In memoriam

Ashok Jaitly 1942-2015

A son’s tribute

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PEOPLE tend to say ‘there are no words for times like this’ but I disagree. For us, any words from those close to my father and whose lives he was part of, mean a very great deal.

In recent days, most of the public tributes have understandably focused on my father’s extremely distinguished career in government service which, as many of you know, was a true vocation for him. People have spoken of his administrative skills, his stewardship of the state of Jammu and Kashmir through some of its most difficult times, his transformation of the Council for the Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology (CAPART), his ability to take difficult decisions that others were either unable or unwilling to take and his unwavering support for his junior officers.

Dad was a public servant in the true sense of the term, and in his mind, his time was always at the disposal of the people who he believed he had been employed to serve. Throughout his career, if he wasn’t working late in the office, he was going through the dhobi bundles of files that followed him home every day or, more likely, meeting the hundreds of people who lined up to see him every day with one darkhwast or another – a job, a promotion, a college admission, a recommendation, a permission. He saw everybody and usually managed to do something for most of them.

But in the last few days, as I have been going through the various messages we have received, it occurred to me how similar and consistent his approach in his personal life was to his professional style, his work and the people he worked with. His parenting, just like his attitude, especially to his junior colleagues, was a light touch and based on a very simple philosophy, ‘Be honest, do your best and don’t worry about the consequences.’

This was sort of similar to the way he coached me on my batting, with very little interference. ‘Head down, foot to the pitch of the ball,’ he would say and then let you get on with it. I would, however, like to believe that he had more success with shaping me as a person than he did with my cover-drive.

To his children and colleagues alike, Dad was happy to give those minimal lessons and then trust people to responsibly exercise the freedom that he so generously extended to them. But like his kids, his colleagues too knew that if they sincerely did that, he would be there to pick up the pieces and back them in the event things went wrong.

He was a big man – far bigger than the 5 feet 9¾ inches he always said he was. If you met him, you tended to remember him, whether for his energy running up a hillside to inspect flood damage, his strong views on anything that mattered to him or his famously deep voice.

And we are lucky to have so much more to remember him by. His enduring and deep love for Kashmir, which for so much of his life was both his physical and spiritual home. His deep sense of right and wrong, which led him to be part of forming the Nagrik Ekta Manch in 1984, testifying before the Nanavati Commission and being one of the only ‘out of state’ officers who wrote to the Government of India protesting the armed forces’ atrocities in Kashmir.

His love for jazz, which often took him from Cambridge to Ronnie Scott’s in London and once overland to Copenhagen. His love for Urdu, Ghalib and Begum Akhtar, collectively enjoyed as part of his shaving ritual each morning. His abiding love for fishing, usually while wearing his red cap on the banks of the Lidder at Pahalgam or the Bringhi at Dandipur.

His deep love for reading and for books themselves. Thanks to him and my mother, we read the Existentialists and John Steinbeck in our early teenage years. His love for writing, which led him to write numerous short stories and poems which merit publishing and a wonderful history of St. Stephen’s College, which was actually published 10 years ago.

His devotion to his family(ies) – as a son, a father, a husband and a brother and the fact that he was always delighted to see his children and grandchildren. Our kids, of course, adored him and not just for the kishmish and boiled sweets they knew his pockets held for them. His love for his siblings – how he always joked with his baby sister and looked out for his big brother. As they got older, that never changed. The way in which he made his son-in-law and daughter-in-law feel a part of his family and his children’s friends as welcome as his own.

His inability to genuinely hold a grudge, even while trying hard to pretend that he could. His ability to hold a conversation about almost anything that was meaningful. He had the ability to listen well, take in what you said and then, sometimes gently and sometimes not, demolish your argument.

His love for his many, many friends, from school, college, the IAS, TERI and beyond, for so many of whom he was a confidant and a trusted advisor.

His quirky affection for Liverpool Football Club, partly because they came from a socialist, working class town, with which he infected me and which has been passed on to my nephew, Aiman.

And, last but not least, many will remember him for his incredibly high street cred and coolness factor. Often, one’s own children tend not to acknowledge one’s qualities but Aditi, Nandika and I were told so many times by our friends just how cool Dad or ‘Cha’ as he was universally known, was.

And they were right. Recall his authentic James Dean look in his twenties, and his daring flared jeans in his thirties. Recall his moves on the dance floor. Embarrassing to a ten year old, very cool when you’re eighteen. And how many Dads of that generation introduced their kids to Dire Straits? And which Mama, instructed to have a firm word with his nephew about his studies, would deal with the issue by telling him that as long as he wasn’t failing and was doing well in sports, the girls would always like him.

To conclude, I’d like to recall some advice I got separately a couple of days ago from two unconnected friends who also lost their fathers. ‘He will grow inside you,’ they said, ‘and become a bigger and bigger part of you each day.’ I look forward to that in the weeks, months and years to come, and I do hope some little bit of him will also live on in those of you whose lives he was part of.

Akshay Jaitly