Sunder’s autobiographical sketch

Some time in 2009 Sunder composed this short bio-sketch at the request of an old school friend, Kishore Ullal. The occasion was an alumni reunion. Kishore and some others coordinated a reunion of class-mates who had graduated from Rishi Valley School in 1959, meeting in Lonavala the first year. The ‘Golden Decaders’, as they are known, have organized a reunion every year since then.

[aka “Sundal” to Valley-ites]
Class of 1959

Present location: Bangalore/New York

Three score and a few more years have gone by in the twinkling of an eye, as it were, since Sundal was brought forth into this world in a joint agricultural family in a little-known village (Valavanur) near Pondicherry (Puducheri in the vernacular).
After having provided me with the rudiments of elementary education, which I received initially seated beside my grandmother (who taught me to write the alphabets and numerals on a sheet of sand spread out on the floor) and later in the village school, my father decided, for reasons best known only to him, to banish me to a boarding school. RVS then was never in the picture. Having secured admission for me in such diverse schools as one run by the Ramakrishna Mission in the bondooks in South India, the Lawrence School in Ooty and, believe it or not, the Doon School, the patriarch decided to pack me off to distant Dehradun. Had the decision been implemented, I would have been a contemporary of the likes of Rajiv Gandhi, Arun Nehru et al; who knows, I too might have ended up in politics like so many others who passed through the gates of Doon, if not in political wilderness!! Call it my good fortune [though many of my colleagues at work later termed it my misfortune], I was saved from this fate almost at the wire. One of my father’s cousins, who happened to visit his native village from West Bengal where he was employed, dissuaded my father from sending me so far away. He advised that I be sent to Rishi Valley instead, of which he had heard only glowing reports.
Fortunately for me, the advice was heeded with alacrity; in the hot month of June, 1954, my eyes brimful with tears, I was handed over to Srinivasan sir (then the House Master of White House) who kept me distracted, tempting me with the offer of a mango, so that the proud parent could drive away.

