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Goodbye headmaster

india Updated: May 21, 2011 17:03 IST

Vice-President Venkataraman was to be sworn in the following day as India's eighth president.

Wanting to brief him on a few matters of procedure (I was his secretary at the time) I knocked at his apartment door late that evening. "Yes?" came his high-pitched voice. Mrs Janaki Venkataraman and he were putting some of their personal effects together. As we were talking, a bulb on the ceiling of the room exploded. Bulbs giving up the ghost due to long use was not uncommon, but I found the mishap most unwelcome. Not so the vice-president. As I made some silly noises about the quality of bulbs and Mrs Venkataraman looked mildly irritated, the president-designate's face beamed.

Beamed? Exactly that. "Wait, wait" he said and went to a chest of drawers and returned with a tiny gadget in his hands. "This picks up glass splinters," he said with the excitement of a child. In no time, the 77-year-old was on all fours, the battery-operated instrument purring over the carpet lifting the sharp pieces of the shattered bulb.

Neither the man who was to become India's First Citizen nor the woman who was to be First Lady thought of omens, signs, or any superstitious augury linking the tiny explosion to the induction the next morning of the eighth President of India. The event in the Central Hall of Parliament wasn't uneventful either. As the gathering waited for the outgoing president, Giani Zail Singh, and the incoming one to arrive, a Supreme Court judge dressed in appropriate formals passed out. A stretcher arrived and, seconds before the Presidential procession entered the hall, the stricken judge was carried out of the premises. Not the most propitious thing to happen, one might have thought.

But not R Venkataraman.

Deeply pious, like his wife, RV had no time for superstition. The date he was sworn-in happened to fall in the Tamil month of Adi (Ashadha) when the orthodox don't commence new enterprises and don't move house. Aware, as any Tamil would be, of the injunctions of Rahu-Kala, the 'no-no' slot that slouches forward by one and a half hours every day of the week, when nothing important and nothing 'good' should be attempted, RV didn't let his schedule to be even remotely affected by that action-inhibitor.

RV was rooted in the philosophy of his faith, not in its ceremonials. He stood on a firm foundation of spiritual values, without the overlay of dogma. And his mind branched out in eclectically diverse directions, as befitted one from the Gandhi-Nehru-Kamaraj mould. This also enabled him to remain politically sited in the Congress but accessible, with the most natural ease, to non-Congress personalities.

At a reception in the Chinese Embassy to mark China's national day in 1986, EMS Namboodiripad was standing by himself in a corner. I went up to him and asked if he'd like to meet the vice-president. EMS immediately said 'yes, yes,' and I had the privilege of conducting the living legend of India's Left to where RV was seated. On seeing EMS approach, the vice-president sprang to his feet and the two spent several minutes in pleasant converse. On our drive back to the vice-president's House, RV said in his typical accentuations "What are we before that giant of a man? He gave up everything for his cause, everything."

This receptivity enabled RV as chairman of the Rajya Sabha to be equally cordial and firm with everyone across the benches, pulling members up for inadvertencies as much as for intentional misconduct during Question Hour, the 'hour' that he scrupulously spent in the House. Prolixity, additional supplementaries, 'irregular' Calling Attention Notices, Adjournment Motions would be summarily put down. "Nothing will go on record, nothing…" was heard in the familiar high-pitched voice on the Chair whenever someone broke the decorum of the proceedings by speaking without authority. Members doing a 'walkout' would invariably hear the Chairman saying with a smile "Walking out? All right, anyway attendance is optional…" making the MP look and feel utterly un-heroic. Predictably, RV earned the left-handed title of 'Headmaster'.

As president, seniority - the first attribute of a teacher - came to be virtually imposed on RV by virtue of him being a good deal older than most in the government and in the political class of the day. His strained eyesight, which required him to wear high-correction lenses, and his pure silver hair helped perpetuate the Headmaster image.

The five-decades-old Congressman in RV rued the loss by Rajiv Gandhi of his office. But the President of India had to follow established procedures 'by the book' and transparently. RV did exactly that, and over two elections to the Lok Sabha, he administered oaths of office to two prime ministers in quick succession, only to accept their resignations amid political volatility until, after the 1991 elections, the Congress returned to power with PV Narasimha Rao at the helm and Manmohan Singh as finance minister.

As with the exploded fragments of a bulb on the eve of his becoming President of India, RV had picked up the scattered shards of exploded mandates in a way their jagged edges wouldn't hurt our nationhood. And he installed a new one seamlessly.

The 'Prefects' changed, the 'Headmaster' remained in charge of the 'Class'.

Goodbye Mr Chips, James Hilton's novel about a lovably shy and exemplary school teacher called Charles Chipping, who joins a boys' school steeped in tradition, is well-remembered by that generation. It was first made into a film by MGM in 1939. Thirty years later, in 1969, Herbert Ross filmed the story again. This time too, the film and the story captured public imagination, including in Indian cities and towns. The story evoked much laughter, but its undercurrent was of pathos, an ineffable sadness. (Or at least that is how the story struck me). Forty years since the second film version of Goodbye Mr Chips, in 2010, would that great film, or for that matter would the subject of a school teacher, or of someone respected for being a good teacher, capture public imagination, especially that of the young?

I cannot say they won't. Viewers and readers can surprise by their responses. But a 'teacher' of the RV cast of mind, with whom propriety counts more than popularity, who does his own teachers' homework as diligently as he expects his wards to do the students', who mentors with all his being but evaluates stringently, who advises and admonishes, cheers and checks, blesses and berates depending on the person's actions, and above all, doesn't regard himself as above the law but governed by it, is now a rarity. What is more to the point, a mentor of that type is not really wanted.

RV was as fallible as any human being. He made errors of assessment, of judgment, often in the way he reposed trust in people who deserved less. And, in the larger interest, sometimes 'looked the other way'. But in our times when mala fide intent exceeds 'honest error', he was something of an oddity.

Today, if RV were alive, he would have turned a 100. Loyal friends from an earlier era would have come to see him, bearing bouquets and fond memories. Among them, most certainly, would have figured the teacher-turned-legislator, our prime minister. But I wonder how many, if any, of today's 'grassroots' politicians would have come. Yesterday is history for them. Except at those high-end events and anniversaries where yesterday intersects with today's plans for tomorrow.

Goodbye Mr Chips.

(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor. The views expressed by the author are personal)