When I reported for duty in Himachal Pradesh, for the first time in my life I came face to face with politicians – from the lowly village ‘Pradhans’ to Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) to Ministers. Prior to joining the Forest Service, I had no idea what a politician was and how much nuisance value one wielded. I had grown up in Army cantonments, where the most important person we saw was the Station Commander, a Brigadier, or, on very rare occasions, a Major General. Yes, I had heard about Presidents and Prime Ministers, but had absolutely no idea about the political hierarchy prevailing at the ground level. So, it came as somewhat of a shock when, at a Van Mahotsava (tree planting festival) at Rajgarh I was confronted by a diminutive individual wearing khadi pyjamas and kurta, and a Gandhi cap, who imperiously asked me where my DFO was. When I asked him who he was, a bulky, uncouth looking person by his side said “You seem to be new here. Don’t you recognize Mr. ZS, the MLA of this area?” How could this five foot nothing person be an MLA, I thought to myself! In the meantime, ZS piped up again. “Call the DFO here,” he said. “Tell him I have arrived.” How was I to know that he was the Chief Guest for that days function? Then his sidekick chipped in, “Sardar kahan hai?” Now this was getting to be too much. My DFO was a Sikh gentleman, no doubt, but, in my opinion, nobody had a right to speak of an IFS officer in this manner. Keeping my temper in check, I went looking for the DFO. On getting my message, GS (the DFO) rushed off to answer the MLA’s summons. I later asked him why he meekly tolerated such insulting behaviour from a two bit politician. GS, who had risen from the ranks, replied that throughout his career, he had been given minor, unimportant postings. Since Rajgarh Division was his first major assignment, he did not want to lose it by rubbing the local politicos the wrong way! I found this argument totally baseless and vowed to myself, that very day, that I would never let myself be demeaned by any politician, howsoever powerful or influential he may be. I was also left with a very poor opinion of politicians at large! Thereafter, there were many occasions when ZS’s and my paths crossed, but I could never bring myself to respect him. He also, perhaps, recognized my contempt for him, and never missed an opportunity to harass me.
As chance would have it, a few months later, Dr. YS Parmar, the then Chief Minister (CM), visited Rajgarh, and ZS accompanied him. A meeting of senior officers was convened at the Circuit House, which I too attended along with my DFO. After the meeting ended, I was summoned to the sitting room where the CM and the MLA were sitting. I wondered what was going on, but my curiosity was soon satisfied. “Mr. Khullar,” the CM said, in a not unkindly voice, “What have you done to upset Mr. ZS? He is recommending your transfer to some remote part of the state!” I was young and foolhardy, and did not have the slightest idea of how to react in such a situation. Unhesitatingly I told the CM how I had gotten upset with the MLA’s behaviour with my DFO, and my decision not to accept the same treatment from the gentleman, which attitude had perhaps upset the worthy. I saw, or imagined, a small smile flicker at the corners of the CM’s lips. He dismissed me and that was the last I heard of the matter. Needless to say, I stayed on at Rajgarh for another three years and the honourable MLA avoided speaking directly to me during the balance of my stay at Rajgarh. I had heard nothing but praises for the CM, and my respect for him went up several notches after my interaction with him.
A highly educated individual, Dr. Parmar was just twenty years old when he completed his graduation from Lahore in 1926. After obtaining his post graduate degree from Lucknow in 1928, Dr. Parmar served as a Magistrate in Sirmour, and was later appointed District and Session Judge in the State. He gave up all this to join politics and became the first Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, initially from 1952 to 1956, and then from 1963 to 1977. By the time I met him, Dr. Parmar was a 68 year old veteran who knew how to get the best from the officers serving the State. He appeared to be a kindly father like figure, with his silvery hair and soft kind face. I remember a smile always lurking at the corners of his mouth, which never quite developed into a laugh. He was always soft spoken, but could get his point across quite firmly, whenever the need arose. Having settled in Bagthan, a small village in Rajgarh Division, his visits to the area were quite frequent, giving me the opportunity of interacting with him often.
