Tag Archives: yojana bhavan

A Nobody Called Somebody

Drawing by Argha Bagchi

Speaking figuratively rather than biologically, the link between Netaji, the name by which he was commonly known, and the man after whom he was named, though reminiscent of the Darwinian puzzle, did not constitute a missing category altogether. Far from it indeed, for he was known to have served in the INA and even participated in guards of honour inspected by the GREAT ONE.

Neither his appearance nor his activities betrayed any exposure to the martial arts of course. Even the closest amongst his buddies would hesitate to credit him with a height exceeding 5 feet on the outside, while his bow legged gait, as he roamed the office corridors somnolently, swaying penguin like from side to side, bore little resemblance to a gun-toting soldier.

To be fair though, he must have been agelessly aged, well past his military prime at least, when our first encounter took place in Yojana Bhavan on Parliament Street, where the Planning Commission is located in Delhi. He had joined the organization as a Class 4 employee in sterile official parlance, during an era when birth certificates were the least essential of documents needed for verifying the duration of one’s existence on earth since arrival. His official name too, like his date of birth, belonged to the realm of conjectures, and accustomed as he was to being addressed by all and sundry as Netaji, he could have lost track himself of the name his loving parents bestowed on him.

There was no trace left, either of the British Raj or his hero, at the time he started working for India’s planners, but his illusions surrounding the part he played in our freedom struggle probably continued to hold him under its grip. The well- groomed military moustache he sported, grey though it was, bore ample evidence to this fact, though the grimy, once white, safari suit like government uniform he was permanently attired in, failed to live up to its grandeur.

I was myself a new recruit at the Indian Statistical Institute when I made Netaji’s acquaintance. The Institute had a wing assigned to it in the Yojana Bhavan, a relic from the period when Professor P.C. Mahalanobis took charge of the Second Five Year Plan at Pandit Nehru’s behest. Our love affair with the Planning Commission had long ceased, however, when I joined the Institute. We enjoyed at this time the status of an insecure tenant at best, but we stuck to the Bhavan, like a vice as it were, since our new campus in South Delhi was not yet ready to be inaugurated by Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Besides, like Netaji, we too might have been basking in the reflected glory of our mentor, prodded by a self-deceiving belief that the Planning Commission considered our services to be indispensable.

There was an imperceptible bond, therefore, between Netaji and the Institute. He dreamed of battles waiting ahead in the jungles of Burma, while we kept offering unsolicited advice to the government on ways out of India’s poverty trap. Fortunately for humanity though, neither did he ever wake up to reality, nor did the government heed our policy prescriptions.

The nature of duties assigned to Netaji was not exactly clear, for he was one amongst the many underemployed workers in the government sector, starting from those sitting at the top right down to the ones in charge of filth accumulation in every conceivable corner of office buildings. If our governments are viewed as benevolent rulers committed to the cause of uplifting Indians at large, neither Netaji nor his peers could be held guilty of realizing that promise.

Yet, as we know in today’s environmentally conscious world, nothing in God’s creation, from crocodiles to white ants, lack a purpose. Each species is needed in optimum numbers to maintain the balance. Netaji too served a function, not related to conservation unfortunately, but to destruction. He posed, in other words, a threat to the environmentalist dream, but his actions did not violate the principal tenets of Hindu philosophy either, consisting, as we know, of the holy trinity of creation, preservation and annihilation.

To move from the abstract to the concrete, Netaji fulfilled his destiny by helping irresponsible occupants of Yojana Bhavan to contribute to atmospheric pollution. I know about this particularly well, since I was a direct beneficiary of the not-so- clandestine unofficial business he transacted, sitting on a bench in a corner of the wing my Institute occupied. He sold cigarettes and I, amongst many others, was a regular customer. We were located on the top floor of the building and, like everyone else in the neighbourhood, were lazy bums, who found it too much of an inconvenience to board the elevator, or walk down, to the ground floor to purchase supplies from wayside shops.

Netaji, though not as immobile as a sailing ship trapped in the Sargasso Sea, was not particularly inclined towards display of physical prowess either, as far as his official functions were concerned. But his agility was boundless in matters that lay beyond the call of official duty, to prove which he carried ample stocks of all the popular brands in his bulging pockets. And we in turn helped him run them down before lunch hour. This was no problem of course, since he would be back soon enough with fresh supplies for the post lunch session.

