Achala Moulik’s novel portrays the conflict of civil servants caught between ideals and thirst for success. The book adopts the style of great masters like Cervantes and Gogol who in search of truth and justice evoke laughter through tears.
Rogues Among the Ruins is an unusual novel. It is the story of two officers, Raman and Subhash, of the Indian Administrative Service and their adventures in many spheres. What makes it unusual is that the author is an IAS officer who had a distinguished career and served in important posts—Director General of Archaeological Survey of India and Education Secretary, Government of India. Through the sutradhar Raman the author narrates the events and ordeals of others—a humble clerk, a naïve archaeologist, bureaucrats—some proud, some idealistic, some cynical, some brutal. Perhaps the author has seen them enacted before her. The novel is different from the self-approving biographies written by some civil servants. This book brims over with sly humour, courage, compassion, and poignancy about people traversing the glory road.
The author is one of India’s accomplished novelists with several bestsellers on her list.
Excerpts from the book
Experts were called in to verify that the antiquities had returned home safely. I was present at the meeting and noted that the ‘experts’ were a new and unknown lot on whom Pagrawal had bestowed his generous patronage. Thus the antiquities that came back from abroad were certified ‘as verified to be the same sent abroad’. They were then returned to the museums from whence they purportedly came.
Pagrawal went off to Goa with Rupamati for a well deserved holiday. Taking advantage of his absence from headquarters I made a tour programme to inspect conservation works in some areas. My real itinerary was to visit those museums from where the exhibited sculptures originated. With the brochure in hand I began inspection of the sculptures.
My worst fears were confirmed. While some of the originals had been returned, others were replicas – innocently fashioned by the Sthapatis. I booked a trunk call to the ASI Pallavur office to ascertain if Kuppuswamy and company had returned. They had. I went to Pallavur on official work and found the Sthapatis.
I confronted them with their crime. Kuppuswamy was astonished. ‘But I committed no crime! I was told by Pagrawal and Gunacha Ayyas that all three of you wanted some replicas for an exhibition abroad. You were doing the write-ups. So I did it! After all, do we not make replicas all the time? Did not our forefathers carry models of the great sculptures of Cholanadu and Pallavanadu to the lands across the eastern seas to build temples and palaces?’
‘I never asked you to do anything! How dare Pagrawal involve me?’ my voice rose.
‘You suddenly became friendly with him, Elangovan Saar,’ Kuppuswamy replied sullenly. ‘Since you seemed part of their group I assumed it was regular. How was I to know Pagrawal’s game?’
‘I wanted to get at the bottom of their game. I have – but the crime has been committed.’
‘For a Brahmin,’ Kuppuswamy sneered, ‘you are not very bright. Perhaps the northern Brahmins whom you despise are cleverer.’ Tying his lungi tighter he rose and lit a bidi. ‘What are you going to do about it?’
‘I shall report the entire matter to the culture ministry. Pagrawal will hang.’
When I confronted Rasam Pagrawal with the fraud he smiled. ‘Come, Elangovan, don’t act so high and mighty. You knew all about it. You helped me locate the Sthapatis in your home state. You even helped me with the brochures; your words – so different from Brown and Havell – describe the replicas.’ He paused to spit out a mouthful of paan-juice and offered me an evil taunting smile I shall never forget. ‘You have been handsomely rewarded; I deposited thirty thousand rupees in an account made in your name in Bombay.’
Stunned, I could not speak.
Pagrawal continued. ‘If you collaborate with me I will not refer to the matter again. If you do not, I shall inform the government of your bank account.’
I found my voice and said, ‘I will tell them the entire story. You cannot foist such fraud on me.’
Pagrawal chewed paan-leaf thoughtfully. ‘But I can and will,’ he said silkily and spat out some more paan-juice. ‘I have a letter from you outlining the project – the fraud as you call it. I even have your signature. Besharam Karma does a nice job copying signatures. The Sthapatis will not testify against me because they have been paid well. Neither will Rupamati because she is my mistress and Besharam is my disciple. So stop playing the Tamil film hero and join the new fraternity.’
