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In Memoriam

It is a year since H.Y.Sharada Prasad passed away. He did not write a book on his time at the prime minister's office, but he did keep notes that bear testimony to a rare integration of the public and private persona of an individual.

In Memoriam
In Memoriam
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It is a year since H.Y.Sharada Prasad passed away. On 2nd September 2008 the news of his death was a matter-of-fact statement. No exaggerations, no ostentation, just like the man himself. But Sharada Prasad's death has not spiked the one curious question about him. He did not write a book on his time at the prime minister's office, but did he not keep notes or a diary? The answer is he did. 

From what Kamalamma, his loving companion of five decades, has discovered these private pages do not contain the usual vilifying juice and junk of high office, but, on the contrary, are filled with a critical examination of his moral being. There is a harsh scrutiny of his principles and promises. A mild anxiety if he has been able to keep the trajectory he has chosen. A meditative effort to expunge all hints of self-importance. Deep reflection where every strand of his ego comes under the microscope. Unbridled encounters with his seeming deceptions and some plain letters of confession. All of these are not in one single narrative or in a chronological sequence, but are scattered in the many papers he has left behind. In this saffron season of abuse, accusation, smirk and skulduggery, they are a serene glow that bear testimony to a rare integration of the public and private persona of an individual. 

Let me offer some samples.

Here's a prayer he made before he joined government service in 1957: 

"I am saying goodbye to one profession [journalism] in a metropolitan city [Bombay] and am settling down in the capital of the country in government service. Let there be no ostentation and authoritativeness of a government officer, but a sense that I am in peoples' service. Protect me. Let the fact that there is someone above even the high, take root in my heart and mind. Let me always remember that peoples welfare should be above everything. Let not the glitter, authority, status, importance of the capital overpower me. Let the knowledge that the inner voice is my guide, be my protection." 

At one point Sharada Prasad perhaps tried to fictionally reconstruct his early life as a freedom fighter and his stint in Mysore and Bangalore prisons during the 1942 'Quit India' movement. He was then the secretary of the Mysore Maharaja's College Student's Union. In parts, this reconstruction is in the form of an imaginary interview or a conversation. But since these papers are in tatters and, as a result of many corrections and cancellations that he later introduced, piecing them together into a structured narrative is difficult. In essence, this text is incomplete. Perhaps he lost interest in the idea midway or thought that it was pompous to assign himself some history. But from whatever that has been salvaged, his thoughts are clear as ever. Excerpts:

"He did not go to watch the midnight meeting at the Central Hall. He is averse to observing anniversaries. The original experience he seeks, but has no stomach for regurgitation. He sat at home instead, alone and remembered the delirium of joy when, only half his present age, he welcomed freedom as one among a million who spent their most unforgettable night in an unending jostle in Bombay. His mind travelled five years farther back. 

Forty-two and August. Middle-sized throng in a middle-sized city listens to him making a speech. He had a moderate talent for speaking on the basis of which he had become secretary of the university union. With the swoop down on the known political leadership of the town the focus was on him and a handful of his colleagues... 

He held forth daily for a fortnight or more, and even had the 'Jais' intoned to his name. But one evening in the midst of a speech he felt the power was switched off. He continued to speak well-turned sentences but the magic had gone for him. He had relived the moment many times with the mild ache of nostalgia, and the relief that the moment of truth had come so early in life for him. And at that fleeting moment someone within him asked in tones very gentle but authoritative: What do you have within you that they should do your bidding? A few thousand ears had been hearing him, but his ears heard only these insidious words. Immediately, the words made no change to his routine: processions, defiance of police orders, arrests, a few months of jail, a gruesome lathicharge within the jail, release, more processions and meetings and rearrest...

His hometown visitor leaves. He takes up his reverie again. He thinks of the questions being asked on the main themes of the many articles written on the jubilee.

Q. You spent a year in jail didn't you?

A. Yes ten-and-a-half-months and I think I learnt more in these months than in my whole career at school and college. I have a theory that most people's mental power declines after 18. This is true of me at any rate. There must have been five to six hundred political prisoners and a thousand five hundred convicts in Bangalore jail at the time. 

...The jailor made interminable entries in the register, took their finger prints and all, then asked a convict to escort them to their ward. A magnificent village type he was, with a great grey moustache and a face deeply lived. He reminded one of a fine Kankrej bullock. He was doing his eighth term for theft, they learnt later. They walked with him for a furlong and a half. He said the news of the students' brave work had trickled into the jail and they were all proud of them. And when he put down their bags in the ward he gave them a piece of advice: "Take good care of your things. The place is full of thieves!" 

Q. But jails were supposed to be universities?

A. They were in a way. We did a lot of reading on our own and in another jail where we spent a few months, the students ran classes for the peasants. The big men of the Congress did not attempt anything like that in Bangalore jail. They seemed to be wrapped up in themselves and were curiously indifferent to students. There were ugly stories of some of them putting through black-market deals with the help of jail officials. All this about politics being cleaner in Gandhiji's time is a suspect statement to me - except that if the level had already deteriorated in 1942...

...Months of jail, all these were in store for him. But somewhere deep inside a decision had been made: politics was not for him. He either lacked confidence or ambition or was too honest with himself." 

In a letter to Kamalamma in 1950, Sharada Prasad writes: 

"So you accuse me of self-admiration do you? Is it to pull my leg? I believe I am not given to it. I have really looked at myself as others see me. I have not told you of my doubts and self-criticism. I am a little needlessly vain and aloof no doubt... How shall I tell you I have been fighting for years against smugness, how I have known my life as just nothing. My acquirements are not much to speak of. Even if with all my heart I tried to be of use to others, my value would be little, because my abilities, equipment and the purpose to which it should be put have been troubling me. By the nature of things I cannot be of use to all. All have to live in circles. My own fear is that in my case the circle is shrinking and I am becoming more and more worthless... The sense of dedication that I once had, I have lost to my chagrin. But I still have belief that I shall live in such a way that I shall not make my body a living sepulchre or after I have ceased to be, people who know me will not swear or frown at my memory. If you call it self-admiration then be it so."

Let me end this piece by recounting one of Kamalamma's many cherished memories about her husband: After he had been away on long trips with the prime minister and when he returned home, usually in the dead of night, he used to unwind by playing a game of scrabble with her. Only after a game would he doze off for a couple of hours before getting ready to go to office again. The written word, on the scrabble board and elsewhere, offered him solace and it was sacred to him.

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