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His Will Was His God

I only knew him as a very evolved and empathetic human being who was willing to talk and listen to a young man. I was neither his contemporary nor colleague. But in his own plain words I was a "new friend" who had in some ways become "family" over th

Sugata Srinivasaraju ON | 09 September 2008
His Will Was His God
His Will Was His God
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
I did not know H.Y. Sharada Prasad as an information aide in the secretariat of three Indian prime ministers. I did not know him as a man whom Indira Gandhi trusted and relied on for credible advise. I did not know him as a man who chiseled his sentences to craft the image of people who spoke them. Neither did I know him as a journalist nor as a Neiman fellow at Harvard. I only knew him as a very evolved and empathetic human being who was willing to talk and listen to a young man. I was neither his contemporary nor colleague. But in his own plain words I was a "new friend" who had in some ways become "family" over the years. 

By the time I came in contact with Sharada Prasad, he had retired from service. He had moved away from the portals of power to a fringe Delhi colony. Yet, I wouldn't say he was past his prime, because his mind was sharp till the very end. From what little I understood, for him, his prime never meant his years in power. He would never pick bits and pieces from that seamless experience of life to highlight something as more important and others as less. Everything was significant and everything was valuable. His days with Indira Gandhi were as important as his student years at the Mysore Maharaja's College or his early years as a journalist in Chennai and Mumbai. His conversations with the powerful and towering intellectuals were as significant as those with a little kid in the apartment block or with someone simply curious like me. For him, judging the ripeness of mangoes was as important as picking the most appropriate words to explain an idea. Similarly, appreciating the weave and colour of a saree was as important as curating the photographs of the Nehrus. Like Kannada poet-laureate D R Bendre sang, for Sharada Prasad, 'there was nothing fruitless in the game of life' ('Leeleyali Yavudu Viphalavalla').

The Sharada Prasad I knew was the one who himself, always, opened the door of his Pashim Vihar home, dragging his frail body afflicted by Parkinson's. Despite his debilitating condition, I have seen him bend down to clean up his shoes and tie the shoestrings. He would walk down the stairs unassisted. He always gently resisted help. His proximity to history was never doubted, but he never showed even the faintest signs of self-importance. For a man who could have made a fortune out of his illustrious past and big associations -- by bending, recasting, manufacturing or even by simply stating them - he, by choice, lived strictly in the present. Nostalgia was never his cup of tea. He had led an upright life but was never self-righteous. There was never self-pity or diffidence about his physical condition. Only once in all my years of meeting him did he say that "old age was a punishment." But still, he never for a day wanted to be disengaged with the world. He would feel restless if he had not seen the day's newspapers. Once, he landed very late in Bangalore and had to urgently take his medicines and dinner, but he insisted that on the way home from the airport I find a shop that would give him all the local newspapers of the day. Life's seductive charm had a hold over him. Whenever he was critical and admitted to a hospital, his filmmaker friend of nearly 70 years, M.V. Krishnaswamy, would tell me that he is too "strong-willed" and will not give up easily. "His abiding interest and dedication to life will weaken the powers of death," he would claim. That was an absolutely correct reading. In the last couple of years, the number of times he bounced back to life from a near terminal situation was miraculous. For this atheist, his will was his god. 

For many who had seen Sharada Prasad from a distance, he was a stern-sinewed bureaucrat. But I found that perception to be incorrect. He could easily break into a song. He could ceaselessly chuckle recalling a naughty story from his 1942 jail days about a co-prisoner, who had escaped for a day to satiate his physical urges. In fact, in our very first meeting he had sung a Kannada poem of Devudu Narasimha Shastry, spiking the tremors in his voice. He could regale you with funny trivia about famous people, like how Carnatic music legend M S Subbulaksmi would first mildly pinch and then talk. He had a bottomless pitcher of stories and anecdotes that could have made many thick volumes in print.

Sharada Prasad was known to be a lucid communicator, yet, strangely, he didn't always know how to communicate a few things to people, especially when it involved money. For instance, he wouldn't know how to handle a Kannada newspaper editor who had long defaulted on payments for his writings or tell a publisher that the meagre royalty he was offering for his book was not acceptable. For such things, he would lovingly petition his old friend T S Satyan or me. He was generally disinterested in money and once recalled what Ramnath Goenka -- he would speak to Sharada Prasad in Tamil -- had told him about making money: "Only if you put your finger deep in a bowl of ghee will something stick on your finger." 

