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Memories
Are made…
Of This!
by

Subroto Mukerji
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DEDICATION
This book is for
My Timeless Muse

Enigmatic…Enchanting…Eternal.

“In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes


out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with
another human being. We should all be thankful for
those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”

-Albert Schweitzer, philosopher, physician, and musician (1875-1965)


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Introduction

This random collection of episodes was written by a very ordinary man


who lived through the latter half of the 20th century and into the next one…lived to
tell the tale, so to speak, for it has been a period of enormous change and upheaval.
Being essentially autobiographical in construction, it probably escapes being weighty
and patronizing, for these things do not figure in the life of the common man, trapped
as he is by circumstances, desperately coping with the utter unpredictability of life
and, while so doing, trying to extract from it a rare drop or two of happiness. He goes
with the flow, doing his best to keep his head above the water. I have selected
episodes which mirror these sentiments, and which seem to stand by themselves but
also which, seen as a whole, may project a larger picture, as I saw it from my low
perch, of these tumultuous times.
The perspective and scope is rather limited, I would be the first to admit.
There is little mention of the high and the mighty of the land, no weighty discourses
or first-hand accounts of events of national or global import. No high office have I
filled, no National Award have I won, either on or off the field. I have merely reacted
to currents set in motion by those who have. Where these do find mention, it is
usually by way of passing reference, an intensely personal interpretation of the
maelstrom of history as it swirled around, and past, me. If it appears inconsequential
and shallow to the reader, I plead my helplessness to add depth or substance to
something that is presented as it was seen, felt, and experienced by an ordinary
citizen of a vast and proud nation.
If it appears lop-sided, or pre-occupied with activity or matters that are
of little interest to the mass of humanity, I can only defend myself by saying that we
are all so miraculously different, as human beings, and inevitably have our own tastes
and predilections, shaped by environment and circumstances. I can only write about
what I did or about what happened to me or was told to me. I am unable to oblige by
offering an objective commentary of our times, for later historians to use as source
material. That is hardly the purpose of this book.
Some readers of a later generation, more focused on the future, may
discount it, uninterested in the ‘dead’ past. Others, however, curious to see things
through the eyes of an earlier generation, may find it amusing, entertaining, even
occasionally (I pray) illuminating or inspiring.
Most of all, I hope I have been able to share with readers my sense of
gratitude for the blessing of being born human, no matter all the faults and
weaknesses that such a condition entails, for a life I have enjoyed in spite of its ups
and downs and, above all, for the great gift of life itself which came to me, through
my parents, from The Void.


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Preface

When my eternal muse and I got reacquainted in this lifetime, she


admitted that the difference in our ages intrigued her. She was in her late twenties,
while I was on the wrong side of fifty. It was late in the day to make a fresh start in
life. Utterly feminine as she is, her curiosity must have been aroused. Where was I
from? Where was I going? What had I been up to all these years? What about my
early life? What were the influences that shaped my thinking and attitudes? Where all
had I been? What were my hobbies and interests? Since feminine curiosity will have
its way, I found myself telling her about my past and some of my life’s experiences.
To my surprise and delight, she found the glimpses I gave her of my worlds, both
outer as well as inner, amusing and perhaps not uninteresting. I was flattered. She is a
dazzling beauty with brains to match, and here she was, listening with keen attention
to my little tales of days long faded into the mists of time.
I spoke of boyhood years, of friends, some long dead, and some who
had climbed the highest rungs of success. We discussed the prime movers, the
motivations that drive men and women to chase the elusive ‘bubble reputation, e’en
in the cannon’s mouth.’ My education, such as it was, was laid before her to examine
and remark upon, pointing out the flaws with the benefit of hindsight, and
suggestions to remedy them. I listened with the respect due to one better endowed,
better educated than oneself, a product of later, more advanced technologies and
approaches. As I told her tall tales from bygone years, I was also learning from her.
She has a way of asking a question that gives you the insight to see the answer for
yourself. She’s one hell of a teacher.
I was re-examining the long-lost years through the eyes of a citizen of
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21 century India, the long-awaited ‘modern Indian woman’, confident, financially
independent, highly educated, bold and forthright, more than capable of holding her
own in what was no longer a man’s world. I rejoiced in my heart that India had
unleashed its womanpower, dormant practically since Vedic times. With people like
her around, the world was a better place, since a woman brings with her to work her
natural creativity, eye for precision and detail, perspicacity, her sound practicality
and common sense, and her innate ability to empathize with others. These feminine
qualities make a world of a difference to the final output of any concern or
organization. And she was a top gun in a set-up that boasted of many star performers.
When she first suggested that I write a book about my life and times, I
admit I laughed inwardly at the idea. But I confess I was flattered. I was fooling
myself; she was not flattering me. I think she sensed intuitively that I needed to let
the story out, a compulsion I myself was unaware of. But it was hard to believe that
the experiences of someone so nondescript and obscure as myself would interest
people enough to actually spare time, an increasingly rare and precious commodity
(although 24 hours still make one day), to read it. But the more I thought about it, the
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more the idea appealed to me, if only for the cathartic effect of committing my
thoughts to paper.
I also realized that, trapped within my memories – like a Jurassic fly
preserved in amber – lay a world that no longer existed. Perhaps enshrining them in
stories was as good a way as any of preserving that world for posterity. We all live in
different worlds. No two such worlds are exactly alike, even for identical twins. We
are all unique, as individuals; we perceive, and live, in a world of our own, shaped by
circumstances and exposure which are uniquely ours.
A wag once remarked that we are the sum total of all the books we’ve
read, the places we’ve visited, the movies we’ve seen, and the friends we’ve made.
Quite possible. I’d like to add that it is the very different sum totals that persuade
Man, a fundamentally egocentric creature, to examine the thoughts, feelings,
experiences and forces driving the lives of others, for Man is nothing if not innately
curious.
My muse once told me that even an unremarkable life, if portrayed
honestly and truthfully, could not only be interesting but also informative and
illuminating. I found the remark so valuable that, for better or for worse, I decided to
make a start on this book, keeping her advice uppermost in my mind as best I could.
Maybe she was motivated by the need to know about my early life, since I often
spoke of humble beginnings. Or it may have been Eve, and her infernal curiosity to
know everything there is to know about a man…and improve him! Either way, it was
alright with me. When a beautiful woman shows curiosity about a man, it’s fitting to
give her what she wants. And this was no ordinary woman.
I found it very difficult to get off the mark; memories crowded into my
mind, and I was hard-pressed to decide where to begin. So I simply started at the first
tale I fancied, determined to try and make each episode as self-contained as possible,
to be later strung together in logical, or chronological, sequence. This modus
operandi perhaps also saves me from the rack of writing a ‘history’ of my life, a
ridiculous and futile exercise for someone as inconsequential as I.
Even if I succeed in conveying, in whatever small measure, my sense of
contentment with my lot, and if I am able to transmit to the reader my joy at
receiving, and living, life, I shall have, in large part, succeeded in my endeavor. And
for that, I cannot ever thank my muse enough. We shall meet again, I’m sure of that.
This book, then, is an attempt to portray the beauty, poetry and
excitement that life has on offer, an experience sweetened for me by the timeless
magic of my eternal muse. In these tension-ridden, marks-and-money-oriented times,
when men are weighed in terms of their bank balance, I hope I shall be able to
demonstrate that wealth is not a sine qua non for a happy and eventful life. The raw
material of life, as captured in this book, might just make for interesting reading…but
it is for you, the reader, to be the final judge of that.

~ Subroto Mukerji
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First Memories

