Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Nilgiri Viewpoint

Byline by M J Akbar: A Nilgiri Viewpoint

My name Kennedy, sir!" exclaimed the chauffeur of the black Ambassador driving me up to the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington, from Coimbatore airport through blaring city, quiet woods and picture postcard valleys to a 6,000-foot high perch in the Blue Mountains. He glanced back to confirm my curiosity. "Born day Kennedy died. Father thought good man," he explained. Kennedy proved to be a driving encyclopaedia of Coimbatore’s virtues: four medical colleges, 28 engineering colleges et al, but was just a shade apprehensive about one statistic. A quarter of this Tamil city’s population was from next-door Kerala. "Kerala no space for legs," he added on a forgiving note.

As behoves a good chauffeur, Kennedy was an incisive analyst of national as well as regional politics. He approved warmly of Abdul Kalam, and turned 120 degrees to shrug at the worthy Tamilian scientist’s successor. He had heard about only one of the candidates for Vice-President, Najima Abdullah. Like any shrewd pundit, he laid out the analysis but reserved final judgment lest time might prove him wrong. He was eloquent about his state. Jayalalithaa had polled only 15 lakh votes less than the DMK-led alliance; Vijayakanth 28 lakh votes; in many constituencies Amma (Jayalalithaa) lost by less than a thousand votes, five hundred, even two hundred! I asked about the future. "DMK, free TV, two-rupee rice. TV going only to DMK worker, rice going to Karnataka, Kerala, selling twelve rupees."

I had no idea whether his figures were correct, but only a very courageous person would argue with the authority in his voice. When, like weasel journalist I did check later, these were the facts: Vijayakanth had launched the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam in September 2005, positioned himself as the "Karuppu MGR" or "Black MGR", contested 232 of the 234 seats, picked up 8.33% of the votes, or nearly 28 lakhs, and although he was the sole person in his party to actually win a seat he had taken enough votes away from Jayalalithaa to ensure her defeat.

The Nilgiris are a gentle range, the valleys undulating and verdant, the hills flecked with floating garlands of clouds. Builders have hammered smallpox marks on the face of nature with rows of tightly strung matchbox houses. The thirst for occasional pleasure and permanent status will of course only rise with economic growth, as greater numbers enter the holiday-home class. Aesthetics is not necessarily a handmaiden of success. Kennedy slows down and to the left spreads the green bowl above which Lawrence School, Lovedale, has been built. "Fully viewpoint," says Kennedy, and I agree. Other points are less than fully viewpoint. The town just before we enter the Army haven at Wellington is a mess of modern mismanagement: roads dark with broken tar, traffic at both cross and illogical purposes, policemen bored with their thin benefits, small shops that have miraculously preserved a sense of dust despite the generous sprinkle of rain. India changes as you cross the gates into defence discipline and budget. The tar isn’t different, but it is cleaner. It is a realm of order; work by the clock, leisure by the clock. Stuff happens outside. Things happen in Wellington.

Lt. Gen. Bhaskar Gupta (Gurkhas, as his distinctive soft hat confirms) offers a brisk and hospitable welcome. I learn, with added pleasure, that he is from Bengal; his father was in the Army as well. Naturally we slip into Bengali as often as circumstance and vocabulary will permit. He invites me for dinner at 2000 hours. Informal, even a kurta will do, although it is not advisable: the clouds can dissolve without notice, and the temperature can drop by ten degrees. The locals wear a sweater at all times. (Tourists from Tamil Nadu, in my considered view, come only to be able to wear a sweater.) But the lecture the next evening is tie and jacket, as is the reception at the Mess later. Abashed, I find my small suitcase is without any ties to formality. Who can conceive of a tie in half-baked Delhi? I am promised a regimental tie. Kennedy has the rest of the answers. We head off to Ooty to find a jacket.

A Shrine to Our Lady of Health, followed by a wine shop, the Holy Spirit Church, a notice welcoming the imminent presence of Charing Cross and a wax museum pave the way to Ooty. A lovely British cathedral dominates one side of the city; the other side of the road is largely the property of an Afghan called Baba Seth, who arrived many decades ago, possibly along with dry fruits and built up one of the finest car collections in the South. His heirs now live in the traditional manner, by selling off their inheritance, bit by bit. Inevitably, Charing Cross has gone native, and been renamed Charring Cross by more than one shop. I am directed towards the upper floor of Mohan’s where the lights are switched on but the dust left in place. A proud sign promises "Service Quality Value since 1947". The jackets are double-breasted, and top half of a suit. The salesman has no qualms about selling me only the top half. While the service is kind, the material of good quality, the suits were probably made in 1947. Stopping at the Savoy for a cup of tea, I ask for a table with a view. The young man is charmingly honest. "We don’t have a view," he says.

Before dinner Bhaskar points to distant lights from the lawns of his glorious residence at the top of his Wellington mountain. That is where Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw lives. The Army remembers its Field Marshal with respect and affection. The conversation with senior officers from all the services over dinner is splendidly convivial, and the morning alarm is birdsong. The past has been improved but not changed at the exquisite Wellington Club. Bhaskar Gupta was the last golfer to get a hole in one, says a scroll of honour. The librarian unearths just the book I was looking for, a 1941 biography of Gertrude Bell, the British civil servant instrumental in making Faisal king of the newly created Iraq in 1921, although Faisal had never set foot in the country before he accepted the British-sponsored crown. About 240 officers are selected each year for the Staff College course through a written examination. This splendid institution is gate to the haven of senior command.

The jacket was the easy part; I simply didn’t wear one. The regimental tie constituted summer formal. They didn’t buy my bluff; they were just being decent to a thoughtless civilian. The auditorium, everyone in dark suit, was stiff with discipline, but eyes and faces were relaxed. This was both reassuring — there was absolutely no chance of getting booed; and discomfiting — you don’t want your audience to be too polite either. There was no doubt about the interest. Islam and terrorism is not a favourite subject anymore; it seems to be the only subject anyone is interested in. I suppose the only reason I get invited is because I have some familiarity with both Islam and English grammar. Lots of people have one or the other. The questions were articulate, and rid of either ambiguity or hypocrisy, which was a relief because the answers were offered in the same vein.

Early next morning, before goodbye, I put on the regimental tie, albeit briefly. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to.

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