Once upon a time, there was a tavern…

Prodipto Ghosh, IAS, AGMUT

 

As we await our turn in the Departure Lounge, our thoughts turn naturally towards the question of whether the long ride to the airport was worth our while… In my case, one part, all things considered, was certainly memorable: an extension of my undergraduate years, as an IAS probationer.

 

While most probationers were busy burnishing their respective OLQs (nobody talks of OLQ these days, in any case, what is/was it?), I was attempting to ruin theirs. Of course, what I actually succeeded in doing was ruining my own!

 

Let me give a few examples of exactly how:

 

My partners in crime were most often Pramod Rawal, and occasionally Keshav Gupta. This first one was Keshav’s idea:

 

An Office Memorandum appeared one day on the Notice Board announcing a list of 10 probationers who had been selected to undergo a one-month training programme at Harvard University (at that time, a “phoren” visit, let alone a trip to the US, was a BIG THING). The list included many of the Most Likely to Succeed in The OLQ Department: Gangadhar Prasad Shukla, Balakrisnan Balasubramaniam, Prasanna Hota, Adarsh Kishore Saxena,…. you get the idea… Adarsh was modest about his selection – it was but the natural consequence of his range of intellectual accomplishments, and no further speculation on his selection would be in order. Balakrishnan, equally modestly, pointed to the logic of pure merit. Gangadhar had already adopted the caution of a bureaucrat – he would not comment until he had personally received the orders.

 

However, the wily Kayastha, Ajay Prasad saw through the scheme in a flash.,..pressed to state what exactly he would bring back from the US (those were the days of “craze for foreign”)? He responded without pause: “A blonde”!

 

Impact on my OLQ: –10 points

 

Possibly the most piquant period of our probation (for the UP and several of the UT cadre trainees) was our (highly involuntary) 3-month attachment to the Pantnagar Agricultural University, during our in-State training. The evening after our arrival, Pramod and I decided that the place lacked a de mininmis level of excitement. So out of sheer boredom, around midnight, and with the sole intent of pulling a caper, we covered ourselves in sheets, lit electric torches under them, and wailing in our blood-curdling best, walked up and down outside the windows of the ground floor hostel rooms. To our consternation Neena (then, Anand) rushed out of her room in panic, screaming that the place was haunted! Things were obviously out of control. We removed our sheets and assured her that it was only us! Soon, her sobs turned to laughter…

 

In those days, I owned a small piggy bank, which I used to show-off. Next morning, Neena demanded that I produce the piggy bank. With a slow wink, she put in a ten-rupee note. Ten rupees, that was a lot of money! It would buy two whole beers, one for Pramod, and one for myself. (Neena knew the power of a bribe!)

 

Among our group was a Most Superior Person (MSP), who had already graduated to the rank of General of the Indian Army. He had recently been married, and his wife’s trousseau included a brand-new Fiat 1100 (another BIG THING of the 1960s). He would walk to his parked limousine each morning, striding past the assembled hoi-polloi, absently returning our salute, and completely missing the smirk on our faces. One morning, Neena wondered aloud if no one could wipe the indulgent grin off his face. Pramod and I looked at each other – her wish was, needless to say, our command.

 

That night, we located two empty (or so we thought) drums of coal-tar on the roadside. The doors of the car were, of course, locked, but Pramod opened them through long practiced expertise, using a paper clip. We placed one drum on each seat, labelling them “His” and “Hers” with a piece of chalk.

 

Next morning, all hell broke loose. Some of the tar had spilled on to the car seats. The perpetrators were quickly identified, since they arrived last on the scene of the crime, enquiring as to what had happened with a “butter would melt” innocence. The MSP declared darkly that he would submit a report to the DG of the Academy…

 

I saw my OLQ slide by another 10 points.

 

Neena asked once again for my piggy bank, and once again, with a slow wink, she put in ten rupees. (This time it was a reward!)

 

After a while, we were forgiven. In due course, the MSP became a friend…. This had consequences later.

 

In due course, we were called for Secretariat Training at Lucknow. Charan Das Parsheera was among my drinking companions. One evening, after we had barely started, the whisky ran dangerously low. Another bottle had to be procured urgently, and Charan Das and I were dispatched for the task. The first liquor shop was closed, and the next one, and then another. It dawned on us that some sadistic politician had declared a dry-day out of sheer whim. I started to go back, accepting philosophically my loss of face with the waiting alcoholics.

 

However, Charan Das wasn’t one to give up easily. So, we went down some dank by-lanes, Charan Das sniffing the air as we went. Eventually he stopped at a closed door and hissed “pzzzzssssst!” A wizened old man appeared, opened the door a crack, and we went inside. Charan Das negotiated a Peter Scot for 150 rupees (legal price: Rs 75). However, our luck was running out. A policeman appeared from the depths of the night and demanded to know what exactly we were up to. Knowing that I would not withstand an experienced UP cop’s technique of extracting a confession for more than 15 seconds, I saw in a flash my short and happy sojourn in the IAS come to an ignoble end.

 

Charan Das was, however, unfazed. He asked to have a quick word with the policeman. After a few minutes of animated whispers, Charan Das came to where I stood, quaking in fear, and asked me to give him all the money I had – a total of 50 rupees, 10 percent of our monthly salary. He had 25 rupees. Money exchanged hands, we had the bottle, and the policeman went away, happy with his easy-peasy pickings. But Charan Das was not finished. He turned to the old man, and demanded the return of the extra 75 rupees he had charged. The money, he pointed out, was meant for purchase of protection from the police. (His fundas were crystal clear!) The old man demurred for a while, but outgunned in intellectual heft, finally gave in. The money was returned, we had the bottle – on a dry day, and for the legal price. Drinking resumed in earnest in the hostel shortly thereafter….