I was born, according to my mother, at 1.29 am on Sunday, 28 th February


1949. She always maintained it was a Sunday, and never failed to gleefully recite an
old poem that went something like ‘Sunday’s child is fair of face, Monday’s child is
full of grace…” The truth is, I have a face that only a mother could love and, to be
quite square with you, I am not fair-skinned, either. Having gotten that off my chest,
I confess that the mystery of memory has long puzzled me, especially where one’s
earliest memories are concerned.
You may have noticed that human memory begins long after the moment
of birth. Only extraordinary personalities, it seems, have infant memories, like the
great Paramhansa Yogananda who had, not only cradle memories, but even,
interwoven with these, memories of many past lives spent in meditation in the
Himalayas. I am not so unlucky. Such ancient memories might have deranged me.
I was born barely a year and a half after the partition of India (which
means I was conceived in May 1948, barely nine months after the bloodbath that cost
a million lives.) Terrible was the slaughter that took place as populations crossed
over the boundaries of the newly created countries. Perhaps the earliest dream I can
remember has some relation to this traumatic time in the history of the sub-continent.
In the dream, which I frequently saw from early childhood till I was about
six, (a lady who is) my mother and I are crossing a rugged, barren landscape on
horseback. She is very well dressed, in a costly sari and some jewelry. It almost looks
as if she has had to start this journey at such short notice that she hasn’t even had the
time to change into something a little more appropriate. I do not quite recollect my
own dress, perhaps it is a jacket and churidar pyjamas. I am about six years old. A
dozen persons, probably servants or friends, escort us. There is very little
conversation.
A band of bearded, sword wielding mounted men, very fierce of
appearance, suddenly surrounds us. There is furious fighting. Many are killed. A
swordsman raises his fearsome weapon and slashes horizontally at my mother. I am
riding right next to her. I see the blade slice through her belly from hip to hip. She is
dead, I know. With blood dripping from his sword, the man now turns on me…I
remember nothing more. That is where the ‘dream’ ends.
My earliest recollections go back to a beautiful scenic spot called
Hoondroo Falls (if I remember the name correctly, for my parents often spoke fondly
of it), near Ranchi, in the east-Indian state of Jharkhand (formerly a part of Bihar). It
is hilly country, with thick jungle, and there are rainbows in the spray of the
thundering waterfall. I remember there was another couple, also Bengali, and all four
grown-ups sat around on a big blue jute rug (a darree) and played cards, made small
talk, had lunch, and cat-napped. I was getting a bit restive, and was wandering off
towards the bushes at the fringe of the clearing.
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My mother hastily recalled me with the remark that these jungles were
full of tigers that ate little children (she wasn’t kidding). I didn’t want to believe her,
because I knew even then that adults scare children in order to control them, but I
returned to her side, unwilling to prove her right. I must have been about one and a
half years old at the time.
I can guess this was my age, because I remember that when I sometimes
walked beside my father, I had to reach up a hand to his, while he had to bend
sideways quite a bit till our hands met. It always gave me a thrill, I remember,
holding that large, strong, hand (or rather, being held by it). I remember that
whenever I stumbled (I still hadn’t quite mastered the art of walking on uneven
ground), the big, strong hand hoisted me effortlessly a few inches so that I sailed over
the rough patch instead of making violent contact with it, as I often did unattended;
my scraped knees and elbows were evidence of this.
Every evening, my parents, all dressed up, would walk down to the
nearest rickshaw stand. I would walk between them, and as we came up to the first
rickshaw in the queue, I would pre-empt father by yelling “PLAZA chalo!” Dad no
longer had to tell the rickshaw puller which movie hall to go. I had heard him say this
a few times and had taken over thereafter. The rickshaws were very well maintained.
A small oil lamp burned on a hook between the handlebars, as specified by law. The
policemen were very strict about this and other traffic laws because their superior
officers were strict, too, I realize years later, unlike today, when it’s a free-for-all to
see who can make more money, all the way to the top. This is why the law-and-order
scene is so bad today in India: the cops are corrupt through and through.
My parents were very fond of English movies. So was I. But on one or
two occasions I had disgraced myself before I could be rushed to the loo. So now I
was left in charge of a servant. I remember a scene in a movie called “The World in
His Arms”: the hero’s hands have been tied to steel rings on a wall, and another man
is mercilessly whipping him. Then the heroine rushes in and stops the torture. When I
told my mother this, she opened an old diary and ran her finger down a list, checking;
her eyes widened with amazement when she encountered the name on her list. The
date is October 11, 1951.
I cannot understand how I can recall the name and key incidents of an
English film, that too one seen so long ago. I appear to be perfectly at ease with the
language from day one. It seems to come to me naturally, as if I know it from the
womb. In later years—in class seven, to be precise—I found that I could explain the
meanings of obscure passages from Chaucer. Even Shakespeare held no terrors for
me. Quite the contrary, in fact. The dated terms, the words whose meanings have
taken on entirely new connotations in modern times, never managed to confuse me. I
knew that ‘hose’ means ‘stockings’, ‘presently’ means ‘at once’, i.e., ‘in the present’,
and not what it means today, ‘by and by’. Derek Beamon, the teacher who taught us
English at Sherwood, was skeptical…and downright suspicious. He even asked me
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once if I’d been taking tuition during the holidays. I had, but only in Hindi and
Mathematics, the two subjects that still scare the daylights out of me.
I realized Mother had systematically jotted down the name of every
film, the cast, the date when she saw it with father, and the expenses. This later
served to reveal to me some clues as to her nature: apparently she knows she’s
having a good time, she appreciates it, knows that good times never last forever, and
is recording it all, to sustain her when rainy days come (2) she’ll know later if she’s
seen a movie or not, if memory fails her, and she’ll know who acted in it, too, to
clinch any argument, and (3) it shows how much she treasures being with Dad and
going to the movies with him, and doesn’t want to lose any of it. Besides, (4) it also
reveals a methodical side of her, for the money spent on movies figures in the
monthly expenditure, and budgets are budgets.
Dress Circle tickets were, if I remember correctly, Rupees One and
Annas eight only, i.e. 1.5 rupees. If we take inflation into account @ 100X, the cost
of each cinema ticket works out to be Rs. 150.00, still cheap by today’s standards.
One could order tea, snacks, and iced lemonade in the Dress Circle, which was fine
by me, since I was (and still am) very fond of sweets and pastries. Dad used to say
that a good English Twill readymade shirt cost Rs.1/- in those halcyon days. A super-
rugged Rudge bicycle, imported from England, cost Rs. 25/- —a small fortune, and
more than the average office-goer’s monthly salary.
I remember that they made a rather striking couple. She was a beauty (I
know, all mothers are beautiful to their sons), but she really was a famous beauty of
Ajmer. All her relations used to tell me this. People called her the ‘Norwegian
Beauty’ on account of her fair complexion, lissome figure, and lustrous, coppery-
brown hair. In old photographs, dating back to 1947, I feel she resembles Amrita
Shergil, the famous painter, who, I think, is herself a far better work of art than any
of her own creations. Dad had taken some excellent photographs of her's with (I
recall him telling me) a Rolleicord twin-lens reflex camera with the famous 80mm
f.3.5 Schneider-Xenon lens as the taking optic. He used to laughingly recount how
admirers turned up in battalion-strength to catch a glimpse of the man who was
carrying away Anima Chuckerbutty. Her five brothers were even more upset at her
impending departure.
They were as different from each other as brothers can be, family
resemblance apart. The eldest was a burly merchant seaman with the rolling gait of
one who has spent years on a heaving deck. The next was a fascinating man I can
only describe as a Napoleon without a Europe to rule. His hero, however, was
Adolph Hitler, and he was something of an expert on World War II. Another brother
was a fan of Shakespeare, yet another was a renowned strongman and the district
shot put champion. The youngest was a painter of no mean accomplishment who
specialized in watercolors; I distinctly remember his studio, his easel, his huge paint
box and other paraphernalia from a visit mother and I made to Ajmer (and paid a
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visit to Sophia Convent, my mother’s alma mater, when I was in Lower KG. at St.
Mary’s Convent, Allahabad).
Each challenged their future brother-in-law to a test in his own field of
specialty. Dad bested the seaman at arm-wrestling, the war-expert at tactics (Dad had
been an Emergency Commission officer in WWII and had been to the Infantry
Training School, better known today as the legendary College of Combat, Mhow
(M.P.) where he came under suspicion because of his prowess with the .45 Webley-
Scot revolver: the British officers suspected he was a revolutionary, a ‘freedom-
fighter’, as we call them today). If I’d been the British Commandant, I’d be equally
suspicious of this ramrod-straight, super-fit young man who claims he’s never fired a
weapon in his life yet hits the bulls-eye every time he presses the trigger. Dad wasn’t
bragging; he outshot me in my teenage years with my own Diana airgun, and took
me down a peg or two. I thought I was Hawkeye himself till Father wised me up.
Good as I was in later years, Father was always better than me with a rifle, even with
the handicap of his bifocals that were always getting in the way.
He is a man of action but has soaked up enough Shakespeare at home to
take an M.A. examination on the subject (he had no option, given the sort of Dad he
had). The Shakespeare expert dives for cover. The hefty shot-putter stands up. In a
challenge round of three puts, Dad’s first attempt is more than a yard over the local
champion’s best-ever mark. He takes all his three tries, but has to admit defeat. (The
concerned uncle admitted to this to me himself, years later). The watercolor artist
gives up when he hears Dad uses only Winsor & Newton accessories for watercolor.
In fact, even I got to use lots of W&N paper, brushes, and paints which I found lying
around, years later, and recognized them for what they were; the world’s best
painting materials. Some of his paintings (many in oils) were rather nice, and were
displayed in the drawing room at Madhu Mandir, Allahabad.
The backlash followed; the quintet became his most ardent fans for life,
hero-worshiping him and praising their ‘Madhusudan’ to all and sundry. (Each
brother tries to cover his own discomfiture of long ago by spilling the beans about the
others’ humiliations! It is fun listening to their hilarious individual accounts of the
tryst, on a later visit to Ajmer in 1956). Dad remembers that he won a bet about
eating fifty rossogollas and one seer (slightly less than a kilogram) of sweet curd in
less than ten minutes. This he followed up, an hour later, with a lavish dinner
including over fifty puris!
In later years, he maintained strict control over his diet―a gourmet, not
a gourmand. I remember that one of his favorite dishes was roasted stuffed chicken,
prepared, during the Meerut days, by a khansama (mughlai chef to you) whose name
I can’t recollect. I remember the dish very well, though, and the tantalizing aroma
that wafted from it as it was carried into the dining room from the kitchen. I used to
be delighted to see, when the chicken was carved, that it was stuffed with aromatic
herbs, minced meat kebabs and boiled eggs. It did not seem at all odd to me that four
or five boiled eggs were to be found inside the chicken. I had a plastic toy chicken,
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and whenever I pressed it down to ‘laying’ position, it never failed to deposit a tiny,
white plastic egg. (Mother used to sneakily ‘load’ them back into the toy by diverting
my attention, whenever the ‘magazine’ of eggs fell empty).
All this talk of chickens reminds me that I was given chicken broth
daily, but failed to establish the connection between the shrinking numbers of little
chicks in the wire-mesh enclosure outside and my daily quota of broth. I was very
fond of the fluffy, cheeky little fellows, and no amount of persuasion could have
made me drink the broth if I’d tumbled to the truth that their numbers declined by
two every day because they went into my broth. When I learnt this from mother years
later, I was very upset and swore never to have clear chicken soup ever again. I
chicken out when it comes to ordering it, even today. I still think little day-old chicks
are one of the cutest things in Nature. All in all, there’s nothing much to be said
about being born chicken.
From old photographs, I discovered that we had a black-and-white
cocker spaniel that, to all accounts, was very fond of me. Is that why I am crazy
about dogs? No, probably not: that’s something that goes back to Early Man, I guess.
This is only part of that old relationship, cave-kid and his cave-dog. That fat guy in
diapers sitting in the big pram wearing a county cap, rattle in one hand and cricket
bat in the other, is said to be me. Since either my mother or my father is always in the
photograph, I have to, reluctantly, take their word for it. I was no looker, I admit,
even in my prime, but this is too much. At other times, I am out for a stroll with them
in a pram: “A genuine ‘Mothercare’ pram”, mom used to tell me proudly, “Made in
England.”
‘Made in England’! The words of the legend resound around the world
as it then was. The reputation of an entire country, an entire civilization, the legacy of
the Industrial Revolution itself, rests with those words. Today, they fail to evoke the
same reverence. ‘England’ was replaced by ‘USA’, ‘Japan’ and now ‘Taiwan’, in
that order. But, in the mid-20th century, ‘Made in Japan’ is synonymous with shoddy,
fragile, ‘cheap’. Thus do national fortunes and reputations melt and emerge smelted
afresh in the crucible of history.
Years later, when my son, Rahul is born, I am able to get him, by some
strange coincidence, the latest ‘Mothercare’ model. Features: hand-brake (for
parking), variable internal configuration, foot well (when one or even two infants are
to be seated in an upright position), independent suspension, waterproof hood,
mosquito net, whitewall tires, automatic downhill braking, the works. The only
things I don’t see are airbags, ABS, and a turbocharger! If I know the makers of the
best perambulators in the world, they are working on it as of this very moment!
Sometimes, at Ranchi, I accompanied father to the billiards club. The
green baize cloth of the tables and the click of the balls fascinated me, as the
speeding orbs collided and shot off tangentially, sometimes ending up in one of the
six pockets on the table. Billiards was a bit dull, with only the one appetizing-looking
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red ball to make me salivate. The colorful snooker balls, however, looked eminently
edible, but why Dad keeps ‘sharpening’ his cue after every stroke is beyond me.
Several years pass before I realize that the ‘sharpener’ is actually a cube
of blue chalk which, when applied to the cork tip of the cue, keeps it from slipping
off the smooth, shiny surface of the cue ball, i.e., the one hit by the player. This is
especially true for a screw-back, topspin, or side-spin stroke, when very little of the
cue’s tip will make contact with the cue ball, and is therefore likely to slip (resulting
in an embarrassing ‘miscue’, the billiardier’s equivalent of an oarsman ‘catching a
crab’).
And what the ‘Marker’ did in the corner, sliding brass pointers back and
forth over numerals embossed on the board, was quite beyond me. I am not familiar
with score-keeping yet. The years will teach me how important it is to men to keep
score, to score over others and, most important, to settle scores.

