An Officer And Gentleman

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Oct 23 2003, 05:30am hrs
In the early hours of October 10th, the country lost one of its finest post-independence Naval officers, defence planners and strategic thinkers. Vice Admiral Nar Pati Datta was killed by a speeding private Blueline bus in Delhi. He may have died tragically and in circumstances that raise larger questions about road safety, but he lived and worked a life of uncompromising dignity. Everyone who knew him was struck by that unique combination which is now so rare: impressive achievements moored to gracious charm and complete modesty.

In the Navy, he helped formulate some of its earliest modernisation plans, commanded the Western Fleet and trained a whole generation of officers. After that, he became the CEO of Mazagon Docks for many years where he successfully faced the labour mafia, increased productivity, diversified its business and turned around the fortunes of Indias biggest shipyard. Along the way, he championed and helped build up Indian yachting, so much so that he was the first Asian judge ever in the Olympics for sailing events. In 1997, he was awarded the Lifetime Service Medal by the International Sailing Federation. And right till his end, he worked passionately to build Indias inland waterway transport system.

He effortlessly straddled the worlds of defence, business and sports, with distinguished achievements in each, but most readers of this column would probably not have heard of him. He shunned gratuitous publicity, much like he never used impolite words against anyone. He critiqued but never criticised, held important posts but never wallowed in self-importance, was always seriously prepared and articulate in discussions but never took himself seriously. More than an officer and a gentleman, he was a fantastic human being.

His memorial service was a visible display of the wide respect and love he commanded, the true extent of which perhaps he himself did not realise. The words spoken and inscribed ranged from he was a builder of men to he had the noblest character to he was a role model for many. Generous tributes from his officers, colleagues and friends.

He was also my father-in-law, and there was a personal side I was privileged to experience: his love for his family, his quiet strength, his inexhaustible repertoire of knowledge, and his everyday decency. He effused human dignity, and no matter what, he always made you feel there was hope for tomorrow.

There is a certain inextricable link between mourning and praising. Oral eulogies can sometimes be remarkably moving experiences, bringing into focus the endearing qualities or accomplishments of the departed, and for a moment there is a rare fusion between private and public domains of an individual. But when all the sombre ceremonies are over and after everyone has gone home, families still have to cope with the loss, which by its very definition cuts them off from someone or something that gave life meaning, purpose or safety.

Writing a tribute does not come easy to most of us, and capturing in words the texture and imprint of an entire life is daunting, if not impossible. For those in the immediate circle, it is also difficult to be dispassionate. I now have this need to talk about and assess the life of a man who became my main moral and intellectual compass, but try as I might, no column could ever pay an adequate tribute to him, his achievements or what he meant.

I mourn his passing, but he probably would have disapproved of any excessive fawning or unnecessary sentiment. In fact, were he around, he would be the first to remind me that the supreme irony of life is that nobody gets out of it alive. The trick is to live it to our physical and moral best.

He was a man of measured words and wit, and he perhaps best wrote his own epitaph when in a reunion after 50 years with a pre-partition friend from Lahore, he wrote There are stories to tell, of joys and regrets galore, of missed opportunities, of undeserved good fame, but in short it has been a life lived to the full.

He did live life to the full, while holding no bitterness, bearing no grudges and carrying no moral burden. The bugles sound, the anchors weigh and the ship now comes to port. But he left many of us so much richer for having shared part of the voyage.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors