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How A No-Nonsense Bureaucrat Found Joy And Meaning In Birds

18/09/2015 8:27 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Outside my window as I write this, I can hear crows cawing, kites keening and assorted other birds chirping, screeching and tonking. It's a struggle, given the buses and horns and so much more noise that defines my city. But when I tune it all out and tune in the birds, I can hear almost nothing else.

Which, of course, is a throwback to my years growing up in here in Bombay. Traffic rarely needed to be tuned out then, because there was so little traffic anyway. We heard birds by default, which, in these days of 21st Century cacophony, is startling. And even so, my strongest and fondest memory of birdsound in this city is from somewhere deep within that very 21st Century cacophony, sound that sailed above it on some kind of sonic magic carpet. On one of Bombay's busiest corners, it brought me unexpected joy and no little wonder that this was still a city reality. But most of all, it brought me waves of aching memory.

This was outside Elphinstone College, one February morning in 2009. The annual Kala Ghoda festival of arts was on, which added several dozen decibels to the already unruly racket of traffic. Waiting to cross the road into the festival, I heard an unmistakable "tonk!" Then again, and again. Like clockwork it went, a couple of ticks between each "tonk".

indian barbet

It didn't take long to find the tonker: a barbet, clinging to the end of a branch almost directly overhead, unfazed by how close I was. Every second or two, his beak would open wide, his little body convulsing as he loosed another "tonk" on an unsuspecting world. Each time, in a different direction. Not for nothing is this green-and-red creature called a "coppersmith": its call is so like a miniature hammer on a tiny anvil. What was his particular problem that day? I don't know. But something about his steady tonks was not just charming but also plaintive. Also altogether wrenching.

My father on my mind.

Actually, it was my mother who was always fascinated by birds, and she remains so today. On every family holiday -- the Andamans, Simla, Mahabaleshwar, Bhimtal -- we invariably carried along a pair of weather-beaten binoculars. My mother invariably pointed out to us the local feathered fauna, urging us to peer at them through the glasses. All of which explains why, even today, I can identify drongos and kingfishers, egrets and barbets and bulbuls.

But my father? He never was much of a birdwatcher. Still, over a half century together some of her enthusiasm, willy-nilly, rubbed off on him. Many's the time I've walked into their flat and found them at their large open bedroom window, leaning out -- too far out, my heart in my mouth -- to peer at some bird or the other on the Ficus Bengalensis (wild fig) tree outside.

And often enough, its green and red nicely matching the tree's succulent green leaves and red berries, that bird was a barbet.

***

But each time, it was a slight surprise to see him watching birds. For his interests ran to the practical and the useful, the logical and the reasoned. He crafted a career, a reputation, a life, as a no-nonsense bureaucrat; forever upright, fearless, self-deprecating and straight-talking, and always laced with humour. There was rarely time for more trivial pursuits. So where did birdwatching fit, then?

"[H]e lived the quote from 'Hamlet': "This above all, to thine own self be true; And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not be false to any man."

He spent a while in the Royal Indian Navy just before the country won independence, and I like to think that explained his fondness for the Gilbert and Sullivan classic "HMS Pinafore". Especially these lines that drew a chuckle every time: "Stick close to your desks and never go to sea/And you all may be Rulers of the Queen's Navee!"

They might have been written for him. For like Sir Joseph Porter KCB, First Lord of the Admiralty and Chief Buffoon of Pinafore, my father never went to sea.

But he never became ruler of the navy either. For when freedom came, he moved from the Navy to the newly-christened Indian Administrative Service. Those were fraught times, and he was immediately sent to serve in a place of widespread bloodshed, where the rule of law in two young countries was being overwhelmed by events before it could even be properly established. Punjab, as Partition happened: where trains arrived in both countries with their passengers slaughtered, where families were murdered in their homes, where ancient bonds suddenly withered in the face of hatreds uncorked.

He told us this Punjab story. Somewhere near the border in September 1947, a convoy of a few hundred refugees meanders along a rural road, trying to find their way to their new country. A few bored cops and a 26-year-old IAS officer have been assigned to escort them. The officer makes it a point to occasionally cross through the pathetic line of frightened migrants, just to see what there is to see on the other side. Once that he does this, what he sees is a band of burly men bellowing threats, brandishing swords, thirsty for blood as they charge through the adjoining field towards the refugees. The officer has no time to think. Instinctively, he acts. In a manner he was forever to describe as "foolhardy", this young man runs at the bellowing men, waving his stick, shouting and beckoning as if he has a force behind him. Which he doesn't, because his constables are on the other side of the convoy, oblivious.

The blood-seekers turn and run.

That young man was my father.

"Would he send the car to take us home? Please? Just this once? My father had a one-word response: "Walk." I already sensed defeat, but I fired one more shot. We'll get drenched, I wailed into the phone. My father had a six-word response: "You can dry off at home."

