Hemashri pays tribute to a former IAS officer, who was also a pro bono lawyer. His immense love and compassion for others set him apart. In him, she found a friend, philosopher, and guide. Read more in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.
I was completely cheesed off sitting in a sealed AC cabin, where the machine does not work in peak summers. I was feeling agitated because my boss, a retired man reemployed in the government institution first wanted me to cause an enquiry as to why the Annual Maintenance Contract(AMC) was not done for these ACs. The gentleman, who had welcomed me to that small office, changed his colour within the first three days. I was determined to endure everything and be patient.
The first day, when I came to join the office on the 5th floor of the building, I found none of the lifts were working. The very second day of my joining, electrical connection of the office was disconnected due to non-payment of dues. I checked the outstanding amount. It was one lakh thirteen thousand rupees. For last two years, this office did not receive a single penny for maintenance. I could make out I was in a challenging post. Even the door of my chamber was dangling on just one screw. Tell-tale signs were galore. This office was a witness of apathy, though it was a very crucial institution – an institution that could give relief to patients for wrong treatment.
To take stock of things, I called in the second in command, who was an elderly man. He came into my chamber and with an obnoxious smell. I could make out he was in an inebriated state. He told me frankly that he knows nothing about office procedure and he cannot write anything in English. He said, “Moi Englishor aaku najnu. Moi jibonot English Dictionary ekhon dekhi pua nai.” (I do not know English. I have not seen an English Dictionary in my life). For his utterly irresponsible statements instead of feeling angry or annoyed, I felt impressed at his absolute honesty. Maybe I realised beggars cannot be choosers. No matter what, I shall have to engage him to carry on the work. I used to write his noting and ask him to copy it to write in the file. He could barely manage to copy but he was a very cheerful man. Every day, the first thing would be to call him to my chamber to have a cup of tea with him and then make a list of things to do. Within two weeks I saw changes in him. He used to come neat and well shaved and gradually the smell of country liquor vanished. With their support in five months, I had written around eighty letters informing various issues of the office and pursued every issue with reminders and personal visits to those offices and also apprised my senior officers. I used to visit every day the office responsible for repairing the lift. The officer concerned was in charge of another office and the second in command requested me not to visit every day. Still, I continued to visit to exert pressure on them.
Gradually, my boss became more hostile for reasons best known to him. He was a tormentor to everyone in the office and was notorious for it. I could make this out of the adverse comments reported to me by the staff and my trusted second in command. Sitting in that suffocating chamber had led to skin allergy. In a desperate attempt, maybe to test my patience, I continued my work. My sick father-in-law had to be frequently hospitalised for dialysis. My husband was posted frequently from one disturbed place to another, during the time of ethnic clashes in the state.
One day, I saw a tall, lean, elderly advocate standing near the lift which was out of order. We exchanged greetings and I came to know he was coming to my office for a case. His failing health did not allow him to walk up to the 5th Floor. To my utter surprise, I discovered that the Directorate of Pension was located on the 6th floor. Every day, while climbing up I would meet a group of retired people visiting the office on the 6th floor. It was pathetic. One day a young advocate came to my chamber and asked me he heard that I pursuing various issues of this office so they would like to assist me. He wanted to know what they could do. I told him please follow up the matter of the lift as it causes inconvenience to all. Also, we had the Directorate of Pension on the 6th Floor. In response to my well-meaning suggestion what the advocate told made me mad. He said, “Do you know the directorate responsible for certifying the disabled is located on the 6th floor and there is no provision of lift?” It reminded me that way back in 2001. I had read about barrier-free public offices and that all government offices would be barrier-free so as to be accessible to differently abled people. In 2012, we were operating from a place, which was actually inaccessible even for able-bodied not to speak of differently abled.
One day, when I was in my hot-oven cabin, the elderly advocate met me. We first discussed about his case for which he had been coming to the office for ten years. It was a Consumer Court. The Consumer’s Protection Act, 1986, governed the institution. As per the Act, all disputes under it had to be disposed of within 90 to 150 days yet more than 50 % of the cases were running for more than eight years. The elderly gentleman was highly enlightening and talking to him was therapeutic. With little support from those who actually mattered, I was really having a tough time in that office. Issues back home were stressful. After a few conversations with the elderly gentleman, suddenly, one day I spontaneously addressed him as, “Uncle.” He became my friend and mentor. He appreciated my work and I confided the hostility I was enduring. Walking up to the 5thfloor several times a day with a gynaecological issue had taken its adverse toll but I was adamant to push, and continue working. By this time several, issues were resolved and it was kind of a challenge for me to address the rest of the things. Realising the gravity of the situation that I was enduring at that time, Maheshree uncle advised me to proceed on leave. It was unacceptable for me as I considered it to be an escapist route. Uncle had told me that it was my ego saying that. He guided to choose my battles wisely. I decided to apply for leave. After some drama, finally, I proceeded on leave.
This elderly gentleman was Onkar Mall Maheshree, a retired IAS officer and a practicing advocate of Guwahati High Court. He was my angelic mentor, who had guided me in a critical phase of life. During that leave period, I made numerous visits and was pleasantly delighted to discover a wonderful mentor in him. In Consumer Court, he was pursuing the case of a lady who was wrongly operated and was caused permanent damage by a careless doctor. He was pleading for the case as a pro bono lawyer, without charging any fees. His study room was full of valuable records and documents. He had lost his only son, a police officer under tragic circumstances. His wife, an aunt, was a loving lady. They became very dear to me.
Maheshree uncle had joined as an officer in Assam Civil Service Class I and was nominated to IAS. He endured frequent transfers for his uncompromising integrity. He was a simple, down to earth, noble soul. He told me he always remained mentally prepared for his next transfer and had the record of being transferred within 24 hours. He passed his MA from Allahabad University, in 1960, and during his service life, he did his LLB to help people.
One day, when I went to meet him, he was filling up a form. When I asked him what he was doing he said he was applying for LLM. At the age of 80 years, he was planning to do LLM. However, later he told the fees was exorbitant so he dropped the idea. Photographs of his younger days adorned his study. I saw a very handsome man and could make out his younger avatar, with very good looks and a deep knowledge. I teased him, “Uncle, thank God you were born much earlier than me.” He would only smile. He could read without using specs and his memory was razor sharp even at 81 years.
I used to visit especially on the eve of festivals. This Bihu I was carrying a Bihuwan for him in the vehicle but could not visit. Suddenly, his daughter informed he was admitted to a hospital. I took a small bouquet while going to see him. He was in the ICU and was mentally alert and told me to keep the flowers in his room. I told uncle that I have some new stories to narrate and prayed for his speedy recovery.
After one month, I was waiting in his home to receive him when he came back from the hospital in a van all wrapped up in a white bandage. I had lost a dear friend, philosopher, and guide. I felt empty. My last gift for him was a garland made of white flowers. Before coming out of the home that day for the first time, I felt like taking a round of the house. I climbed upstairs and show a beautiful old poster with pink rose with the words, “The Love in your Heart was not put there to Stay: Love is not Love till you give it away.”
As I came out, I felt that here lived a man who practiced this adage in all earnestness.
Uncle, may you Rest in Everlasting Peace!
Photos from the Internet
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Hemashri Hazarika is an Officer of the Assam Civil Service since 1997. Her research on Assam Civil Service brought reforms in 2015. A first-class Postgraduate in Economics from Gauhati University, she was awarded JRF/NET by UGC in 1997. Her experience as a bureaucrat has sensitised her to human sufferings. A solutionist by passion, she takes an active interest in issues related to Governance, Development, Women, Children, etc. Reading, Writing, Speaking and Painting are her hobbies.