Not a frivolous man

Published on Jan 28, 2006 05:09 AM IST

Newspapers in London described Mani Shankar Aiyer as a ?Pakistani radical?. He was not allowed to join the IFS because intelligence reports dubbed him a ?card carrying communist?.

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HT Image
None | ByKumkum Chadha

Newspapers in London described Mani Shankar Aiyer as a ‘Pakistani radical’. He was not allowed to join the IFS because intelligence reports dubbed him a “card carrying communist”. He stood at the gates of the MEA till he got an audience with the then Additional Secretary Rajeshwar Dayal. But it was not till he met Additional Home Secretary L.P. Sahi through a common friend that he was actually in.

Aiyer even got rid of his jeans and wore a raw silk coat and tie for the occasion. Later it became part of the bundle which Mani’s wife Suneet junked a few months after they were married. When she gave his tweed jacket to the gardener, Mani literally wept.  Apart from being voted the worst dressed parliamentarian in the Nineties, his family has forbidden him to shop. Not without reason, because among the first few gifts the love-struck suitor bought for Suneet were “atrocious printed sarees with horses all over and an envelope-type handbag which was too big to  be used as a wallet and too tiny to be called a bag”, she recalls. These suffered the same fate as the ties and the subsequent gifts he bought, till the shopping ban was imposed. Now he only settles bills, besides talking incessantly, forcing a chance remark from his daughter: “Only if Appa would be brief… and sometimes listen”.

But whenever he has tried to listen, he has a mournful expression leaving the family wondering if he is unwell. Despite an inherent sense of humour, Mani has no patience for anything frivolous. He has no capacity for small talk and does only what his friends describe as “heavy duty talking”. Yet, by his own admission, “real life was not to be found in musty libraries and careworn classrooms. Life, real life, meant only one thing: girls. Oh, the exquisite moment of taking a girl to the university café and returning in the gathering dusk to college… brushing away all our Malthus and Marshall and Keynes, our energies and attention riveted on that pinnacle of all sexual achievement: the purchase of two cups of coffee!” Those were the days when he gatecrashed into the Teenage Christmas Dance at the Gymkhana Club through the rear door of a toilet.

Known as ‘Kunju’s nephew’ in homeground Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, Mani’s uncle Muthuraman was a renowned Congressman. His father V. Shankar Aiyer had a roaring practice as a chartered accountant in Pakistan. He died in an aircrash when Mani was less than 13. Despite living on a relative shoestring budget, his mother Bhagya Lakshmi sent him to Doon School where he says he was the “poorest boy in the country’s richest school. On mid-term treks, the rich boys would show off their fancy clothes and I had only my white shirt to wear”.

His aversion to fish began at the school dining hall where every Friday they were served trout: “I could never eat it because it was served whole and there was the fish’s beady eye looking at me…” He loves ‘Pakistani khana’ especially kebabs and biryani, and admits that he can be a “non-vegetarian when the animals had been killed out of sight and served as a dish.”

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