There was an unwritten law though that his shop would close its shutters for a certain duration following lunch. This was necessitated by his basic need for a siesta, which he enjoyed on the very same bench that served as his sales counter. None of us normally disturbed him at this hour, in deference to the lavish help we received from him to damage our own respiratory organs as well as those of non-smokers in our vicinity. Yet, I must admit, that I occasionally found it impossible not to raise him from his noonday dreams for a fag or two when my nicotine urge got the better of me. I can’t say that he was elated during these transactions, but he did not refuse to oblige a regular customer, steadfastly devoted as he was to his role of a demolisher.

I can’t recall exactly the number of years that our relationship lasted, but a rough calculation indicates that we carried on for four to five years at least. And on the first day of each of these passing years, he would invariably tap on the doors to our offices, peep in and greet us all, in a phlegmatic drawl, with the words — Naya saal Mubarak! It makes little sense to be emotional over such inconsequential incidents. Yet, I think I feel a lump in my throat when I relate this fact. There was an element of genuineness in the New Year’s greeting he showered on all he knew, independent of official status, especially so since he had nothing to gain or lose from this act, socially speaking. It was as pure a greeting as the innocent smile on the face of a baby in arms.

My contacts with Netaji came to an abrupt halt though, more to his discomfort as it happened, than mine. Our unsigned mutual separation occurred when, for the umpteenth time in my life, I resolved to quit smoking. So, one fine morning, without any prior notice at all, I walked past his shop not caring to even glance at him. I looked away from him, needless to say, to keep temptations at bay. But he probably interpreted my behaviour his own way, that I had shifted my allegiance and started patronizing his competitors in the building. And as I continued to ignore him on a regular basis, his vague suspicion turned slowly into firm conviction. This was all too evident from the expression I detected on his face from the corner of my eye every time I walked past him. It was no bewilderment that I discovered there, but a feeling bordering on hatred against the traitor.

I bore the cross however with bated breath, especially so since I knew that we would soon be moving out of Yojana Bhavan to the aforementioned new campus. And indeed, the movers too arrived according to plan. They packed the furniture in our offices as well as our books and journals and the caravan was flagged off towards its new settlement at the far end of the town.

On my way out of Yojana Bhavan, on the last day I attended office there, I felt I owed a good-bye gesture to Netaji, the soldier who had held fort with uncompromising devotion during my addiction-filled days. Unfortunately though, I had to leave early, soon after lunch hour, the time reserved for his siesta. Nonetheless, I recalled those occasions when he would break the rule to satisfy my thirst. So, I went over to his corner where he lay sleeping, facing the wall. I cleared my throat to attract his attention. But the noise I made, perhaps wilfully, out of cowardice, was not loud enough to wake him up. I kept staring in hesitation for a while at the little man, pockets bulging as always and finally walked away without turning back.

New Year’s Day was still a month or two away. I never found out therefore if he would peep into my office to say Naya saal Mubarak anymore.

Anti-clockwise Bhagat

The eternal triangle appears to suggest that human destiny could well be governed by geometric patterns. The hypothesis enjoys the support of eminent philosophers, beginning from no less a person than Plato, who asserted that God was a geometer. Indeed, if historians are to be trusted, he had even posted a signboard at the entrance to his renowned Academy which said ‘Let no man ignorant of geometry enter here’.

Plato breathed his last though in the year 347 BC and Mr. Bhagat his first well over twenty two hundred years later. Or else, he might have found the atmosphere at Plato’s Academy more congenial than that of the Delhi Branch of the Indian Statistical Institute, which, much to his distress, put an abrupt stop to his geometric preoccupations at the Yojana Bhavan, located next door to the Reserve Bank of India on Parliament Street, New Delhi.

It was not a triangle however, but a quadrilateral, to which Mr. Bhagat’s misfortune should be traced. Or, at least, a quadrilateral shaped corridor that framed a large quadrangle in the centre of the august building. He was a permanent staff member of the Indian Statistical Institute, but he specialized neither in Statistics, nor Mathematics nor Economics, nor, for that matter, in any of the disciplines the institution was internationally reputed for. He was a simple person with no more than a simple knowledge of Russian, appointed by the Institute when its founder, Professor P.C. Mahalanobis, was invited by Pandit Nehru to move to Delhi from Calcutta as a member of the Planning Commission. India was deeply in love with the Soviet Union at the time and the venerable Professor had been assigned the task of drafting the Second Five Year Plan. He needed the services of a translator to help him read Soviet literature on models of economic planning. And it was to aid him in this direction that Mr. Bhagat had probably been employed.

