A Cat has Seven (?) Lives

SK, as he is known so affectionately, has been an IAS officer, served numerous posts in government: Haryana cadre, first coming into prominence as principal secretary to then Chief Minister, Bansi Lal; later became JS in the Ministry of Defence, served as secretary tourism and civil aviation, Government of India; principal secretary to Prime Minister Chandrashekar; Director-General, Festivals of India; curator and creator of the Suraj Kunds Crafts Mela; and the chairman of INTACH. He is presently pursuing his passion about heritage conservation as the chairman of Indian Trust of Rural Heritage and Development.
Here, in a first-person account, S K Misra recounts his trysts with near fatal incidents but Destiny over-ruled them each time. An interesting read from one of India’s most famous bureaucrats.

“I am convinced that in my previous life I was a cat!!!

For how else can one explain my brush with death several times starting at the age of 5?

We were staying in Cawnpore (as Kanpur was then known) close to the river Ganga. My aunt (BHUA) who brought me up on the death of my mother, when I was just three years old, was a very devout and religious lady though none of it washed on me.

Every morning at the crack of dawn, I would be whisked away to the holy river for a dip to wash away my future sins as I had none till then except perhaps when at the age of three I had set on fire my great grandfather’s room by experimenting with a matchbox lying on the floor in the kitchen, but that is another story!

On a fateful morning when I went for the routine dip I strayed into danger territory where the current was a bit too strong for a kid like me and I was washed away, with people aghast at the unfolding tragedy, with my aunt screaming for help. Just then, a young man downstream saw me approaching and jumped in just in time to save me from impending disaster. On return home after a visit to the temple to thank the Lord, sweets were distributed but the outcome was a happy one – I was saved from such further early morning visits.

Several years passed before the next excitement. In 1951 I was admitted to the Allahabad University and joined the prestigious Muir Hostel. Three years later, some of us inmates of the hostel went on a picnic to the Marble Rocks and the Dhuandhar Falls near Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh. It was a lovely sight watching the river Narbada leap into the mighty Falls. The water was crystal clear, sparkling in the sun, not deep though, just about the ankles but with the current very very strong. I decided to treat myself to the cool waters and was enjoying the serenity when suddenly, because of the mighty current, lost my balance and was heading towards the waterfall. All my friends were aghast at what has happening in front of their eyes, in a state of shock, disbelief and utter helplessness when Providence came to my rescue and just at the edge of the waterfall, I struck a huge boulder! Only to be rescued just in time. A very sobering experience!

A couple of years passed and in 1956 I joined the IAS and in 1958 was posted as Sub Divisional Magistrate in Barnala, an important town in Punjab. As the SDM, responsible for law and order also, I felt the necessity for a weapon and invested in a lowly Czech pistol (which was all that I could afford). It was a very dainty looking toy and I played with it like a toy. However, not wanting to take any risk I checked the magazine for any possible bullets inside. Satisfied that there were none and it was safe I foolishly pointed the gun at my temple and pulled the trigger when a bullet fell out. It had somehow got stuck and I had failed to notice it. I was horrified, unable to move or to speak, the one and only one thought in my mind buzzing with the possibility of big banner headlines in the next morning newspapers – SDM commits suicide – with people surmising of a possible cause – love affair, jilted lover or what else? Embezzlement? Some political scandal? Not even one in a million would have arrived at the truth. It would have been just another unsolved case.

In 1964, I took over as Deputy Commissioner, Hisar. There were heavy floods in the district and I was on an inspection visit. In a village, an earthen bundh 40 feet in height had been constructed. I was at the wheel in a jeep and I was wondering whether it was safe to go over the bundh to the other side.

The villagers most vociferously assured me that there was no risk as a vehicle had just crossed over. I decided to take the risk and barely seconds after I had crossed over, the bundh collapsed. I escaped somehow, yet another providential escape, by just a few seconds. How does one explain this miracle except destiny? No harm could come to me because I was destined for bigger things. Like writing this piece today and sharing it with my friends. Of course, this thought did not come to me then.

