Bidding goodbye to S.K. Rau after his visit to me a few weeks ago, little did I realise that the voice of wisdom, love and support would soon be stilled.
In the Mahabharata, the four younger Pandavas, in exile, fail to return after leaving in search of water. Yudhisthir goes last and faces questions from an Asareearvanini, the last question being what the strangest thing in life is. Yudhisthir replies that death is inevitable but one constantly lives in the belief it will never come.
How true! In the passing away of Satyvolu Rameswara Rau, Andhra Pradesh and India have lost a great human being.
While this is not the era of the da Vincis, here was a man who excelled in many fields of human endeavour. A doctor of philosophy in history, he had a facile familiarity with the classical literature of Sanskrit, Telugu and English, an exemplary career as a civil servant and, above all, was endowed with an indestructible zest for life.
Disguising his erudition, he would comfortably participate in discussions on Shakespeare, Kalidasa or the great Telugu poets such as Nannayya or Peddanna. A self-confessed agnostic, he would even contribute enthusiastically to a discourse on the Bible, the Quran or the Gita. Normally reticent, he, however, made his points like the Gulistaan’s description of a wise man — never silent when speech is needed, nor speaking when silence is required.
As a research scholar of history in Madras, he was a frequent visitor to our house and a sishya of my father. He joined the first batch of the IAS in 1948 in Orissa and served as the collector of Barhampur and Cuttack districts. In early days in Madras, my sister and a cousin used to tease him about his chances in the civil services examination. When they visited him in Cuttack, he stopped them at the doorstep, rushed in and returned with a jacket on, and said, “Do I look like an officer now?”
Though shy and retiring, he was fun to be around. He loved the good things life — drink, food, books, music — although his indulgences were tempered by strict moderation. A talented raconteur, he regaled us with anecdotes about Gandhi, Nehru and Mountbatten, laced, I suspect, with apocryphal titbits concerning the stalwarts of the IAS.
He was as dismayed by the speed as he was bewildered by the intensity of the assault upon the integrity of the ambience pervading the body politic by unscrupulous politicians, dishonest civil servants, and ambitious businessmen — a nexus that was in its embryonic stage in the 1980s. Disenchanted and isolated, after a stint as secretary (textiles) in the Central government, he withdrew to the portals of the relatively peaceful National Institute of Rural Development as its director general.
Though he retired soon after and settled in his native town of Kakinada, he was sought after by the UPSC, the Centre for Economic Social Studies and the National Academy of Agricultural Extension Management, not to mention serving officials looking for a shoulder to sob on, especially the district collectors of East Godavari!
The Raus made a comely couple — gracious as hosts and charming as guests. He had no children. He rejoiced in whatever little I achieved in the service and was particularly thrilled with the accomplishments of my nephew, Sitaram Yechuri, who, like me, was like a son to him.
Completely at home in the company of younger people, enjoying talking as much as he was eager to listen, he would laugh a lot and make others join in. He was not averse to a mild leg-pulling either. An account of one of my views on agriculture prompted the remark, “That was a good report! But what did you really say?”
One recalls John Gunther’s book
about the premature death of his son, Death Be Not Proud: “‘Do you believe in life after death?’ someone asked my father. ‘Do you, Sir, believe in life before death?’ my father retorted.”
Now, that is the life which S.K. Rau showed us how to lead.
The writer retired as chief secretary of Andhra Pradesh