Thursday, November 29, 2012

The ruffian and the gentleman: a long short story

As we drove from Karnataka into the newly carved state of Madipur, I noticed immediately the colours, texture and function of the land had changed significantly since I had left the place.We drove from the lovely and expansive Bengaluru Airport along the new expressway, which ran through Malgudi before cutting through the new state of Madipur. The lazy countryside gave way to concrete, glass and steel. There was a markedly different tone and rhythm to Madipur City, the capital of Madipur state.

The Madipur City I grew up in was lethargic. Today, it was the hub of knowledge outsourcing. Most of the world’s largest companies had moved their research and development centers to Madipur. This new state had much to offer: an abundance of talent, natural resources, lovely weather, institutes of science and technology, proximity to the Bengaluru International Airport, and much more.

In exactly one hour and fifteen minutes, I had reached the Madipur Vidhan Sabha. 'It would take me that long to get from the Bengaluru Airport to Indiranagar,' I thought, as I got out of the car that had ferried me to the new legislative assembly building of Madipur. The exhaustively interconnected metro that was promised for Bengaluru was 20 years in the making and still incomplete. In direct contrast, Madipur had a fully interconnected metro network and a lovely system of roads. As we drove in to Madipur City, a large sign welcomed us: ‘Visit the State with no scams and traffic jams’.

The Vidhan Sabha of Madipur was an impressive building. Imagine the Vidhan Soudha in Bengaluru. Multiply its expanse by an order of magnitude and give it a coat of dark red paint. That was the Vidhan Sabha. Indeed, Madipur represented exactly what Bengaluru would have been but for the latter’s governance void, trust deficit and distinct lack of visionary leadership. In the beginning, constructing a new state adjoining Karnataka would have been hard. There was always the possibility the vibrant Bengaluru, with its greenery, its lively bars, strong educational institutions and young people would overshadow Madipur. However, within a short period, the young and the old had slowly moved out of Bengaluru to settle down in Madipur, “a happening place which is simultaneously a pensioner’s paradise, a hipster’s heaven, a dreamer’s delight and a teenager’s thrill location,” Poly Narayana Reddy, Madipur’s chief minister would say to me later that day. He clearly loved his alliterations.

He loved other things too, like food. But more importantly for Madipur, he had extraordinary vision and drove towards it with the energy of a man possessed. When he was elected to power as Madipur’s first chief minister, he declared he would make it the ‘cleanest and most progressive state in India’. In just 10 years, he was ready for the next big goal, having already satisfied his stated goal when he first took over as chief minister. “People talk about ‘single window’ government operations. In Madipur, we do not believe in either windows or doors. We believe in open plan offices,” he once said in an interview. Since he became chief minister, things he said were constantly quoted in business magazines; nearly 40 journal articles and case studies had been written on him and his style of open governance.

And I was here, in Madipur, to meet with him.

He had met me in New York the previous month where he was due to give a keynote address at a large management junket – sorry, conference! I was a part of the panel discussion that immediately followed his keynote address. He spotted me in the audience during his talk and waved. After his talk he came up to me, embraced me and said, “How are you Siddharth? We do not have much time to talk now, but you must come to Madipur. I need you there,” and quickly departed. I was amazed he remembered me. We weren't friends when we had grown up together in Madipur City. We went to the same college. However, we had had only a few dealings in my time there. I also thought he would forget our meeting in New York. However, two weeks later, I got a call from his office. The chief secretary to the Madipur state called me and asked if I would visit the city as a guest of the chief minister, Poly Narayana Reddy.

I stood outside his office wing and said, “My name is Siddharth Rao and I...” and before I could finish my sentence, Poly Reddy’s PA said, “Sure, we are expecting you. Please walk with me sir” and whisked me into the chief minister’s wing. It was called ‘The People’s Wing’ of the building.

Colourful modern paintings adorned the walls, which were all painted in solid colours and included sharp, clean corners. The furniture has sleek and, like the walls, had sharp corners. A few large plants in large earthen pots decorated the floor and helped accent the visual appeal just appropriately. Much like the people that worked in it, the place had a welcoming yet businesslike feel to it. I stood in the waiting are for exactly two minutes before I was asked to go into the chief minister’s office.

