At home in wilderness

J.M. Lyngdoh digs Shakespeare, dogs, cricket and cars as SOUVIK CHOWDHURY discovers

AT THE end of another hectic day, James Michael Lyngdoh seated on a plastic chair is rubbing his bi-focals, slightly drained after a series of television interviews at his 2200-square feet bungalow. The sight provides for an incongruous one, there is not a single soul in sight, forget neighbours - Lyngdoh's address is distant from civilization. It takes a tiring one-and-half-hour dusty drive to reach his home in Pragati Resorts near Chevalla village - 47 kilometres west, off Hyderabad.

What makes J.M. Lyngdoh such a sought-after figure?

The man is stunningly different and endlessly fascinating. His magnetic character, personality and upright beliefs had the entire nation taking note of this five-and-half-foot power-packed steel frame when he held office as the Chief Election Commissioner. Now, that he's given up work, he continues to attract even more attention: people wait on him wanting to know why he's chosen Hyderabad as his abode and why a village, why such a desolate setting, so on and so forth. A man-about-town, J.M. Lyngdoh never ceases to inspire questions. Against his wishes the former CEC has attained iconic status - for speaking his mind, for his probity, integrity and fearless frankness.

"That I appeared honest was a matter of policy when I was in office, inherently I may not be so," guffaws Lyngdoh, exposing four golden-coloured teeth. Are they made of gold? "The dentist told me so," he smiles. Reticent, he is but once he opens up, the 65-year old bureaucrat displays a child-like enthusiasm talking about dogs, cars, cricket and insects!

Of Khasi tribal origin, Lyngdoh hails from Meghalaya. (His ancestors were Bengali, and from Dhaka). Imbibing moral values from his father, a district judge - the late Cromelyn Lyngdoh, James lived a happy-go-lucky life chasing butterflies and playing cricket - free from all ambitions till he completed his schooling from St. Edmund's, Shillong.

At home in wilderness

"My teeth-breaking fast bowling was widely feared and respected", the ex-election commissioner states, acknowledging his cricketing abilities. "Batting was not very strong."

"That I sat for IAS was again, purely incidental. It was not my aspiration ," Lyngdoh says. "After my graduation, I had a brief stint in Delhi School of Economics where Bhargav, a friend who was in IFS, filled up the Civil Services form for me. All I had to do was just put my signature down and sit for the exam."It is given to a very few people to be as lucky to qualify for the IAS at 22, and Lyngdoh was one of them. "I am not terribly sure whether I would advise anyone to sit for IAS now, unless one does not mind being reduced to a glorified stenographer. Initially you enjoy a lot of power but as you go up the ladder your power is stripped, and you are forced to tailor your actions to suitthe needs of petty politicians."

Lyngdoh's caustic comments have earned him bouquets and brickbats. "No regrets," he says dispassionately.

After winning the Ramon Magasaysay Award, the media asked him for words of advice to fellow bureaucrats and Lyngdoh said, "Keep away from politicians as they may spread cancer."

Now, the retired bureaucrat's pet joke is, "that was a slip of tongue. I wanted to say something worse, the closest I could get was cancer that consumes all cells."

His extreme dislike for politicians comes clear when he says, "Politicians by appointment only, all others are welcome to my house." It appears that building a house far from the madding crowd was a calculated decision.

At home in wilderness

Is he so sick of the system? "No," Lyngdoh says emphatically, "All I needed was a quiet place to unwind. There is electricity, water and wilderness, what more does a retired man require? And Hyderabad is a place brimming with endless possibilities."

A quintessential romantic, Lyngdoh is intensely in love with nature and a traveller at heart. He is doing what he always wanted to do basking in the sylvan surroundings with wife Parveen, and three dogs - Isis, Tashi and Ciraz for company. An occasional Cliff Richard-number and a certain Shakespeare play is an indulgence while sunbathing. A bottle of chilled beer is manna, then. If all this at 65 isn't romantic, nothing is!

One room on the second floor has been made under special instructions from his wife to be converted into study. "No Vaastu here, please. I don't buy that," he deadpans.

Well-read Lyngdoh has an eclectic taste in books. "My favourite is Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which I keep going back time and again whenever I feel low." The King James Edition of the Bible is another book he reads whenever he is tired of sloppy language. "Not that I am a religious person, I am an agnostic; I go to the Bible because it is a literary masterpiece." A good book is germane to existence and the habit of reading progressively conditions in one to continue, and continue better. Just as a great car like Ferrari lights up Lyngdoh's face, a good book lights up his soul.

In fact, the former CEC has plans to compete a book a day in between a punishing diet and fitness schedule of an hour-long workout with the dogs. Fastidiously diet-conscious Lyngdoh considers dry chapatti an indulgent treat - that translates to the secret of his naturally athletic build.

According to him, food needs to be digested and work helps in digestion. For someone who has not missed a single working day in office in a career span of four-and-half decades, to work and keep himself occupied is second nature. "I spotted a few medicinal plants near my house the other day, maybe I will study them when I am free."

"Work and only work can make India shine, and not a certain advertisement blitz that is slapped so unnecessarily everyday." It's like a curate's egg - good only in parts. Who can keep feeling good when public money is being burnt for such utterly needless acts? Not me," Lyngdoh maintains with the characteristic lopsided smile.

Compelling, captivating and explosive. That's the importance of being J.M. Lyngdoh!

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