The fibre of Keshav Desiraju’s mind

There was something transcendental about him passing away a year ago on the very morning of his grandfather S. Radhakrishnan’s birth anniversary — this day, Teachers’ Day

September 05, 2022 10:44 am | Updated 10:45 am IST

Former Union Health Secretary Keshav Desiraju

Former Union Health Secretary Keshav Desiraju | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Library

If you did not know Keshav N. Desiraju but only heard him speak or read what he wrote, you would say, “What a fine mind, with words to match.” You would not know that he was the youngest grandson of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, independent India’s second President. The hugely well-read and startlingly well-spoken member of the Indian Administrative Service had neither the need nor the desire to mention his ancestry, even as a point of incidental interest. But that he was descended from that philosopher and teacher had not a little to do with the fibre of Desiraju’s mind.

For one who so effortlessly and so successfully glided past the accident of that ancestry to have died, all on a sudden, on the very morning of his grandfather’s birth anniversary — this day — last year, seemed to have something transcendental about it. Something ‘not of this earth, earthy’. The day has been marked as Teachers’ Day, in commemoration of the great example of that profession in Madras, Mysore, Calcutta, Oxford, Benares. Only the previous evening, September 4, 2021, while speaking to me over the phone (our mode of choice for communication), Keshav told me of the simple but carefully thought-out arrangements that had been made at Girija, Radhakrishnan’s home on what used to be Edward Eliots Road in Chennai.

“A very earnest group of teachers and retired teachers comes every year on Teachers’ Day. The good souls come, offer flower petals to the bust that we place in the foyer of the house, and go round the rooms… They do so with such reverence that we realise every year what he was as a teacher and what he means to that community.”

“So,” I asked, “you will be there?”

“Of course,” he said. “I will get there as early as I can. Most of the arrangements are in position. My aunt, alas, is not able any more to receive them and show them round.” He was referring to Indira Gopal, widow of Radhakrishnan’s only son, the historian Sarvepalli Gopal. Now in her nineties, she is no longer the lively spark of energy and wit she used to be until very recently. With a sigh, Keshav said, “So I will be there and try to do something like what she used to.”

Stricken by a heart attack in the early hours of September 5, 2021, he was gone before the faithful reached Girija. God, as a wise man told me recently, has his own calendar.

A grandson’s recollections

I want to put down in this column what I remember of Keshav’s recollections of his grandfather, as told to me over the years, often in response to my questions. I will try to recall them in his words, as accurately as I can but without, needless to say, the natural sophistication that informed the grandson’s descriptions.

While talking about him, Keshav referred to his grandfather as “Radhakrishnan”, rarely, as “Thatha”, the south Indian word for grandfather.

“He and my grandmother had known hard times, but Radhakrishnan never made much of that circumstance. Somehow they pulled through those difficulties. Radhakrishnan never spoke to us in the family about the difficulties he had endured. He knew that we knew of them, and that was enough. There was so much else to talk of, to share…

“In Calcutta, where the King George V Chair of Mental and Moral Science brightened livelihood prospects, an endless stream came into their home, relatives, friends of relatives, relatives of friends, indigent would-be students seeking an opening in Calcutta University, or men looking for employment. They would always find some room in the house already over-crowded with the couple’s own children clamouring for the attention that was their due. Radhakrishnan would harbour them, and Sivakamu, his wife, would attend to their needs. And all this, mind you, while he was wearing himself out teaching a growing number of enchanted students…

“He sparkled in the Constituent Assembly… by just his presence… and by the fact that though he was born a Telugu, his mind was pan-Indian… His speech on the National Flag was… is… something else, isn’t it… the saffron colour denotes renunciation… The white in the centre is light to guide our conduct. The green is about our relation to the soil on which all other life depends. The Ashoka Wheel in the centre of the white is the wheel of dharma…

“He was that something else as President too in his equations with (Jawaharlal) Nehru and Indira (Gandhi)…

“I remember his telling me of a day in 1962, after the Chinese war. A very dispirited Jawaharlal Nehru had come to see Radhakrishnan. As he left, the President walked him up to the car. And while they were so walking, they passed by a small enclosure. Pausing beside it, Nehru said to Radhakrishnan, ‘Can you give Indu something to do, to read or write, something that would be useful perhaps to you. She could sit right here.”

Indira Gandhi was to sit in no corner in Rashtrapati Bhavan but become Prime Minister of India in the high noon of Radhakrishnan’s presidentship.

The philosopher-President had his lighter moments. Keshav recalled Radhakrishnan’s fondness for Telugu cinema, of which he saw a huge amount in the President’s niche cinema hall. On one occasion, Keshav said, the President was engrossed in the Telugu film Desa Drohulu (Treason) that went on beyond the time it was expected to take, when a set of politicians wanting to complain against their leader arrived to a scheduled appointment. The President’s ADC whispered to him that the group had arrived. “ Desa Drohulu here, Desa Drohulu there,” he said, getting up reluctantly to meet his visitors.

Keshav had a subtle understanding of his grandfather’s philosophical oeuvre. Arranging and sorting Radhakrishnan’s papers and books in Girija for their better lodgement and study absorbed him during much of his post-retirement months in Chennai. Finding spare copies of Radhakrishnan’s 1961 lecture at the Center for the Study of World Religions in Harvard University, Keshav gave me a copy. “For you,” he said, with his characteristic blend of the serious and the un-heavy, placing the slim volume on a table very nimbly. I had not read this nugget titled Fellowship of the Spirit. “A University,” Radhakrishnan says in it, “is a seat of learning, not a centre of worship. It believes in the pursuit of knowledge and not in the establishment of a cult. As University men it is our privilege and honour to seek for truth and in this pursuit we should not be deterred by the fear of what we might find.” Radhakrishnan was Vice President of India at the time, one year short of becoming President. But most naturally and spontaneously he spoke of himself as being one of “University men”.

In the pursuit of truth one should not be deterred by the fear of what we might find. In times when the factories of falsehood and the mills of misinformation work 24x7, Radhakrishnan tells us that those machines are, actually, afraid. They fear truth, which is why they work against it. They fear truth for what it holds, says, exposes.

Afflictions of the human mind

Keshav would describe his grandfather’s last days with great sensitivity. “Radhakrishnan would call out for his wife Sivakamu in Girija, as he used to in their younger years in the house. She had of course gone long before,” showing his own deep concern for the afflictions of the human mind, something that led to Keshav, as Union Health Secretary, pioneering India’s first Mental Healthcare Act.

“You must write about him, Keshav,” I suggested to him more than once. “No, there is nothing to be written about him after Sarvepalli Gopal’s book on him,” he would reply. “Whatever I write or anyone else does now will not be history but just episodes.”

Keshav’s vanishing on the morning of Teachers’ Day, on September 5, 2021. was no episode. It was made of the essences of epiphany.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and Governor

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