He was a big impressive man, with a thick mustache  He wore spectacles these days. He had a rather neat and cuddly tummy. That part hadn't changed. Indeed, when I was in college in Madipur, I would often wonder why he was known as Poly Reddy or Poly Narayana. Initially, I thought this was because of his cute little paunch, shaped like the ghatam, the percussive instrument often used in Carnatic music concerts. I thought his girth, the ghatam and his roly-poly appearance gave him his nickname. He would always rest his folded hands at the top of his pot, much like a ghatam player would. Sometimes when he was unhappy, his palms would rest face up at the top of the pot. That was when you knew you were in trouble; and with Poly Narayana ‘trouble’ meant losing your knee cap at the very least. It was only later that I found out that ‘poly’ had nothing to do with his roly-poly appearance. It actually translated to ‘nasty fellow’ in Kannada; that was where he had inherited his moniker from.

His office had a wall of books on a range of subjects. There were several management and self-help books. Books by Christensen and Gladwell appeared to have been read many timesover. But the shelves also had Krylov, Pushkin, Gorky, Nabokov, Havel, Garcia-Marquez, Miller, Mahfouz and more. These weren't mere show pieces either. Through the day, he would quote from Nabakov or Mahfouz. He had actually read these books and recalled passages from them. This was a guy that hardly spoke English when we were at college together.

Poly Reddy wore a dark blue Armani suit and, as always, wore Hermes cologne. Even in his college days, when he walked you felt he ruled the world. He didn't believe in slouching, nor did he drag his feet. His was a walk of a confident, arrogant man. “The word humility does not exist in my dictionary,” he told me once while we were at college together nearly 20 years ago and, on seeing my raised eyebrows, continued, “...and although I could get a new dictionary, I prefer this one that I have.” I had one look at the way he went through his work that morning and was convinced that Poly Reddy had not yet procured that new dictionary. He did not need it.

He signed many papers that morning as I waited. It was fascinating to see the man in operation. He would sign papers with a flourish that represented poise and self-belief.

He looked at me briefly, peered through the papers he was signing, and said “Two more minutes Sid. I will be done here and then I am all yours,” and, as he took off his sun glasses, he paused and added, “...for the rest of the day.” I immediately wondered why he wore sunglasses inside his office. But I didn't linger on that thought for too long. I was, instead, concentrating on what Poly Reddy had just said. I had just heard him say “...I am all yours, for the rest of the day”; this was simultaneously worrying and comforting. How would I engage with him for the rest of the day? What would we talk about? Even if he brought it up, I was certainly not going to talk about our largely murky past. Even though I remained worried and strangely comforted, I was confident of what I could and did not want to talk about. And that was one major difference this time: I was no longer in awe of the man.

I was in awe of the man when we were at college together. I was always the studious guy and would never interact with Poly Reddy, who was already developing a reputation as a deadly ruffian. I was studying Maths and he, law. So we really did not have much interaction. I would see him from a distance every now and then. For some reason, he had taken a huge liking to me and would always nod or smile at me. I would be simultaneously worried and comforted. But I was also in awe of his swagger, his confidence, his walk, his very being.

However, I stayed clear of him because he worried me. Yet, my past interactions with Poly Reddy were not orchestrated by me though. It involved a girl called Malini.

I thought about Malini and how I had fallen in love with her. I was 17 and in the first year of my two-year pre-university course (year 11). Malini was warm, bubbly, extroverted and incredibly loquacious. She was also exactly what the testosterone of some 30 boys in our class needed at that time. Of the 20 girls in the group, she was the one that everyone wanted to talk to and be with. For over a month I plotted strategy after failed strategy, on how I might approach her and ask her out for a coffee when, one day, she made the first move. As our Chemistry lecturer was spotted walking down the corridor, I sat down in the chair in front of her. I leaned back to rest my back on her writing desk when she pulled the desk towards her. In a matter of seconds, I lost my balance and my head was, instead, on her knee. I looked up at her face and saw her smile in a benign and inviting manner. I fell in love immediately. The connection was thus made. The rest of the class was more electricity and biology than chemistry!

