unconventional position. A ‘search’ committee sent me to the National Institute of Design for a three-day interaction with the faculty and students following which I was selected as Director of the Institute in Ahmedabad. I had never completely come to terms with bureaucracy and this appeared to be an excellent opportunity to put my creative side to work in an environment that encouraged and fostered ‘otherness’ rather than ‘sameness’! The time I spent in NID’s academic environment was perhaps some of my most productive and fulfilling years. It was a period in my life when I dwelt in a world far removed from the one I had known. The International Council of Industrial Design, of which I, the first Indian on the Council, was elected Vice President, opened up a global world of ideas and objects of fantasy and imagination. A world of designers, thinkers and young creative people who took me on journeys beyond my imagination. It was a time when it was easy to forget my sarkari moorings. It was a time that harked back to the young poet lost many years ago.
Late in 1992 when I was paddling in the backwaters of the Centre for Policy Research, I was asked by the then Secretary Urban Development if I could ‘take over’ the India Habitat Centre and ‘complete the project’. I was to learn this was easier said than done!
India Habitat Centre had been conceived to bring together institutions and individuals engaged in different aspects of human habitat like urban planning, housing, housing finance, energy, problems of urban environment and provide a formal and informal platform for their interaction to focus on policy solutions in these areas. The construction of the Centre had begun in 1991 but had ground to a halt by early 1992. The project had gone horribly wrong on account of bad planning. Joseph Stein, the Principal Architect, had been ‘discharged’ from the project.
The structure had come up from the lower basement to the first floor. The contractors had stopped work and filed for arbitration over their dues. The challenge was to kick start the again and commission the Centre by September 1995 when the Director General of ILO was to visit India to inaugurate the India office of ILO housed in the Centre. I was told the project had no government funding and that I would have to raise the cost of the project from the 40 –odd institutional members who were committed to the Habitat Centre’s charter and had agreed to be its Founder Members. I also had the challenging task of designing a sustainable financial model to run the Centre in the years to come. No authority of government and no access to the consolidated fund of India! Just my imagination, friendly persuasion and marketing skills.
In exactly three years the Rs. 125 crore 1 million square ft building was completed with a sustainable revenue model in place. Despite serious controversies that had to be resolved by Delhi High Court, the business model remains in place and unchanged even after two decades with the same service provider who was originally awarded the contract. It was without doubt the most challenging assignment I had ever undertaken.
My training and experience serve me well today in my second innings decades after I chose to leave government. I can think of the India- Bangladesh cross border project which took a good two years to strategize or the Indo-French joint venture in the aerospace sector that started with two employees a decade ago and today with 300 employees is an OE supplier to Airbus, Snecma and GE. Projects that I can proudly put my name to.
I look back on these decades of a fulfilling life that provided, opportunities at every turn for the lost poet to seek refuge in design, architecture, craft and textiles. The many forms of creativity. The many faces of poetic expression.