When we talk of a teacher, we think of either a school, college or university teacher. Some of us – who happen to be inclined that way – may also think of their Guru – a spiritual teacher. However, this Teachers’ Day my mind goes back to a quite different teacher – an extraordinary person who happened to be my teacher for a very limited period of just over a couple of months in 1979.

On joining the Ministry, I was posted in an office located in one of the many buildings lining the India Gate lawns. Later, when I worked in the South Block, I realized how lucky I was in that office away from the real headquarters of the Ministry.

The Central Secretariat Library was just a block away, and the little room in the External Publicity Division which had a small but rich collection of titles was one floor above us. A few furlongs away there was the British Council Library in the All-India Fine Arts and Crafts Society (AIFACS) building. For its membership, I had to obtain Ministry’s permission, but the other two could be freely accessed.

One afternoon when there was not much work at hand, I was going through and taking notes from the well-known textbook “An Advance History of India”. A young lady officer from the Ministry of Education – who later rose to occupy the highest post in her state – came over to my boss for a cup of coffee. While passing my table she stopped. The book I was reading did not escape her notice. “Why are you reading that book?” she asked, “Are you preparing for M.A. or something?”

I had to tell her that I had cleared the prelims of the Civil Services examination and was getting ready for the mains.

It was she who broke the ‘news’ to my boss and thence to the Deputy Head of our Division. This young officer was a slim and tall guy of fair complexion and a friendly disposition. I do not wish to reveal his name as it may not be a pleasant memory for many who knew him still happen to be around. Let me just call him “Sir”.

He congratulated me and told me how happy he was at my success, and then enquired about the subjects I had chosen for the main examination. On being told that my subjects were History and Political Science & International relations, he offered to help me with the latter but said that for History the lady ‘S’ could give me some suggestions, which she actually gave. He also asked me how I was preparing myself, how much time I devoted to studying and how much to write, and so on.

That’s how it started. For the next couple of months – before I took a longish leave before the exam – I attended a kind of regular tutorial class after the office hours when “Sir” would explain topics on international relations and would also give me ‘homework’ that I would complete bak home for him to check on the next day. I have absolutely no idea why I got such special attention from him, but in the process, I came to know him a lot.

A brilliant officer, he undoubtedly had a promising career before him. Sadly, he had a very deep-rooted psychological problem, perhaps out of a marriage gone sour. He would occasionally go into a deep depression, start drinking a lot and would even come to the office in a less than sober state. On those occasions only I had the permission to be with him to listen to his tales of woe.

I was far too young to console him, but would somehow make him drink strong black coffee ordered from the Coffee Board. By the afternoon he would be quite another person and would call his P.A. to finish the day’s work.

He once told me in great detail about his own preparation for the examination, and about the interview that followed. It was fascinating to listen to him. One of the Board members told him that for all practical purposes he was an American – starting with his education and all. “How could you then be fit to be an IFS officer?” he was asked.

According to “Sir”, he politely sought and got permission to put a counter-question to answer the Board’s poser. He asked the Board as to who would qualify as a typical Indian and then provided the reply himself.

He said, there was hardly anything in common between Indians hailing from different parts of the country. India was a multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-religious country. He went on to say that in his opinion any person, even a foreigner, could represent India provided he had three qualities, viz. knowledge about India, feelings for India and a strong desire to serve India. He offered himself to be tested on those three counts. One could guess what the result of his interview would have been.

Soon after my exams I was transferred out of Delhi, and then to one of our Missions in South East Asia. Those days there was no internet and hence no e-mail. For communication, our mission had a wireless telex through which we were kept abreast of the important developments back home. These were known as the PTI transmissions. We had no FAX machine even.

Other than that, there were the weekly diplomatic bags. Therefore, by the time I read a small news item tucked away in the obscure corner of The Statesman about a very sad end to Sir’s life under unfortunate circumstances, it was a story of three weeks’ vintage. A potentially illustrious career was thus cruelly cut short.

To me it was a great shock, not because of the tutorial sessions we had, but because he had been so kind to such an insignificant person as me. Today, as I think about him, I consider myself lucky that I had such an unusual ‘teacher’. As long as I live, I can never forget that tall person, with a somewhat pale face and forlorn eyes giving me a lecture on “the New International Economic Order”, a hot topic in those days.

What happened to my big dream? Well, I can only say after Robert Browning :

Fail I alone, in words and deeds?

Why, all men strive and who succeeds?

But this piece is not about me. It is about someone the like of whom is anytime a rare breed, and these days it is almost extinct. Rest in peace, Sir, wherever you may be! *

* Written on Teachers’ Day 2021