At the end of that hour, I actually didn't need to ask Malini out to coffee. We just ended up at the coffee shop. We didn't talk much. We didn't need to. Indeed, we rarely did. We just sat and stared at each other as 17 year old kids tend to do. This would soon become our regular routine at the end of our day. There were no posh coffee shops in those days. This was in the pre-CCD era. So Malini and I would go to the nearby coffee shop, which we fondly used to refer to as ‘Cholera Bhavan’,and stare into each other’s eyes as we sipped our coffees from a glass. After our post-college coffee, I would drop her home, which was one suburb away from my own home. I would drop her at the end of the street her house was on; her parents could not see us together. Not yet anyway. Occasionally, we would go to a slightly posh restaurant. Even there, we would mostly look into each other’s eyes. From time to time we would talk about Arun or Amit or Lalita or Swaroopini and laugh at their immense immaturity, their tendency to gossip or their inability to spend money on their friends. Every fortnight, we would go to a Hindi movie. Neither of us understood Hindi, but that was hardly the point of going to the movies. We walked in the park, we held hands and wanted the world to know that we were an ‘item’. We didn't care what people said. There was a song that released around that time that became the catch cry for us lover types. The words ‘khullam khullapyar karenge hum dono’ from that song became our refrain.

Life was good.

That was until Soma Prasad paid a visit to the park bench near my home one day and asked for me. When I wasn’t with Malini, my friends and I would gather at this park bench to either play or talk about cricket. On that particular day, when Soma came calling, I was with Malini at the movies. He apparently asked for me by name.

Everyone knew Soma as the local goon. He walked around with a knife hanging down the front of his trousers. He was always dressed in a tight yellow T-shirt and had a thick gold chain hanging down the front of it. The chain had a Volkswagen emblem at the end of it. I was never quite sure why this was the case, but that was what he always wore. Soon though, one gold chain grew into two and then 10; so much so that we used to sometimes refer to him as Chotta Bappi, for while he had the chains, he was only a quarter the size of the legendary gold-chain-loving musician of that era. Soma was a thug and he wore his gangster tag with immense pride. No one from our locality crossed Soma’s path. Of course, I was oblivious to Soma’s existence. I was either lost in my books or on Malini those days.

The next day, Soma came visiting again. He came over and warned me to not go out with Malini ever again, “aa Malini nann area hudigi, bit-bidu siva illandre ninage yen agaththe gothilla...” he said in Kannada. (“That Malini is from my area. Drop her otherwise I don’t know what will happen to you...”)

I told him I didn't speak Kannada but, nevertheless, understood what he was saying. I also told him, “Can’t do. Sorry.” and went on to describe the history of property and possession of property. I talked about possession as enshrined in law from the times of Renaissance Europe and of how human beings were deliberately and pointedly excluded from such ownership laws. I told him that Malini wasn't anybody’s property: not mine or his. I was incredibly angry at that stage, but also incredibly stupid, for Soma was less than impressed with the law lecture and was beginning to lose his shape.

He showed me a knife and told me that if I did not stop seeing Malini, he would have to use it. I walked away, but I was determined that I would not allow a goon to dictate what I did in my life. 

By then, I was having second thoughts about Malini. I wasn't really in love with her. We had gone past the ‘who can stare the longest into the other person's eyes and still show immense love’ stage. I needed exciting conversation more than I needed the eye exercise. I was convinced that Malini was not the one for me and was contemplating how to end that relationship. However, I was doubly convinced that I would not end the relationship on a thug’s say so. So Malini and I continued the hand holding and the eye exercises for another week.

Soma came calling again. This time, he came with two other people, who stood behind him, arms folded while Soma talked. Well, he didn't really talk as much as barked. He asked me why I hadn't stopped seeing Malini yet. I started talking about the origins of European Law once again when he lifted his right elbow and crashed it into my jaw. The speed of that one simple movement was enough for my jaw to crack. I felt my teeth rattle so hard, I thought they had all dislodged from their sockets. I could barely feel my jaw and doubled over. As I doubled over, he brought his knee up slightly. My forehead thudded into his knee. Everything happened so quickly. In just under five seconds, I was bruised and defeated. Soma and his two hooligan friends left saying he would not like to visit again the following week.

