When career diplomat Pavan Varma, currently the ICCR’s Director-General, sought 24 hours to “think over” a plum posting offered by the Prime Minister’s Office some years ago, the officer at the other end of the phone line was shocked. No one, he hissed to Varma, “thinks” about what the PMO offers. But Varma had two reasons: a dog and a lift. If the Nehru Centre in Britain did not have a lift, he would decline the offer. And if dogs were not allowed because of strict quarantine laws, he would continue with his “boring” assignment in Cyprus. The lift was a must for his aging mother, who used to accompany him on his postings. It is another matter that she passed on before the London assignment came through.
It was only with her permission that he published an adaptation of Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra. Varma’s Kama Sutra: The Art of Making Love to a Woman gives, according to his wife Renu, “an intellectual angle” to sex. But the two were in a tizzy on how to break the news to Varma’s mother. But given her literary background, she took it better than most friends could. In fact, it was Renu who had to brave the hows and whys of her husband’s “daring pursuit”. But when an Ambassador’s wife dubbed her “lucky” to be married to a man who could write on Kama Sutra (read: making love), Renu could not agree more.
An unconventional bureaucrat, Varma gave up wearing ties many years ago. His logic: “I am not a photocopy of another culture. I want to be authentic.” So now, his chadors outnumber Renu’s equally expensive shawls and his heavily-embroidered kurtas her exquisite silks. While his shahtooshes are registered, Varma says he is uncomfortable flaunting them. Heirlooms apart, his ties — “several hundreds collected over the years”— are waiting to be auctioned.
Varma is among the handful of bureaucrats who do not live in government houses. Having inherited a prime property in Delhi’s Vasant Vihar, the only time he used a government bungalow was when he was posted as the President’s press secretary. Countless memories are attached to his ancestral house, Varma says, including the fact that four pet dogs are buried in its courtyard.
One thing that Varma has always changed about any office he has occupied is the “babu trademark” — wall-to-wall carpeting, air-conditioning at full blast, heavy drapes to keep out all light and a minimum of four phones on a cluttered table. He replaces the carpets with chatais, glass windows replace the musty drapes and he keeps a cellphone that is always switched on.