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Reflections of solitude

Ahead of the Goa launch of his poetry collection ‘The 70th Milestone’, retired bureaucrat Robin Gupta speaks to NT BUZZ


It is the cry of the writer that changes the world, believes Robin Gupta. “The writer is uncluttered by rules and regulations, ambition or inhibition – and lives a free life. I was always a free spirit. And I was always a writer,” says the retired bureaucrat who joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1974. In fact, he penned his first poem ‘Conflict’ when he was only 14.

As an IAS (Indian Administrative Services) officer, Gupta’s deputations included assignments throughout the country, including West Bengal, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, and Punjab. He was posted as commissioner on seven separate occasions, a record in the history of Indian civil service. His final posting before retirement was as financial commissioner, Government of Punjab. But it was inability that inspired his writings, he claims. “Inability to do as much as I would like to and my sorrow at that inability of being unable to do more than I wanted to.”

Gupta set out to join the IAS with a strong desire to change the nation, if not the world. But disillusionment set in when he realised that politicians and his own colleagues didn’t want that change. “As a civil servant, I have never had one request from a political person that was a good request,” he says, and illustrating this, he adds: “When I was financial commissioner of revenues – the highest post in the state – sitting in court, I would get a list from the chief minister listing out the cases that had to be won and the ones that had to be lost. There was so much interference, so much corruption. And all this anguish, all these thoughts, troubled me and made me a reclusive person.”

The author of ‘And What Remains in the End: Memoirs of an Unrepentant Civil Servant’ that chronicles his years in the civil service, adds: “Mine has been a story of disappointments. I have held very prestigious posts. But I have also led a lonely life. As an unmarried person, you tend to introspect a lot. And writing was my escape route. I’m happiest when I’m writing.” And through his 37-year career, Gupta says poetry never left him. He has written widely on subjects ranging from history, monuments, Sufism, music, art, nature, etc.

‘The 70th Milestone’ is his sixth book and first collection of poems. The book is dedicated to Khushwant Singh who visited Gupta in 1998 in Firozpur. “It was Khushwant Singh who trained me on how to write – with simplicity, with clarity, with felicity and in a completely secular manner without bigotry,” he says.

The collection, that marked the 70th birthday of the former civil servant, is a collection of poems written over the span of 30-35 years. “Some were written when I was young and in love, some when I was jilted, some when I was angry, some when I had taken to religion – just all kinds of things,” he says.

Through the collection, Gupta gives readers a glimpse into the highs and lows that peppered his journey to the 70th milestone. Each poem ponders on the people and places he encountered during his life. “There is a poem about a Muslim saint, one for a lake in Orissa, one for a plant called Madhavilata, one for the city of Shahjahanabad, one for the French perfume Chanel No 5, the Taj Mahal, for my father, my mother, my sister – and even one written originally on a paper napkin in the Raj Bhavan, Kashmir for author Dominique Lapierre. It is the best poem out of all,” he says.

But the themes of longing and despair resonate through the book. At 71, Gupta witnessed the country change – for better and for worse. “I was born in the shadow of the British Raj – I was born in 1948, they left in 1947. It was a completely secular society. People were deeply interested in art, in music and the fine arts and dance, in good friendship.” And while economically, India was backward then, Gupta says, “Communalism and religious hatred were not part of our social fabric. It was a very graceful world where the cementing force was the arts.”

Science and technology have not made for better men, he says drawing a parallel to the present scenario. “Now we have our industries, but society seems to be collapsing. Now, when I see the rough edges of hatred, I long for the unity that used to be then. Today, people have become aware; women have got their rights – much more than ever before. But, what is the point of education, technology, reaching the moon – if we are still inclined to medieval warfare and are unable to sort out our problem with our neighbour Pakistan?”

He adds that it is now the writers who are striving to right the injustices around the world. “With all that is currently happening in India, it is the writers that are up in arms – who are saying this is not right,” he says.

He notes that one great stride that India has made is in English literature. “We have some of the greatest English writers here. At the Dehradun Literature Festival of which I’m the principal advisor, we had a hot debate on whether English is an Indian language. And the consensus was ‘yes’. English is the only language that holds India together,” says Gupta, who now leads a life devoted to the arts – promoting literature, educating children, hosting regular salons for writers, poets, and the literati and more.

In his retirement, Gupta divides his time between his homes in Panchkula, Delhi, and Goa. “Goa is my first love,” he shares. Gupta’s previous book, in fact, was launched in Goa seven years ago by the then governor of Goa, while ‘The 70th Milestone’ opens with a poem about Goa.

“The people are very kind here. It’s not like this in other states. I like everything about Goa – but the people, mostly,” he says.

(‘The 70th Milestone’ by Robin Gupta will be launched at the

International Centre Goa on

February 19, 5:30 p.m.

Entry is free and open to all.)

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