In the passing away of Dr Subhakanta Behera, the Consul General of India in Melbourne; India has lost a great diplomat, the Academy a true scholar, the world of culture a generous patron, Victoria’s Indian community a towering leader, the Australia India Institute a fierce supporter, and I have lost one of my close friends. For Mrs Rajshree Behera, Ananya and Amrita the loss is greater than can ever be expressed in words.
But while we offer our condolences, we must also celebrate the life of a Renaissance person.
I have known Subhakanta for more than 25 years, from the days when he had left Ravenshaw College in Orissa to come to Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. His simplicity was matched by his extraordinary scholarship and talent and his friendship was one of extraordinary loyalty and commitment. The Indian civil service exam is one of the most difficult in the world and the Indian Foreign Service recruits less than 30 officers every year out of up to 80,000 applicants. It was a tribute to Subhakanta’s scholarship that he was one of them, and served subsequently with distinction in Moscow, London, Washington, and as head of policy planning in New Delhi, before taking up his position as Consul General of India in Melbourne a year and half ago.
During these years in the Indian Foreign Service, Subhakanta did not give up his scholarly pursuits, a D.Phil. from Oxford, books, short stories, poems in English and Oriya and a collection recently translated into Hindi and another historical novel in press.
In the last year and half, Subhakanta provided leadership to the Consulate General’s Office and to the Indian community more generally. Indeed, Subhakanta and Mrs Rajshree Behera almost single handedly rejuvenated the Indian cultural scene in Victoria.
The Australia India Institute has, of course, lost a great supporter who actively participated in all our programmes including our recent conference. Let me finally reproduce a poem by Subhakanta – a tribute to his extraordinary talent:
When I was still asleep
not caring for my morning tea in the balcony,
my thirteen-year-old daughter whispered to me –
a bomb has blasted in the town’s busy, bustling bazaar
where she hangs out with her friends,
I turned the other side
called out to the servant to bring the morning newspaper.
He came in a stupor and had done nothing wrong,
but I still shouted at him calling him a rascal and an idiot;
my wife shouted at me for my laziness and for sleeping so late.
I was supposed to go to the bazaar,
and as for lunch her relatives
have been invited
to our two-room flat
where every day we are squeezed
trying to make space for ourselves,
and where I stealthily check my bank account
to avoid the wife nagging
about the amount left.
A bomb has blasted, my daughter confirmed,
a shadow of darkness
falling on her innocent face,
the servant rushed out to get
confirmation or some evidence
to cool me down,
but I slipped under the blanket
to escape my wife’s words and demands hurled at me. “
RIP, dear friend Subhakanta!