“I’m Samar Halarnkar.”
In Bangalore, invariably, that introduction led to a frown and a question.
“Harlankaraa? Polis commissioner was there, PG Harlankar, very famous, any relation?”
My efforts at carving my own identity after we returned to Bangalore a decade ago were doomed to failure. In Delhi, where I lived until 2010, I had some success. As managing editor of the Hindustan Times, my first engagement of my first day on the job was a breakfast meeting with the Prime Minister. My father was delighted that his somewhat aimless, bumbling elder son had finally made something of himself – if entirely by chance. So, when I announced a year and a half later that we were returning to Bangalore, he was not happy that I was resigning “at the pinnacle of your career”, as he put it.
My father laid great stress on career advancement and personal achievement – through hard work, honesty and honour. He was born in 1932. He was one of 10 siblings, a railway line inspector’s son, who got his first cycle at 21, worked as a clerk in the Bombay government secretariat, went to evening college and was selected for the Indian Police Service, which he joined “to see the country” and without quite being sure of what it entailed.
He could not understand why I would give it all up to be a stay-at-home dad. I did it because I quickly realised that if I stayed in the job, I would have to compromise on my beliefs and ideals and stop speaking truth to power. That, he understood, even if he couldn’t quite accept it. He made do by spamming his former colleagues with my columns.
So, here we were in Bangalore, restarting life. I always knew that my father’s life as a police officer was extraordinary. It has been three decades since he retired, but over the last three days, a flood of phone calls and messages via social media and text have revealed to me that he had never been forgotten. I have been inundated with stories of his life, many that I had never heard.
Like the call I received from his first “probationer” – on entering service, an IPS officer is placed on probation with a senior officer – who said (perhaps with some hyperbole), “He was an idea, and he was my ideal.”
Like the defence historian who recalled how, as director general of the Central Reserve Police Force, the country’s largest paramilitary force, my father had an entire battalion transferred overnight for “misdemeanors” with the public. (He did not tolerate human-rights abuses or torture and clashed frequently during the Punjab insurgency with colleagues who condoned or advocated extrajudicial killings).
Like the blogger who told me of the time when the Karnataka government “mishandled a local kerfuffle”. A group of “self-righteous people (me including)” complained to the home minister who called commissioner Halarnkar on wireless. “The voice at the other end (said), ‘Sir, don’t tell me how to do my job.’ HM speechless, we quietly left.”
Like the former principal of the CRPF school in Delhi who told me how my father was angry because he was late for a meeting (he was a stickler for time). “I explained him (sic) about my son’s ailment,” the officer wrote to me. “I was due for transfer but Honourable DG gave me 6 months extension even without my request. After 4 months my son got fully cured. I went to DG to thank him ‘n tears came in my eyes. Honourable DG was like a God for me n my family.”
Like the story that a friend recalled when, after breaking a red light, she dropped his name. Hear it from her: “Terrified that my dad would take away my car rights, I blurted out that I knew Padmakar uncle. At the police station, the cops made a phone call to him. Thinking the matter resolved, I was up and ready to leave when the cop asked me to pay a fine of Rs 100. Why? I asked, it’s normally only 50 rupees. The cop said: sir has told me to charge you double.”
You get the idea. In short, he lived a life of principle, integrity and dignity, and he cared about people.
At home, often to my irritation, he was deeply involved with my life even when I was past 50: have you eaten, have you filed your taxes, have you filled petrol in your car, have you renewed your insurance (usually, I had not). Every Friday evening, like clockwork, my wife Priya Ramani received a call from him, reminding her that idli and sambar would be made for her on Saturday morning.
He was not the disciplinarian he was in his official life, and he bore teenage and adult rebellion from his sons – he always wanted a daughter and used the name he had reserved for her for his house –
with ease and grace.
He was proud of his roots as a Goan. We come from a tiny village called Halarn (hence the name) in Pednem. In 1963, when Goa was liberated from the Portuguese, he went in with the army to assist in the transition. He was never parochial though and despite knowing Sanskrit – a language he helped me with in the eighth standard – and Hindu scripture, he scrupulously kept religion away from his public life.
He was impartial to a fault and believed uniformed forces had to live that impartiality. I remember his anger at seeing photos of gods in police stations and in patrol vehicles. If someone from another religion comes to you, he would tell his officers, how can they feel confident that you will be impartial? When he was posted to Belgaum, a tinderbox of Marathi and Kannada subnationalism, each side thought he was one of them. They soon realised otherwise.
He loved his walks, his friends, his family, his pets (his first was a deer, and he always had dogs) and food, especially the last. Even when he was beset by numerous ailments and had slowed considerably in later life, he never let fatigue and illness get in the way of his lamb chops, fish curry and most of all, desserts, his great weakness.
He was particular about what he ate, and he often drove my mother nuts with unwanted critiques about salt or spices. He was devoted to his wife of 57 years, silently complying in his late years with her instructions to stand straight, use the walking stick properly – she is a physiotherapist – drink chicken soup and eat an egg every morning.
When his consciousness flitted in and out during his last days, he was lucid for just a moment one gloomy morning in hospital. He had been struggling to speak, so I was delighted one morning when he did.
How are you? I asked. “I am fine,” he said weakly but clearly. “But they haven’t given me food.” The doctor happened to come by, and I told him what my father had said. He stepped up and hollered at my father, who was without his hearing aid: “What would you like to eat sir?” The reply: “What do you have?”
As I recall, those were his last words.
Samar Halarnkar is the founder and editor of Article-14, a website focused on research and reportage related to the rule of law.