****************

Captaingunj

Leaving Father behind at Ranchi to complete his tenure, my Mother and


I shifted to Allahabad where I was admitted to St.Mary’s Convent, a school at which
my elder cousins, Diptima (younger sister of Otima, who was now studying at
Allahabad University) and Subhash, my future trail buddy, pardner, and college
mate, also studied. After three years at that wonderful school, I was admitted to
Sherwood College in the sleepy little hill-station of Naini Tal. Father, having done
with setting up Ranchi Distillery, now took up a fresh assignment at Captaingunj, in
the very economically backward Deoria district, deep in the sugarcane belt of eastern
Uttar Pradesh.
There was a ramshackle distillery there (The Shankar Distillery &
Chemical Works Ltd.) that the proprietor, Seth Ishwarchand Kejriwal, for reasons
best known to him, wanted kept running for another three years, after which Father
had the option of leaving. Sethji’s fortunes were then at a low ebb, I think, which is
sad because he was a generous, upright man of the old school and gave Father a free
hand to do whatever was necessary to keep the old plant running a little longer.
Even today, when many villages in India have running water, electricity,
mobile telephones and the Internet, the mere mention of eastern U.P. sends a chill
through the boldest heart, for it continues to be synonymous with poverty, under-
development, ignorance, disease, communal tensions and an unhealthy climate.
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Imagine what it was like in the middle fifties! Despite the fact that we lived in a
small industrial enclave, an island of prosperity amidst a sea of poverty, we had no
running water in the house at first!
Though there was modern plumbing, there was no water source! Water
came into the bathrooms after servants pumped it up into buckets from the hand-
pump in the large backyard, and then to the overhead tank. A huge hamam (a sort of
indigenous Franklin stove) heated water for ablutions in winters (which were very
severe). We had no electricity at first, and we had to make do with hurricane lanterns
and a huge ‘Aladdin’ kerosene pressure lamp with a textile gauze mantle. There was
no telephone at home either, to begin with, which didn’t exactly devastate Father
because telephones were his pet aversion.
Mother must have had serious doubts when she landed at Captaingunj.
After Ranchi, with its salubrious climate, its restaurants, movie halls, markets and
fairs, and the luxury of Madhu Mandir, Allahabad, mother must have thought she’d
landed in the Wild West. Apart from running her small household with the help of a
mali (gardener) and three full-time servants, she had nothing else to do. No movies,
no gossip with her sisters-in-law, no old friends. True, the house was spacious, had a
huge lawn, extensive gardens (overrun with weeds—no one had been willing to take
on this job for a long time, it looked too much like professional hara-kiri), but there
was no social life worth the name, and the lack of running water and electricity was
daunting. It redounds to her credit that I never ever heard her complain. She joined
hands with Father in licking the place into shape.
She would have made a good General. She shaped those country
bumpkins who passed as domestic staff into a crack outfit that could serve up a five-
course dinner on her precious English porcelain, which had come down to her from
her great-grandmother. Damask serviettes, Sheffield cutlery, crocheted lace place
mats, cut-glass tumblers and all, she met Captaingunj head on…and steam-rolled it.
There was a local haat, a gathering of hawkers and vegetable sellers, every evening
at the village square, and one of the staff was dispatched daily to buy provisions. He
always carried a lantern and a stout lathi (stick) as protection from the village dogs
who always got after a stranger.
More sophisticated provisions had to be obtained from Gorakhpur,
about thirty miles away by train (roads were not very good, and I doubt whether the
bus service was reliable). There was a courier whose daily responsibility it was to
take down the requirements of all officers of the distillery as well as the affiliated
sugar factory and after buying these at Gorakhpur, catch the first available train back.
How eagerly I waited for Chhedi Mian, for that was the worthy gentleman’s name.
He really was a gentle man, though tall, gawky, phlegmatic, very slow to respond
and quite immune to the choicest cuss-words that came his way if he brought the
wrong item. For Mother was of the old school, ruling her staff and other subordinates
with a rod of iron and a sharp tongue. But she was also very generous and forgiving,
so once they got used to her ways, they just rode out the storm.
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On the way in to Captaingunj, when we had disembarked from the train
at Gorakhpur for the meter gauge track train that would take us to our destination,
Father had stopped to buy magazines at a newsstand belonging to A.H. Wheeler &
Co. (till recently the sole concessionaires of railway news-stands), that was owned by
his cousin Anukul Banerji. That was where / when my vast collection of comics got
started. The first one that caught my eye had a cover showing a rocket leaving the
earth on a column of fire—it was the Classics Illustrated version of Jules Verne’s
‘From the Earth to the Moon’—which Father bought for me when I showed keenness
about this form of transport. I was hooked for life. And the reason why I eagerly
waited for Chhedi Mian to return every evening was that, at the bottom of his bag,
would be found residing… a comicbook!
Comics kept me going. Every evening, from Chhedi’s enormous bag,
would emerge the flavor of the day: Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Jon Jon’z—
Manhunter from Mars, Aquaman, Texas Rangers, Steve Canyon, USAF, The Flash,
Francis—the Talking Mule, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck, Tom & Jerry,
Donald Duck, Goofy, Dennis the Menace, Tarzan, Korak—Son of Tarzan, Hopalong
Cassidy, Silvertip, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, The Lone Ranger, Turok—Son of
Stone, Boris Karloff’s ‘Tales of Mystery’, Lassie, Black Hawk, Supergirl, Mighty
Mouse, Beep Beep the Road Runner, Atomic Mouse, Wonder Woman, Jungle Jim,
Chilly Willy the Penguin, Have Gun—Will Travel, Little Archie (there was no ‘Big’
Archie then), Gunsmoke, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, Bonanza, Tweety and Sylvester,
Zorro, The Rifleman, Little Lulu, Billy the Kid, Popeye, Marvelman, Battler Britten,
Dogfight Dixon, Wagon Train, Richie Rich, Casper—The Friendly Ghost, GI
Combat, or any of the Illustrated Classics ‘By the World’s Greatest Authors’. In
time, I owned a collection of comics that would fill a large chest.
But comics apart, I ran wild in the holidays. My earliest memory of
Captaingunj was the sight of millions of tiny frogs hopping across a field. Small boys
are attracted, on account of some unknown chemistry, to frogs (as any reader of
Dennis the Menace comics knows), and I set out to find out how they happened.
Soon, a piece from an old mosquito net had been retrofitted by Mother into an old
badminton racquet, and with this I set forth to catch tadpoles. I lost my net one day
when I dipped a bit too deep into a pond and came up with a wriggling snake! I
hurled the net into the pool reflexively, and lost interest in tadpoles thereafter. But
not before I’d noticed the silvery flashes that reflected from the sides of little fish.
Now I just had to have a fishing pole, and Father fashioned one for me
out of a whippy ringal, about ten feet long. Ringal is a slim, flexible variety of
bamboo that grows wild in the hills. It beats me how Father got hold of one. Perhaps
I underestimate a parent’s sympathy for an only child. My wife and I have no such
problems—both of us are only children, a fate we do not want to subject our
offspring to. We had unanimously decided that, in our case, it has to be ‘offspring’ as
in plural! Our son and daughter today are so close—though they scrap with all the
14
ferocity of jungle cats—that their parents wistfully realize what they themselves have
missed. A sibling is a sibling is a sibling, and blood is thicker than water.
Coming back to fishing, I managed to get a hook from the local market,
and I was all set to haul ‘em in. Earthworms or even atta (wheat dough) were used as
bait. It was easy; all you had to do was cast out the line and yank the pole when the
float went under! Soon, there were crisp little fried fish on the table at teatime. But it
was really I who was hooked! Years later, angling would become a full-blown
obsession.
There was a vast maidan (flat, grassy open space) facing the house, and
at the far end of it was a brick-and-concrete podium with a flagstaff, where some
local bigwig or the other hoisted the National Flag every year on the occasion of
Independence Day. This podium, I discovered, was perfect for flying a kite; I just had
run down one side and the stiff breeze, which always swept across the maidan, would
catch it and tug it aloft. With a tail about six feet long grafted to the tail-end of the
kite, it became so stable that it would remain motionless at the very extreme end of
the string, when it was but a tiny spot in the blue sky, invisible to the naked eye
unless one consciously followed the line of the thread into the blue to locate it.
Its very stability, however, made it a sitting duck for attacking kites,
predators that swooped across its path on string encrusted with crushed-glass
particles that severed my line like a razor. I was forced to stick to lower altitudes, clip
four feet from the tail to reduce drag, and load a good hundred yards of glass-
particle-coated string (manjha) to defend myself with. Like a sword, manjha cuts
both ways, and whenever a particularly strong gust of wind caught my kite, the
manjha would cut deep furrows through my hands as the string melted off the spool
before I was able to bring the errant kite under control.
Speaking of the large brick-and-concrete podium, I am reminded of the
most amazing strongman feats I ever saw. The Labor Welfare Officer had, for HR
purposes, organized a tamasha (a spectacle), but it turned out to be something much
more. As an athletic looking, well-built and powerful-looking man dressed in
leopard-skin leotards and laced-up boots ascended the steps, a hush fell over the
audience. The voice over the microphone announced that the gentleman was a
disciple of legfendary Indian strongman Ram Murti, and would present some feats of
strength before the gathering.
A huge plate of steel, half an inch thick, was lifted by about a dozen
men and placed on the concrete bed of the podium. Six empty bottles were broken
into pieces on the steel plate, and the strongman eased himself down, on his back,
onto the jagged, razor-sharp shards. But this was not the end of it. Another steel plate
was now placed on his chest, and a massive grindstone, about three feet in diameter,
of the type then used by local atta chakkis (indigenous small-scale flour grinding
mills) was then placed on the steel plate. Now two burly men stepped forth with
sledgehammers in their hands, and proceeded to belabor the grindstone with vigour.
15
At first, the hammers merely bounced off the stone, emitting showers of
sparks. Sweat poured off the bodies of the hammer-men as they kept at their hard
labor. Suddenly, the stone split with a resounding crack, and the two now set upon
the split segments with redoubled energy, raining blows on them till they were finally
reduced to rubble. Drawing deep breaths, leaning on their sledgehammer handles,
they were an exhausted pair of hammer-men.
The crowd released its tension with a communal sigh…it had been a
stirring battle between steel and rock. Then a shocked silence ensued—everyone had
been so absorbed in the little act that they had completely forgotten about the man
sandwiched between steel plates, lying on his back on jagged shards of broken glass.
As the plates were removed, and he turned his wide, V-shaped back to the crowd,
everyone was certain that it would have been cut to ribbons. Lo! It was unmarked!
There was not the slightest scratch on it. The jagged, razor-sharp pieces of glass,
however, had been ground to the fine consistency of talcum powder.
Next, he proceeded to make a wad of a handkerchief borrowed from
someone in the audience, and then, placing it over his right eye, he pressed the sharp
point of a steel spear (it was subjected to a close inspection by several people in the
audience) to the wad. As he increased the inward-downward pressure, the muscles in
his mighty arms leapt into corded knots, and to our wonder, the steel shaft of the
spear began to give. Slowly at first, then faster, the steel wilted like a drying long-
stemmed rose until it was a U. He cast it aside nonchalantly, and it clanged
mournfully onto the ground. We were sure he’d lost an eye. When he removed the
wad, it was found to be punctured, but the eye itself, though reddened, was intact
(incidentally, Manotosh Roy, the famous Bengali bodybuilder and yogi, performed
the same feat before a dazed foreign audience in New York in the first half of the
twentieth century, winning the Mr. Universe title).
