I had the occasion to visit the National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie a few weeks ago. We were there to make a presentation to the newly promoted IAS officers on serious issues of governance and administration. It was a long and exhausting trip from Bangalore, via Delhi and Dehradun. We reached around 9 in the late evening. The night did not yield a view of the mountains; but early next morning they were revealed in all their glory from my window. The monsoon showers had painted them a deep green and against the blue of the skies, themselves splattered with white clouds, they were a sight for the gods.
My mind went back almost forty years: and suddenly I was once again a young lad, not even twenty four and just out of University, arriving at the gates of the Academy, on a blustery and rain filled morning, with my steel trunk and massive hold all, ready to start my life as an IAS officer. I spent a good 15 months of my impressionable youth there, learning the ropes, meeting new and excitingly different people, young and passionate as me, all ready to go out and change the world into a better place. We were a batch of over a hundred and fifty and all of us were filled with the new hopes and optimism that the political changes seemed to herald. The Emergency was just over, a new dispensation was in power at Delhi, and it seemed that the country was on the cusp of a magnificent new change that would ring out the old and ring in the new.
From a cloistered childhood in a strict and conventional family deep down in the South, where my every word and movement was regulated and controlled, suddenly, there I was, free and excited, determined to make my mark on the world around. There was no curfew, no rules on conduct and behaviour. After some hesitation, I experimented with this new freedom. Cigarettes and liquor were the first temptations: I dallied with them and later abandoned them, when the newness had worn off. Indeed, people fascinated me more; and what a variety of them from all over the country! Their accents were unique, their mannerisms distinctive, their habits and behaviour varied and often incomprehensible. For the first time, after years of shyness and caution, I could talk to the women officers there on an equal footing, without being abashed or put off. I learned more in those two years of training than I had ever thought possible, and when I landed up in Rajasthan, where I was to spend the next thirty five years of my life, I knew I was as ready as I could possibly be.
Cut to today. As I took a walk round the wonderful campus that the Academy is, I marvelled on how much it had changed, and, strangely, not changed. Indeed the buildings looked different, the library had expanded, the dining hall was cleaner, the rooms swankier. But then, the clouds and the mist and the view of the magnificent mountains, they were all the same. They were all around me, silent observers watching how we humans conducted ourselves against a timeless backdrop.
In the almost forty years separating now from then, what had changed? Had I become a different person, or was I just the same with but some obvious cosmetic changes of appearance and looks?
Let me count the ways I have changed. As dispassionately as I can, let me place the ‘me’ of then, and the ‘me’ of now, side by side, and mark out the differences. As children we used to play this game, right? Two almost identical pictures; we stare at them and the note that the cat’s tail is slightly different, and the cushion has slipped to the corner of the sofa and the man is wearing his glasses now, the woman has a new hat on. And we take childish delight in having caught all the differences correctly.
Well, there are the obvious differences. I was then a gangly 55 kilos when I stood at the gates of the Academy, so many years ago. I am now 62. The weight matches my age. That’s a gain of seven kilos over almost forty years; not too much, eh? My hair is now half grey and thin, transformed from the black shock of thick curls that had once adorned my head. The power of my glasses has increased by several points. Minor surgical procedures have been performed on me. At times, unspecified aches and pains clutch at my stomach or clamp at my head. My knees creak, my teeth twinge off and on. Now and then, the allergens in the breeze prickle my nose and my breathing becomes strenuous. My heart has beat so many times more in the intervening decades, my lungs have breathed in that much more air. But other than that, I guess I should be grateful I am in good shape.
And inside? In the corners of my mind and the dark recesses of my brain, how are things there? Well, truth to say, I no longer see the world as a sunny place with blue skies and white clouds. There are dark caves and subterranean seas below the surface. And, I no longer see all people as good and kindly: I glimpse their viciousness so much clearer these days. My trust in them has turned brittle and powdery.
I now know that I cannot change the world, (well, if not the world, the small corner of the world I reside in) into a beautiful heaven by sheer dint of high ideals, hard work and good intent. It takes more than that, much more than I can accomplish. Keeping oneself afloat and above the slimy depths is hard enough. Who then has the inclination to save others?
There is a pressing need to remain relevant; to keep the grey cells ticking, to be aware of what is happening around me in the wide world outside. And so in what may be almost desperation, I read and write and speak and discuss and try to learn more than my capabilities permit. I question things unnecessarily and foolishly, knowing full well that acceptance gives more solace than enquiry.
The unquestioned faith I had in the Almighty has seeped away, and there is nothing there to replace the confidence and peace of mind that I once knew, but is now fled. That there is a celestial universe above my head with mysteries that may never be solved is a truth I have to grapple with. I can see no explanation for my presence here at this point in space and time, and no purpose for the human kind to which I belong. Generosity towards the others of my kind, not so fortunate as myself, once so very important in my understanding of things, now suddenly seems unnecessary. I, me, myself and mine: that is all that looms big and strong in my perception. My home, my wife, my daughter and her family; keep the hearth and home warm and happy: that is the sum of all things in my mind.
I have unspoken fears about disease and mortality: they disturb my sleep and keep me awake at night. Dementia has reared its head in the family and I know now that the genes can carry this forward from one generation to the next.
But through all this, I feel a greater sense of confidence and maturity; I know I have to depend, not on an uncertain heavenly bidding, but on myself for my salvation and my well being. It is for me to take care of myself and my own. I feel the strength of that thought suffusing me and giving me the vigour to rise above the purposelessness that may have otherwise overtaken me. My health is my concern and my duty and hence I must take care of my diet and my exercise and my mental happiness. My home is my fortress and I have to protect it with all my wits and cunning. My family is my only wealth and I have to guard it with determination and courage. And thus there is a new purpose; a new light shining on the old reasons that move me to find joy in my life.
After a space of many months, I now see new meaning in things that had lost their worth. There is no need to seek the higher goal or nobler purpose in the circumstances that it is our fate to bear. There is no need to search for life after life, this one is good enough. We need to understand that our job is to spend every day in the full knowledge that it is for us, for me and mine, to find new meaning and new significance in our every breath and deed, here and now, today and at this instant. Not for an uncertain tomorrow or an unseen heaven in the skies. My kingdom of God is here and now; do I need anything more?