S Sripall was the longest serving police commissioner of Madras between 1980 and 1985, now – Chennai – and arguably the best – for all time.
He had breathed his last March 25 2014 – after a sudden pain in the chest at the age of 76.
He was a scholarly Jain – who could reel off facts from Indian classics, stanzas from classical Shakespeare to his modern-day neighbour – Tamil Nadu’s poet laureate Kannadasan, recall events that have been buried in the forgotten pages of history and yet predict the future with the insight of an economist par excellence.
He had been ailing for some time – and looking a pale shadow of the man who could outplay and outlast any younger whippersnapper half his age in power tennis – for 5 gruelling sets.
One my earliest memories of the man began with a casual remark I had made in his cavernous room in the city police headquarters at Egmore – now being torn down to house a new building that looks more like a badly built movie set’s version of a cop house seen in the flopped Kamal Hassan starrer Unnaippol Oruvan [someone like you].
Exciting multi-lingual Malayalam actor Mohanlal had played the enigmatic Commissioner IGR Marar in that movie almost bested by an old man played by thespian Kamal. Its Hindi original – On a Wednesday had been far better made simply because the actors played their roles. The Tamil version had flopped mainly because Kamal had tried to juxtapose his own personality on that of the character. In the Tamil version, Mohanlal outshone the same character essayed earlier by Anupam Kher while in Hindi, Nasseeruddin Shah was several times better than Kamal.
More seriously, Sripall was a policeman like the character played by Mohanlal – and who outperformed the fictional uniformed smart Alec.
“Thank God India’s terrorists are not much smart and do not know much about science,” I remarked one afternoon, sipping strong, sweet tea in his room.
Sripall wanted to know the reason.
I gave him details of how terrorists could make people die like flies using commonly available materials in the open market.
Sripall listened carefully and even as I warmed up to my subject, he moved out in his car and I rode with him. As I reached the climax of my narrative, he got the items purchased and tested my ‘knowledge’ and found them to be true.
“You are no terrorist, but your bookish knowledge is better than the real thing. Where did you read this information?”
I told him the name of the book and its plot that involved agents of the KGB and CIA who turn rogue killers following perceived injustices done to them by their bosses, spread mayhem in the world before saner counsels prevail.
“Which lending library do you frequent?”
I gave him the name of the one headquartered in Royappettah [it has now spread all over Chennai] and didn’t think much till the car came to a halt in that place in Lloyd’s Road.
Sounding very caringly apologetic, Sripall ordered the seizure of all the copies, sent a DO letter to the then Home Secretary TV Venkataraman recommending its noise-less ban and succeeded in that endeavour – all within a matter of hours – by following it up with Mr Dave – an officer at the centre in RAW those days.
Sripall once stopped his car outside the Chola Sheraton to save a woman being beaten up by her drunken husband and solved the domestic strife in their lives then and there by getting the lady to land a loud slap on her boorish lesser male half’s cheek publicly.
Passersby laughed at the man’s predicament.
Cool as a cucumber, Sripall remarked with a guffaw – “You are still the same man, but feel like an eunuch when your woman hit you publicly, didn’t you? Think what the woman goes through when you hit her – the very woman who probably bore your children – and some of whom may perpetuate this sin by copying you!”
“Preaching goodness and docility in woman is a fashion in India, citing scriptures. And we – who belong to the Jain community – often, refer to our heroines’ domestication as a virtue. But, how many in India would know that the most famous of Tamil heroines – the epitome of chastity – Kannagi was a Jain? The wronged righteous woman was chaste, pure and furiously powerful enough to burn down the city of Madurai because the king had wrongly killed her husband,” Sripall had pointed out when we talked about the incident to which I had been a witness.
I had noticed a few years later that the man had stopped drinking and was treating his wife as an equal. I conveyed the tidings to him. It brought a smile to his face.
“When you want to write something nice about policemen doing good to the society, recall this anecdote,” Sripall had added that day.
The requiem to Sripall will not be complete without a mention of the high profile killing witnessed by Tamil Nadu.
Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in May 1991.
It was the BBC that broke the story first.
Minutes after the killing, my friend who was manning the BBC Asian Service's Hindi desk - Pervaiz Alam rang me and asked to check.
“We are going on air at 10-30 and would like to put out a confirmed story and not kite flying,” he had said.
I rang a Madras phone number from memory immediately - 443087.
It belonged to S Sripall, then Inspector General of Police, L & O, for the state of Tamil Nadu.
The conversation went thus:
Me: TSV Hari here sir.
Sripall: Yes, Hari?
Me: Rajiv Gandhi ...
Sripall: [interrupting] Brutally murdered.
Sripall: Some bomb.
Me: Any chance of survival?
Sripall: Absolutely none. He has been blown to bits.
Me: The law and order ... do you expect problems.
Sripall: Yes, I do. But that is something we will have to live with.
A minute later, BBC Hindi Service's operator came on line.
If you are listening to the radio broadcast, please switch off. Transferring you to the broadcast room, a girl said.
I heard Pervaiz announcing grimly in Hindi.
It is said that India's former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has been killed near Madras. We go live to our correspondent TVS Hari [as usual, they got my initials wrong]. Hari ... what have you heard?
Me: A very senior police officer wishing to remain unnamed has confirmed that Rajiv Gandhi has been murdered. There are no chances of survival at all.
Pervaiz, BBC: Death toll?
Me: Over a dozen perhaps.
Pervaiz, BBC: Law and Order problems?
Me: Expected. But the police official expressed confidence about tackling it.
I was the first to put out the story on radio that night.
During follow-ups, I could say with saisfaction that the law and order in Tamil Nadu - maintained by Sripall was well under control in the aftermath of Rajiv's murder, unlike what had happened in nationwide after the brutal killing of Indira Gandhi.
A few weeks later, Professor P Chandra Sekharan pointed out to me that Rajiv’s assassin was a Lankan woman.
“I can say this on the basis of the formation of her jaw – so shaped due to her repeated pronunciation of Tamil in a particular way. Plus, her teeth had revealed Lankan methods of dentistry,” the Professor had said.
Sripall heard the broadcast and later remarked to me thus:
“This case, Hari, will always remain an enigma. After Rajiv Gandhi’s killing the victory of the Congress at the centre and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu became double certainties. I do not think that the state’s finance minister VR Nedunchezhiyan’s remark that if the AIADMK had to only win by the sympathy wave, the party could itself have got the former PM killed as a casual silly aside. Surely, there is more to this. And just think, Hari. Someone has come to power at the centre and someone else in the state after this – benefitting and profiting from this. Someone who actually did this dastardly deed will indeed claim his/her/their pounds of flesh from India’s future,” Sripall had said.
Knowing the current situation in the matter, in hindsight, one can safely say Sripall had been prophetic.
Despite Sripall being known as very close to journalists, he had his off days with his casual remarks.
Some lady writer while interviewing him on radio had angrily remarked once: You must improve your standards of policing. The other day, two police constables were busy talking to each other when there was pell-mell on the road. How irresponsible were they? Don’t you tick such persons off?
Sripall wasn’t in the least flustered.
Obviously they were discussing the possibilities of the next chapter of your crime novel being serialised in the popular weekly. That is what good writers do – sometimes rendering good cops into somewhat careless human beings failing in their duty.
The feminist writer was hoisted with her own petard.
Recalling that after his retirement, Sripall said tongue in cheek - "If I had made such a casual remark to my wife Kamalie - who also is a writer - either in public or in private, I would have been chased out of my home. I only say such outrageous things in public - to others - just in jest, to be injested with a pinch of salt or a cup of sweet porridge depending upon one's tastes."
That, in short, was Sripall.
He was visiting faculty in the Madras University and did scholarly research on Jain religion in his autumn years.
Surely, I am going to miss him.
As his mortal remains are being handed back to nature’s elements in true Jain tradition, I am offer these reminiscences as my version of the Last Post to a poetically prosaic policeman who is no more.