I can remember one more feat of strength. There was no way this one
could have been faked, even if skeptics felt the other stunts had been rigged. Three or
four sturdy planks of wood were fixed between two pegs hammered, six feet apart,
into the hard earth on one side of the podium, and as he lay back with his feet braced
against them, a rope was looped around his back and the ends securely fastened to
the tow-hook of a 4WD ‘Willy’s Jeep. Then the jeep’s driver let in the clutch, and the
rope stretched and twisted as it took up the slack. Now the engine screamed as the
driver revved it up. The wheels spun, but to no avail, the man was immovable,
unbreakable. The tires dug into the iron-hard, packed earth; flying mud showered the
gaping watchers behind the Jeep as the enormously powerful machine, at full throttle
in 4-wheel drive, sank slowly into the ground up to its suspension, miring itself in the
trenches carved out by the smoking tires. Then the engine coughed and died, as the
man who had bested it stood up and folded his hands to the crowd wordlessly.
On the way home, Father told me tales of the great Ram Murti, India’s
strongman who bested the legendary Sandow himself, then billed as the World’s
Strongest Man. Sandow was said to bounce cannonballs off his head the way
16
footballers head a football. But he declined a challenge from Ram Murti, who could
climb into a slavering tiger’s cage and have the tiger retreat, cowed and submissive,
into a corner. This man of steel we had seen was but one of his many disciples. No,
he was not thirty years of age, jet-black hair notwithstanding; he would be over fifty-
five now, said Father, as Ram Murti had trained him over thirty-five years ago.
Those of who have read ‘The Auto biography of a Yogi’ by Paramhansa
Yogananda (what? You haven’t?) will surely recall the chapter on the Tiger Swami
who bested full-grown Royal Bengal tigers in barehanded combat. Such was the
power of the mind over matter, explained Father, but very few could inculcate in
themselves the discipline required to master the secrets involved. I had just seen, with
my own eyes, an exhibition of the mind’s ability to control matter (the body), making
it harder than glass, harder than even steel—invulnerable.
Everything, explained Father, was made of electrons whirling around a
central nucleus made of neutrons and protons, the whole structure being called an
atom, the smallest normally indivisible state of matter. The larger the gaps between
these atoms and the less energetic the rotation of the sub-atomic particles, the less
dense was the substance concerned. An advanced yogi could re-arrange the atoms
and smaller particles of his body to pack them densely together, thereby making his
body harder than any substance in nature. The skin became impervious to anything
man could devise to pierce it.
Alternatively (and this I then found even harder to believe), he could re-
deploy the atoms in his body to change his shape or his external features, or even
disperse the atoms so widely that he ‘disappeared’. Reassembled at another location,
the re-united atoms would give the impression that he had ‘materialized’ out of thin
air! The Great Masters are able to do this, I realize years later. But I was still a small
boy, and for me it was simply magic.
Father was re-living his childhood in me, my mother always said
indulgently. He taught me how to spin a top, both the flat variety (used with an
underarm throw), as well as the conventional ones (launched with an overhead flick
of the wrist). He taught me how to V my fingers and flip the spinning top onto the
palm of my hand. I repaid him for this by teaching him how to use a yo-yo,
something I’d learnt at Sherwood. He got a catapult made for me and taught me how
to use it. And he got me an air gun.
It was my very first air gun, the Diana Model One (made in West
Germany), and it became my constant companion. It was very powerful for its size,
but it had two design defects. Firstly, the blade-type front sight was not welded but
riveted, and as the rivets became loose its accuracy declined somewhat. Secondly, the
muzzle end had to be unscrewed to reveal a long tube at the end of which a slug had
to be loaded. This took time in the field, and by the time the air gun was loaded,
whatever I’d meant to shoot was usually nowhere to be seen. Nevertheless, it was
great for target practice, though I must confess that I could never beat Father whose
aim was phenomenal. I’ve seen him hit a little porcelain insulator fixed halfway
17
along the length of the thirty-foot aerial wire suspended high up on the roof between
two poles.
The radio was a thing of mystery; a six-valve Philips set that took ten
minutes to warm up (it worked off large accumulator batteries remotely located on a
lower shelf). It was as temperamental as a thoroughbred, seldom catching the station
one wanted, which in our case was usually the BBC, or Radio Ceylon with its
mélange of Hindi film music and western pop chart-busters. There had been a large
HMV handle-wound gramophone at Allahabad and a stack of 78 rpm records, mostly
Bengali Rabindra sangeet and Hindi Classical music, but the metal needles had to be
changed frequently otherwise one ran the risk of ruining the record. We had no such
luxury here at Captaingunj.
The diamond head (wow! That reminds me of one of my favorite
instrumentals, ‘Diamondhead’ by The Ventures, vying with their ‘Pipeline’ as my
greatest all-time favorite) of my Philips turntable gave way within a year to the
AKAI head of my first stereo deck by COSMIC, circa 1974. What a marvel are stereo
cassette tapes…but could anyone have then foreseen the Walkman from SONY, or
CDs or even mp3 via Napster/ the Internet? I suppose there’s no end to it all. I guess
one day music will be broadcast and received telepathically, without any machinery
intervening—but don’t we do that already? How else is the universal music of the
heart transmitted from one lover to another? Or the heavenly organ notes that
reverberate through one’s head when one is in love? Can any contrivance of man
ever hope to record those ethereal melodies? Or create them, for that matter?
But these are things for men, and I am still a boy. One day, Sita Ram,
the mali, gave me a gift—a pair of white mice. They were bigger than house mice, so
I wondered if they were rats, the kind they used in laboratory experiments. Mother
quickly managed to get me a large cage for them (yep! She went “eeeeeek!” on
seeing a mouse and hopped onto a sofa, like in the cartoons), but they lived for the
major part of the day in my pockets.
Very soon, mice being good at maths, there were a dozen of them.
People in neighboring houses started talking about mysterious white and grey mice
that had invaded the neighborhood. They had the cutest babies, my mice: tiny, blind,
hairless pips of life that the mother mouse guarded jealously. Once I touched a baby
mouse with the tip of my index finger, when Mother Mouse was on the opposite side
of the cage. Covering the intervening distance in a flash (I never knew a mouse could
move that fast), she bit me so hard that blood spurted. It was my first encounter with
a mother’s instinct to protect her young. Later, I was to see many, many instances of
this in the wild.
We had some relatives at Gorakhpur, and sometimes Father would take
us to visit them. Dr. Lahiri’s lovely eldest daughter, Ranu, was married to my cousin,
Sushital Banerjee (see ‘Beyond Photography—The Quest for the Ultimate Image’
elsewhere in this column) and we were very close to the Lahiri’s. They had (and still
have) a huge mansion with sprawling grounds in the heart of the city, and they had
18
the biggest Alsatian, Shango, I have ever seen. A gentle giant, Shango was past his
prime when I saw him, but he was to other Alsatians as Alsatians are to, say, cocker
spaniels. When he brushed against my legs affectionately, I had to struggle to keep
my balance. I loved and admired this Goliath among dogs, who would not get a
complex standing next to a Great Dane. Mother knew I was crazy about dogs; now,
she knew what to do.
She had started quizzing Chhedi Mian almost on a weekly basis. The
dialogue usually went like this (in Hindi):
“Aur uska kya hua?” .. “And what about THAT?’
“Kiska, Mataji?” asks a baffled Chhedi, yawning. ‘About what,
mother?’
“Arre, gaddhe, ‘USKA…USKA…jo hamne mangaya hai….” ‘You ass!
THAT THING…the item I asked you get!’
Mother is intentionally vague because I am around; she wants to keep it
a secret.
“Kutta, Mataji? Abhi bacche nahin huwe hain!” …'The dog, mother? It
isn’t time yet.’
“SHHHHH! Ulloo kahinka! Kitna baar bola hai, ‘Kutta’ shabd nahin
istemaal karna!” … ‘QUIET, you owl! How many times do I have to tell you not to
utter the word ‘Dog’?’
Mother is beside herself with rage, for Chhedi has let the dog out of the
bag. So has she. The twice-repeated word ‘kutta’ makes me relinquish my comic and
return to the world of the living.
“Kutta, Chhedi?” I quiz him, and Chhedi Mian knuckles under and spills
the beans. Mrs. Shango is in the family way, and we are in the queue!
And so it came to pass that one day, on hearing the question about the
‘kutta’, he laconically answers “Laya hoon.” ‘I’ve brought it.’
We look around, mystified; there is neither hide nor hair of dog
anywhere. “Kahaan?” mother and I burst out. ‘WHERE?’
“Dayta hoon!” ... ‘I’m giving it,’ he says phlegmatically, enjoying
himself hugely at mother’s expense, all the while sniffing disapprovingly at our
impatience. Finally, he bestirs himself and reaches into his cavernous bag for the
supplies he has lugged all the way from Gorakhpur. One kilo of beans, one Superman
comic, two kilos of phool gobi (cauliflower), a tin of Polson’s butter, a carton of
Capstan cigarettes (Father’s brand), a jar of Ovaltine and two packets of biscuits. At
last he reaches down into the depths of his cavernous bag and withdraws his hand.
There is something in it, something very small, warm, sleepy and smelling of milk…
a puppy! Our shrieks bring Father running.
His eyes haven’t opened yet, and he has to be fed with a dropper, and a
drop of brandy goes in his milk to ward off the December chill. He sleeps next to me,
under my quilt, nestled between two bolsters. He grows fast, his eyes open at last, he
sees me…and yawns pinkly, toothlessly, before going back to sleep! He waddles
19
fatly all over the place, with me tagging along behind to ensure that no misfortune
befalls him. I notice he is a hearty trencherman, consuming goodly quantities of milk.
When he’s full, his belly is appreciably distended, not too far from the ground, and I
notice he locomotes by crabbing sideways to give his legs more room for maneuver.
I had another pet that lived in the ‘howdjee’ or water-trough, at one end
of the garden. This was where Sita Ram, the mali, filled the buckets and watering can
for watering the garden. It was a small tortoise that was very reclusive and only
allowed me to take him out for a little sun and a stroll through the flowerbeds to
munch on some select greens.
One day, I couldn’t locate Buntoo, the pup, after I’d returned from kite-
flying / orchard robbing, and after hunting all over the place, I sounded the general
alarm. At last, a loud hail from Sita Ram…Buntoo is in the howdjee, paddling round
and round, his nose above the water, exhausted but alive! His stamina and his will to
live surprised us; many a pup would have gone under, but not a son of Shango.
When I left for Sherwood in the March of 1958, Buntoo was still a
clumsy little fellow, all legs and ears. When I returned home in December 1958,
Father came halfway down the maidan to receive me, his way of saying he was glad
to have me back. At his side was a huge dog I didn’t recognize, a dog that growled
menacingly on seeing me. Somewhat unnerved by the appearance of this fearsome
beast with the thunderous rumble in his throat, I couldn’t help noticing his perfect
Alsatian coloration, the cocked ears, the bushy tail, the sleek coat and the powerful
muscles that bulged underneath it.
The growls became more intimidating as I came close to Father; this
was obviously a one-man dog that only recognized his master’s authority. I was glad
that this powerful killing machine was on a chain—but where was Buntoo? And now
the big dog was in a frenzy: it reared up on its hind legs, taller than I was, and—
wonder of wonders—it was hugging me, whining, licking my face. It was Buntoo!
But what a Buntoo he had become! Still not full grown (by Shango standards), he
was already a king amongst dogs. He had remembered my scent, even though he had
been but a small puppy when I’d left, all of nine months ago. I am not ashamed to
say that I wept as I hugged him back. I realized I’d missed him badly
As he finishes making the Great Sword, Conan’s father (‘Conan the
Barbarian’, starring Arnold Schwarzeneggar) tells him not to put his faith in man or
woman or beast. But, tapping the gleaming steel, he tells him “…this…this you can
trust.” I, a barefoot bushman sitting at my campfire half a million years ago, would
take up cudgels with Conan, Sr. on this point. Buntoo and I are just a part of the
ancient saga of man and dog, an old, old, story going back, far back in time, back to a
forgotten people long vanished into the mists of ages.