Trembling with impotent rage I shouted: ‘You have sold our heritage to foreign museums. Can you live with that?’ ‘Men have lived with more serious transgressions…’ Pagrawal said dismissively. ‘They sell wives and daughters. I have sold deteriorating stone images that some crazy foreigner wants to buy. And we have put beautiful new ones in their place.’ He paused and emptied his mouth of all paan-juice. ‘There are men who do not even replace stolen goods. Take that high-placed bureaucrat from the Terai. After he became a powerful civil servant he removed, over a decade, some seventy odd statues from various archaeological museums in his home state. I know it is grand larceny but why should I buy trouble? His clan is powerful and will finish off my family.’
‘Gateway to India! That is what all of you are! You are the breed that betrayed your masters and let in the Turco-Afghan hordes! You have collaborated with them, cohabited with them and have become whores!’ I stepped forward, with an intense desire to kill the man.
Rasam Pagrawal laughed, immensely amused. ‘That is why we are strong and innovative. It is easy to be chaste when you live in sheltered southern kingdoms.’
I turned away, afraid I might strangle him in my great rage. I had lost a big battle. It did not seem worthwhile to live any longer. Truth, honesty, virtue – had all been trampled underfoot. I should have killed Pagrawal and then announced to the world why. I should have called his bluff right away and denounced him to the authorities – but fear – the greatest enemy of Indians – held me back. Fear that my action would bring disaster to my family checked my first honourable impulse. Fear would go on checking all our honourable impulses until we were castrated, shorn of pride and courage and the very purpose of life.
What legacy would I hand over to my son Raman around whom I had built my dreams?
The ambassador’s wife led him up the carpeted stairs to a well-appointed little room where she wrote her diary after diplomatic revels ended. A well-equipped bathroom was attached to it. ‘Voilà! You can freshen yourself here. I shall return soon,’ she said and drifted out, after giving Dhanvir an alluring smile. Flinging off his clothes, Dhanvir entered the bathroom.
Chortling with the triumph of a Don Juan, he told the mirror, ‘I think the bimbo likes me.’
The ambassador’s wife waited near the door for sounds of the shower to start. Accompanying the sound of water was the sound of Dhanvir bawling the film song ‘Piyar milaneke jana’ – my beloved I must meet. Moving swiftly she locked the bathroom door, switched off the lights and fan of the bathroom whose controls were outside. As Dhanvir’s serenade climaxed into howls of terror, the lady shrugged and, closing the doors of her little study, went downstairs to resume her diplomatic and patriotic duties for liberation day.
Shut in a humid and dark bathroom for hours, Dhanvir of Bandit County passed out in the bathtub. When he regained consciousness after midnight, the party was truly over. Retainers heard the noise and came up to see what had happened. Dhanvir was liberated from the embassy bathroom the day after Zaretanian Liberation Day. The ambassador apologized profusely for the enforced incarceration of an honoured guest in the bathroom while his consort ascribed the mishap to a faulty locking system.
A few days after this incident, Dhanvir was commanded to disappear for a while not because of this faux pax but because his seniors felt that he had diminished the honour of his countrymen by this incident. ‘And that, for a woman who looks like an uncooked macaroni!’ they fumed. After returning from temporary bucolic exile he never again attended Vin de Honeurs and liberation day receptions.
On that Republic Day Subhash and Radha sat at the VIP enclosure and watched the parade. Since Subhash, unlike me, was not in the habit of confiding official matters to his wife. Radha was bewildered by Subhash’s visible turmoil. As the three aircrafts flew overhead, Subhash glanced up and stared grimly at their retreating wake long afterwards. A disquieted defence secretary sitting on the front row turned back to look at his intransigent additional secretary; catching the derision in the latter’s eyes, he hastily looked away.
