The Notoriously Unreliable Source of Raisina And Tihar – Nusrat, in short – winked and grinned broadly as he approached me. He was clearly bursting with news.
‘Well, Nusrat,’ I said. ‘You seem mighty pleased with yourself. Are you carrying gossip from Raisina Hill or Tihar jail?’
He shrugged and said:
‘How can you tell the two places apart anymore? But as it happens, I’m returning from Raisina Hill. From the Prime Minister’s Office, in fact.’
‘Then you must have been the only visitor of the day. Did you help the staff clear the cobwebs? I mean, whoever is interested in the PMO nowadays?’
‘Funny you should say that,’ Nursrat said, rubbing his hands in wicked glee. ‘As it happens, the Prime Minster went AWOL two days ago.’ Since I didn’t know how to react, he continued: ‘And even the PMO realised this fact just this morning!’
‘Oh!’ I said, surprised that I was surprised.
‘I was there when the Principal Secretary discovered the fact and placed a call to the Associate Secretary and asked him to make discreet enquires. Needless to say, the Associate Secretary called the Deputy Secretary who called the Deputy Associate Secretary who then demanded that the Assistant Deputy Secretary take action. Very soon, an army of secretaries was placing calls to Cabinet Ministers, colleagues in Parliament, extended family members and so on and so forth. One secretary even reached out to the management of the Golden Temple – given the current situation, would it surprise anybody that the PM wanted to seek spiritual solace? Of course, nobody knew where the PM was.’
‘“Nusrat, you caught us in a fine pickle,” one of the Secretaries told me. “Please don’t leak this out to the media. The PM is having a tough time. The poor man was under sufficient duress as it was without having to endure the after effects of Sanjay Baru’s book and now PC Parakh’s book.”
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‘I nodded and replied: “When a former media advisor and coal secretary confirm the theory that everybody in the world already believes in … life can turn bleak. I can see that. Now everybody knows what they already knew.”’
‘“That’s humbug, Nusrat. The PM wasn’t submissive. He wasn’t influenced by anybody.” Here, he picked up the phone and said:” ‘Cancel the appointment with the accent tutor.”’
‘”What’s the need for an accent tutor?” I asked.’
‘“You know, it’s the strangest thing … but the PM began developing a thick Italian accent around five years ago. He meets an accent tutor once a week to neutralise this mysterious influence.”’
‘Yes, that’s quite a mystery,’ I said. ‘What will you do now? When the PM doesn’t show up for public appearances, tongues would wag.”
‘“The body double will take over,” the Secretary replied. “He looks a perfect replica. And since nobody expects the PM to speak, it doesn’t matter that he sounds like a water buffalo. Our real problem is that somebody might notice if he doesn’t return before the new government is sworn in.” Picking up the phone again, he said, “Get the PM’s therapist on the line. And I need security tapes from the day the PM disappeared.”’
Nusrat paused meaningfully. When he continued, it was in a theatrical monotone.
‘When the therapist came on the line, he had nothing new to offer. His last session with the PM followed the normal pattern – the therapist asked questions and the PM nodded or shook his head; sometimes he did both together. Towards the end, he said something that sounded like Abki baar, chup rahenge yaar. All in all, it was an excellent session; he had spoken three words more than usual.
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‘As for the tapes, they weren’t conclusive,’ Nusrat said, looking me in the eye. ‘He spent most of the day in his study, in the room that he has once privately termed his Museum of Achievements. On different parts of the room hung extra-large framed prints of the best laws he had enacted. The RTI, the RTE, the NREGA … laws that had promised to reform Indian society from the ground up. Laws that had managed to achieve that to a miniscule extent. In the tapes, we heard the PM muttering something to himself. It seemed like he kept saying the same thing again and again. The Secretary used some technology to amplify his feeble voice. We couldn’t be sure, but we think he was saying, “I did good. I meant well. People will remember that.”’
Here, Nusrat asked me:
‘Does that make sense? If a lowly clerk in a government office remains clean and sincere in spite of the muck flying all around him, he has the right to be proud. But can the man sitting on what’s supposed to be the most powerful chair in the land make the same argument? I was asking this exact question to the Secretary when the PM himself sauntered in, looking like the cat’s whiskers. He was actually sporting a smile and a skip in his step. He also said, “Abki baar, chup rahe yaar.”’
Nusrat stared at me with a wry smile.
‘Where had he been? What did he do there? Yes, my friend, I can read the pussy cat questions in your eyes. None of us can be sure. I’ll tell you what I think, though. After the elections, a certain few people will have to practice mournful silence in front of the media. So the PM was asked to spend two days coaching them on this priceless skill. And for a man who had taken way too many orders and subdued his conscience way too many times, this must have been a special occasion indeed. Seeing them tongue-tied … witnessing their helplessness firsthand … must have felt like staring into a mirror of vindication.’
With that, the Notoriously Unreliable Source of Raisina And Tihar guffawed and left me to my ponderings.