********
20

Birth of a Big B
India, 1869. Perched precariously on a hillside, high up in the Kumaon
hills near Kaladhungi, which means, in the local dialect, ‘black stones’, a school
called simply the ‘Diocesan Boys School’ came to life. It was started by a band of
Englishmen serving in the United Provinces of British India, for the purpose of
providing quality education, on the English pattern, to their offspring. By virtue of its
remote location, the salubrious and sylvan surroundings, and the prospect of
scholarly success that solitude often brings in its wake, the school prospered,
patronized as it was by English administrators and the wealthy merchants of the
region. Since it offered education leading to a High School degree and even beyond,
right up to the Intermediate level (which was then a qualification that signified a
fairly advanced level of scholastic achievement, and which was equivalent to having
set foot in an institute of higher learning), the school was renamed ‘Sherwood
College’.
In the late ‘eighties, however, a disastrous landslide, that caused
immense loss of life and which carried half the hillside down into Naini Tal Lake far
below, so damaged the buildings, that, in the interests of safety and future growth,
the school was re-established at a spot close to Ayarpatta. Transplanted to land on a
series of rolling hillocks below Dorothy’s Seat, a minor promontory with a small
memorial for an English lady who found it an ideal spot for her haunting water-
colors of Kumaon, the school prospered even more; the relocation turned out to be
blessing in disguise. It was now far more accessible from the town of Naini Tal,
though still a thousand feet above it, and the terrain made future expansion—and the
laying out of spacious playfields and swimming pools—a distinct possibility.
India, 1958. June 5th, the school’s Founder’s Day, was the high point of
the school’s annual activities. And the crowning event that everyone, parents,
distinguished guests, and students, awaited with the keenest anticipation, was the
Annual Play. It is significant that, in a school dominated by the English idiom and
the ‘pukka sahib’ atmosphere, there were actually two plays that were presented, one
in English and the other in Hindi. The school governing body, the Diocese of
Lucknow, a Protestant organization with a liberal and progressive outlook, moved
with the times and Hindi was the wave of the future. Conspicuous by its absence at
Sherwood was the scorn that many Christian-run outfits reserved for the national
language. It was a land of equal opportunity. Even the school motto, ‘Mereat
Quisque Palmam’— 'Let each one merit his own prize'—reflected this philosophy.
The governing body, aware of the importance of a large assembly hall-
cum-stage to the social and cultural life of the community that comprised a
residential school of six hundred students, had designed and constructed ‘Milman
Hall’, so christened after the then Principal who had pioneered the program. It could
seat seven hundred people, and at the far end of it was a commodious stage with
adjoining green rooms, a couple of rest rooms, utilities, and an elaborate sound
21
control center. The Hindi play that year of 1958, when I was in class 5, was a stage
adaptation of an excerpt from Victor Hugo’s novel ‘Les Miserables’…’The Bishop’s
Candlesticks’. Not many of us had heard of this guy Victor Hugo, and demand for
the book was high in the library.
We discovered that the book was about the indignities and injustices that
the poor always face, especially as those prevailing in the post ‘Reign of Terror’
Paris of 150 years ago. The poor of Paris were a miserable, hunted lot, and none
personified this better than the main character, Jean Valjean. Having stolen a loaf of
bread to feed his starving family, Valjean was forever stigmatized by a society that
never forgave crime, no matter how petty. It was a harsh and cruel time where the
term ‘extenuating circumstances’ was unknown to judges.
Always on the run after his release from jail, Valjean finds to his horror
that, no matter where he goes thereafter, he is stalked by the implacable, iron-souled
Inspector Javert who hounds him constantly, hoping to catch him red-handed once
again and put him behind bars for a long time. Desperate, embittered, the once-
amiable and cheerful Valjean becomes a shadow of his former self, starting at the
slightest sound and expecting to find the heavy hand of the law on his shoulder at any
moment. Paranoiac, his faith in humanity and God demolished, he is now little more
than a fugitive, a hunted animal pursued by demons he cannot hope to exorcise.
One evening, starving and penniless, Valjean is given sanctuary by a
provincial bishop. The tall, calm man of God treats him with all the respect due to a
fellow human being. But to the cynical and distrustful Valjean, he is yet another
beast in human form who will surely exploit him sooner or later. But as the evening
wears on, and the bishop invites him to share his humble supper, the first stirrings of
doubt arise in Valjean’s mind. Is this man for real? Can it be that there still survives
on this planet a man who can be called human?
The bishop is the last of a line of aristocratic forebears, the last surving
scion of a once-proud family that had seen better days. Impoverished, a simple man
of the cloth, the bishop shows Valjean his room for the night, pointing out the
magnificent pair of silver candlesticks that are the last of the cleric’s once-proud
heritage. They mean more to the bishop than their intrinsic worth would indicate (for
they are indeed valuable); they are to him a symbol of a vanished glory of which he,
too, is a part, no matter how indigent and insignificant. His eyes grow misty as he
fondles them, the last remnants of a fortune long consumed in the fires of Revolution.
For the tall, dignified old man, they are a thread that links him to life itself, such as it
is—a reason to go on living.
The bishop retires for the night, but Valjean cannot tear his eyes away
from the gleaming silver; it is a fortune gathering dust on the mantelpiece. It is
obvious that he is torn between his newly awakened respect and regard for a fellow
man, and the need to secure his own future. He is already branded as a thief; why not
be one, then? But no, this man has taken him in from the cold, dark night, has treated
him like an equal, given him a meal and a real bed to sleep in. He cannot betray his
22
trust. But what does the good bishop know about life in the cruel, pitiless world
outside this protected backwater of a suburban parish, a cruel world where the poor
are criminals because they have no money? The silver will make him, Jean Valjean,
rich. He will be secure; the bishop will not starve just because his silver candlesticks
are gone: he cannot eat them. Valjean loses the battle with his conscience. Thrusting
the heavy silver into a sack, he makes a hasty departure through one of the French
windows.
The last Act opens on the bishop entering the spare bedroom in the
morning to greet his guest, to find he has departed during the night with his precious
candlesticks. Initially upset and dismayed, he comes to terms with his loss,
rationalizing that the poor man needs them more than he does. As a true Christian, he
feels he should rejoice in his brother’s good fortune. He kneels and prays to his God
to deliver him from the bondage of ties to material possessions. It is the most moving
part of the play, an old, defeated man surrendering to his God, putting himself
confidently in His hands, praying for a higher perspective on life and the strength to
sever all ties with the contaminating human craving for mundane possessions.
There is urgent knocking at the door; it is Inspector Javert, with Valjean
and his booty in custody. He reveals that the bishop’s silver is too well known to be
disposed of so easily, and asks that he press formal charges in writing. The bishop
takes pen and paper, and writes out a brief note. A disbelieving Javert reads aloud
that the silver candlesticks, hitherto in possession of the Bishop’s family for
generations, are now the legal property of Jean Valjean, acquired by way of part
compensation for invaluable services rendered, services that cannot quite be
compensed in material terms. The silver is only a token of his great esteem and
personal regard. A frustrated Inspector Javert, shaking his head and muttering to
himself, takes his leave, while a stunned Valjean kneels contritely at the bishop’s
feet, only to be pulled upright and hugged. The indigent bishop, himself uplifted by
his good deed, has transformed Valjean from animal to man; it is obviously a turning
point in both their lives.
Let us take a quick look at the two principal actors in the drama onstage.
The part of the convict Valjean is played by darkly handsome, stockily muscular
Ramesh Yadav, a final year student with a talent for sports and a lethal uppercut in
the ring. His pride shattered, his confidence in humanity destroyed by circumstances,
Valjean has become a fugitive, an animal of the shadows, merely existing, not daring
to think that he will ever live again. He has been thoroughly and quite systematically
dehumanized by society. Ramash Yadav brings Valjean magically to life.
The bishop’s rôle has gone to Yadav’s batch-mate, a tall, slim youth
with a quiet, pensive air and dreamy eyes. The voice is outstanding in its clarity and
power, quite astonishing coming as it does from that willowy frame. As the bishop,
he is utterly convincing, his poignant pride in the once-great family name he bears
contrasting sharply with the stark reality of his obvious penury. Clinging to the last
shreds of his sense of identity, he treasures the great silver candlesticks: they are the
23
tangible link between him and the vanished glory that is all he has inherited. They are
the gleaming symbols of his sense of self-worth, which is sinking day by day.
His name, according to the hand-made programmes so eagerly sought
today by souvenir hunters, is Amitabh Bachchan. In a powerful portrayal of a proud
man sinking ever deeper into the quagmire of poverty and helpless to do anything
about it, he turns in a performance that stirs the audience to tears. It is his obvious
relief and exultation at being unshackled from his false values, and his newfound
vision of a higher reality, that drives home the point of the story. In his humility and
compassion for another, he does not realize he has transformed his own life as well
as that of another. A most effective supporting rôle by Ramesh Yadav highlights
Amitabh Bachchan’s incredible talent. No one is surprised when the coveted prize for
the ‘Best Actor’ goes to him.
Every phenomenon has to be born sometime, someplace. But what is
unique about the birth of the Big B is that it lay palpable in the air of Milman Hall
long after the play was over…for years afterwards, in fact, long before the unknown
advertising executive from Allahabad with the impeccable bloodlines exploded onto
the screen in ‘Zanjeer’, long before his unforgettable appearance as Dr. Bhaskar
Banerjee opposite reigning matineé idol Rajesh Khanna in ‘Anand’ brings yet
another audience to its feet. It is still fresh in my memory, though I was but a boy of
nine then, the play that was called ‘Aur Subah Ho Gayee’.
I had been one of the fortunate few who had witnessed the birth of a
legend, on that unknown stage tucked away in a small residential school in the
Kumaon hills. Something very rare had unfolded before my eyes that summer
evening in 1958, of which I was reminded strongly once again when I saw ‘Amar,
Akbar, Anthony’: there was the bishop again, this time in a comic rôle.
In due course, the shock waves of the explosion would spread far and
wide, as Amitabh Bachchan straddled the globe like a colossus, a phenomenon
unique to Indian cinema.

