Close friendships among men often display some peculiar characteristics. Greetings are almost invariably in the form of insults and imprecations. The closer you are to one another, the more extreme is the choice of the obscenity. To achieve the intended result the chosen words or phrase have to be in the vernacular, because the English language in the Indian context lends respectability and sophistication to even the worst of profanities and thereby takes away from the depths of affection you wish to convey. Obscenities as forms of endearment are peculiar to the human male species and, in my case, such endearments were reserved for some very, very special friends. Out of my batch mates it was only with Ashok, Devdas Chhotray and Shivshankar Mukherji of the IFS that the instant I saw them or heard their voice on the phone, I had to let loose a volley of colourful expressions in Hindi and Punjabi. Each of us constantly honed our skills in being more outrageous than the other. Ashok or Hoicks would occasionally vary the ritual by looking slightly pained if you had hurled the first salvo and ask with grave innocence ‘Oy, shaala, gaali kyun deta hai’ before unleashing his own repertoire. This ritual exchange of pleasantries was unfailingly followed, irrespective of the time gap between our meetings, and it established many things. First that the special bond between us was unaffected by time and circumstance. Second, that sincerity in service and exaltation in status and hierarchy would never dim our desire to puncture pomposity whenever the opportunity arose and that we will never take bureaucracy seriously. Third that both of us continued to have a very strong desire to be always on the wrong side of the establishment whichever be the establishment in power.
This form of ritual exchange of pleasantries had its horrifying moments. In the long list of the ‘Most Embarrassing Moments of My Life, top of the order belongs to an occasion in 1991 when batchmate M.S. Srinivasan on a visit from Tamil Nadu to Delhi had dropped in my room in the Ministry of Defence and suggested that we talk to Hoicks about meeting for lunch or dinner. I buzzed my PA an obsequious yet sly buffoon called Kathpalia and asked him to contact Mr. Saikia. A few moments later, he buzzed me and said ‘Mr. Saikia on the line, Sir’. Without further ado and without even saying ‘Hello’ I started off on an initial description of some generic blood relatives – sister and mother to be precise, expecting the usual response , so that we could get on with the business on hand. For a few seconds there was a frosty silence on the other side and then a very unusually genteel Saikia said ‘Hullo this is Saikia here’. That’s is a new one, I thought, and I won’t fall for it. ‘Hellow this is Saikia here’ – I mimicked and then went into a flurry of colourful expressions describing in some detail the anatomical explorations of a variety of blood relatives and incentuous relations with them. The person at the other end sounded most astonished on why one junior Joint Secretary in the Government of India should unleash such an unprovoked verbal assault without even a preamble. ‘This is A.K. Saikia here’ he said in a very gingerly manner and in a flash I realized that I had been talking not to Ashok Saikia, but to Mr. A.K. Saikia, 1960 or 1961 batch of the IAS, ten/eleven years senior and someone most unlikely to appreciate the turn of expression Ashok and I revelled in. I felt so foolish that I just put the receiver down. Giving explanations would have probably worsened the situation and I really was completely flumnoxed on what I should do. When I finally got through to the real Ashok Saikia, he just chortled and guffawed at my plight and reassured me that the venerable Mr. A.K. Saikia would just let it pass. Later, Ranjana fold me that Mr. A.K. Saikia met them soon thereafter and made a passing reference to Ashok’s interesting. Ashok just blushed.
You will all recall how fetching Ashok’s blushes were. His cherubic face with that impish glint behind a solemn pout, breaking into a chortle, moments after he had made a wise-crack with a dead serious face or heard a witty remark from you, would always make me awash with an enormous surge of affection for him. You could never get angry with him. There were many times in the days when he was wielding enormous power, that I had occasion to feel resentful that he was not doing enough to help me out of a terrible dip in my career and I would build up this resentment to try and confront and shame him. However, each time I went to see him to vent my anger, one look at his face and all the anger would disappear. He used to blush oftener than any man I know and his face would radiate such innocence that he would bring out in me almost maternal feelings of affection and tenderness, expressed of course through even more colourful insults.