The Second Five Year Plan was no success story, as posterity demonstrated clearly enough, and the Professor retreated back to his haunt in Calcutta leaving India’s economy in the doldrums. Some of the people he had employed though continued in a state of limbo in a wing of the Planning Commission at Yojana Bhavan that had been rented out to the Institute. The talented ones functioned no doubt with aplomb and helped the institution attain the remarkable academic status it enjoys till this day. But Mr. Bhagat didn’t belong to that class. Worse, no one who remained with the Delhi branch of the Institute either understood, or had any use for Russian. Soon therefore, Mr. Bhagat turned into a surplus labourer, that is, in Indian governmental jargon, a salaried job holder with absolutely no duties to perform whatsoever, formally or informally.

Nature of course abhors vacuum. And Mr. Bhagat, even though reduced to a meaningless entity as far as the Institute went, probably continued to be a meaningful part of nature. Following natural laws therefore, he invented an occupation to address his state of ‘un-occupation’. Or, as the bard might have said, he gave to ‘airy nothing a local habitation and a name’.

There was an office room assigned to him which no one I was acquainted with had ever visited. The activities that engaged him inside this room therefore are not a part of recorded history. However, he did emerge out of his office several times a day, like a cuckoo poking its head out of a clock, to take a stroll along his quadrilateral. Like the cuckoo moreover, he performed this job with precision, except for the fact that he had added an anti-clockwise dimension to this self-assigned pursuit.

Anti-clockwise, yes, since he made it a point never to walk clockwise along the corridor. Instead, he would take several anti-clockwise rounds along the vast corridor before disappearing inside his office and wait there till it was time again for him to re-emerge for the next shift of patrolling. And it was this anti-clockwise propensity that must have earned him the name by which he was often referred to, Anti-clockwise Bhagat, especially so when he was well out of earshot. Indeed, I never found out what his first name was.

It is possible of course that his anti-clockwise perambulations did not carry any deep significance at all. He could well have been born that way, somewhat in the nature of a south-paw. On the other hand, one cannot rule out altogether a deliberate, even if pathetic, decision on the man’s part to try and run a time machine on reverse gear, this being the only choice available to him to establish contact with the geometers of yore.

It was on the corridor that I came across him the first time in my life. He was past middle age, while I was a somewhat snobbish youngster, who had just arrived from the US, bearing the burden of a PhD degree in an abstruse mathematical area of Economics, which, like Mr. Bhagat’s skills in the Russian language, humanity at hand had little use for. Nonetheless, for a reason I shall never be able to unearth, I was admitted to the elite group in the Institute, whereas Mr. Bhagat continued to languish in benign neglect.

I found out that his eccentricities were not confined to time and geometry alone when the little man walked into my office one afternoon displaying a neatly typed sheet of paper bearing the title ‘Instructions’. What was written below though, was complete gibberish. Or at least, it defied human comprehension. Mr. Bhagat stood next to my desk staring at me, while I helplessly glanced at the sheet and his face, alternatively. He was very dark, wearing high powered spectacles and, despite the summer heat, a faded maroon and greyish white checked beret on his head. Neither the trouser nor the shirt he wore was too clean and the nails on the fingers that held the document needed to be attended to. As far as I can recall, his attire never changed from the first day that I saw him till the last. It was a constant of nature as it were, like his anti-clockwise tours, except for the fact that the second of the two constants received a severe jolt towards the end of his ‘peripatetic career’ at the Institute. But of that later.

“It is an international language I have developed,” he said in a deep throated voice that his physical size did not match.

I was totally baffled and kept staring at him open mouthed. He continued though, quite undeterred by my stupefied expression, to explain how the verbs would be conjugated so as to be intelligible to everyone on earth irrespective of the language he spoke. I had of course vaguely heard of the Esperanto experiment, but my knowledge of an international language, or any language for that matter, other than my mother tongue and a modicum of English, hadn’t proceeded too far.

“Please go through the instructions and you will know how to communicate with people from any part of the world,” he offered with supreme disdain.