******

Farewell to Captaingunj

India is so vast, so diverse in its flora, fauna, and geographical


characteristics that a traveler from abroad can but wonder at the extravagance that
Nature has displayed in its transactions with this sub-continent. Icy Himalayan
ranges, with some of the world’s highest mountain peaks vie for attention with the
terrible burning sands of the Thar Desert. Mighty rivers, inland lakes that are almost
seas (such as Chilka, in Orissa), swamps, rolling highlands, estuaries, delta regions,
thousands of miles of coastline, pristine beaches with swaying palm trees, remnants
24
of impenetrable jungles full of savage beasts, birds and insects to keep naturalists
busy for decades, or inexhaustible seams of coal and iron ore and the multi-colored
monazite sand beaches of the south, with their 21st century-relevant rare earths. You
name it, India has it, a land at once modern and ancient, steeped in the mystique of
countless ages now so frantically needed in coping with the challenges of the new
millennium.
It offers a bewildering array of climatic conditions, from Himalayan
artic cold to desert heat, leather-rotting damp of the rain-soaked northeast to the
pleasantly dry, salubrious climate of the Nilgiri ranges. In India, you can choose any
kind of conditions that suit your taste…if you can afford the luxury of being able to
choose, of course. Drought can strike concurrently with floods, one part of the
country wiped out on account of the failure of the rains, another part simultaneously
inundated by non-stop rainfall in the catchment areas that cause normally placid,
insignificant rivers to become raging furies that violently overflow their banks and
ravage the countryside.
The River Gandak, flowing out of the Himalayan foothills and through
Deoria district, is one such river. Every few years, as if to assert itself, it overflows
its banks and annexes the entire low-lying basin of over 10,000 square miles (16,000
square kilometers), transforming it into a vast, shallow, inland sea.
Normal life as one knows it grinds to a halt. I witnessed the floods of
Deoria district about the same time we shifted to Captaingunj. It was June, I think,
and one day we received news that it having rained heavily for two months in the
lower foothills all the way to Nepal, the Gandak was at its high-water mark. Floods
were almost certain. Fortunately, the house was built on a high plinth, with just such
an eventuality in mind, about ten feet above ground level. Normally, Father would
walk to his office, a distance of about a mile across the maidan, accompanied by his
bodyguard Sat Narain. Now a raft comprising of 100 drums (ten drums square, laid
side by side and securely lashed together by rope and baling wire, topped by a
wooden platform) was carefully assembled and kept in the back garden. Six polemen
were selected, and told to stand by.
Mother is very upset, for once: her precious, carefully nurtured
vegetable garden, which shows signs of a good harvest of ladyfingers, cauliflower,
potatoes, brinjals, and carrots, will be ruined. Father is disappointed but
philosophical; he had planned the rose garden so well, and had written to Pocha’s
Seeds at Bombay for seeds for over two dozen flowers: he rattles their names off,
counting on his fingers: Antirrhinum, Aster, Baby’s Breath, Candytuft, Cornflower,
Chrysanthemum, Dahlias, Delphiniums, Fuchsia, mixed Pansies, Giant Pansies,
Phlox, Poppies, Lupines, Narcissus, Petunia, Portulaca, Salvia, Sweet Pea, Verbena:
all the way to Zinnia.
Not for the first time, I get to see yet another facet of his personality
(how many are there? I am losing count; Father is the most fascinating man I ever
met). They say it is a great man who can win the undying love and admiration of his
25
progeny; Father is such a man…and doesn’t know it. He takes life as it comes, doing
his best and enjoying whatever comes his way.
Respectful to all, treating king and commoner alike, he wins over
Pathak, the local labor leader, a fiery rebel who comes to confront and stays to be
comforted. Pathak ji, from the dominant Brahmin caste of Uttar Pradesh, has no
issue. Ten years have passed since his marriage, and he is inwardly a shattered man,
for a son and heir means a lot to this wealthy landed aristocrat, standing tall and
proud but inwardly destroyed. Father read his palm and told him he would marry
again, and a son would be born of the union. Pathak ji rejected this prediction
outright; he was already wedded, and a second wife was out of the question. A year
later, litigation and family / caste pressure forced him to take another wife…who
presented him with a son. Now he touches Father’s feet, something he can live with
because Father is also a Brahmin, higher-born and elder than him, to boot.
With Pathak ji’s help, Father got the Captaingunj Distillery going again,
a Herculean task whose enormity even I, as a small boy, appreciated. It was a mess
when he took charge, financially as well as in engineering and housekeeping terms.
There was no discipline, no productivity norms were in place, pilferage was rampant,
and the labor was lazy and largely under-utilized. The efficiency of the plant was
poor; coal and bagasse (sugarcane husk, used as fuel alongside coal) consumption
was too high, there was no storage facility for molasses to absorb shocks in supply
and demand cycles, spent-wash disposal arrangements were rudimentary, and repair
and maintenance was practically non-existent. Father prepared an action plan
supported by self-imposed deadlines and budgetary parameters, and got the sanction
of Head Office in Calcutta. In a year, when cane-crushing season started, he was
ready with a working unit.
He had slaved sixteen hours a day, and the long hours and the
insalubrious climate had taken their toll on his health. But he continued to drive
himself and his men; he had given his word to Seth Ishwar Chand Kejriwal that his
distillery would function for three years, and he meant to honor it. No way was he
going to let a little thing like a flood stop him. He ordered a high earthen
embankment thrown up around the distillery, picking up the first shovelful of dirt
himself. A dozen men from the idling ranks, led by Pathak ji, leapt to snatch the
shovel from his hands. Soon, there was not a single man sitting around chatting,
smoking biris indolently. The embankment beat the flood to it by two days.
Reinforced with a sticky mixture of molasses and bagasse dust, it kept the swirling
waters away from the plant.
Back home, I watched with glee as the waters rose. Father initially
started going to office in gumboots, but soon the water level was up to his knees and
he just switched to shorts and sandals. I had never seen him in shorts before and it
was strange, how much younger he looked in them. He never put on weight, obesity
was never his problem, and at forty-three he was still fit and young looking. His total
confidence in himself (I later learnt the source of his inner repose, which I’ll come to
26
presently) and in his ability to cope infected all those around him…and that included
Mother and me. Now it was all a huge joke on us, the flood, not a catastrophe but
something to be enjoyed; after all, how many people do we know who have been
marooned by floodwaters?
Only when the flood was at its peak could Father be persuaded to use
the raft: he thought it was a sissy solution, but gave way before Mother’s
remonstrations and Sat Narain’s insistence. The path through the maidan was no
longer visible, and as there were some deep ditches along one or two stretches one
could fall into if one took a single misstep; a man had to go ahead, feeling the way
with a pole. It took them almost an hour to reach the office. All this while, Father had
waded through the chest-high water, full of river creatures such as snakes, lizards,
turtles, and fish, to set an example to his men. Curiously, absenteeism was at its
lowest ebb in the distillery during this flood. Expressly denied permission to go
running along the boundary walls as I usually did in normal times, I had to be content
with fishing from the verandah, another first. How many people do you know who
have cast a line from their very doorsteps?!
There were large fish out there where the garden had been, invisible in
the murky water. One big chap took the fishing pole with a swift lunge, jerking the
rig out of my hands and dragging it out of sight into the muddy waters. I never saw it
again. Now I was down to a handline, but Taingra, Magoor, small Rohu, Catla,
Kalbosh, and Singhara fish were coming in. I was actually contributing to the protein
intake, since meat supplies had tapered off!
There were snakes everywhere, swimming for dear life: cobras, kraits,
vipers, grass snakes, and many unidentified, multi-colored ones that looked like coral
snakes. I don’t know why, but they never came into the house. One day, a spearman
on the boundary wall killed a reptilian creature with his bhala (a thick, seasoned cane
pole with an iron knob at one end and a spear-point at the other—a sort of local
spear-cum-stave). It was about three feet long, yellowish in color and had a forked
tongue. I have never been able to identify it. It looked like something from the
Jurassic Age, come to think of it.
After about two months, the flood began to abate. As the waters
receded, the poor riverine creatures tried desperately to find their way back to the
Gandak. Many didn’t make it, trapped in deep ditches, local ponds, wells, and sundry
depressions in the ground. Huge fish, left floundering in ditches a man could jump
across, were taken by the simple expedient of wading in and heaving the monster out
onto dry land. Two men with a sari could scoop a hundred pounds of fish from a
buffalo wallow.
But despite all the abandon with which men reaped the natural bounty
left by the river, many specimens of river life were left to fend for themselves, and as
the sun dried out the land, the stench of decaying organic matter was hard to cope
with. But the ingredients left the soil even more fertile than ever before, the endless
chain of life building on the foundations left by those that had gone before. Bumper
27
crops were assured in the following harvest, and vegetables would never taste better.
Truly, organic fertilizer and organic foods are out of this world.
Our garden became something out of a book of nursery rhymes, minus
the pretty maids all in a row. There were flowers of every type; all the seeds planted
came to bloom (surprisingly, they had lain dormant in the soil, perhaps restrained by
some inner mechanism that warned them that conditions were hostile for germination
just then). There were cockleshells, not all in a row but all over the place, and the
variety was mind-boggling. I tried to find just one where the inhabitant was still in
residence, but it was too late; all the erstwhile occupants of these shells had perished.
Sita Ram mali was dazed; such profusion of ‘imported’ blooms was
beyond his experience. He tried his best to cope, endlessly repeating their names as
we went from flower to flower, memorizing them. He lovingly preserved the seeds
for the next season, writing the names in Hindi on the individual packets. (The next
season, such was the glory of the garden, especially the banks of sweet peas, that a
Gujarati visitor exposed many rolls of color film in his Rolleiflex and sent us
enlargements).
Captaingunj was a gourmet’s dream come true. So rich was the soil, so
pure the nutrients in it, so free was the ecosystem from contamination by the
chemical fertilizers and pesticides that have robbed the foods we eat today of their
natural taste, that I can say with confidence that I never ate better in my life…with
the possible exception of Seohara. The size of the vegetables from the kitchen garden
dwarfed those I buy from Delhi markets today, and the chevvon was incredible.
With little to do but concentrate on her cooking, Mother and the
maharaj (a Brahmin cook) set to with a will to pamper our palates. The largest
langra mangoes I have ever seen (no doubt exported today, for they have
disappeared from domestic markets) came for Rupees 5/- per hundred. A bullock cart
backed up to the verandah, where tipped its precious cargo, and from there the
mangows were sorted, counted, and transported to the rice granary (a huge wooden
box where about twenty maunds—over seven quintals—of rice was stored) in which
the mangoes were left to ripen; the inimitable langra flavor delicately seasoned with
a subtle under-current of basmati. I have seen Father polishing off six of them after
lunch and, at three labgra mangoes three or four times a day, I wasn’t doing too badly
myself.
Sat Narain preferred to mix the mango pulp (all staff had a free run on
the ‘mango-box’, and were allowed to eat as much as they could without falling ill)
with sattu (powdered gram) and milk, two glasses of it. An ordinary man can manage
only one, for it is an exceedingly heavy (though tasty and power-packed) mixture,
very nutritious but too much for the average constitution to digest. Sat Narain was no
average man. Six feet three in his socks, he was the district strongman, a shaven-
headed Brahmin warrior who worshiped Shakti in the form of the deity Hanuman. He
had taken the vows of a Brahmachari (voluntary celibacy) and exercised for two
hours daily in his quarters behind the bungalow.
28
He had suspended a rope from a hook in the ceiling, and to it, at waist-
height, he had fastened a short wooden bar. Apart from the most difficult freehand
exercises (including one-armed sideways push-ups) I have ever seen anyone perform,
Sat Narain did incredible gymnastics on this rope, even climbing it upside-down,
hand-over-hand. After cooling off, he would have a bath at the hand-pump, and then
don his khaki tunic and dhoti (he spurned trousers), his feet in sandals. Built like a
latter-day Mr. Universe, he was the antithesis of the popular conception of a village
pahalwan, with not a trace of oily skin or a potbelly. In fact, there wasn’t an ounce of
fat on his body, and his pectorals, deltoids, obliques and abdominals were
outstanding. After him, the only physique that ever impressed me was Arjun’s (see
‘Vij’, to be found in the ‘ASTRACT from Memories Are Made Of This’).
Sat Narain was totally devoted to Father; none dared to even raise his
voice to Father when he was around (a situation he co-created with Buntoo, his
canine equivalent, who always relaxed, unseen, under Father’s office chair. But
anyone who made the mistake of talking in a loud voice in Father’s office was
instantly muted when he was treated to a bloodcurdling growl from the giant
Alsatian).
In fact, Sat Narain waited, along with Buntoo, on the bench on the
verandah at home every morning at 8.30 a.m. When Father emerged from the
drawing room, both sprang to their feet. While Buntoo shook himself off vigorously
and wagged his tail, Sat Narain put on his khaki cap and sprinted down the driveway,
bhala in hand, vaulting the gate lightly before opening it on the other side for Father,
and closing it after him. Then Buntoo would come loping down the drive, clear the
gate in a single effortless bound, and form the vanguard of the little procession as it
went off across the maidan. This was a daily routine, and it amused me hugely, this
showing-off, this competition between man and dog, both deeply devoted to their
master.
As I told my timeless muse one day, Nature has a way of compensating;
if Captaingunj was a remote village deep in the inhospitable heartland of eastern
Uttar Pradesh, something gave us the strength to make the most of it, to enjoy it. We
never had quite such a magnificent garden again, the bungalow was spacious and
comfortable, the servants loyal and trustworthy, the food was incredible, Father’s
career really took off after this, and I had plenty of time and space to grow up in,
leading a fairy-tale Huckleberry Finn / Tom Sawyer kind of life I find it hard to
believe today in dusty, traffic-choked, vulgar Delhi with its staggering pollution and
opportunism and urban chaos. I realize, however, that no matter where one goes, the
Lord, in His boundless mercy, has scattered pearls among the pebbles, and it is up to
us to find them, to admire the roses among the thorns. There is Beauty and Goodness
and Truth everywhere, I am sure, all around us, enshrined in either a living being or
an inanimate object. Nothing happens without there being a Divine purpose behind it,
even if we cannot see it just then. She is just one of many miracles in my life. Her
coming had a purpose that I am only now beginning to understand…
29
The people of Deoria were simple and unsophisticated, but they were
sincere, God-fearing and humble. It was not their fault if it was their lot to live in
such a place, and there were many gems like Pathak ji around. The USSR had just
launched man’s first artificial satellite into near-earth orbit, and as we sat in the
garden after dark, the fireflies blinking in the hedgerows seemed to mirror the stars
winking in the canopy overhead as they competed with each other to entertain us.
There was Orion, there Cassiopeia, there Sirius, there were the distant Pleiades,
glowing faintly, and—threading its way between them—a single twinkling point of
light that man had sent up to circle the planet. So what if these simple people
thought, in their unenlightened minds, that Sputnik I was a glass globe with a candle
burning within it…

“But knowledge to their eyes her ample


page,
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill penury repress’d their noble rage
And froze the genial current of the soul.”

