Papa in New York, me in Moscow

It was thanks to Papa that I joined the Indian Foreign Service. I had given up studying for the main exam, thinking I could never make it, and also because Mum wanted me to join academics, not Govt Service. It was also awfully unfashionable in my college circle. He got back from a month’s long absence and found me loitering in my pyjamas on the first day of the exam, and urged me to go, take a “one in a million chance”. I cycled down to the UPSC centre on Shah Jahan Road, arriving half an hour late, with the examiners looking at me very sorrowfully when they gave me my sheets. Thank you Papa.

But I needed another nudge yet. I was thrilled about my fully funded PhD Fellowship to Cornell University and intended to complete it.

I flew down to Geneva on my way to the United States in 1980, and met up with Papa at a colleague’s house, where I was asked what I had been upto, to which I replied, well, we loafed around (my Brother was already there), to which he said “better bred people dont loaf around!” which still sends me into fits.

Papa’s posting to New York was confirmed after my Cornell Fellowship was. He had visited the United States once before I think and had returned awed and thrilled like a child at the highly developed society he saw there. We listened goggle-eyed while he described the enormous delicious breakfasts served routinely in the U.S.A, and other sights. I had a similar experience with American food at Cornell University. I was overwhelmed at the quality and variety . I had signed up for one meal, so filled myself with goodies at dinner and skipped lunch. He used to call daily to persuade me to return, and Mom used to call immediately after to persuade me to stay on, saying academics was my life.

But Daddy was ultimately more persuasive. He pointed out I could pursue my studies later, whereas once one passed up the Services, one couldnt re-apply. On the night before I made my decision, I saw the movie “War and Peace” at Cornell. I think that influenced my decision a lot. I had done social work during my college years and the dire poverty I witnessed had frightened me to death. I didnt think I could last long in the IAS.

It was hard to leave the green slopes, refined teaching, and most of all the friends I made and the fun we had. It had been harder getting into Cornell than sitting for the exams. But I really thought I would be back.

Papa tried to visit me during my assignment in Delhi and Moscow. I saw him twice in Moscow before he passed away. His visits were fantastic, as he relived his years in Moscow and met friends and colleagues. He cracked jokes and regaled everyone with anecdotes and gave wise advice. He managed to get me tickets to “The Master & Margarita” at Taganka Theatre. I had no idea it would be the last time I would see him. He did excuse himself suddenly from a party and alarm bells should have gone off for me. He had never in his life left a party so abruptly. He wouldnt admit how unwell he felt. In New  York he continued to work himself to the bone – in the bureaucracy work always gravitates to the most competent and sincere Officers. My Mother told me he attended conferences for 36 hours on end and exhausted himself. On the day of his death, a Minister landed up and Papa actually cancelled an appointment with his Doctor, who had till then amazingly diagnosed nothing wrong in a person complaining of extreme fatigue and serious shortness of breath, a sure give away of heart trouble. It is difficult to relive those missed opportunities to have done something.


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