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Sunday, December 05, 2021

Keshav Desiraju

by Naman Shah.

Honoring the dead is tricky, more so when their loss is so unexpected. I imagined decades more of dialogue and friendship with Keshav before having to reflect this way. We all know what he accomplished, so I won’t dwell on that. Besides, legacy making is problematic and I think Keshav would’ve found it to be quite a bore. Instead, I would like to remember what made him special so we might imbibe those qualities ourselves:

1. Keshav spent time with young people and he had a blast doing so. He was curious and carried no airs about him. On the receiving end, whether he agreed or disagreed with you, it was such a rush to be taken seriously. One could also not escape noticing how very kind that act was and wanting to do the same for others. I remember a brisk winter walk in the Purana Qila zoo with him and another friend, a designer without an inkling of the policy world. Keshav still tried, for some time, to explain to her what his typical day entailed and in the end accepted with good humor and grace her synopsis “so you just sit in meetings and sign lots of papers?” as the superior if unflattering summary.

2. Keshav could acknowledge heartbreak. We know this from having seen it. His pre-election, overnight dismissal as health secretary by Congress, the party of his honored grandfather no less, broke him. He did not need the position to define himself, rather it was the sense of betrayal and losing a long awaited opportunity to do something of meaning (Keshav had turned down promotion twice to lead other ministries for what he saw as his best chance to make a difference in the misery of many). To outward appearances, he may have masked his emotions well. He remained active in many groups and found other new meanings. But underneath, there was pain, and his energy was never the same. For me, and I’m sure many of us, his experience had personal import. I had to reorient my theory of change, for if he couldn’t move the beast from within, what chance did I have?

3. Keshav always made space for others. I mean this both at the level of the individual and in his role in governance. For the former, Keshav was never too busy. We met during work hours for chai. He could spend the weekend sitting with his elderly aunt. He didn’t succumb to the modern plague of busyness and never invoked time scarcity as a status symbol. He thought it appropriate to write back to others who reached out to him. Unlike many of his peers, he identified as Keshav and never referred to himself as ‘the Government’. In the social realm, Keshav was a pluralist. He brought in a broader perspective to Nirman Bhawan, i.e. beyond the typical multilateral and Ansari Nagar crowd that are mustered for such things. He also made it a point to travel outside those confines. I can recall a vigorous nighttime meeting with our malaria team in Orissa. More than simple diversity, I think he sought the credibility and competency from those doing daily, direct work. Whether or not he had read Sen’s Positional Objectivity, his actions lived its message. The view from Delhi is limited. Also, ‘small’ things outside the Centre mattered. Or, at least, there was some justice in getting them resolved. In the midst of drafting national law, he pushed the NBME to expand nascent Family Medicine training at a handful of wonderful, small hospitals scattered in our hinterland.

4. Keshav loved to learn. While I admire and share the drive to fix problems, seeing the world in that lens alone gets bleak. Only making terrible situations passable misses the full range of human experience. He explored the beauty of literature, music, and museums. Keshav was joyous about these and, in sharing that joy, enriched those around him. At least ten books, both gifted by and borrowed from him, remain with me. To learn is to be open and to be open is to be liberal. From his philosophy, policy approach, and here, culturally, Keshav was the consummate Nehruvian Indian. The Oxbridge accent helped that impression too I guess. I am grateful to him as my introduction and living interlocutor to the rich, though diminishing, world of liberal Indian thought and politics.

5. Finally, Keshav was a terrific listener. There’s nothing to add here, as all the prior traits attest to this. His ability to listen was the foundation of the rest of the above. It was the simple basis for his widespread admiration and now its absence for our collective mourning.

I’ll end with what I think was the peculiar, though perhaps not for him, way we met. I had dropped by IIC for a mental health conference organized by colleagues. At some point they introduced me to Keshav, one of the speakers, and we found ourselves discussing literature including how much we both enjoyed Beteille’s essay My Two Grandmothers. He then asked me what I was currently reading. It was Guha’s The Last Liberal, and then, sheepishly, as we bid farewell, inquired whether I had read the dedication. I hadn’t and imagine my surprise when I did so after reaching home. The most civilized of civil servants indeed.

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