• September 28, 2020 10:09 pm

Reporting From Delhi

‘There’s beauty in empty spaces’

ByMihir Srivastava

Feb 22, 2020

A retired IAS officer from a reputed family, Robin Gupta auctioned some of his precious heirlooms to declutter his life. His story and writings…

TIME IS a great healer. It also, in a merciless fashion, puts life and objects into perspective. Prized possessions — heirloom, jewellery, silverware—with time becomes an existential burden for many. Robin Gupta, 71, a bachelor for life, finds himself in a similar crossroads of life.  A retired IAS officer who served with distinction, Robin belongs to an affluent family of repute, dealt with the need of the time with fortitude and forthrightness, while his peers find it hard to come to terms with the irony of the situation he finds himself in.

An alumnus of Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, Bishop Cotton School in Shimla, New Trier High School in the USA, Robin had a brief stint as the IPS officer, before he joined the IAS in 1974 and served for 36 years in various capacities in Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab.

A bachelor for life, Robin, since his retirement—from a position equivalent to that of chief secretary of a state—divides his time between his homes in Panchkula, Delhi and Goa.

He has realised the hard way that the management of wealth can be more daunting a task than its acquisition.

Last year on completion of 70 years of his existence on the planet, he started putting up prized objects, heirloom, collector’s items, antiques, silverware and, carpets for auction via Facebook. A Persian carpet that was presented to his father by Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad in the 1950s, then prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir. A pair of the English fox hunting original paintings, a silver tea set with exquisite carving from Lahore, an antique bone china dinner set just to mention a few.

These collectors’ items that people would pay lakhs to possess were auctioned at throwaway prices. Delhi’s glitterati–Gupta is very much part of it–was quick to pounce on the offer. To the extent that one day when he shared a picture of a beautifully crafted white marble sculpture of an elephant with a calf, one of his friends was quick to retort: “For sale?”

Robin is rather candid when he gives the reason for this extraordinary act of auctioning heirloom, “No survivors”. He adds, after a pause, “Death is a certainty. I have entered the 72nd year of my life. People usually die between 70 and 80 years.” This was a way of “decluttering my life” as objects at a certain stage of life seem like dead weights. Also, “In empty spaces you see beauty,” he reflects. The idea was to sell these objects and convert them into ready cash to fund the education of three children he’s teaching.

Talking to him, one can’t escape the feeling, one day life could take a turn in a way that everything acquired with sweat and toil over a lifetime may become redundant and stare back at you with empty eyes.

Robin is known as a “literary man” who enjoys his drink amongst his peers. He has a facility with words, writes with clarity and does not mince words for political correctness. After all, he was trained in the art of writing by none other than the legendary Kushwant Singh who told him to write with simplicity and in a completely secular manner without bigotry. His marital status–single–leads him to introspect. He likes to put his thoughts into words. He is happiest when he’s writing, it’s an “escape route,” he admits.

A collection of poems by him—The 70th Milestone published by Speaking Tiger, will be launched in Goa this week–written over 30-35 years, a reflection of his life, times and emotions as a young man, in love, the yearnings of a jilted man, in the state of anger or reflections on faith and society. It’s a bouquet of various flowers–there is poetry on a lake, a Muslim saint, family members, the city of Shahjahanabad (old Delhi), even on the French perfume Chanel No 5—indicative of his good taste in life.

His favourite, though, is a poem on a paper napkin he wrote for author Dominique Lapierre when they met in Raj Bhavan in Srinagar. However, the common theme that runs across his poems is that of longing and despair.

A few years ago, after retirement, he wrote:  ‘And What Remains in the End: Memoirs of an Unrepentant Civil Servant’ recounting his years as a civil servant, which talks about his frustration dealing with the interfering politicians, an eventful and successful yet lonely life, punctuated by disappointments. It was the “sorrow” of his inability to meet his own high standards that became an inspiration to write. He keeps himself busy with a host of pet projects, he’s the principal advisor at Dehradun Literature Festival, promoting literature, educating children, hosting regular salons for writers, poets, and the literati.

Free-spirited Gupta is an instinctive writer, for writing is emancipating, like getting rid of objects that shaped a certain way of life, and now weigh on the conscience. It requires a lot of courage to do that. He treats English as almost a native language that “holds India together.” “The writer is uncluttered by rules and regulations, ambition or inhibition,” Robin sums up.

His Facebook posts are indicative of his unfettered writing style, like this one where he wrote, “By training and thought, moulded as I was in the immediate aftermath of Pax Britannica…I am really tired of all these reform movements that have caused/are causing so much sorrow to the sorrowing humanity. Someone (from my Biradari) should tell (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi Ji to read (Robert) Walpole; to let sleeping dogs lie. How can he take over the role of God…Further, these political creatures need strong cologne/ eau de toilette; it is they who are causing all the pollution in Delhi; nay, the country over.”

He also took on Hindol Sengupta who wrote the biography of Sardar Patel ‘The Man Who Saved India’ when he posted, “Is deeply researched and based on bone dry facts, comes as a shocker. It reveals Nehru as a rich, well educated, elegant dandy who knew little of India and had to discover his country by writing The Discovery Of India. I would not have been surprised to find him waltzing down the corridors of Parliament House. Hence he stands revealed for what he was.”

To cut the clutter, as many sages have said, not in so many words —the greatest possession is dispossession.  And to speak one’s mind is liberating. Robin Gupta, for he is leading a life in such a way that he will have no regrets when it all ends.