27 June 2015
Vivek Agnihotri, retired IAS officer is a former secretary-general, Rajya Sabha, Parliament of India, reminisces about a cross-service friendship struck over his years in service
I got to know him during the summer of 1976. We were almost next-door neighbours in a multi-storeyed sports complex, being used as transit accommodation for government servants posted to Delhi on transfer.
There were eight 8 floors and each floor had 32 apartments. It is difficult to imagine how the architect managed to conceptualise it; but he did. Add to that the fact that most of the occupants were young couples with small children; so each floor had about 64 children at the rate of two for each flat.
There used to quite a scene in the evenings, with the children chit chatting, skating on the floor landing and doing all other kind of things that the children normally do. The kitchens of all the flats were facing the landing. Walking down the landing on a languid afternoon or late
evening, you could get all kinds of aromas ranging from the north of India to the south and from east to the west.
Thus families got to know each other through children bringing their friends to the flat or the wives exchanging cooking recipes.
Most of us did not have TVs. There was only one in the common room, which naturally turned into a 'commotion room' in the evenings, when the Doordarshan only programmes were aired for a few hours.
Prasada Rao (name changed) and I had had a nodding acquaintance for some time, before on a particularly hot day of the ensuing summer we simultaneously, and somewhat impulsively, decided to buy a room cooler. We went out to Daryaganj and bought a rather large-sized cooler each to match the degree of our discomfort.
In due course we discovered several common interests and passions, including a penchant for impulsive action.
Rao, a member of the Indian Forest Service posted with the government of India then, was an intelligent, witty and unassuming person. We mixed very well also because our spouses and children too liked each other. Both of us had two sons (his were a few years older), who provided plenty of opportunity to their mothers to compare notes.
Moreover, the state (erstwhile Andhra Pradesh) to which I was allotted as an IAS officer was his native state too.
A couple of years later, my younger son, who was five years of age, decided to take a short cut to the ground floor from our second floor flat by sliding down the banister of the public staircase, as he had seen some older boys doing it. He could not quite manage it and fell headlong onto the hard ground below.
Rao's elder son saw the boy lying on the tarmac, bleeding profusely due to a head injury. He carried him up to our flat, unmindful of the blood staining his clothes all over. That brought us even closer and we went for several outings and spent many evenings together during our stay in the multi-storeyed haven for close to four years.
At the end of it, Rao went on a secondment to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and subsequently got absorbed in it. I returned to my state government and got immersed in babudom.
We met off and on, whenever our paths crossed, particularly when he visited his native state to meet his mother. In those early days of the computer age (1980s), he used to talk animatedly of the machine he had, which permitted touch-screen editing of text. I was fascinated.
Years later, in early 1990s, when I was doing a stint at the Lal Bahadur National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, I received a surprise call one day from Rao from Dehradun inviting us to dinner.
He had come to the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun on a consultancy assignment on behalf of the FAO. I and my wife spent a nice evening together reminiscing the days gone by. At the end of it, we invited him to pay a return visit to our place in Mussoorie, which he did.
In the course of the conversation, he mentioned to us that he was going to the US to visit his son, who had had just become father. In parting, we hoped to meet again during his next trip to Dehradun.
Ten days later, he was dead; although we came to know about it only about a month later through a chance meeting with a common friend. As it transpired, went to Hyderabad to look up his mother before proceeding to the US.
On the spur of the moment he decided to request his mother to accompany him. That would have, in his opinion, provided an opportunity for four generations of the family to be together under one roof at the same time.
But this required a change in his itinerary. He had booked himself to fly out of Mumbai on a particular day. But in order to take with him his mother, an aged lady unused to long air travels, he needed a brief halt in Mumbai to give her some time to recuperate before she undertook the long journey to the USA.
He, therefore, postponed his departure by a day. The airlines he was travelling by gave him a stopover in Mumbai at the Centaur hotel. On reaching Mumbai, he sought a change in the room allotted to him in the hotel to suit the convenience of his mother. His sister and
brother-in-law came to Mumbai to see them off.
As there were several hours available before the departure of the flight, his sister suggested that and her husband might like to go into town. Rao differed. He said that he wanted to be with his mother to prepare her for the long journey ahead and; therefore, persuaded his sister and the brother-in-law to go to the city to make some purchases for him.
A little later the infamous bomb blasts of 1993 in Mumbai took place. One of the bombs went off in the Centaur Hotel, right next to the room where Mr. Prasada Rao and his mother had checked in. They died instantaneously.
We are still in touch with his two sons, who are in the US and Rsao's unassuming and a very homely wife, who is periodically in Hyderabad and serves lovely dosas to us whenever we happen to be there.
But we miss the cheer and the camaraderie that we enjoyed in the early days of our friendship.