M.K. Kaw — The Last Of A Vanishing Breed

Last week another tenuous link to a glorious past was broken. MK Kaw, a retired IAS officer of the 1964 batch of the Himachal Pradesh cadre passed away at the untimely age of 78 in Delhi, suddenly and without even bidding farewell to his myriad admirers and friends. Mr. Kaw was perhaps the last of that unique breed of scholar-administrators who made the IAS one of the inimitable civil services of the world. He represented a pedigree that has almost disappeared today-an inquisitive student of many disciplines, an eclectic man of letters, an epicure of refined and gentlemanly tastes, and a public servant of exceptional sensitivity and ability.

MK Kaw

He was a prodigy who did his matric at the age of ten, completed his Masters when he was only sixteen, and joined the IAS at twenty three at his very first attempt. And all this without ever attending a formal school. He wrote 13 books, was an artist, a singer, a deeply spiritual man, a social worker who headed the All India Kashmiri Sansthan for many years, served as Dean of the Sri Satya Sai International Center for Human Values; all this while he discharged his bureaucratic responsibilities with rare competence, vision and objectivity at all levels, ending a remarkable career as Secretary to the Govt. of India.

All of these qualities and talents are to be found in many persons, but it is only once in a generation that they all together come in a harmonious package in one individual. And rarer still in someone who is a perfect gentleman, a warm and caring individual. I worked for two years under him as his Joint Secretary in the Finance Department in the eighties. The seniority gap between us was eleven years, in pecking order terms the distance between a meerkat and a lion, an unbridgeable gap in the civil services. But Mr. Kaw bridged such chasms effortlessly, with gentle banter, irrefutable logic, an unmatched breadth of vision, a mordant sense of humour and a twinkle in his eyes that dared you to be offended. He bonded with his juniors as no one else has done either before or after him, and not surprisingly, managed to get the best out of them without any officious effort. In those days there used to be two lunch clubs in the Secretariat. The Senior lunch club was for the Secretaries and would admit no upstarts below the 1972 batch, we hewers of wood and drawers of water belonged to the junior lunch club. Mr. Kaw, however, would join us for lunch once in a while and regale us with tales of intrigues in the senior version. We asked him to become a regular member of our club but he declined, stating: “I confess the food here is much tastier than the balanced diet in the senior club but the gossip there is much spicier!”

Mr. Kaw had an unmatched and contagious zest for life and living. He was literally the heart and soul of the IAS Association, organising its cultural nights, farewells, dinners. He invariably wrote a play or two, humorous and satirical ones; I still recollect one that eerily anticipated today’s ghar wapsi rationale – it was titled The Department of Love. He always encouraged me to write what in those days were called “middles” on the op-ed pages of newspapers, perhaps recognising that my forte lay in the realm of nonsense rather than sense! I last met him a year ago at a lunch where he stoutly objected to my not mailing him my blogs. I promised to do so immediately and have since been marking all of them to him. How do I now delete his name?

In his autobiography “An Outsider Everywhere” Mr. Kaw terms himself the perennial outsider. For once he was wrong. For he was the outsider who was at home everywhere, such was his endowment, warmth and flair. For he showed us how beautiful and amazing this world could be, if only we cast off our blinkers and approached it with honest curiosity. And then, on the 28th of last month, he just walked away, his mission accomplished, as if reminding us of these words from the “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”:

“Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and – sans End!”

Goodbye, sir, and thank you- for everything.

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/

1 Comment

  • No appreciation needed, Yoshita. It was my privilege, and good fortune, to have known and worked with Mr. Kaw. I was there at the prayer meeting last evening and the packed auditorium validated my feelings for a very exceptional human being. I’m sorry but I could not muster up the courage to meet the family at this very private moment of grief and utter loss. If it’s any comfort, be assured that you do not grieve alone.

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