I was jolted back into the present by the strong smell of Hermes. Poly Reddy was hugging me.

While I was lost in my recall of the Malini-Soma episode, Poly Reddy had said to his PA that he had had enough for the day. He had asked everyone to leave his office. He had taken his Oakley sunglasses off and sat them on top of his head. He smiled as he hugged me; it wasn't merely a hug. His was a violent embrace.

The glasses were off and remained off for the rest of the day. I could see his eyes. They were fierce and determined; they were also the eyes of a tired man.

Poly Reddy and I talked continuously that day. We talked a lot about the Madipur that he had fought for, about his vision for his state. We talked about his passion for good governance and about how he wanted to show to the world that we could, in India, build a model city and state that the entire world could aspire to. He said, “I want the young people of my state to have career options and prosperity that people like you thought you could only secure by leaving the country.” He showed me that day that he had reinvented himself into a wonderful gentleman; a man with a large heart that had passion, pride and a place in it for everyone. 

The ruffian had given way to a gentleman. 

He was certainly a very different man from the Poly Narayana Reddy I knew in college. We talked of that man he was in college. We talked about how we first interacted with each other immediately after my needless interface with Soma.

The day after my close interaction with Soma’s elbow and knee, I was badly bruised and my face sported deep purple blobs the size of baby mushrooms. I told my parents that I had fallen down  the stairs at college. I don’t think they bought that at all. My father, Srinivas Rao, looked at me, shook his head despairingly, and walked away; we communicated mainly through a series of grunts those days. I did go to college that day even though I was bruised. Although, to be honest, I think my ego was bruised more than my face was. However, I was convinced that I would need to go through another meeting with Soma. And another. And another. I wasn't going to give up on my right to a choice.

Quite by accident, I met Poly Reddy at the college entrance that day. I really did not know why Poly Reddy needed a college education. He wasn't interested in studies. He would turn up every day for a few hours, talk to a few girls, eat some tiffin and head back home. He was the son of a wealthy businessman and land owner in Madipur. He drove to college in a chauffeur driven BMW car -- these were times when CEOs of large companies could barely afford an Ambassador car. The previous year, he saw me act in Macbeth as Mark Anthony. We played 10 nights in the college auditorium and he was there every night. He would stand up and applaud after the ‘Friends Romans and Countrymen’ speech. Every night. And he couldn't speak one full sentence of English. Yet, he would attend every play I acted in. There was a connection between us that was as baffling as it was deep. I couldn't quite understand the connection.

He wanted me to teach him English. “Teach me to talk like you,” he said one day. He knew I wanted to go overseas and study some more. He used to say he was proud to know a guy like me who spoke “such perfect English”. He wanted to speak English like me and wanted to be a lawyer. He told me once in Kannada, “I know you will become a big shot in the US. Me, I only want to wear suits and cooling glasses and work as a lawyer somewhere in India itself.”

Poly Reddy met me at the college gates that morning. He took one look at my bruised face and raised an eyebrow. That was his style. He wouldn't ask directly. He would gesture with his eyes, his hands or his face. I said the bruises were nothing much and tried to move away. But he would have none of that. He stopped me in my tracks and asked, “Who beat you up? I don’t even want to know why? Just  say who?”

There was concern, empathy and anger in his voice. I had no idea why he sought me out. We never talked at college, but he would seek me out always. We would say a hello or raise eyebrows and that would be all. But he would always look out for me those days.And today, there was anger too. I tried to avoid the issue. But he pressed and demanded an answer. He saw through the ‘fell down the stairs’ attempt and said,“Just tell me who.”

So, I told him what had happened and immediately sensed his anger and consternation. I told him that this was something that I would go through, on my own.