Whenever I attended his public or official meetings, I was able to observe his administrative and bureaucratic skills quite closely, and came to admire the same. Once, when some villagers came up with a complaint against the Medical Officer, saying that he refused to visit their villages and insisted that the patients be brought to the hospital at Rajgarh for treatment, Dr. Parmar, instead of castigating the Doctor, asked the villagers whether they had ever asked the official to visit them for their social functions or festivals! Why did they expect him to come at their summons, rather than at their invitation? He advised them to take the local officers into their hearts and make them part of their families and only then they could expect the officers to help them when they were in need of any succor! Later, when the villagers had left, he asked the officers to not consider themselves as alienated from the people they were expected to serve, but to amalgamate themselves in the local society and culture, if they wished to be accepted by the villagers. The CM always wore a local item of wear, a sort of cape called a ‘Loiya’, around his shoulders and soon enough all of us at Rajgarh were also sporting the same. I must admit it was extremely comforting wrapped around one when travelling in an open jeep. It also prevented clothes from gathering dust off the ‘kachha’ roads! I still have mine, albeit stored in some trunk.
Another incident I am reminded of occurred when Dr. Parmar returned from a trip to Scandinavia, and was regaling all of us one evening with his experiences. During the conversation, he mentioned that he had tasted a particularly tasty soup made from stinging nettles, and found it delicious. “We also have ‘Bicchu Booti’ here,” he said. “Why can’t WE make stinging nettle soup, and market it?” The matter was discussed briefly, and then the conversation moved to other subjects. The next morning the CM, with all officers in tow, moved to the next stage of his tour, and no more mention was made of stinging nettle soup, as we listened to and sought to address the problems of the villagers at Habban. However there was one person who had not forgotten what the CM had said. This was Mr. Kaushik, the Assistant Fruit Technologist in charge of the Fruit Processing Plant at Rajgarh. He was the only one who decided to do something about the issue. He worked throughout the night trying to prepare ‘Bicchu Booti’ soup and prove to the CM that Himachalis were nowhere inferior to the Europeans, where imagination and innovation was concerned. He had got some fifty kilos of stinging nettle (Bicchu Booti) collected by his staff and then all night tried different combinations and quantities of herbs and spices to come up with a drink that was passably consumable. By morning, he had a couple of beer bottles filled to the brim with a green concoction, which he hurriedly carried to his jeep and set off for the CM’s camp. He arrived just as we were beginning lunch, and proudly produced his creation before Dr. Parmar. “Sir,” he rasped, “I have produced what you asked for. Bicchu Booti soup!” With that he proceeded to pour the green liquid into a bowl and extended the filled bowl towards the CM.
Dr. Parmar, ever the gentleman, enquired whether Mr. Kaushik had tried the concoction himself. With difficulty, Kaushik, whispered, “I have been trying it all night, Sir. Now I want you to taste it and accord your approval.” “Thank you,” said the CM. “I have a speech to make shortly, and I don’t want to lose my voice, as you seem to have done.” “Why don’t you get all these officers to taste it?” he continued. We had no option but to accede to the CM’s suggestion, and took tentative spoonfuls from the proffered bowl. To our surprise, the so called “soup” was actually drinkable, although it did taste more of tomato ketchup than stinging nettle leaves. Soon we were asking for seconds and thirds. Seeing our surprised expressions, the CM also asked to try a spoonful. “I am afraid it’s all finished, Sir,” said Kaushik. “Well, can’t you prepare some more,” asked Dr. Parmar. Kaushik shook his head. “Sir, in my excitement and my eagerness of getting the ‘soup’ to you, I did not write down the recipe, or the ingredients.” “All I remember is that we used a few Nettle leaves, lots of tomato ketchup, and almost all the spices that my wife had in her kitchen. How much, I cannot say.” “And my wife has barred me from the kitchen hereafter,” he continued shamefacedly. The CM just smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “Well done Kaushik,” he said. “At least you tried.”