1960. The three years have passed in a flash, much too fast for Buntoo,
for Sat Narain, and for me. It was time to go. Captaingunj Distillery was a going
concern, and its market value had skyrocketed. It was now worth so much that Seth
Ishwar Chand Kejriwal took off his diamond ring and offered it to Father, a gift that
was politely declined. When Sethji asked him whether he knew its worth, Father
shook his head. “It is worth fifty-five thousand rupees today, and it is yours.” Father
shook his head. “Sethji, what is money before the confidence you reposed in me, and
your blessings that I take with me?”
Never have I seen a man who made so much money for his employers
but distanced hilself from it. One day the secret of his detachment was inadvertently
revealed to me. We were fishing and picnicking on the banks of a little stream a mile
from the distillery, just Father, Mother, and I, when he turned around instinctively to
see thick smoke issuing from the plant.
He leapt to his feet, and shouting “Ma Kali! Ma Kali!” he sprinted off in
the direction of his beloved distillery. But even as he ran, thinking his life was going
up in flames, an overhead water-tank inexplicably collapsed, spilling 10,000 gallons
of water over the conflagration caused by spontaneous combustion in stacked coal.
By the time he got there, men were sweeping up the mess.
(We had heard what had happened and I, at least, never questioned him
about it. But I had come to know the secret source of his strength and confidence.
And when his end was near, on that fateful day of 6th February 1987, he only took
Her name and none other.
30
She was always his guardian angel, his inspiration, and his shield, in
life as well as death, for he passed away peacefully and did not suffer. He lived like a
prince-hermit, always looking beyond things as they seemed to be, as if searching for
something Greater, which eludes most men all their lives. I hope and pray he found
it…at last.)

A farewell party was organized, and men gave speeches. Father wept. I
could not understand how a man going to a better assignment could so weep. Now I
realize that he wept because all the men gathered there were his brothers; he wept
because he knew he would never see them again. They had helped him make a
success of his assignment, and they represented so many challenges, so many
hardships, faced and overcome together. Thus do men mourn their passing from the
midst of their comrades.
Our things are packed and loaded in the brake-van; the stationmaster is a
friend and ensures that clearance is given only when he has been personally assured
that everything is on board. Then the green flag is waved and the steam engine blows
its mournful whistle, a lonely sound that echoes through my memories down the
years. A jolt shudders through the train and it starts to slowly chug away from the
platform, taking us away from Captaingunj forever.
The steam engine is emitting thick clouds of black smoke that roll past
the barred windows, covering us with soot as the train picks up speed. For some
reason, tears are rolling down Mother’s cheeks. My own eyes are misty, so that I
cannot see much of the scene through the window.
But wait! There is a tall, powerful man sprinting alongside, keeping up
with the train. Tears are streaming from his eyes and at his heels bounds a giant
Alsatian, barking furiously. The two friends – locked forever in partnership now that
Buntoo has chosen to enjoy the freedom offered by this rustic backwater to the end of
his days in the company of his human counterpart – are bidding a tearful farewell to
the man they will worship all their livers.
Words float to my ears, “Do not…forget…Do not …forget…Do not…
forget…”
The rails clickety-clack faster and faster, taking up the refrain as
Captaingunj falls back into the past.

Seohara

If I seem to be taking you from one remote backwater to another as I


ramble on about my boyhood days, I can only defend myself by saying that these are
real places, no matter how unlikely they sound, and that they are located in the
badlands of Uttar Pradesh otherwise known as the ‘cane belt’. This is where most of
31
north India’s sugar factories and distilleries are, naturally, located. And as Father
went from one assignment to another with his family, I was taken on a roller-coaster
ride from one remote outpost to another. No wonder my parents decided to have only
one child: there was no education worth the name in these places, so I had to be put
in a boarding school. This was a terrible wrench for all three of us, for we were a
closely-knit family.
But it was good fun, actually; I had a bit of all three worlds, especially at
Seohara, postal address ‘Seohara, N.Rly., District Bijnor, U.P., India.’ Moradabad, a
major town of U.P., was only thirty miles (48 kilometers) away by road, a mere 45
minutes away, for this job came with a chauffeur-driven car for Father. Delhi was
130 miles (208 kilometers) away, a comfortable three-hour drive in those days
(except in the cane-crushing season, when the roads were packed with convoys of
lorries carrying sugarcane to the mills), and I often accompanied Father on his
frequent official trips.
I ran wild at Seohara, too, but to a lesser extent than I did at
Captaingunj, for Seohara was far more developed, even back then in 1961. The
Officers’ Enclave was beautifully landscaped, with extensive lawns, gardens,
trimmed hedges, and an artificial lake that even had a row-boat, to my delight (for
Father had taught me the basics of rowing on Naini Tal lake, and I’d never looked
back after that, even rowing heavy river craft single-handed upriver on the Yamuna
in Delhi during my college days (see ‘Birds of Many Feathers’).
All basic amenities were available, the house was a comfortable, three-
bedroom affair, and the garden, though not as large as the one we’d left behind at
Captaingunj, was well planned and had some fruit trees to boot. There were servants
and a mali, apart from the chauffeur, and I took to them immediately, for they were a
happy bunch of fellows, well-paid, well fed, and the accommodation provided was
adequate.
I did not like Seohara at first; it was a bit too civilised after bucolic,
unrefined, but unpretentious Captaingunj. There was no maidan, where Sat Narain
taught me cycling (it took me about fifteen minutes to get the hang of it), where I
flew kites, ran about with Buntoo, and where one could see a lot of sky. Funny, how
one sees less and less of the sky as one goes through life. Ditto for starry skies.
Seohara had a well-patrolled perimeter, with the armed night watchmen
calling out to each other every half-hour; their voices carrying in the silence, and
sometimes if I woke up at night I’d hear their ‘jaagte raho’ and proceeded to do just
that. A quarter of a century or so later I read a book by Sidney Sheldon called
‘Master of the Game’, in which two guards in the diamond-strewn beaches of the
Namib call out their names to each other in the mist—‘Kruger…Brent’—and Kate
Blackwell’s father Jamie went on to found a business house which he named
‘Kruger-Brent Limited.’ It reminded me so strongly of the perimeter guards at
Seohara…but ‘Jaagte Raho’ was already a celluloid fact.
32
But as time went on I realized that I was being selfish and that my
parents were even happier here. There was a regular telephone (Captaingunj had
finally got a small exchange where one cranked a handle on one side of the
instrument—there was a magneto inside, which generated enough current to ring the
operator’s instrument) to Father’s dismay: he hated telephones. There was a double
electric connection, meaning that if, for some reason, the Distillery’s generator had to
be shut down (there was no government electricity supply), all one had to do was to
throw a toggle switch to access the power from the sugar mill circuit, for both plants
belonged to industrialist K.K. Birla, who was the boss of this complex.
The ‘Aladdin’ lantern from Captaingunj became a conversation piece.
There was running water piped from a central pumping, purification, and distribution
facility, and being tube-well sourced, the water was warm and sweet. Father, I was
glad to see, when I returned from Sherwood that winter (we were still in the guest
house when it was time for me to leave for school), was looking much better. He had
put back the weight he’d lost at Captaingunj, and the water and climate of Seohara
suited him.
There was no bodyguard here; in later years it was borne home to me
that Captaingunj wasn’t exactly a safe place. Seohara wasn’t much better, the town, I
mean—the cane belt is crime-prone—but we lived cloistered lives, cocooned in the
well-guarded security of the manicured complex. The staff of the distillery had a
separate enclave, and here Father established a badminton court, where we went and
played every evening. There were some good players, and I was at a disadvantage
here, for Sherwood had tennis but no badminton, and my tennis strokes were of no
use here. Someone entered my name in the All U.P. Open Badminton
Championships, and I got a 15-0, 15-1 drubbing from a lad my age who chewed gum
throughout the brief and unequal contest.
However, there was a silver lining to the cloud, for I took to badminton
with a vengeance. I once had the privilege of exchanging a few shots with Suresh
Goel, former India No. 1, and the general level of play inspired me to do whatever
was possible to improve my game. So apart from weight training, I played two hours
daily in the holidays, and the next time around I had the satisfaction of playing the
same gum-chewer and giving him a 15-6, 15-8 return compliment.
Seohara got even more exciting when Father and I started playing
billiards at the Club. He was good (see ‘First Memories’), and yet again I find myself
in debt to a man who taught me so many games and introduced me to so many
absorbing hobbies.
There was just one major skill he didn’t pass on to me, and that was
driving. It was against his principles to use the official car for non-sanctioned
purposes such as teaching dependants how to drive, so I had to wait till, some day, he
would buy a car. But he did the next best thing; he got me two books, one about four-
stroke (Otto cycle) engines, the other being the Reder’s Digest Book of the
Automobile, a lavishly produced tome that included a lot of material on basic driving
33
techniques and engine maintenance. He was passionately fond of cars and
motorcycles, and his descriptions of the machines of yesteryear made my mouth
water.
Bailey, our chauffeur, was somehow aware of my longing (which
fourteen-year old doesn’t want to learn driving?), and on short drives to Moradabad
on some small errand or the other, he would hand me the wheel while he lit a
cigarette. He took his time about it, all the while watching me like a hawk as I sat
next to him, twisted sideways and manipulating the wheel. He predicted I would
learn driving in a day. He was wrong. Thanks to the theoretical knowledge I’d
absorbed from the books Father had given me, and my close observation of Bailey’s
driving technique (he was the best chauffeur I ever saw) I started driving—I confess
with a sense of wonder—from Day One (1st May 1981) like I was born to the wheel
(Father finally bought himself a Fiat in 1967). I was already driving the Pardner’s
motorbike, a present from his Dad for topping the University (Economics Honours)
in 1966, so a car was just a minor adjustment.
Early in 1960, the uncle in Aden sent Dad a powerful, 5-band Philips
Holland transistor radio, and it became Father’s alter ego. We were bombarded with
All India Radio’s tedious news bulletins morning, afternoon (when he came home for
lunch and a brief siesta), and night. Mother’s and my protests fell on deaf ears: he
had become addicted to The News (listening carefully to both the English version—
which came first in those days—followed by what Mother derisively called ‘the
Hindi translation’). I serendipitously found a ‘Letter to the Editor’ in the Times of
India, which I clipped out and pasted to the back of the set. I reproduce the letter, as I
have memorized it:
To:
The Editor etc.,

Sir,
All India Radio, with its frequent and lengthy news bulletins, is
becoming an instrument of torture. What the public needs is not
only news but entertainment also.

(--- s/d ---)


