Probir Sen IAS
“Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended
And saved the sum of things for pay.”
These memorable lines of A E Houseman, were a favorite of RCVP Noronha, Administrator nonpareil, and to my mind, the finest civil servant of his times; however Noronha did much more than defend “what God had abandoned”, he demonstrated the heights that the art of Administration could achieve, as a result of a rare combination of remarkable ability, incessant labour, a great sense of humor and deep humanity.
His abilities in administration were legendary in his own time, which he summed up succinctly in his “Dos & Don’ts” in his Autobiography “A Tale Told by an Idiot.”
“Certainly break Rules, whenever so required to serve people, but you must first have mastered knowledge of the Rules you choose to break” was his response, when as a fledgling Assistant Collector, struggling to wade through Laws and Manuals to pass my Departmental examinations, I asked him why I needed to go through these voluminous and highly unreadable texts.
I was told that his day began at the crack of dawn, when he worked at his “dak” and files; by 7 he was free for anyone from the city who wished to meet him; an hour before the scheduled time he was at office to give his dictations; after which he met the IG, DM and SP, to discuss the city’s Law and Order situation, about which, as a result of his early morning activities, his knowledge invariably exceeded that of the other three put together,
During the day he handled work with seemingly effortless ease; he was always free to meet ministers, officers and members of the public, and at these meetings his interventions were invariably brief, precise, complete and often humorous, as were his Notings and Judgments.
His priorities always were those who “God abandoned”—the very poor, the persecuted, the aged and the infirm.
“48 hours” was the crisp direction he inscribed on all applications for pensions not disbursed, and only “God” could save those who failed to comply with these peremptory commands.
His sense of humor was, together with the tales of Woodruff and Allen, part of the folklore we, as civil servants, grew up with, in the fifties, sixties and early seventies.
During my first posting as Sub Divisional Officer, Dabra, I received a ‘phone call from “Olympian heights”—K N Sinha, Member, Board of Revenue, was at the other end, inviting me to dinner, as Mr. Noronha, then President, Board of Revenue, wanted to meet me. It was a command, an “offer” I “could not refuse”, so off I went in a bus that rattled along and got me to Gwalior half an hour later; I was both excited and filled with trepidation.
On reaching the bungalow, I was summoned in to the presence of the great man, who was the picture of relaxation, in a bush shirt and sandals, rolling a cigarette, in complete contrast to the regal and impeccably attired “Lord Sinha”.
Conversation ranged over all manner of subjects, completely shorn of shop and gossip; I was mesmerized by the effortless and dazzling display of knowledge and humor.
Shortly before dinner was served, the heavens intervened with thunder and lightning, which inspired me to open my mouth for the first time, to declare that I hoped that there would not be yet another hailstorm that would damage the crops.
The old man stopped, looked up and peering at me, asked, “Where were you educated?”, and then went on to state, “Ch…, don’t you know when there is lightning, there cannot be hail, because lightning melts the hailstones.”
Armed with this new knowledge, one evening, when I was sitting outside my bungalow, holding court with my Tahsildars and Naib Tahsildars, and there was thunder and lightning, and they expressed anxiety about hail, I breezily pontificated that it was impossible for hail to coexist with lightning; my intervention was unfortunately followed almost immediately, by thunder, lightning and hail!
Well! I mentioned this incident to Mr. Noronha when I next met him, to which his reply, with ill-concealed contempt, was, “Shakal se tu ‘Ch…’ dikte tha”, “and now by blindly believing what I told you, you have proved it, beyond doubt.”
To move away from the unfortunate personal to wider arenas, there was Noronha’s cryptic comment in the Visitors Book of the Circuit House at Gwalior, where he spent a night:
“Circuit House ‘chuhe se bhara tha,
Aur khansama, sharab se.”
One could carry on, because there are hundreds of such “Tales of Noronha”, but one must move on.
And finally, and most importantly, his humanity.
Noronha loved and served the tribals of Bastar, as no other officer did, or can do, in future. Giving up all for his passion for tribals, spending weeks in interior tours, learning and speaking their language, he labored for them throughout all the days of the six years that he chose to stay on as Collector, Bastar. They in turn never forgot him and have named a village “Noronhapalli” after him.
When Noronha was Commissioner, Jabalpur, he used to take young Assistant Collectors under training, to a plaque on which were inscribed, the names of British officers of the ICS, all young, who had died whilst working at famine relief.
“How many of us would do so today?” was his question to them.
Noronha rose to the summit of the service, continuing as the longest serving Chief Secretary of Madhya Pradesh, culminating a spectacular career, which he concluded by riding off from Vallabh Bhavan, the State Secretariat, on his Moped.
He was requested by the whole Cabinet to accept an extension, which he refused, as he did the Lt. Governorship of Delhi, and Governorship of Assam, post retirement.
He retired to a village- “Sankal”- to a life of writing, farming, angling, shooting, and observing. His essay “On being an Elder” written there, is the finest piece on Ageing that I have read, even though he was only in his mi sixties when he left us.
When I got the news, I felt that the world should not continue unabated; it needed to pause for someone as elemental as Noronha.
He penned down his own epitaph:
“When I am dead
No tears for me.
The life I loved
I lived richly,
And to the last love”
I would sum up his life somewhat differently; in Shakespeare’s well-known lines:
“His life was gentle; and the elements
So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world,
This was a Mani”