 

(I dedicate my eventual 38 years in the service to Charan Das’s chutzpa…)

 

Next came the Bharat Darshan. MSP was designated Leader of our group. No doubt his Generalissimo manner had earned him OLQ points that sufficed for the position. Our faculty Head of the Group was Professor B.N. Puri, who had taught us the history of the Kushanas. (What else is there in Indian history, anyways?) Those being less democratic times, the Leader had the authority to assign room-mates in each station. This was power indeed! To my consternation, MSP identified me as his best friend, and insisted that I be his room-mate throughout!

 

Every evening, before letting me sleep, MSP would recount the day’s events, and reveal how he had defused tricky situations through quicksilver thinking, and sheer leadership acumen. While not one to tolerate torture long, I resolved to bide my time….

 

My chance came on the Professor’s birthday. I suggested to MSP that we secretly buy a cake and do the honors at tea-time. I took everybody else in the Group into confidence on another plan…

 

At tea-time, the cake was duly produced, and the Professor’s eyes lit up like a child’s! Great Leader rose to make a felicitation speech. The cake was cut, the candle blown, and Great Leader commenced singing “Happy Birthday”. (His voice was not yet in the Kishore Kumar class). The whole Group, working to plan, joined in, in a crashing silence!

 

However, once again, I was forgiven. (It seems there is a tradition in the Army for letting subalterns be subalterns….)

 

We returned to the Academy for our second spell.

 

I rather fancied myself as a fast bowler. Once I clean bowled (but who else?) Pramod, and broke his stump into two. I cited this as evidence of my sheer pace. Uncharitable probationers attributed the breaking of the stump to the Academy’s policy of purchasing sports gear from the L1 supplier.

 

The Academy team was invited to play a cricket match with the Forest Service probationers at FRI Dehra Dun. The Captain of the FRI team was one AK Dogra, who, reputedly had turned down an assured career in First Class cricket as a batsman, to join Government Service. The evening before the match, he invited some of us (our Captain AP Sudhir, also a fast bowler, Ashok Mishra, our star batsman, myself, and some others) for a “small drink”. The evening wore on, and several bottles emptied….

 

No matter. A cold shower the next morning, and Sudhir and I were rarin’ to go. Sudhir opened the bowling, followed by me in the next over. Dogra had calculated, having watched us at the nets, that if we managed to pitch a ball at the right spot, and it swung ever so slightly (by accident, not design!) we would be unplayable. The evening’s hospitality was strategic, and had precisely to do with forestalling that possibility. Dogra opened the batting for the FRI team. He scored a 100. We lost the match.

 

But all was not lost. A certain lady probationer from the 1970 batch, posted on her own district training at Dehra Dun, had come to watch the match. She coyly enquired of Sarita Prasad, “who is the short fast bowler”….

 

It would take two Tamil exams, and the full scale play out of a Chetan Bhagat “Two States” burlesque, before we finally managed to put wedlocks on each other…

 

Time passed; we were close to the end of our probationary period. The UT cadre seemed an appropriate target for one last dodge. The technique however, needed an upgrade. Accordingly, Palti Menon, identified on account of his utterly trustworthy demeanour and reputation, (and with his connivance), received in the mail a letter from a friend, post-marked Chanakyapuri (where his friend stayed). The friend’s Dad was posted as a JS in the MHA. The letter revealed the UT cadre postings: Palti to Delhi (after all, he didn’t have a friend whose Dad was in the MHA, who was a friend of the JS (UT) for nothing!), Adarsh and Bobby to Goa, Dharam Chand Sankhla to Pondicherry, Suman (then Bala) and Virendra Singh to Goa, myself to Daman, and “and Navin got his Diu”.

 

My OLQ, by now, was irretrievably in the negative region, but as I left the Academy, my stature as an expert at forgery was sky-high!

 

And that’s what matters in the end, no?

 

The title of this brief memoir is from an old folk Russian song, now mostly sung at reunions of older Russian citizens, as they recall their lives in the Soviet era. The English version, familiar to many of us, is worth reproducing in full:

 

Once upon a time there was a tavern

Where we used to raise a glass or two

Remember how we laughed away the hours

And dreamed of all the great things we would do

 

Chorus:

Those were the days my friend

We thought they’d never end

We’d sing and dance forever and a day

We’d live the life we choose

We’d fight and never lose

For we were young and sure to have our way

La la la la…

 

Then the busy years went rushing by us

We lost our starry notions on the way

If by chance I’d see you in the tavern

We’d smile at one another and we’d say

 

Chorus:

Those were the days my friend

We thought they’d never end

We’d sing and dance forever and a day

We’d live the life we choose

We’d fight and never lose

Those were the days, oh yes those were the days

La la la la…

 

Just tonight I stood before the tavern

Nothing seemed the way it used to be

In the glass I saw a strange reflection

Was that greying person really me

 

Chorus:

Those were the days my friend

We thought they’d never end

We’d sing and dance forever and a day

We’d live the life we choose

We’d fight and never lose

Those were the days, oh yes those were the days

La la la la…

 

Through the door there came familiar laughter

I saw your face and heard you call my name

Oh my friend we’re older but no wiser

For in our hearts the dreams are still the same

 

Chorus:

Those were the days my friend

We thought they’d never end

We’d sing and dance forever and a day

We’d live the life we choose

We’d fight and never lose

Those were the days, oh yes those were the days

La la la la…

 

Come, let us talk of these things, over a drink or three. For “…presently all will be quiet: love, youth, and the sounds of wings”.

 

 

 

 

 

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