That night, he called me and said, “Come to the Narayanapura grounds at 11am tomorrow. Sharp,” and hung up. I did not know what to make of it. I knew it wasn't to play cricket. Poly did not play any sport, as evidenced by his immense size. I went to the grounds at ‘11am sharp’ as I was instructed. My worst fears were confirmed when I spotted Soma on the cricket pitch. I saw a crowd of 10 people standing next to the cricket pitch. Soma had been summoned at '10.30am sharp'. Apparently Soma had arrived there and for half hour Poly Reddy and he had been talking about the state of local politics. The moment Poly Reddy spotted my approach towards the cricket pitch he pointed out to me and asked Soma if he knew his ‘very good, beloved and most lovable friend Siddharth’. As Poly said this he rested his palms on his belly, face up. Soma immediately fell to Poly Reddy’s feet and asked for forgiveness, “nanigge gothilla guru, bitt-bidu nann-na,” he said (“Leave me alone boss. I did not know at all”). But Poly did not stop there. He did not let Soma get away. He held the knife that one of his henchmen handed to him and marked Soma’s thigh with deep gash. As Soma yelled in pain and anguish, Poly said that that gash should serve as a reminder to Soma to never mess around with a good friend of his.

He then turned to me and said,“Now continue your romance without fear.”

My teeth clattered uncontrollably at the sight of blood, the knife, the sound of pain and the brutal aggression I had just witnessed. Without my knowledge, I stuttered and spluttered my way through a lecture on the principle of property as enshrined in European Law. Poly Reddy waved me away and asked me to go home.

The next day I met Poly and told him that I was not impressed with what had happened. I told him that I was not interested in the staring exercises I had been indulging in lately. I told him that I was also not impressed with him defending my rights and my principles, especially in the manner he had and especially when I had not requested such help. I told him that he had no right to protect me or defend me or make me an accomplice to thuggery. I protested vehemently and told him that it was my problem to solve and confront. Not his.

He said, “Principle or love, your choice. To defend you or not, my choice. Now go.”

There was something unsettling about it though. I wondered if that choice he had made came with a price tag.

It did.

“Here have some coffee,” he said as we walked around the lawns of Madipur’s Vidhan Sabha, thereby jolting me out of the Soma episode. He would tell me later that Soma worked for him these days as his principal private secretary.

The Vidhan Sabha in Madipur was an impressive building. There were no security machines, no gun-toting policemen, no barricades. People could walk in and out of the building when they wanted to. “It is, after all,theirs. We are merely temporary residents of this building, occupying it with the people’s permission,” Poly Reddy told me.

The facade of the Sabha was like the Vidhan Soudha in Bangalore. However, behind the facade was a large lawn that covered the rest of the building. The assembly hall was buried under this lawn. Madipur’s people were invited to sit, eat and play on the lawn above. He would tell me later, “Like the parliament house in Canberra, I wanted the people to be able to sit and walk on top of the assembly area as a constant reminder to us legislators that we are only here for one purpose: to serve the people who stand above us.”

He took me on a tour of the property later on. And as we walked on the lawns I noticed a sign out of the corner of my eye. It read: “Please walk on the grass”. I had seen that sign before. It was in the botanical gardens in Sydney. The sign spoke of confidence and courage; it spoke of humility and it spoke of sharing.

As we walked around the lawn he told me of his political career and his future ambitions. It was impossible not to be swayed by his energy, his dynamism, and his animated and expansive style. He looked me in the eye and said he wanted me there. He said he had followed my career as a scientist and then as a science policy maker in Washington. He seemed to know every single project I had worked on; every single paper I had written; every single publicly available policy document I had authored. He said that he admired my own energy and drive and said that he wanted me in Madipur to help him make his beloved state an even better place. He talked about how he had completed his law degree, practiced law and moved into politics; a move that was as natural as it was necessary.

He then said, “None of this would have been possible without you.”

I didn't quite see it that way, maybe because that reminder embarrassed me thoroughly. It left a sour taste in my mouth and the only way of me coping with the discomfiture was for me to push it to the dark recesses of my mind. I was in denial. I shuddered every time I remembered what I had done as 'payback'.

Yes, there was ‘payback’ for his defense of me against the wrath of Soma.

