I first started hearing of Keshav Desiraju in 2015, soon after I joined my first job in public health. He had in the previous year been transferred out of his position as Union Health Secretary. He was always referred to in tones of awe and loss - a wistfulness for a bygone golden age, and for what may have been achieved in public health if his tenure was longer. Our work focused on Rural Maternal Child Health and Nutrition, and it is in this context that I heard of how much he had contributed to the strengthening of the RMNCH+A framework and the National Health Mission (NHM). It was only much later that I learned of his contributions in so many other areas for so many different stakeholders - mental health, TB, anti-tobacco, disabilities.
Then at a get-together at home, someone said that they knew him well and asked if I’d like to meet him. My instant response was "this is like asking a freedom fighter if he’d like to meet Gandhi! " All the dots were subsequently connected (and it also turned out that my mother actually knew him), and introductions were made. To my utter mortification, my 'Gandhi' quote was part of the introduction. I was pleased to learn that he was a follower of Carnatic music as I was. It was in this way that I met him for coffee in Madras on the sidelines of the 2018 December music fest.
I had to recheck my emails, because I could not believe that I’ve known him for less than three years. Our friendship centred on Carnatic music. We would exchange pieces of music that we’d discovered and views on them, and I would send him my blog posts. He had very definite views on artistes, composers and the latest hoo ha - often cutting, but without a hint of venom. He was genuinely interested in my views, and would always read what I wrote, but would not be unnecessarily responsive one way or the other. Soon after we had met for the first time, I’d come out with a long piece on what the Madras Music Academy ought to be doing differently. I was quietly proud but also nervous about the piece. He read it (I had put it up on Twitter) and responded with one word "Whew!”. But he also said that he had forwarded it to committee members of the Academy for their perusal.
Given that we lived in different cities, we met only a few times in these three years. And as peers and friends with a common interest. For all his achievements and insight, not a single haughty vapour emanated from him. He exuded charm and politeness borne of genuine and deep humility.
When he came out with his biography of MS Subbulakshmi, I was thrilled to find that he had quoted my blog posts twice in the book - once on the very first page. I told him that he could have easily made the same point in his voice, without quoting me. His simple response was "I could have said the same thing without quoting you but it certainly strengthened my argument to be able to cite a thoughtful rasika such as yourself." This was Keshav at his charming, polite, logical, direct best.
Then earlier this year I was again delighted to have an opportunity to speak with him about the book for an online event for the Bangalore International Centre. He could have easily gone with another 'interlocutor’, far better known in Carnatic or literati circles, but he thought we’d have a thoughtful conversation. And indeed we did! The process leading up to it was a lesson in itself. While I had thoroughly prepared, with a logical flow of questions and topics, I found myself having the entire conversation with him thrice - the third time being the actual event. On our first prep call, I thought we’d just discuss the question list and order, but he ended up answering all the questions. I then made some tweaks and on the second call, he again answered all the questions. By the time the event came round, we were both very ready. He was also very democratic in the selection of illustrative pieces of music. He essentially gave me a long list and let me pick and choose, even though I was certain he was keen on one or the other piece that I vetoed.
His is a friendship that I cherish because it was such an accidental and organic one. I heard of him because of his stellar work as a public health administrator, but got to know him simply as a fellow rasika of Carnatic music. It is rare to make a friendship so late in life, so uncomplicated. He was a giant in the spheres he occupied. But he befriended and engaged with the likes of me on an equal footing and on even keel. I will miss him.