But he did not have a shirt
I have been seeing him for so many years; he would slip out of his car and slowly walk towards Delhi's India International Centre's well-stacked library. One of the last surviving Indian Civil Services (ICS) officers, till he died on January 28, 2010 at the ripe age of 97, SK Banerji did not mind the anonymity that isolation of old age brings to people when many of their friends, admirers and relatives have long died or gone their own ways. On occasions when I met him at his house in Vasant Vihar, I found him surrounded by his Jamini Roys and nursing a glass of his favourite whiskey.
He was remarkably alert for his age and gave a quiet chuckle when I presented him Gabriel Garcia Marquez's book Memories of My Melancholy Whores on his 92nd birthday. The protagonist of Marquez's book is a 90-year-old man who makes one last visit to his favourite whore believ¬ing that a 90-year-old could perform better than many of those young 80-year-olds. Indeed, I could never really check with Banerji what he thought of the venerable magic realism litterateur's interesting submission. Banerji was a nationalist. He was not one of those types who remained mired in the past and celebrated the goodness of the British Raj. He joined the British steel frame of administration, ICS, in 1937, and retired in 1972 as secretary in the ministry of external affairs. Before his retirement he played an important role in building support for India in the Bangladesh war. Save for a brief assignment as the Lt Governor of Goa, where he donated a major part of his famous art collection, he did not really chase any other job and remained an astute observer of national and international happenings.
His book, From dependence to non-alignment, provides an interesting sweep of India in transition from 1937 onwards. Besides detailing many foreign policy issues in his book, Banerji provides enough evidence of the mindless hunting of tigers by the British and how it contributed to bringing down the population of the big cat.
Banerjiwas posted at area around Chindwara - better known these days as the constituency of Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways Kamal Nath - where he discovered that there was little danger from tigers or panthers, who justifiably avoided human beings. He did not find any conflict between the tribals and animals, something that is often shown as a reason for the fall of the tiger population. "I tried to stop a lone Gond walking through the forest in the direction I had just seen a tiger, he just grunted and continued on his way, unperturbed," writes Banerji.
In those days, he says, tiger skins and stuffed heads of the great cat used to leap out of the walls of drawing rooms and guest houses, especially princely dwellings and landmarks of the British raj. Nearly everyone used to talk about the 'shikaar experience' and the hunting of man-eaters (also, the majestic tigers in the wild who were largely not man-eaters).
There were so many tigers in central India and in other parts that one of Banerji's forest officers who thought he was following a man-eater turned to find that he was instead being stealthily pursued by another great cat. Fortunately for the officer, a Gond tribal beat up the tiger with his axe and chased him away. Later, the tribal was given an award for valour, but as he did not have a shirt, that award could not be pinned onto him.
Banerji reminisces about an India where needs of the people were limited and many people never felt the need to even lock their houses. Even the circuit houses where district officials during their tour used to stay did not need to be padlocked during the day. Only in the night they had to be barred due to a reason: the tiger or leopards would casually saunter towards the guest house. In the morning, Banerji writes, pugmarks could be found all around the guest house. However, snakes, according to him, presented the biggest threat, and his orderlies put his golf club to good use and bludgeoned them.
There are more interesting vignettes that Banerji provided about how the steel frame worked in India. The one that gets precedence is the need for supervision to ensure that the subordinate staff does not become slothful and corrupt. Although the ICS was neither Indian nor civil nor a service, there were many attributes visible in legendary officers like SK Banerji that have not been replicated by the new generation of bureaucrats. Perhaps the most significant being writing reports or keeping a diary about the happenings in their districts. The reports by former ICS officers had literary merit as well as future use. Now no one writes to anyone.