A few months after the Soma-leg-marking incident, Poly came home. He had never been to my home up until then. He said he needed a favour. “I need a big favour from you,” he said, and the moment he said that I knew I was in trouble. He was a proud man. He seldom asked people for favours. He said it was his lifelong ambition to become a lawyer. He said he had attempted three papers twice already and had failed in all attempts. He had one more attempt at passing “property law”, “advanced English” and “interpretation of statues”. I had to remind him first that it was statutes and not statues that needed to be interpreted. I then told him that I would be happy to tutor him on these courses even though I wasn't an expert in these topics. I was already thinking ahead at the work I had to do myself to score well in my own final exams when he said, “No I do not want to be tutored. I want you to write these exams for me!”

I could not believe what I was hearing. I said I had no familiarity with the content and had my own exams to pass. Moreover, I told him that I wasn't a cheat and did not want to get apprehended for being one. I told him that it was blatantly wrong to be an imposter in an examination. “It is totally against the law,” I said, pointing to the subtle irony that these were law exams we were talking about.

I protested. But my protests were ineffective. He assured me that the invigilators in the exam hall would turn a blind eye. They had all been paid off. He said he was confident I could study the courses and pass them for him. All my protests were useless. He said he had had other people write the previous two attempts too, “All useless,” he said. In the end, he said, “You have no choice guru. You have to write these exams for me. No one in my village has a law degree. No one in my family knows what a degree is. I want it. And you have to help me get it,”and placed his palms on his tummy, face up as he said this.

And so I studied ‘interpretation of statutes’ and ‘property law’. The irony did not escape me, for after all it was my allusion to ‘property law’ that got me into trouble with Soma in the first place. I studied for my own exams too. All the invigilators in the law school exams knew I was a petty imposter. I felt horrible and irrelevant. In my own eyes, I was worse than a common thief. Even though I did not seem to have a choice in the matter, I was angry, bitter, repulsed and nauseated. This was wrong at so many levels. But the exam invigilators turned away as I wrote the three papers furiously. In each case, I walked out of the exam hall in two hours in three-hour exams.

Poly Reddy passed. Indeed, he had scored the highest marks in the college in these three papers. He came home when the results were announced and told me he had secured a ‘first class’ in these three examinations. He hugged me and said I had no idea what this ‘achievement’ did to him. He told me that I could ask him for anything I wanted. I reminded him that this wasn't his achievement. I told him that the only thing I wanted was to never be reminded of this horrible offence I had committed. He agreed to this and as he left, I said I had another request, “Never make contact again. Ever.”

My awe had given way to anger. Slowly, that anger dissolved and was replaced with indifference. I was also in denial of my own wrongdoing.

That was then.

Today, Poly Reddy talked to me from across the table. He was the chief minister and wanted me to work with him. He said to me, “I have followed your career with great interest. I know you talked to Malini saying you wanted to end it the very next day after our little event in that cricket ground. I know you went to Harvard to complete your PhD in computational chemistry and then become a professor. I know that even though you stopped publishing science papers 2 years ago, you still have an h-index of 42. I know you specialize now in Science policy.” He said he needed my help in Madipur. He wanted the best companies to come to Madipur and set up their R&D facilities there. He wanted the best colleges and universities to come to Madipur and develop talent there. He said,“You need to work with me to achieve this vision. You need to give back to the place that made you.”

I got up slowly and placed my palms on my own tiny belly. Face up. 

I told him I had lived with the examination blot on my conscience for way too long. Despite the remarkable progress he had made for Madipur, this was not what I wanted as a constant reminder. And despite his own progress as a human being,  and regardless of his immense energy, vision and passion, I told him that he wasn't a person I wanted to work with. I told him, "You are an impressive gentleman today. But I cannot forget the ruffian that forced me to be a cheat."

His hand too rested on his ghatam; his palms, face up. 

His shoulders tightened. I feared that he would force me to do something I did not want to, again. But then, after what seemed like an eternity, his shoulders drooped. He then jumped up from his chair, rushed forward and hugged me. He thanked me for my honesty and said ruefully, “...Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” He was even quoting Shakespeare now! He then said, “Go in peace Siddharth. I understand. Some blots are indelible and are impossible to remove from the copybook.”

He waved me goodbye at the end of the day and as I drove away, I noticed his folded hands. His palm rested atop his ghatam, face down...

- Mohan (@mohank)

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