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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 44, October 23, 2010

Simplicity Extraordinaire: S.R. Sankaran (1934-2010)

Sunday 24 October 2010, by D. Bandyopadhyay

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An Indian Airlines flight arrived at the Agartala Airport one late afternoon. It was a full flight. All the passengers scrambled down to pick up their baggage and leave for home. Among them was a short-statured, frail, middle-aged person wearing an ordinary bush shirt and slightly crumpled trousers. The only remarkable feature was his thick crop of well-parted shining black hair. He saw some flamboyant busybodies briskly moving up and down in search of somebody. The gentleman quietly passed by them totally unnoticed. He went to the baggage-claim belt, collected a small suitcase, unobtrusively went out of the building and walked towards the cycle-rickshaw stand. As he as coming out he noticed some activity around a couple of red-lighted cars and a posse of police constables, smartly uniformed, eagerly waiting for somebody. At the rickshaw-stand he started enquiring in his broken, heavily-accented Hindi about the Circuit House. A rickshaw-puller came forward and agreed to take him after telling him the fare. The rickshaw-puller took the suitcase from him and helped him to get on to the seat.

A policeman was idly watching the procee-dings. He heard the word “Circuit House” a couple of times. He knew that a new Chief Secretary was due to arrive and he was posted at the rickshaw-stand to control the movement of rickshaws till the new Chief Secretary’s convoy passed. He had a suspicion. He ran back to the building and informed his officer-in-charge that perhaps the new Chief Secretary had boarded a rickshaw to go the Circuit House.

All hell broke loose thereafter. Everyone started running towards the rickshaw-stand and the constable pointed to a smiling gentleman quietly sitting on a rickshaw awaiting the departure of the official cavalcade of red-light cars. The Deputy Secretary, Protocol, very apologetically enquired whether the gentleman was S.R. Sankaran. He politely nodded. Then started furious activity in search of his “missing” luggage. The gentleman calmly told the officials present that he had no “missing” luggage. The small suitcase at the footboard was his only piece of luggage. He was requested to get off the rickshaw and get into the official car waiting at the VIP gate. He quickly pulled out his moneybag, took out the money he had agreed to pay to the rickshaw-puller and offered him the money before he got down.

All the officials protested. He looked at them and said it was a contract between the rickshaw-puller and him. Because of him the rickshaw-puller had missed other passengers. Hence he had to be compensated for the lost fare. He paid him his fare.

Now the rickshaw-puller returned him half the fare telling him that as he did not take him to the Circuit House he could not accept the contracted fare and that he would get passengers from amongst the persons who had come to see- off the Calcutta-bound passengers.

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Agartala was a small town. This incident became the talk of the town. The crestfallen Protocol Officers profusely apologised for not having recongnised the incoming Chief Secretary. Sankaran assuaged their feelings saying that he had noticed them but he thought they were waiting for some “big” Minister. There was laughter all around.

He reached the Circuit House. He had been travelling since the morning and except for the frugal food that the Indian Airlines had provided during the Delhi-Calcutta flight, he had had nothing to eat. He was expecting a quiet evening after the hectic day. But he received a call from the Chief Minister’s Secretary informing him that the CM would be delighted if he could join him (the CM) for dinner at the latter’s residence that evening. The Chief Minister of Tripura, Nripen Chakraborty, was another legendary figure. He used to live in a two-room detached apartment. The CM had already heard the story. He felt assured that he was not getting an all-knowing overbearing IAS officer from outside.

Sankaran came in. Nripen Babu welcomed him in his evening lungi and hosiery vest (genji). Immediately a rapport was struck. It looked as if they were made for each other.

Dinner was served on a wooden table without any table-cover. Two plastic plates were laid. One which was slightly chipped was placed before Nripen Babu. The lavish dinner consisted of rice, a bowl of lentil and a small bowl of vegetable curry made of potato and palwal. Nripen Babu made this concession for his new Chief Secretary. Palwal was a delicacy because it had to be brought from Calcutta by air.

Thus Sankaran settled down in Tripura for six years as the Chief Secretary of the State and created legends which two-and-a-half decades after he left people talk about even now. Sankaran will be missed by his friends and his numerous admirers among the underclasses wherever he served.

The author, who has now retired from service, is a former Secretary, Revenue, and the erstwhile Secretary, Rural Development, Government of India. He was also the architect of ‘Operation Barga’ that left an indelible impress on the West Bengal countryside in the 1978-82 period when it was carried out under the leadership of the then Land and Land Revenue Minister, Benoy Chowdhury.

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