M.R. Narayan Swamy
Book: "Beyond the Office Window"; Author: A.K. Pande; Publisher: Konark Publishers Pvt Ltd; Pages: 178; Price: Rs.400
This book could well be called a mini "Discovery of India". That is what the author sets out to discover, the omnipresent Indian ethos. A former customs officer with an eye for detail and a flair for writing, A.K. Pande talks about his travels to the near and far corners of India both during service and after retirement in 2002 to present a beautiful and cogent account of the India he loves.
A land of a billion people, myriad cultures and languages, numerous ethnicities and cuisines, varied religions and shrines, rivers and ghats, monuments and cultures, all bound together by a thread called India. If you love India, you will love this book.
Pande's strength lies in weaving together people he has met and places he has seen and events he has witnessed into one common story, the story of India. A north Indian, he talks effusively of M.S. Subbulakshmi, the only one who "can truthfully render the divine frenzy of Meera's love and fathom the depths of those soul stirring thoughts". He writes movingly about Varanasi and the undying Ganga, but laments that one of the holy town's greatest sons, Tulsidas, has been treated shabbily.
Pande is no prisoner of street talk ideology, he delves into Baburnama and discovers that Babur was "anything but a monster". He pays fulsome tribute to T.N. Seshan, the man who changed the Election Commission from a doormat of politicians to a powerful constitutional weapon, and witnesses the festival of Indian democracy in an interior region of Assam as an election observer. He takes us to the little known Bheemunipatnam port in Andhra Pradesh and reads a British era diary with references to books by Mahatma Gandhi and Lala Lajpat Rai that have been banned!
His journeys across India take him to the border of Nepal with a fleeing entry into that country, Malwa region and its forts, Ashoka Stupa in Sanchi, and Ujjain, whose clean ghats he in part credits to the voluntary service provided by the Daudi Bohra community.
Pande does not treat his travels like an average tourist. He calls his journeys a learning experience, "by no means ample, yet good enough to correct many of my wrong notions. They have also given me a feeling of belonging to the whole country". He even goes where not many would go, including the northeast, whose people he salutes and admires.
Pande is an ardent advocate of preserving the "unique kaleidoscope of cultures and traditions of different states and regions that is India, this colourful fabric, the tapestry, which is a riot of so many hues and patterns".
He devotes maximum space to Kolkata, where he spends considerable time, avoiding politics and taking us instead to small and big places, and the numerous full-of-life streets. He salutes Bengali culture and civility. He prays that the decaying buildings of old Calcutta must be redone and preserved. "Kolkata," he desires, "must not drive Calcutta to extinction."