I should probably have brought the conversation to a close then and there, but, being young and inexperienced, tried to prod him further.

“But how should I know the words? I mean there are no universal words are there, even if verb conjugations follow a universal rule?”

Upon this he proceeded to deliver a long lecture on the structure of his invention. I couldn’t follow a single word he said, though it was English that he spoke. And his harangue pulled me, quite relentlessly, into the depths of a quagmire of incomprehension. I kept interrupting every now and then of course, but concluded soon enough that the sound waves my vocal chords produced for the entertainment of his eardrums were refused entry into the area of his brain reserved for understanding. Language for him was an instrument meant to treat people to monologues. A linguist he was, in other words, with no interactive use for languages!

It was pointless to carry on the conversation I figured out finally and allowed him to tire off and take his leave.

Interestingly enough, this was the only time he ever spoke to me. He never expressed any further interest in finding out whether the linguistic light rays he had graced humanity with had managed to enlighten me at all. This was all too obvious since I continued to come across him often enough on the corridor he ruled, but he didn’t know me from Adam!

His real troubles started though once the Institute moved to its new campus in South Delhi. Our office building now was architecturally quite different from the Yojana Bhavan. Most importantly, it didn’t sport a quadrangle surrounded by a corridor. Instead, it was a long narrow building with a straight corridor connecting the front end of the structure to its rear. And this meant Mr. Bhagat could not engage anymore in his philosopher’s walk along a quadrangle, clockwise or anti-clockwise.

As might be expected, the authorities didn’t wish to waste scarce space by finding an office accommodation for him. He was forced therefore to squeeze into a room reserved for storing the Institute’s refuse furniture prior to their disposal by used goods dealers. I can well imagine that he had little room for manoeuvrability inside the jam packed godown, or else he could have used its rectangular structure to keep himself occupied with his geometric fantasies.

This was ruled out though and he began to walk up and down the new corridor. But the pursuit proved too demeaning for him and this was hardly a surprise. Quite apart from the fact that his quadrangular trail had collapsed into a kink-free straight line, the very dynamics of his lifestyle had to undergo a drastic change. His movements bore a precarious resemblance now to a pendulum, bordering thereby on clockwise conformism compared to his earlier counter-clockwise revolution. Soon therefore, the rebel in him was back in action as he adopted yet another innovation, converting the straight line back into a quadrangle.

He began to climb up the staircase at the front end of the building leading to the second floor, walk all the way along the straight line corridor there to the staircase located at the rear of the building, come down to the ground floor and then walk along the ground floor corridor back to his starting point. In other words, he ended up converting his horizontal quadrilateral at Yojana Bhavan to a vertical one in the new campus!

Despite the originality underlying his new idea though, I didn’t fail to note a disturbed look on his otherwise placid countenance. I concluded to begin with that he was finding this exercise physically demanding at his age. However, I couldn’t rule out a more sophisticated interpretation of the phenomenon either. Could it be, I asked myself, that his unhappiness owed its origin to the fact that he wasn’t too sure if his walks had an anti-clockwise bias or not? His rotational pattern now clearly depended on which side of the building one was watching him from. As things stood, a person located to the north of the building would view him to be following a clockwise course, the reverse being true for people watching him from the south. (True, the same relativity problem existed at the Planning Commission too, depending on whether he was being watched from the floor below or the one above. However, the probability that such astute watchers existed in the Yojana Bhavan was much lower.)

And this confusion relating to the direction in which his time machine was travelling, I tend to believe, made him lose his mental orientation altogether. Rumour has it that he began to treat acquaintances from the Institute to drinks late into the night and then arrive home in their company to the horror and dismay of his aged wife. He would even insist that she prepare a full dinner for the guests and the poor woman trembled at the sight of the revelry, but followed his command to save herself from the prospect of physical assault.

Fortunately though, he was now close to retiring and did not need to suffer the ignominy of losing his way in time and space much longer. Indeed, I never saw him visit the Institute following the day he received his last pay cheque. It is not improbable in fact, that soon afterwards, he managed to fix the relativity problem in his anti-clockwise voyage through life and landed at the very doorway opening into Plato’s Academy. If so, then this is a story with a happy ending, for he should have proceeded there onwards to the eternal past in the blissful company of the great philosopher, engaged in Dialogues on the geometric mysteries of the universe.