There was a flying club in Hisar and as Deputy Commissioner I was its Chairman. I decided to undergo training as a pilot on a Pushpak aircraft, a tiny plane with just the basics, produced by HAL. I had completed the training but had not yet got the licence and I was keen to do a solo. I spoke to my trainer and he said certainly we could go together. I had other ideas. I wanted to be on my own. That was not permitted under the rules as the formality of getting a licence had yet to be completed. I pleaded with him literally, begging him but beyond a point it was difficult for him to say no to the chairman of the Club who also happened to be the Deputy Commissioner. With a feeling of thrill and all excitement, I took off – the weather was fine sunshine on a winter morning with blue skies above – God was in his heaven and all was well with the world. I landed at Safdarjung airport, had lunch, a bit of relaxation and took off again for back home. The weather seemed perfect but I was not aware of the impending storm. On the way back, barely after 25 minutes or so I was caught in a severe dust storm and the tiny plane was being tossed from side to side – with no radio signals available on the Pushpak, there was no way of establishing contact with the ground. I was worried that I might run out of fuel and was looking for a place where I could force land. A thought suddenly came to me like a flash of lightning. I had to locate a railway line and fly parallel to it to get my bearings. The gods were with me and sure and behold the miracle happened. I could spot a railway line down below. I flew low and was delighted to see that it was indeed a railway station – Dhuri, close to Patiala. This area was familiar territory as during my training I had been over it several times. I landed on the Patiala airstrip but was unaware that repairs were in progress. I was just a few feet away when I realised that I was heading straight into a wall. With no time to lose, I pulled the stick and was up in the sky heading for Hisar. The storm had abated and by the time I landed the sky was blue again. Never have I felt a greater sense of relief, and never have I received a more joyous welcome..

“How was the flight?” I was asked.

“Wonderful” I said.

“We heard there was a storm on the way.”

Giving a look of astonishment, I asked “What storm? The weather couldn’t have been better”, and without waiting for an answer like Pontus Pilate, moved ahead.

Hisar continued to be my favourite hunting ground. Horseback riding was one of my favourite pastimes. I was one of the six probationers who had cleared all the riding tests at the IAS Training school. Whenever, an opportunity offered, I seized it to go galloping or trotting or both. Hisar had an army equine unit and they were gracious enough to send me a Polish stallion for my morning exercise.

Much later, when I was in the Defence Ministry I was favoured with horses from the President’s Estate for a morning cross country with General Malhotra, then Army Vice Chief, coming back to Hisar – before I had access to army horses I borrowed a horse from the Tahsildar and went full gallop on a canal bank when the reins snapped and I was going straight into a mighty canal when the miracle happened yet again, and I got caught on a huge bush on the side of the canal. Some villagers passing by, rescued me so that I could live to tell the tale.

I should have known that Tahsildars upkeep of their horses was not generally of the required standard. They kept horses because of the allowance that they got. I had not learnt from experience when on another Tahsildar’s horse again on a full gallop, the stirrups broke, but my instinct of survival made me cling to the neck of the horse, forcing it with my weight around it, to lessen its speed to a complete halt. And finally, we come to the proverbial seventh life.

In 2018 I was holidaying in Kerala – first in the picturesque Munar region with its rolling tea gardens, and temperate climate and then moving on to the plains in Kochi -where late at night I fell seriously ill and had to be moved to a nearby private hospital, Astor Med City. I was diagnosed as a very serious case of pneumonia and moved to ICU where I remained for about 10 days. My son rushed from Delhi and my nephew from Mumbai. Maureen was already with me. The doctors told my family in confidence that though there were 40% chances of survival, but they were not giving up on me. A battery of 7 doctors in different disciplines attended on me tirelessly and only when a smile came on their lips that I realised that but for Divine intervention, I would have been ‘living’ in the past tense.

While on the subject I may mention that I have been hospitalised in Delhi, Chandigarh, Mumbai, Oxford, Hammersmith, Van Nuys in LA, Moscow and Warsaw but Kochi will always remain etched in my mind as the best in every respect, professionalism, doctor-patient relationship, cultural ambience, and environment and in what I had to cough up by way of payment of hospital charges.

Looking back at all the luck I have had, how else can it be explained, but for Divine intervention. It must indeed have been my Destiny, or how else could one explain? Perhaps I was expected to stay around, and accomplish a few things, give me a chance to pursue more! Now that I have done what was expected of me perhaps the Gods will now rest in peace.

Proverbially, the cat has nine lives! We know SKM has a few more to go! We wish him the best of health in the coming years! – Editor

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