A quarter-century and several fascinating jobs later, he was in charge of a Maharashtra Government agency that was planning Bombay's brand new twin city, across the harbour. By now, he had three kids in school. Still in our teens, we had already learned a lesson from him: being the children of a senior bureaucrat brought us no favours. That meant, for one example, that we got no rides in his official car, unless he was travelling in it to or from work and we could be picked up or dropped off en route. I understood the logic, the propriety, but for a long time I quietly resented this unwritten rule. Because I had friends who rode about in cars. Whose cars they were I didn't know, but I couldn't help comparing my journeys about the city -- walking, or by bus -- to theirs, and mine came off much less glamorous. Or comfortable. Like the day it was pouring as school ended. As our friends left in various cars, the siblings elected me to make the appeal. I found a phone and called him. Would he send the car to take us home? Please? Just this once? My father had a one-word response: "Walk." I already sensed defeat, but I fired one more shot. We'll get drenched, I wailed into the phone. My father had a six-word response: "You can dry off at home."

I thought he was being unnecessarily harsh. But I did indeed dry off, long before he got home. Later, I grew to appreciate and respect the example he set and it was not harsh at all.

Not that he couldn't, otherwise, be harsh. One of those times I was in the car with him, I rattled off some little thing I had reasoned out for myself at school that day: as kids sometimes do, and I was proud of myself. Something to do with French dictionaries, as I recall. But I still remember his swift, dismissive putdown: "So what? This is just trivial rubbish." Or the time he harangued me for an entire night. At 32, I had decided to try making a career of writing, instead of computer science that I had trained in and worked in for a decade. He thought I was being a fool, and told me so in multiple ways that night. The next morning he gave me yet another of those rides in his official car -- dropping me at the software job I wanted to give up on -- and I still remember the total silence between us.

Maybe the dictionary put-down is kiddie history. But even though he usually liked what I wrote, some part of me is still raw about that long night when I was 32.

"[W]hen I no longer cared if people regarded me highly or whether I got a promotion, both those things came. "

And yet that was him. He believed in staying the course and making your mark and had earned the respect of his peers for doing exactly that. So he couldn't stomach how I had muddled through five jobs in eight years, and now was talking about another change. He couldn't stomach muddling through, period. Whatever it took out of us that night, he believed he had to tell me what he thought.

It's what he always did. After an earlier change in my life, when I wrote home about for once finding meaning and passion in my work, he wrote back about his years working with SG Barve, the legendary civil service officer:

"The commitment to the people's service Barve inspired gave my efforts a totally different character, impetus and persistence. I no longer cared for whether people regarded me as efficient. I bothered very little about promotion. The reward I cherished was simply the opportunity to serve effectively. And when I no longer cared if people regarded me highly or whether I got a promotion, both those things came. You too are changing. I have high hopes, and confidence."

He loved the lines from "Pinafore". But he lived the quote from "Hamlet": "This above all, to thine own self be true; And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not be false to any man."

That day in Punjab, no less that night in Bombay, this man was true to himself.

***

But still, where did the birds fit? And how? My father grew to love the little green-and-red fellows that flitted about on the Ficus tree. Once that I turned up, I remember, he dragged me to the window and pointed to the underside of a thick branch. "She's building a nest!" he said, though I'm not sure how he knew it was a she. Sure enough: we could see some twigs and other indeterminate material in a small hole in the branch, an upside-down barbet industriously jabbing at it all with her beak, flying off to find some more indeterminate material, returning to jab upside-down some more. We didn't ever see any baby barbets, but the thought of them hatching and growing in there was a delicious one.

indian barbet

Within the year, though, a bone marrow disease that he had battled for long finally consumed him. Through the last month, when he must have known the end was near, he often sat in his rocking chair beside that same large window. He would try to read or do some mathematics, favourite pastimes all his life, or even watch TV. Once, he and I made a start on a long-postponed promise: that we'd study and discuss number theory together. But by then he himself knew, as we too eventually had to come to accept, that the mental effort was beyond him.

One breezy morning, I remember, he sat and stared out at the Ficus, a little lost, a little sad. No barbets to cheer him up, either, upside-down or not. I held him close that day, whispering in his ear though I didn't know if he could hear me: "Let go, B. We love you. Don't feel like you have to hang on." On a Sunday afternoon several days after that, he slipped quietly away, his last silent breath a final goodbye, hanging almost tangibly in the air.

We mourned my father, but the outpouring of tributes and remembrances from so many, including people we didn't know at all, both comforted and overwhelmed us. Typical was the letter UV Joshi wrote to the Times of India a few days later:

"I was saddened to read about the death of JB D'Souza, ex-chief secretary of the Government of Maharashtra. I have not come across another civil servant like him. I served under him when he was Director of Relief and Rehabilitation, Chandrapur, for the resettlement of Bangladesh refugees. He was dedicated to the welfare of the common man, a visionary but practical, unassuming but bold, strict but friendly in and out of the office, patient and well organised. He never lost his cool: and his respect for subordinates was exceptional."

"One breezy morning, I remember, he sat and stared out at the Ficus, a little lost, a little sad. No barbets to cheer him up, either, upside-down or not."

And we think we have some possibly sentimental reason to believe that the barbets, not unlike UV Joshi, missed their admirer in the window too. Well, we like to think so.

Not long after my father died, one left its perch on the Ficus and sailed in through the window. It landed on the bed. It hopped off. It hopped onto the century-old wall clock that only my father would ever wind, tapping gently at the glass like an inquisitive visitor.

Was this him trying to tell us, from somewhere out there in the unknown, that he was all right? That he thought of us too, as we thought of him?

No answers, of course.

But sometimes my daughter will go to that window, spy a bright red Ficus berry and, fooled momentarily by the colour like we all have been, exclaim: "It's a barbet!" And I remember, with an ache.

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