The grand Republic Day ‘At Home’ of the president in the former viceregal palace passed off without any untoward incidents. Subhash put on a smiling mask. He found amusement at seeing Radha shivering but looking pretty in a silk sari with a Kashmiri shawl thrown over one shoulder. Most of the women abstained from wearing woollens so that their opulent plumage could be seen along with goosebumps on their arms. Hundreds of guests milled around the lush lawns of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, picking up defence service, bureaucratic and political rumours. Some were content to watch the dazzling spectacle of power, status and influence. Subhash retreated to the rose-scented Moghul Gardens to contemplate his predicament. He had seen Radha do obeisance before Honey, wife of the cabinet secretary, as well as the spouse of the defence secretary. He wondered if Radha was visualizing herself as the wife of a future Union secretary. He would hate to disappoint her; she had always been content to bask in his little glories. Troubled by these thoughts, Subhash rose from the bench and returned to the presidential lawns.
As the sun slanted westwards and hid behind Raisina Hill the national anthem struck up once again and brought all movements to a halt. Defence personnel in resplendent uniforms stood ramrod straight, some slouching officers made attempts to stand erect as their spines were dysfunctional from disuse. Taking advantage of the sudden stillness, some women looked round to assess each other’s sartorial assets. The military band played our stirring national anthem composed by the great poet Rabindranath Tagore forty years before India attained Independence where he cried out to the Almighty:
Slumbering India awakes
To Thine clarion call,
And sings Thy praise,
Glory to Thee, glory to Thee,
Arbiter of India’s destiny.
(translation by author)
Subhash felt a lump in his throat. At moments like this he felt that he would happily die for his country. The president and his lady smiled, joined palms together in namashkar to the multitude, and returned to their palace. Ghosts of departed British viceroys must have whispered the Roman phrase ‘sic transit gloria mundi’ – so passes the glory of the world. Unaware of such wisdom and believing their glory would never fade, the governing elite of the nation made their way to their chauffeur-driven official vehicles.
Three days after Republic Day comes Beating the Retreat ceremony enacted before the Lutyens’ edifices and Vijay Chowk, the huge square fronting them. Myriad lights illumine outlines of the presidential palace and edifices of North and South Blocks. Camels and horses and their mounts stand in motionless dignity until the ritual begins. Regiments march to martial music as important people sit in the square to watch this resplendent spectacle.
It was while watching the ceremony of Beating the Retreat that Subhash came to a decision. He felt that beyond these spectacles of power and glory there was a grim reality – of soldiers, sailors, airmen laying down their lives for their country and compatriots. These men went into battle with absolute trust in their superior officers, and the cohorts of officials who selected weaponry to be used for the defence of the motherland. Never would these people imagine that the conglomeration of high-placed men would supply them with inadequate weapons. Trusting their seniors with their lives the fighters would go into battle never knowing that deals had been made within sacred portals of the Secretariat.
The ceremony concluded with the playing of the national anthem. As the drums, brass and trumpets intoned the anthem composed by the great poet who dreamt of free India, Subhash felt his throat constrict with emotions. Yes, he was prepared to suffer for his compatriots. And why not? When innocent unarmed people at Punjab’s Jallianwalla Bagh had been mowed down by a British general, Rabindranath Tagore renounced his British knighthood. Tagore was fully aware that the gesture would cool the ardour of the British for his educational work at Visva-Bharati University but he did not mind. When the academic staff at Visva-Bharati cautioned him, the patriot-poet said, ‘Indians are dearer to me than Visva- Bharati.’ And now a few Indian politicians, bureaucrats and defence personnel were planning to buy inferior weaponry from a foreign power to make millions for their pockets and which would soon be sent to secret Swiss bank accounts.
Subhash decided to oppose the arms deal on the file with all his power. He had learnt all the technical details from the retired artillery expert he had met earlier. While scrutinizing the files he had acquired damning details. Subhash brought the files home before they were withdrawn from him; he typed out the notings and photocopied them because he would not endanger his stenographer with the burden of his defiance. A warning voice told him that he might have to pay a heavy price for his non-compliance, that colleagues would desert him when he fell from grace, that his adoring Radha might resent his defiance because she would not become the wife of a Union secretary, and that he might end his days in obscurity. And then the words of his parents echoed within him: it is on the sacrifice of a few that civilizations are built.