Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Tribute to Ashok Saikia, friend and mentor

Bhaalo theko, Ashok'da
Ashok Saikia, who passed away on December 30, 2007, was a self-effacing man with a large heart. He cared for everybody and remembered the smallest details.Above all, he was a fiercely loyal friend who was loved and admired in equal measure.

Unlike many of Ashok Saikia's innumerable friends and admirers, I can't claim to have known him for 30 or 40 years. The first time I met him was in December 1996 at Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee's residence; it was probably the last week of the year. I was introduced to him and his wife, Ranjana, and we chatted for a while. It was a brief encounter but left lasting impressions. Over the next two years, we ran into each other at Mr Vajpayee's residence a couple of times.
It was sometime in 1998 that I really got to know him. Mr Vajpayee was Prime Minister and Ashok Saikia was Joint Secretary in the PMO. One afternoon I got a call from him, inviting me to his office for coffee. He warmly greeted me and then said, "I am hungry. Kuchh khaya jaye." That 'kuchh' turned out to be a large plate of steaming hot pakodas, which we washed down with several cups of coffee. This was to become an afternoon ritual over the next few years. By the time I left his office, I was calling him Ashok'da.
Ashok'da could be a patient teacher. After joining the PMO, I was at sea and realised something as simple as writing speeches for the Prime Minister involved more than putting together words that would lend themselves to good copy. Inputs would come from various people, most of them crusty senior bureaucrats, and everybody would expect the speech to reflect his or her suggestions. It was easy to tread on too many toes and difficult to keep everybody happy.
"Just take all the suggestions and then do what you feel is right. The Prime Minister should not be seen articulating what bureaucrats think," he told me. And then over the following months he guided me, ever so gently and patiently, through the Byzantine lanes of Government. Whenever I ran into trouble, I would run to his office and he would promptly take care of it. And then order hot pakodas and coffee.
Our professional association blossomed into a loving, caring friendship. When I foolishly resigned from the PMO to take up a media assignment in Kolkata, he told me it was a wrong decision. But he stood by me, facilitating my daughter's mid-term school admission and fussing over other details of relocation. His warning came true; my new job was an unmitigated disaster; and I was increasingly desperate to get out of the jam in which I found myself. Instinctively, I turned to Ashok'da. He heard me out and then said, "Leave it to me. I shall do something. I can't abandon you!" Within a month I had a new assignment.
That was his great quality. He would never abandon anybody. He was fiercely loyal to his friends and they reciprocated with equally fierce loyalty. He treated me like his younger brother; for me, he was the elder brother I never had.
"You should have your own house," he told me one day. "I don't have the money to buy a house," I said. He called his secretary and asked him to get a membership form of the PMO Housing Society. The form came. "Fill it up and sign it," he instructed me. "But what about the money? I really don't have any money," I pleaded. "Just fill it up, we will see," he said sternly and got back to clearing files. The next day, he facilitated a housing loan; in those days, banks were reluctant to part with their money.
Each of his small gestures were those of a large-hearted man. During our first year in Cairo, my younger daughter found it difficult to cope with Egypt's blistering summer heat and would often go down with stomach flu. I casually mentioned this to him one day when he had called from Delhi to check on how we were settling in. There was a packet for me in next week's diplomatic bag, containing several bottles of Pudin Hara and a scribbled note from Ashok'da which said, "Try this, it should work." It worked.
On another occasion, Mr Prabir Sengupta, who had just retired as Petroleum Secretary, was visiting Cairo for a conference on foreign trade and Ashok'da asked me to arrange for a car for him and his wife to visit Alexandria. And could I host him for dinner? I arranged for a car and invited Mr Sengupta and his wife for dinner. They arrived with a huge, and I mean huge, box which Ashok'da had given them for us. Later that night, we opened the box with eager anticipation. It was crammed with sandesh.
"Ashok'da", I cribbed to him one day, "it's bloody impossible to buy books in Cairo. The few that are available are frightfully expensive." After that, every month a packet of books would arrive from him. I read Jhumpa Lahiri's Namesake sitting on my balcony overhanging the Nile courtesy Ashok'da. During my visits to Delhi, I would come laden with Egyptian gifts, largely tacky and designed for tourists. He would let out whoops of delight. Ranjana, whom I call 'boudi', would keep on reminding us that dinner -- tenga maachh and steamed rice -- was getting cold as he kept on pouring "the last" drink.
When I returned to Delhi in the summer of 2004, wife and two children in tow, to an uncertain future and without a job, I literally did not have a place to stay. Our apartment was in a mess and needed extensive work to make it hospitable. Ashok'da had thought of every detail without my having to tell him anything, although those were trying days for him: The Government had fallen, Mr Vajpayee and his colleagues were in a shock, and his own posting to Manila as Executive Director in the Asian Development Bank had run into some trouble with the new regime.
There were two cars at the airport which took us straight to PMO Housing Society in Noida. He had had his apartment, which had also been lying vacant, cleaned, put in beds, fixed air-conditioners in the bedrooms, and stocked the kitchen with utensils and groceries. For the next three months, we lived in his apartment while carpenters and painters worked in ours. I made bold to offer him rent. "Bahut paisa ho gaya hai tera?" he snapped.
Ashok'da left for Manila soon after my return to Delhi. Every time he was in the city, he would make time for us to have lunch together. There would be surprise telephone calls from various parts of the world where he would be travelling and e-mail that always ended with, "Love, Ashok".
After he returned from Manila in August, we would meet for lunch. It was a seamless friendship. A couple of weeks ago, he dropped into The Pioneer's office and we had a long adda over coffee. We laughed ourselves silly over things that really don't matter.
On Sunday morning, as I held Ranjana boudi's hands and wept, I could only think of one thing: I would never get to see or talk to Ashok'da again. Self-effacing as ever, he had left us quietly, silently, without creating a fuss. As his mortal remains are consigned to the flames at Titabar, his native village in Assam, I join his family, friends and admirers in praying for his soul:
Jaao hey Ananta dhaamey, moho maya paashori,Dukkho aandhaaro jetha kichhui naahi,Joraa naahi, morono naahi, shoko naahi jey lokey,Keboli anandosroto cholechhey probahi,Jaao hey Ananta dhaamey, Amritaniketaney...Jyotirmoyo aaloye, shubhro sheyi chiro bimolo punya kironey,Jaayo jetha danobroto, satyabrata punyaban...Bhaao theko, Ashok'da.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i learned about his passing few days ago when i googled his name. i dont understand,but in the past few days,he was in my thoughts.i am saddened by the truth that he already left us to join our creator. i came to know him during his stint at ADB. he used to tell me stories about life, about giving and not expecting something in return,taught me to be humble at all times and many more...he was like an older brother to me. i hope one day, i'd be able to visit where he came from.