The months and years that followed were fun-filled, leisurely and laid-back. Who can forget the hours spent jogging bare-bodied in the mornings for a dip in Mallibhavi; lounging on the cave and boat rocks; trekking across hills and dales from faraway Peddakonda; harvesting groundnuts in the school’s farm; sharing jokes after lights out; dancing to folk tunes around bonfires; acting in school plays; trying valiantly to understand what Krishnaji was trying to convey; keeping scores on the cricket field; cataloguing books in the library; valuing Vikram’s stamp collection; and, of course, attempting with not much success to study, juggling all the while these hectic activities? Can I also forget my futile attempt to learn to play the veena and dance the bharathanatyam only to be chased away by Visalakshi and Meenakshi akkas after barely a couple of days, or the annual excursions that were welcome interludes when I broke Ms Yarrow’s marble compact that she had picked up so lovingly in Chandni Chowk or had to cajole a cop in Agra station to let, if I remember right, Vallabh Kothari [or was it Shravan Kumar?] who was brandishing proudly on the platform a sword he had picked up outside the Taj to go free, with poor Venks worried we might have to miss our train!! I also recollect vividly carrying messages between Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal when the former was courting the latter during a visit of their dramatic troupe; and the first cigarettes smoked surreptitiously below the second bridge, with our eyes glued towards the sign post to make sure that Dr Bala’s car was nowhere on the horizon! One can go on and on ad infinitum about life in the Valley when we were free from all the cares of this world, had lots of time to merely sit and stare and were footloose and fancy-free. But let me not get carried away.
Having reluctantly left the Valley in December 1959 after my Senior Cambridge, it was time to find myself a place in a university. The patriarch had his say in respect of my higher studies as well. A host of uncles on the maternal side being engineers and technocrats, yours truly had to naturally become one too. So, I was shunted off to Guindy Engineering College in Madras (admissions to professional courses in those days were not as difficult or competitive as in these days), where I found myself a fish out of water and thoroughly miserable. In the result, instead of immersing myself in my studies as expected (and as all my compatriots in school would have done), I spent more time outside the class room and the hostel than within the campus mainly in becoming a film buff. There was not a theatre in Madras that had not been graced by my presence—believe it or not, I managed to take in as many as 100 movies in the first year and bettered my score in the second by another 35!! As was only to be expected, the exams proved hurdles too hard to negotiate and I decided finally to take a stand and call it quits, leading to stormy scenes and great turbulence at home. Fortunately, saner counsel prevailed. Thanks to the intervention of well-intentioned elders, I was allowed to enroll for a BA degree in English Literature in Loyola College.
I realized that Literature had always been my first love, and life in Loyola was consequently fabulous. I was able to combine curricular activities with a number of extra-curricular ones like debates at the university level, launching and editing a college monthly newsletter, literary society and student union responsibilities, etc. Those were very fulfilling years, when I also succeeded in rehabilitating myself in the eyes of the family and my peers.
Pursuit of an MA degree in Madras Christian College followed naturally and I would have probably become an academic in one of the city colleges. There was, however, to be yet another turning point in my life. One of my seniors in Loyola who was appearing in the UPSC Combined Civil Services Examination used all his guiles and threats to persuade me to appear as well. I know not how I succumbed, but appeared nevertheless in the examination and interview, approaching the entire exercise as one big joke.
But UPSC willed otherwise and surprisingly declared me suitable for appointment to one of the Central Services. Even without knowing what it would entail, I opted for the Indian Audit and Accounts Service (or the Ayyar and Ayyangar Service as it was commonly and jocularly referred to then!) and found myself in the Academy in Mussoorie in June 1967. This necessitated my bidding adieu to the sylvan surroundings of MCC and to the pursuit of the Queen’s English, which was supplanted instead by accountancy, auditing, a host of government rules and regulations, and, of course, the not-to-be-forgotten officialese, rather prematurely.
The 36 years that followed saw me crisscrossing the length and breadth of the country on assignments in various capacities in Simla, Hyderabad, Madras, Port Blair, Bombay, New Delhi, Washington, Thiruvananthapuram, and Jaipur, of which as many as 22 long years (in broken spells, of course) were spent in the capital. Fortunately for me, my assignments were not confined only to the offices of the Accountants General; apart from three years spent in the Lok Sabha Secretariat assisting the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament in enforcing executive accountability at the height of the Emergency, I was seconded for five years in the Ministry of Tourism & Civil Aviation, and for as many as seven long years in the Ministry of Finance, not to mention another seven years spent in policy formulation in the Headquarters Office of the Comptroller & Auditor General of India. My assignments provided me with ample opportunities for travel not merely within the country, including visits to the Seven Sisters in the North-East, Ladakh, Bhutan, the frontiers of the Raan, Barmer and Wagha, the islands in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea, but also overseas. I wonder how many in government would have had the good fortune, as I did, to spend some time in Buenos Aires, Brasilia, Sao Palo, Balem, Paramaribo, Kingston, Port of Spain, Caracas, Washington, New York, Toronto, Ottawa, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Hanoi, Singapore, London, Vienna and Geneva. I guess I faithfully adhered to the dictum: “Join the government and see the world!” However, not all my overseas visits were at the taxpayers’ expense. There were holidays to Paris, Amsterdam, Budapest, Prague, Athens, Stockholm, Melbourne, Sydney and Kualalumpur, besides a long stay in Oxford.
After more than three decades in government, I finally called it a day in June 2003 and retired as the Deputy Comptroller & Auditor General of India.
Like all good Tamil Brahmins, I married in 1972 according to my parents’ dicta. The person chosen for me was Rajeswari (Raji). She is truly a fabulous woman who has been responsible, in more ways than one, in shaping my attitudes and approaches to life. An alumnus of St. Xavier’s, Bombay, and George Washington University, and after having taught as a lecturer/reader in English in Miranda House, Jawaharlal University, IIT (Delhi) and Mother Therasa Women’s University (travelling, uncomplainingly, with me, wherever my tours of duty took me), the spires of Oxford University welcomed her as a professor, where she taught for five years. Though she could have continued till her retirement, there was an irresistible offer of appointment as a Global Distinguished Visiting Professor from New York University in the year 2005. Acceptance meant we could live in New York for 4 months in the Fall every year, returning home to Bangalore for the remaining 8 months to take care of our aged mothers. So, we moved away from the serenity of Oxford to the hustle and bustle of Manhattan in 2006. Her areas of specialization are Postcolonial Studies, Gender Studies and Cultural Theory.
We have one son, Kaushik, and he is an awesome guy. Graduating in Bio-chemistry from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and obtaining his Masters from Oxford University, he too, like his father before him, decided to switch disciplines. He obtained a doctorate in Science and Technology Studies (an inter-disciplinary programme comprising some pure science, sociology, anthropology, etc.) from MIT and after a year’s post-doc in Harvard, has followed in his mother’s footsteps in becoming an academic. He teaches in the Irvine campus of University of California—another reason for our decision to move from Oxford.1 He is married to Naira, an MBA from Duke, who works in Los Angeles in a pharma consultancy outfit.
I now shuttle between New York and Bangalore, where I serve as Independent Director of a couple of companies and involve myself in the activities of a non-governmental agency called PROOF [Public Record of Operations and Finance] engaged in bringing about greater transparency and accountability in urban local bodies.
The past six decades have been more than fulfilling with much to rejoice about and be thankful for, the occasional setbacks in life notwithstanding. I guess I can claim to have lived my life to the fullest.
I realize I have exceeded, by leaps and bounds, the limitation imposed by Kishore. But, quite obviously, a life spanning more than six decades cannot be compressed in a mere 300 words. I however crave the forgiveness of those who will be compelled to wade through my yakkety-yakking!!



The family together, on Kaushik’s 40th birthday; March 18, 2014


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[1] Kaushik now teaches at the University of Chicago, in the Anthropology department, having moved there in 2010. Naira also works in Chicago.