It was a crisp winter morning last week . While the AQI  for Delhi was in the severe zone making healthy people cough , in the lush green and enchanting  environs of Lutyen’s Delhi where the Ministers , Governors and very senior bureaucrats have their heavily guarded Bunglows  ,the air seemed fresh and rejuvenating (Phew!! The air is also different !). The 2 AK-47 toting gunmen looked at me suspiciously as if I were a terrorist , finally grudgingly granting me entry into one of these guarded beautiful fortresses.

Enough mystery I guess ! !!I had come to meet the Master of Mysteries . A very close friend’s father , I will refer to him as Uncle D in this piece (in accordance with my friend’s wishes) Uncle D among his many achievements , headed India’s premier Intelligence Agency ,worked closely with Mossad in Israel and other intelligence agencies , preventing several terrorist attacks on Indian soil . He worked silently to catch several terror masterminds and uncovered uncountable  heinous plots in India and abroad. Yet, bound by the Official Secrets Act, he could not even tell us half of what he did and what went on in the murky waters that were his domain.

An ever smiling ,  soft spoken diminutive and shy persona ,you could have never guessed that Uncle D was a powerful IPS officer who  rose from the ranks to command respect from leaders across the political spectrum.  The Government summoned him back post his retirement to give him important roles in Kashmir and then rewarded him with a high constitutional post. He was the target of several shootouts during his tenure in Kargil and then in Arunachal but God’s grace saved him every single time and undeterred he went about his duty with single minded devotion. Until ,the air did what bullets  and bombs could not . He was struck by pulmonary fibrosis – or the scarring of lungs – which made his oxygen levels drop sharply and made breathing hard for him.  . Finally, the whirring wheels of his mind were brought to a grinding halt when he started gasping.

With several notable doctors in attendance , Uncle D started a slow recovery a couple of months back but last week his condition deteriorated again. When he was in Kashmir , often he would ask me,  “What do stars say ,when  will peace come to Kashmir?”. Last Friday he called me and asked me –“Divya , can you see from my horoscope , when would peace return to me ?” I could barely stop my tears and went to see him the next day .

That was perhaps the last day he spoke to anyone – from Sunday he has been in the ICU of AIIMS and today airlifted to Chennai for a lung transplant

As I fervently pray for his recovery, his last words spoken to me in gasping and broken sentences flood my consciousness every now and then.

 Smile More : As he beckoned me to sit he asked , “khush ho?”( are you happy)Concealing my tears , I nodded . He laughed till coughing overtook him and said, “I wouldn’t have caught so many  crooks  if I couldn’t catch lies and yours are quite simple, my dear” Ignoring my protests he continued – “When you were in College , your smile was like a 1000W bulb- it  verily lit the whole room, and now look you! not even a 5W bulb !!!Success in life should mean smiling more and laughing more – but as we accumulate wealth and  success God knows where that laughter recedes . Then is that really success? Would you call something that makes you grumpy and  unhappy, – success?”

Do what you care about : My friend chimed in saying I was unhappy as I wasn’t really kicked about my current role . Uncle D wistfully added , his retirement dream was to teach kids in the backward village of Bihar where he grew up . But instead, he got caught up in the glitzy corridors of power in Delhi . Did he regret that, I wondered  ? Serving the Nation was his dream  he said and that gave him his purpose and drive each morning . But every Saturday he assembled the kids of all servants in that area and taught them Maths . One of his proteges scored 100% in CBSE in 2019, he said with so much pride and glee , confessing that it was a happier moment for him than when his children cracked IIT and IIM with top ranks. “Do something that matters”, he urged me , “something bigger than you ! Build something you care about deeply and you won’t be unhappy even on a single day “, he promised .

Learning makes you grow :  The direction of the conversation suddenly turned when he asked -“What is the new thing you are learning in your role ?” As I hesitated ,the sleuth in him gleaned the truth . “That’s why you are unhappy” , he ventured . He didn’t know the C of computers or coding when he was young, he said ,but his last assignment  at age of 60 required him to understand sophisticated coding to decipher cryptocurrencies like the bitcoin . He picked it up bit by bit. It was tough he admitted but he says triumphing challenges is what excites the mind- and today he codes better than his IIT graduate son! Don’t lose that sense of wonder that kids have , it makes them learn  and when they learn they are so happy . Nature itself has been learning for billions of years . “Look at how imperfect we are “, he chuckled, “so, still lots of scope for learning !” “Challenge yourself everyday and keep learning , he said , “that’s what makes for an exciting life !”

No regrets : “Either stay in the job or leave it he said , don’t regret that you wasted your time just thinking about it”. You can drive when you look ahead he said , not if you keep your eyes fixed on the rear view mirror . “Regret is the biggest waste of time” he mused .”What’s the point of living in the past?”

Habits define you : He narrated a tale when working with Mossad they got a tip off on a dreaded international terrorist . As they stormed the mosque to capture him , they found 11 identical looking people . Its a story stranger than fiction . Uncle D and the team faced the daunting task of singling out the terrorist and not detaining the others as it was a hostile territory  and they didn’t have much back up . Not much was known about this operative aside from a couple of his habits like being a chain smoker . Uncle D observed the detainees during a brief interrogation when all 11 claimed they were the feared warlord .He offered them a cigarette after a few hours .Most of them hesitated  for a second before  accepting it from their captor  and enemy but the terrorist couldn’t control his temptation and grabbed it eagerly . “Habitual responses define you and your response in crisis or leisure ,  irrespective of the circumstances “, he concluded , “So, build the habits in  you want to see in  yourself and in your kids” he coached .

Life is a mystery : Getting worried about the long and tangential  conversation, my friend prodded me on uncle’s horoscope .But he raised a hand and smiled. “Life is a mystery, he said  . That’s the Creator’s Grand Plan for you .Whats the fun of watching a mystery movie when you know every twist and every plot . And I don’t want to ruminate over your spoilers  that will come as your predictions . Let me explore each day . Every single one is a gift,”

The  Master of Mysteries  suddenly became fell silent in mid-speech and his head dropped to the left side .

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