An officer and a perfect gentleman
Last week, I wrote about coming face to face with Mrs Indira Gandhi in Assam where my editor had sent me to cover elections in the early Eighties.
I was pitched headlong into the thick of real journalism (and, perhaps, real life as this story will reveal) by my then editor and meeting Mrs Gandhi was a bonus. What was not was also meeting some rogues – fresh out of college, on my own in a State far from home, ethnically and culturally very different from the milieu I was brought up in, I soon became fair game for rogues who pretended to help me with my stories but, as I soon discovered, had other things on mind.
One particular encounter is worth recounting about because it also brought about a rescue by a gentleman and I owe him forever for returning me to my mother in one piece.
When my parents heard I was being sent on assignment to Assam, they went into a real froth. But with me adamant about not turning it down – I have always wanted to explore and see where any opportunity takes me and so can never turn down risks – my father activated his bureaucratic contacts and I found myself with a room in the Circuit House when other visiting journalists were finding it difficult to get any in hotels.
Soon my room became the breakfasting and dining point for many of them but I was also popular because I had that item envied by all – a car. The government had requisitioned all vehicles in that trouble-torn State and for the first few days we (including moi) had to walk through the jungles, hoping we would at least sight an elephant – it would not only bring us good luck, perhaps we would be lucky enough if the mahout agreed to give us a ride!
But then the car happened – and I must really thank that rogue for it. He had a famous name that I had read before in the newspapers (it was the era before television journalism) and so was excited at meeting him and getting to chat about issues. However, I soon realised he was not really giving me any information that I could put into a story. Instead, on the pretext of briefing me about the background of why Assam was then burning, one day he decided to tell me a fantastic story – and even today I cringe that I began by believing it.
“The men here are all lazy because they are pampered enormously by the women. And the women are only interested in sex – they spend the better part of the day determining the virility of the men.”
“How?” I asked, not knowing I was walking into a trap. He did tell me but it is too gross to write about — perhaps I will be able to some day.
To cut a long story short, he said this was what had brought in immigrant labour from neighbouring States including West Bengal and was now leading to insurgency as locals rebelled at all the jobs having been taken by Bengalis while they had been having themselves, well, pampered.
“Have dinner with me,” he said. “I will tell you more about it then.”
I was about to nod my head, not even realising that he was making a pass and what that might lead to when a voice said from behind me, “Oh, no, she can’t. She’s having dinner with me and I am briefing her about the situation.”
I turned around to see a tall gentleman with a pleasant smile and even as I looked enquiringly at this perfect stranger, he asked me, “Had you forgotten?”
Highly confused, I did not know how to respond but he quickly stepped between me and the rogue, exchanging pleasantries with the latter and manipulating the situation in such a manner that I had no recourse but to retreat to my room.
Some minutes later he knocked at my door, introducing himself as Rajesh Pilot (he had been sent there as a Congress observer) and said he would have dinner sent to my room. My room was next to his and the rogue had been speaking to me in the verandah – Pilot (I later discovered he had that strange name because he had been an Air Force officer) had overheard the conversation, recognised it for what it was and had come to my rescue as a knight in shining armour. He wondered why he had never come across me in New Delhi – he could never remember no matter how many times I reminded him even later that that was because I was from Bombay!
Next morning he gave me a car from his quota saying,”Travelling to the villages is difficult. The driver knows the terrain. He will make sure you do not get lost.”
That Ambassador contributed a lot not just to my dispatches but also to my safety for the driver made sure I was securely back in my room each evening before reporting back to Pilot — sometimes dining in the back verandah facing the Brahmaputra, sometimes closeted at meetings in his own room –that he had done his duty for the day.
For the rest of my stay in Assam, the rogue remained a shadowy figure in the background – he did not even dare to smile at me when we passed each other on the odd occasion.
I met Rajesh Pilot on many occasions in later years but soon gave up reminding him about Assam. Because though he vaguely recalled the incident, he could never remember me per se and always thought it had been some reporter from New Delhi who he, strangely, never came across again.
And it is this that helps me understand what the Gita means when it says do your duty and just forget about it… as Rajesh Pilot did.