I have been seeing him for so many years; he would slip out of his car and slowly walk towards Delhi's India International Centre's well-stacked library. One of the last surviving Indian Civil Services (ICS) officers, till he died on January 28, 2010 at the ripe age of 97, SK Banerji did not mind the anonymity that isolation of old age brings to people when many of their friends, admirers and relatives have long died or gone their own ways. On occasions when I met him at his house in Vasant Vihar, I found him surrounded by his Jamini Roys and nursing a glass of his favourite whiskey.
He was remarkably alert for his age and gave a quiet chuckle when I presented him Gabriel Garcia Marquez's book Memories of My Melancholy Whores on his 92nd birthday. The protagonist of Marquez's book is a 90-year-old man who makes one last visit to his favourite whore believ¬ing that a 90-year-old could perform better than many of those young 80-year-olds. Indeed, I could never really check with Banerji what he thought of the venerable magic realism litterateur's interesting submission. Banerji was a nationalist. He was not one of those types who remained mired in the past and celebrated the goodness of the British Raj. He joined the British steel frame of administration, ICS, in 1937, and retired in 1972 as secretary in the ministry of external affairs. Before his retirement he played an important role in building support for India in the Bangladesh war. Save for a brief assignment as the Lt Governor of Goa, where he donated a major part of his famous art collection, he did not really chase any other job and remained an astute observer of national and international happenings.
His book, From Dependence to Non-alignment, provides an interesting sweep of India in transition from 1937 onwards. Besides detailing many foreign policy issues in his book, Banerji provides enough evidence of the mindless hunting of tigers by the British and how it contributed to bringing down the population of the big cat.
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