Ashok became an instant friend the very first time I saw him in the Mussoorie Academy. Although we had been contemporaries in Delhi University, the psychological distance between St. Stephens, my college and Ramjas his college and English Literature my subject and History his, had kept us apart. On my very first evening in the Happy Valley block, after dinner, I was on the lookout for company for a cigarette and a nightcap. My neighbours seemed rather strait-laced and not the kind interested in breaking rules about alcohol consumption in the rooms. I found Ashok sprawled in a chair with T.R. Srinivasan and both sharing a toothbrush tumbler, full of rum and smoking. I joined in and Ashok gave me two remarkably insightful bits of wisdom. The first was in response to my saying how enjoyable a drink would be after a vigorous walk in the mountains. Ashok, who was a ‘repeater’ as we called them in Mussoorie, told me that in his first stint he used to walk every evening to Lal Tibba and get back and have two bottles of beer that felt wonderful. In his second stint he said, he realized that if you didn’t go for a walk but had four bottles of beer instead you felt even more wonderful. I took to Ashok that very moment. As the evening developed and we were on to our thirtieth cigarette of the day and talking about will power etc. required to give up bad habits, he told me that he had successfully ‘overcome’ his will power on several occasions. That is a ‘funda’ the philosophical implications of which I am still exploring.
It was this quality of irreverence, of always questioning conformity and convention and received wisdom, of being able to detect any kind of pretentions humbug, this loathing of cant and hypocrisy of any kind, this wanting to puncture all forms of pomposity and sanctimoniousness and self-righteousness, of not being scared of being politically and ideologically incorrect and in all this having a deep seated core of concern for the underdog and the deprived, is what we shared as our common world-view, our ‘weltanschauung’. For both of us our concerns had to hide behind lighthearted banter and if ever conversations among friends veered towards solemnity or high minded seriousness we had to introduce the totally facetious and the frivolous to restore balance. This was our greatest bond and with his going away, there is no longer anyone among batch mates that I can share a similar bond with, without being misunderstood.
Of course, what really cemented our bond was our common love for a tipple. Ira has written about Ashok being the presiding deity of the ‘Tib Dhaba’ ‘chhang’ joints in Happy Valley where as we discovered to our utter delight that one large kettle of ‘chhang’ for 2 Rs. seemed to have to the same amount of chhang as a kettle worth 4 Rs. But chang was our drink of the last resort when we had run through our princely takes home salaries of 200 Rs. The first week of the month was spent in daily trips to Whispering Windows where the management used to dilute the peg and we normally ended the evening having almost a dozen large ones of gin and lime. The second week was solan No.1 or Old Monk, obtained often by waking up the hapless Bareto of Bhai Dhyan Singh fame at 2 in the morning. He treated Ashok as his greatest ever tormentor. The third week was Golden Eagle beer, then really cheaply available and brought in cases every weekend by Ashok to a cottage which Ira and I had hired, in an old fashioned ‘hold all’, with leather straps. We would polish of a case or two and sit on the hillside rolling empty bottles as they were consumed down the slope waiting to hear the tinkle of the bottles when they broke. All this while we, Ashok and I, Deepa Jain, Sudip Bannerji, Devdas Chhotrai, Shilabhadra, Sanat Kaul would undertake the most searching enquiries into political, social, philosophical and literary questions, bitch about those of our batchmates we saw as ambitious, careerist prigs, lament the circumstances which had landed us in a career in bureaucracy and strengthen our resolve never to succumb to the culture of petty privilege and patronage represented by the Indian State. Most of us, ‘Comrades of Chhang’, I think, still retain that something which we gained through our bonding in those idyllic times.
There are hundreds of stories of Ashok and I and alcohol and the rest of our gang but those must be recollected and savoured another day. What I wanted to comment on apart from our shared values and shared attitudes was a unique role which Ashok played in our batch in the IAS. In Mussoorie, we were broadly segmented into three or four different types. Those of us from metropolitan, westernized, public school, St. Stephens type backgrounds with seemingly superior airs, intellectually snobbish, ‘been through done that’ kind of attitude and very little understanding of the world outside Delhi or Bombay; those with somewhat similar backgrounds but a longer exposure to provincial life, small town India and the vernacular tempering their snobbishness and those with a predominantly provincial background for whom the English language was a skill-acquired through diligence and for whom entry into the IAS represented an achievement obtained through struggle. Most of us got typed into one of these broad groups and our friendships developed primarily within the type. While there were spillovers and cross overs from one group to another most of us were more comfortable within our ‘type’. Ashok was probably the only one who straddled all three or four types with equal comfort and felt equally at home with every one of them. His unique Assamese accent in Hindi and English he converted into a kind of designer statement of his own and whatever he spoke always sounded so sweet and delightful that his acceptability in all circles, including the really snooty ones was high. It was this ability to relate to every one that made him the central server of our batch network. We connected with each other through Ashok and now that the central server is down or temporarily inaccessible, we will suffer a severe network failure. But don’t worry, partner, one of these days we will catch up with you and in the rolling meadows and glens of heaven, you and I will bring out that peat roasted brew and drink ourselves silly and pass lewd comments on all the angels, that go marching by. For the moment, my friend – ‘Au Revoir’.