When I first went to meet Sharada Prasad (holding in my hand the brochure of the documentary film on Veene Doreswamy Iyengar which he had scripted), I went to him as a curious student of history, eager to learn the turn of events in the last century from one of the most truthful witnesses of our times. I also went to him as a journalist hoping that I would develop the trust to someday scoop the stories buried inside him. I even planned a festschrift volume for him with the help of his two dear friends, T.S. Sanjeeva Rao and M.V. Krishnaswamy. Nothing happened, but what I discovered as I continued to meet him was a shining model of restraint and human decency. It is not that he did not engage me with important questions on his days with Indira Gandhi or Rajiv Gandhi, but he would so structure his response that the semantic spillovers had to be only inferred. He shared nothing that he had willed not to share with the world. He sometimes believed that the complexity and the context of historical happenings could never be easily explained or grasped. It was beyond anecdote and judgment.

Once when the topic of the Emergency came up, I asked what his relationship with Indira Gandhi was when she was out of power. I was surprised to learn that he had never met her or spoken to her even once during those days. But, within hours of returning to power, the first person Indira Gandhi sent for was him. She not only took him back into the PMO, but took him back with a promotion. He never addressed Indira Gandhi as 'madam' or 'Mrs. Gandhi'; he, in fact, used nothing at all to address her. Their communications would have abruptly polite beginnings and endings. He would joke saying that he carried the "vanity of a journalist to the PMO." Also, in all his years in the PMO, he never once got himself photographed with a prime minister. This should tell us something about his ascetic detachment from power. A quality that ensured that he survived at the top for long and a quality that ensured that his mind remained vibrant and his heart in the right place. He joined Indira Gandhi six days before she was sworn in PM the first time and stayed with her till her last day. When a slight unpleasantness was created in Rajiv Gandhi's PMO, he did not wait a minute to put in his papers nor did he allow himself to be persuaded to reconsider his resignation. He gladly severed ties with power, but allowed people who were the cause of the unpleasantness to correct themselves later. He quietly acknowledged their moral core. When they came back to him, he never embarrassed them.

There was another occasion when I asked Sharada Prasad what his relationship with Sanjay Gandhi was. He said that he had never interfered in his work. In fact, when some people went to Sanjay to express their unhappiness about Sharada Prasad's recall into the PMO, he simply said that "mummy likes him" and could do nothing about it. Even a man with a notorious reputation for Emergency excesses had maintained a respectful distance from Sharada Prasad.

The respect for the man seemed almost universal. The obituaries, personal visits and condolence notices that have poured in proves that. When Sonia Gandhi "coaxed and cajoled" Sharada Prasad to accept the Indira Gandhi Sadbhavana Award in 2001, she had this to say: "This evening we honour a man whose life epitomises the very essence of Indian civilisation at its loftiest. A man who represents the noblest human faculties, who stands as a model of integrity, dignity and probity in public life. No wonder that some of his colleagues refer to him as 'Jagadguru.'" In fact, the conventional wisdom in Indira Gandhi's secretariat was 'when in doubt, do as Sharada does.'

Sharada Prasad's encounters with history started much before his PMO years. As a student of the Mysore Maharaja's College he was jailed for more than a year during the Quit India movement of 1942. When his sentencing happened, apparently, the entire college was present in the courtroom. In a lathicharge that happened in jail, he was specifically targeted for his uncompromising stance on nationalist issues, but as luck may have it, he was saved by his friend M V Krishnaswamy who threw himself on Sharada Prasad and took the blows. If those blows had fallen on his frail body then, he would have been maimed long before Parkinson's did so 58 years later. 

