The frolic, gentle, and sharp Keshav Desiraju

Keshav Desiraju, who died suddenly after a few hours’ struggle with a collapsing heart on Sunday, September 5, epitomised all that was “frolic and gentle”. Laughter came to him like a breeze on a mountain top, as did jokes at the expense of their subjects but never of taste
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Updated on Sep 08, 2021 05:56 PM IST
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And Lamb the frolic and the gentle has vanished from his lonely hearth — William Wordsworth on Charles Lamb.

Keshav Desiraju, who died suddenly after a few hours’ struggle with a collapsing heart on Sunday, September 5, epitomised all that was “frolic and gentle”. Laughter came to him like a breeze on a mountain top, as did jokes at the expense of their subjects but never of taste. Even when he heard with merriment, or shared with fun, stories about men and matters, it was without a trace of malice or a shred of crudity. There was something lucent about his sense of rumours and tales that lifted what could have become gossip from the dark cellar of conversation to its open balcony.

Keshav, who had been an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer from 1968 up to his retirement in 2015, and served as one of the faculty of the National Academy of Administration, will be remembered as one whose conversation glowed, but with a soft light, no tawdry neons. If he was talking of some egregious happening or some inexcusable behaviour on the part of someone, he would tone down his voice. “What have we come to…To imagine that we would live to see our society and culture being defined in terms of our religion…And to have love allowed or not allowed…and marriage…that most personal of all things…being sought to be stalled but by law! And food! What we can and cannot eat.”

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Now, Keshav was by upbringing and instinct, vegetarian. Meat was not exactly that Telugu Brahmin’s idea of right eating. But as one who was also intuitively liberal, his principles never coarsened to prudery, or his fastidiousness to faddism. Keshav knew his spirits’ taste, his spirits knew Keshav’s. A line exists, thin and subtle, between what is done and what is not done. That line was Keshav’s line to life.

But was Keshav, the frolic and the gentle, lonely as well? Yes and no. Or rather, no and yes. Bachelor that he was, he was no loner. No way! I have not come across anyone as connected to people across the world as him. Having studied in the United Kingdom and the United States and worked with the World Health Organization and United Nations Development Programme, this is no surprise. But there was in Keshav Desiraju a facet that is a close cousin to loneliness — privacy. He was one of the most private of persons I have known.

Everyone who knew him felt she or he knew him well, knew him totally, knew him as no one else did, exclusively. Nothing could be further from the truth. Keshav Desiraju was the only person who knew Keshav Desiraju totally. This is not to say that he hid a side or more than one side of himself from the world; not at all. It is just that he had and cherished deep inside him a “within”, a private cloister where no one may enter unbidden. This is the still centre where thoughts mature into ideas and ideas into what may be called a philosophy of life. His private space had one steady companion, though — music. Carnatic music. It sequestered him, nourished him — a necessary condition for aesthetic ripening, intellectual maturation, of choice. Protective of his autonomous volition, no one could tell him to conform or to rebel; he chose his assents, he chose his dissents. He chose to write what is the best book there is on MS Subbulakshmi with very few knowing he was doing so, and wanted to write the next on Tyagaraja from within that privacy. “I am so lonely, so content” is a line from Vikram Seth. Keshav was that — private and happy.

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He was a beacon of individuality, of one being oneself, the space in which alone can one become truly creative. It is again nothing but his very own still centre that made him take on, frontally, as Union health secretary, the powerful tobacco lobby and pioneer India’s first mental health act — an embrace of the mentally-afflicted by intelligent compassion.

I started this reflection with Charles Lamb and must share a cameo about him. Lamb’s sister, Mary, was mentally disturbed and prone to violence. So Lamb got her to write prose renderings of Shakespeare’s Comedies while he did the Tragedies. This was being compassionate but imaginatively, not sentimentally so. Keshav was “good” because a moral aesthetic working from his mind told him to be so.

On his birthday on May 11, 1998, we were to have met up in the evening, but in the afternoon came news of India’s nuclear test explosions in Pokhran. “We have burst the crackers,” I told him over the phone, having heard of the tests a little before him. And I mentioned to him the code name given to them: Smiling Buddha. “No!” he exclaimed. “But that is so…so…” He did not have to complete his sentence. “Gopal, I need to…to…Can we go to the Buddha Vihara at the Birla Mandir?”

And so, my wife Tara, Keshav and I went to that shrine as his birthday “celebration”. I can never forget his very Vedic obeisance, the sashtanga, before the serene image there. For who or what he sought absolution only he knew. And the Sakyamuni.

And that knowledge has vanished now, with its holder, so frolic, so gentle, so sharp, and so — just himself.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor

The views expressed are personal

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Monday, October 18, 2021