Intimations of mortality are always sobering. More sobering is the fact that these intimations should come now with such alarming frequency. In the last six months, we have met here in Kapurthala House in precise two-month intervals in remembrance of three of our dearest, most loved and admired colleagues. It is painful to be doing this with such regularity and I sincerely hope that a divine intervention will at least lengthen this gap.
The commonality does not end in that all three colleagues had an iconic status in the Punjab cadre. What is really striking is that one of the most distinguishing characteristics of all three was the bigness of their laughter. Krishnamurthy’s laughter came out of an unfettered ability to enjoy the quirks and quiddities of life. Vaishnav’s had a hint of mischief. But that of Mr, Kapila was in a league of its own. Whenever he was in the throes of his prolonged spells of laughter, we had to check not only that the window-panes of the building were intact but that the foundation had not suffered damage. It was a laughter of such a liberating quality that anyone present in the room would himself begin to feel as though he had been through a paradoxically enjoyable catharsis. It was a laughter which was informed by wit and intelligence. It was a laughter as a signature statement. It was a laughter which should be treated as an intangible heritage.
I came to know the youngest of the Kapila brothers, Neethu, when I was uniquely, distinctively ragged by him as a fresher in St. Stephen’s College. The middle brother, Sethu, who had left College was by then already a legend with numerous records of the ‘how many eggs you can consume in five minutes’ kind. We only knew of the eldest brother through stories but came to realize early on that all the male members of the Kapila family had a really endearing madcap quality to them, which made them among the most interesting and stimulating friends you could have. Neethu and I were very close friends and shared a streak of impulsive wildness which was both exhilarating as well as something capable of landing us into great trouble. When I came to know the rest of the family, including the grand patriarch in Hoshiarpur, I realized that this was a family characteristic and that whichever of the Kapilas you chose as your friend, you would be in for interesting times.
Mr. Kapila came into our lives and careers when he joined the Mussoorie Academy as a Senior Deputy Director when we were probationers. We immediately made him out as a cut above the rest. The informality of his manner, the sharpness of his wit, his irreverence of all hierarchy without ever being impolite or impudent to those in authority, his articulation and -- above all -- his persuasive skills in making people see things from his point of view and in actually converting them to his own without badgering them, was among the most extraordinary. He was a great trainer and later, when we worked together as the founders of the PSIPA, I was awestruck by his ability to transform stodgy, conventional bureaucratic minds into lively, questioning and open minds even if the transformation did not always endure. His interaction with his peers and especially with subordinates often had an inspirational quality and it was from that I learnt to place a great value on how to do things differently and how to set seemingly impossible challenges toone's subordinates as a means of getting them to extend themselves to their fullest potential. I personally rate the time I worked with him as one of the most stimulating periods of my career.
Of course, working with him required one to pay a price. When we started PSIPA, it was the first time I had access to a staff car that I could also use for personal purposes on a fixed monthly payment. Being unused to such luxuries, I tried to make the most of it by driving the official car myself on Holi, with a large, merry and raucous band of revelers spilling out of the car (on the roof and inside the boot) and going to the houses of all our seniors to play the wettest and most rambunctious of Holis. The revelries included our dousing Mrs. Kapila (who had locked herself in the bathroom to shampoo her hair) with a bucket of pure, glorious magenta water thrown at her through a high ventilator by Inderjit Singh Bindra, honing his skills as a fielder. While Mr. Kapila joined in our antics with his characteristic passion, he made it very clear to me the next morning that he found my use of the official car for a Holi outing as thoroughly objectionable and unacceptable. Knowing that he was right, I decided to give up the staff car and follow his example by going to work riding a bicycle. It was a difficult act to follow because not only did Mr. Kapila go to office (and he was Punjab’s Home Secretary then) on a ruddy bicycle, he insisted on carrying his tiffin carrier himself from his bicycle parking shed to the eighth floor of the Punjab Civil Secretariat.
Those days in the Punjab Secretariat were halcyon days. Somehow differences of age and seniority in service, did not interfere with the informality and friendliness of our relations. Because of his informality and the shared antipathy to pomposity and authority, Mr. Kapila was closer to us, the Young Turks of the Secretariat, than he was to many of his own age group. Rajendran Nair, Krishnamaurthy, Deepa Jain Singh, Piyush Verma, Jai Singh Gill and I would often get together for tea in his room because he was a connossieur of Lopchu and of tea made exactly the way it should be, to yield you a golden brew to be had, in his case, with a pinch of salt and a crushed cardamom. He would make the tea himself and we would spend a delightful half-hour doing what Vaishnav pithily described as ‘malicious meditation’ directed against common enemies in the still higher echelons of the Punjab bureaucracy, including sundry Chief Secretaries. As always, the room would soon be rocking with laughter of the kind that now seems to be lost forever. I think I speak for most of us that these were among the most enjoyable interludes in our careers.
Why is it that we do not have officers like Mr. Kapila any more? People who wore their position so lightly, people who had passionate interests in things outside their careers—books, music, mountains—people who could stand up to their convictions against seniors and ministers with a deftness of touch, people who avoided unpleasantness without having to make compromises, people who saw that fighting for a cause, or a principle, or an idea or a person was not just a personal quality but something essential to the performance of the job one was paid for; people who had scant regard for the fopperies and tinsels of office? When I now see such people held in contempt and the opposite kind valorized: those for whom timidity, puisillanimity, sycophancy and kow-towing to those in authority are the presiding values, I am glad that I had a chance to work with and be trained by the Kapilas, the Kathpalias, the Vaishnavs and the Vasudevas of the world. For those who will never be able to know how exciting it was to be with people like Mr. Kapila, I have pity. They don’t make them like that any more.