Coming from a family of scholars and nationalists, Sharada Prasad decided very early in life to be a journalist. He used to say that in his growing up years he never thought of becoming anything other than a journalist. But then journalism did not treat Sharada Prasad well. In the 50s he had to quit his National Standard (the earlier avatar of the Indian Express) job as a young news editor because a news item was published without his knowledge and the general manager objected to it. But he would say: "It was no fault of mine. On that day I had applied leave to go to Mysore, but the GM was after me because I was active in the trade union." After losing this job, he was unemployed for more than a year, rather he was somewhat boycotted. It was during these intervening years, in 1956 to be precise, he went to Harvard University on the prestigious Neiman Fellowship. Except for a brief stint as the editor of Yojana, the Planning Commission journal where he succeeded Kushwant Singh, he never returned to hard journalism. A profession that he loved so much. After he joined Indira Gandhi, many big newspaper managements, offered him the editorship but he declined. 

A significant moment in Sharada Prasad's professional life as a journalist was presiding over the edition of the National Standard when Mahatma Gandhi passed away. Sharada Prasad had become news editor of the daily at the age of 24. The Mahatma's assassination took place on a Friday and an enterprising chief sub-editor in his team sent someone to Pune to get a picture of the assassin, Nathuram Godse. The person found him in one group picture. The picture was instantly sent to AP, the news agency, and also used in the Sunday Standard. But the next day, a surprise awaited Sharada Prasad. The police commissioner came to his office and threatened to arrest him saying that the picture of Godse they had printed was incorrect. He asked the commissioner to give it in writing so that he could carry a corrigendum in the next day's edition. But no such clarification came because the picture was indeed correct. "The commissioner was plain jealous that the newspaper had obtained something that they had been unable to lay their hands on," he said.

Despite living away from his Kannada-milieu in Bangalore and Mysore for more than 60 years, Sharada Prasad never lost touch with his roots. The letters he wrote are a delight to read. They are unpretentious, well-constructed, idiomatic and, above all, warm. It would surely be a contribution to epistolary literature if the letters he wrote to legendary Kannada writers and musicians were collected in a volume. He was very close to Shivaram Karanth, T N Srikantaiah, V Seetharamaiah, Mallikarjun Mansur, Veene Doreswamy Iyengar and Gangubai Hangal among others. Even his usual and quick business letters never failed on basic courtesies. Sharada Prasad's father, H Yoganarasimham, was a gentle scholar-composer in government service. The father and son had a fine rapport, but a consensus among his old Mysore friends is that it was his mother, Saraswathamma, who was a great formative influence on 'Shourie'. She was very active in the children's movement and women's movement in Mysore and had carved an independent identity for herself. In April 2006, when Sharada Prasad and his family organised a small celebration for his mother's birth centenary, I was chauffeuring him to the venue. As we were passing through the old Tharugpet area of Bangalore, he asked me to slow down the car so that he could show me the tiny house on a tiny lane where he was born. It was a moving personal tribute he was paying his mother before attending the formal centenary function.

It is appropriate in this context to mention the slim Kannada volume that Sharada Prasad published in the 90s with his six accomplished siblings, on his grandmother, titled Mommakalu Helida Ajjiyakathe (A grandchildren's tale of a grandmother). The book serves as a great guide to the cultured and progressive family that Sharada Prasad belonged to. The book, although a personal narrative of the grandchildren, serves as a fine sociological document of the first half of Mysore's 20th century. In his foreword to the translated Kannada volume of his English collection The Book I Won't Be Writing and Other Essays, Sharada Prasad says that among the many dreams that remained unfulfilled in his life was his dream to become an author in Kannada. The Kannada title that he decided for his book is far more poignant than the English one. He called the first volume Yella Ballavarilla (roughly meaning 'there is nobody who knows everything') and the second volume Ballavaru Bahalilla (roughly 'there are not many who really know'). The lines are picked from a composition of saint-poet Purandara Dasa. Despite his rootedness, the one question to which I never got a convincing answer from Sharada Prasad was on why he never came back to settle down in Mysore or Bangalore after his retirement.

His final months were painful. Having led such an eventful life, being confined to the bed was not a comforting thought to Sharada Prasad. The exemplary communicator could not express his predicament because his disease had weakened his body and strangled his voice  His memory was also getting mixed up. When he managed to recover both memory and voice momentarily a few weeks ago, he made one final communication through sheer grit: "What an end to a life." That regret was unlike Sharada Prasad, but it was still his characteristically chiseled, taut sentence. He was no longer battling death. He had loosened his iron will. That is the day when, for me, he was gone. What happened on the noon of Tuesday, September 2, was a mere formality.

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