S.K. MAITRA

But there was no stopping Father; once he got a bee in his bonnet about
something, it was very difficult to oust it. I remember K.C. Pant, to whom Father
then reported, going ‘hmmmmmmm’ when he took the radio in his lap for a while and
happened to read the unknown (but persuasive) Mr. Maitra’s letter (Mr. Pant, a one-
time Defence Minister and the former Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission
of India, was an old family friend).
34
He had studied at Allahabad university, our families knew each other, and
his father, Pandit Gobind Ballabh Pant, had been, as everyone knows, a famous
freedom fighter and one of the chief architects of India’s freedom; he was politically
very active at Allahabad, then a stronghold of anti-British resistance, thanks to
Motilal Nehru. K.C. Pant is the coolest Sem-ite (yes, he’s from St. Joseph’s, Naini
Tal, Sherwood’s rival school) I’ve ever met. He has a way of talking to you as if you
are his contemporary and equal, which, apart from his obvious stature and intellect, is
one of the many outstanding and endearing things about him. I think he and Father
made a great team in running the organisation.
In 1961, the Chinese attacked and overran Indian positions on the
border. Fighting at heights of 18,000’ and over, the ill prepared, badly equipped
Indian army was savaged by the well-fed and well clad Chinese forces. Father got
regular reports of this conflict, thanks to his trusty radio, and it became an even
closer ally as his men rallied around the set to listen.
Fifty years back, transistor radios were so rare that they were status
symbols, sure-fire conversation pieces. The Mukerji men are boys who love toys,
toys that get costlier as they grow up (thereby meeting the classical definition of the
difference between the two: ‘the only difference between men and boys is that the
toys get costlier’).
In Father’s case, however, his radio and his fishing gear were his only
toys, the car coming much later, when he was over fifty. He liked guns but never
bought a licensable weapon, preferring to enjoy the occasional air gun he bought me.
He was a natural shot, and couldn’t teach me much more than the basics of drawing a
bead on a target. Whatever I learnt in later years I had to pick up on my own from
range practice, books and magazines.
That year, I was in for a terrivle shock when I got home. Father
confessed he had gifted my gun, the old Diana Model 1, to a colleague whose son
wanted it. I couldn’t believe my ears—given my gun away! I never suspected Father
could be so…so underhanded. I was distraught, if that word, normally reserved for
little old ladies in Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes stories, could be applied to a
pre-teen. But you get the drift, don’t you—or do I have to elaborate and say I was
thoroughly pissed off? Whatever! I was struck dumb at Father’s treachery…but
before I could go into depression, Father reached behind his desk and…there was
another gun in his hand, a brand new, Diana Model 16!
What a Dad! What a fantastic, convoluted, crazy way of giving me a
surprise! (He had gifted the gun to Bob Lal, the son of a fellow distiller). I was a very
lucky kid to have a Father like him. I realize that now only too well, seeing that he’s
been gone these many years, especially when I compare my own performance as a
Dad with his. He was not, however, twice the man I am; he was a million times the
man I am…if not more.
Apart from Tika Ram, the bearer and Bailey, the chauffeur, there was
Giridhari, the gardener. He was another Sita Ram mali (of ‘Captaingunj’ fame), very
35
devoted to the garden, what little there was of it—it could hardly compare with the
one we’d had earlier. Giridhari was scandalized when I got a small khurpi (an
indigenous gardening trowel) made for myself at the factory workshop and joined
him in turning over the flowerbeds and flowerpots. But I had to keep myself busy
during the vacations, and gardening was fun, especially as it meant getting dirty, to
Mother’s dismay. We had a vegetable garden outside the perimeter, in the Distillery
enclave, and Giridhari would go over every day and bring fresh vegetables for the
table.
One day, he had a small something in the gamchha (a sort of towel-
cum-kerchief that villagers always sling over one shoulder). He carefully untied the
knot to reveal a baby hare. I daresay, despite of all baby things I’ve encountered—
frogs, tortoises, puppies, lizards, quail, day-old chicks, or even mice—this tiny hare
was the cutest little chap I’d ever seen. A family of hares had been in the vegetable
plot, and had bolted when Giridhari dropped in unannounced, leaving this tyke
behind. But the winter that year was very severe, and the little fellow was just too
small to take it minus his mother. In spite of all our ministrations—heater, hot-water
bottle, warm milk, and cotton wool-lined shoebox—he failed to wake up next
morning. I have lost many a pet, but this one really got to me…I skipped meals the
next day.

In the spring of 1965, my voice started to crack…only it didn’t crack, it


smoothly went from piping treble to the deep baritone I have today. I was probably
the last one to notice it, probably because the process was almost imperceptible. And
I went from about 5’4” to 5’9” in a span of three months. Good thing I was home
after having finished with Sherwood, the ample food on the table must have made a
difference; I think my frame couldn’t have taken the strain otherwise. Suddenly, the
difference in height between the pardner and I is barely noticeable, just an inch or so
(I cover that, too, bext year); now the resemblance between us becomes more
apparent, for we are first cousins, too. The pardner loved the browsing at Seohara, I
think there is an unexternalized admission hovering around him that when it comes to
grub, head for Seohara. One of the major reasons for this was Puran Singh, our
Garhwali cook.
I don’t know what it is about these men from that beautiful and rugged
mountain country, but they have the culinary equivalent of green fingers.
Uneducated, poor, not exactly brilliant, they can take the same old everyday
ingredients and make them taste like nothing you’ve ever eaten before. And Puran
Singh was the best cook we’d ever had. His forte was meat dishes; I have seen
Mother watching him closely to see if she can spot the difference in technique; Puran
Singh’s huge success was both ingratiating as well as daunting for her, for she was a
wonderful cook, and it was with mixed feelings that she allowed herself to be
upstaged by this unkempt, amiable, bumbling yokel just descended to the plains.
36
She never discovered the secret of his cooking, for it had something to
do with his heart, not his hands, and hearts are things that are unique to each one of
us, like our fingerprints, and cannot be duplicated. Great cooks, like great poets, are
born, not made.
In 1967 onwards, I got the feeling that all was not well at home.
Superficially, everything was as before, even better in fact, because Father had got a
pair of jet-black cocker spaniels, and dogs have a way of turning houses into homes.
But still I had a feeling that something was not quite right between them. They talked
a shade less to each other, and in spite of the fun we had on Sundays at Kalagarh,
daylong fishing trips-cum-barbeques with lots of swimming and sunbathing; there
was an under-current of tension that I, as their son, could sense.
I started sleeping badly whenever I was home for vacations between
semesters at college. Whatever it was, they weren’t about to share it with me, for my
parents were firm believers in insulating children from adult problems; they would
have adult problems of their own to cope with soon enough, for time flies, something
my timeless muse doesn’t quite realize; we take people for granted, but no one’s
immortal, and suddenly one day they are gone, and we haven’t got around to telling
them this or doing that, always saving it for later, and then the person is nowhere to
be fond and it’s too late.
It was at Allahabad, during a brief visit, that I found Father talking to
Mr. Mitra, a renowned tantric who was a devotee of the Goddess Kali. But as soon as
we returned, I found that things had changed in some way too subtle to express. No
more did the dogs bark madly at night for no rime or reason, compelling me to go out
of the door from my attached bathroom into the courtyard where the kennels were,
stick in hand, to wave it under their noses, telling them to pipe down and let me sleep
or else they were in for the high jump.
One day, Mother told me the whole story. There was tension at home,
Father was unusually irritable, no, it wasn’t money; they had enough, as always, by
the grace of God. It was something else, and its source was the swamp behind the
boundary wall behind our house. One day, at dusk, she had seen a man in white
dress going along the hedge that separated Mr. Awasthi’s bungalow from ours. He
didn’t answer when she called out to him to ask him what he was doing there, but
turned into the shadows and was seen no more. Even Mrs. Awasthi admitted to
seeing a man in white now and then at dusk, but she always presumed it was
someone taking a short cut to our place.
About twenty years ago, an Englishman hunting ducks had fallen into
the marsh and vanished; his body was never found. Standing there in the portico of
Madhu Mandir (see ‘Love is like a Moonbeam’), Mr. Mitra had clearly ‘seen’ him
around our house at Seohara, the day I’d found Father talking to him. He had done
puja (propitiatory rites), and there was nothing to worry about any longer; the dogs
wouldn’t bark anymore, for the spectre that had disturbed them often was gone. I
never really believed in spooks, nor was I at all religious, but I know that from then
37
on, till Father’s death, never again was there any misunderstanding between my
parents.
Seohara was Father’s last regular job. After he recovered from the heart
attack he had at Manali in 1970—the year I cleared my M.A.—he worked for another
three years as Works Manager of Seohara Distillery before retiring. He had done a
fine job; production had trebled on account of expansion works he had initiated and
commissioned, he had installed a chain-grate stoker in the boiler that rationalised fuel
consumption, he had installed a massive forced-draft exhaust fan in the chimney flue
system, and designed (gratis) and installed a fusel oil tap that, well, tapped fusel oil
(a valuable by-product that distilleries normally fail to drain and allow it to remain in
the mainstream of the wash). He had installed an economiser that improved
combustion and fuel-efficiency, and he had incorporated modern instrumentation at
crucial stages in the fermentation process.
Administration had been tightened up, labor relations had never been
better, pilferage had been nearly eliminated and productivity was at an all-time high.
In spite of the initial (one-time) financial outlay and rising costs of consumables and
raw materials, the profitability graph showed a steady upward trend. His successor
had just to maintain the system to keep everything shipshape.
In retrospect, Seohara was a Golden Age for us, a small, simple family,
very devoted to each other and happy with what we had, which was plenty, by our
reckoning. Those were cheap days, when a salary of 3,000 per month was a fortune.
I had picked up my Royal Enfield 350cc ‘Bullet’ motorcycle from
Moradabad, as Delhi bookings extended into the next decade, again thanks to
Seohara. In times when men were happy with very little, we had so much more than
we really needed, and we were thankful. We never looked to see who had more; we
only tried to see who had less, and then tried to do something about it. Mother gave
free English tuitions to indigent college students, and Father inducted raw
apprentices at Rs.100 per month stipend with free board and lodging in the distillery
guesthouse (which, unknown to them, he paid for from his own pocket). Some of
those former apprentices hold the highest positions in the industry today, and never
fail to acknowledge their debt to their mentor.
In time, Father’s name became one to conjure with in the distillery
industry, a fact he remained blissfully unaware of. Later, when I was in the bank and
my parents were spending a year or two with me, this hard-won reputation came to
his rescue, bringing him a new career as a distillery advisor and consultant designer,
at an age when most men are in semi-comatose retirement.
He designed and erected three major distilleries on the west coast that
brought their owners enormous prosperity. They also extended Father’s life because
he had work he loved doing, and when he finally retired, in 1986, I knew his end was
near. I never saw him spend a holiday snoozing on the sofa, the way his son
sometimes does. Sundays he played harder than most men work, and if he lived only
38
seventy-three years, I say he lived two hundred and seventy-three years, the way he
got the maximum mileage out of life—something I’ve never managed to do.

**************

Stephania or Bust!
1965, July: Admission-fever time. I have applied only to St. Stephen’s
College, situated in the North Campus. The pardner is now in his third and final year
of B.A. (Hons.), Economics. Dr. Birendra Nath Ganguly, a distant relative, is the
Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University. That doesn’t dispel my nervousness; will St.
Stephen’s take me, or not? My marks aren’t so very hot. Dr. Ganguly has spoken to
Rev. S.C. Sircar about my application, but he knows only merit counts with the soft-
spoken man of principles who is the principal of this famous college. He urges me to
apply in Ramjas, Hindu, and Kirori Mal colleges as well. I refuse his well-meant
advice; it’s St. Stephen’s or nothing for me.
I am barely sixteen years and five months old, scraping past the
minimum age for admission, sixteen, by the skin of my teeth. It is my genuine age,
my date of birth being 28th February 1949. A common practice that many parents
adopt today is to admit a seven-year old child as a five or six year old in nursery class
by producing an affidavit stating a falsified date of birth. The true birth certificate is
by-passed. The child is a year or two older and has a physical, mental and emotional
advantage over other children whose parents have not adopted this ruse. Dad would
never have dreamt of doing such a patently unfair thing. It is obvious to all that I am
as old as it says I am on my school-leaving certificate, a fresh-faced kid, puppy fat,
downy cheeks and all. My chin is innocent of all but the first signs of an adolescent
beard, and has still to feel the razor.
I can afford to take a year off; I don’t mind joining a Social Welfare
outfit or a Wildlife magazine called ‘The Indian Rifleman’, which has already
published a poem of mine called ‘Exploited Earth’. Legendary shikari Anil Deva
Mukerji has read the poem in the magazine without realizing a nephew has written it;
he confesses to a mild curiosity about the author with the same surname as his. He
has not seen me since I was a child. He has forgotten my first name. (Among
Bengalis, the pet name is, for all practical purposes, a person’s real name; the official
one is almost always a tongue twister, an offshoot of the penchant for flowery
elaboration so typical of Bengali culture. It gives those outside Bengal a hard time).
He is willing to put in a word to the Editor on my behalf once he learns
it is but I who wrote the poem he had liked so much. It is raw, callow, stuff, but he
has made appreciative noises about it to Dad. I squirm with embarrassment at praise
from one who was, in his heyday, an ace hunter, marksman, and leading wildlife and
39
ecology expert. (see: ‘Byasghat and Brigadier Chakraborty’). He is an early role
model for me. Though born to wealth, he shuns a life of effete luxury, taking the road
less traveled, following his heart. He was the last of the great shikaris and an
inspiring outdoorsman. I never came even remotely close to duplicating any of his
stupendous achievements. He lives on in the hearts of those who knew him
personally.
St. Stephen’s calls me for the mandatory interview (I think they
probably want to give me the gentle brush-off). It is a depressing day, cloudy and
humid as only a July day in Delhi can be. I miss the heavy, honest downpour of the
Kumaon hills, where it must be raining cats and dogs right now. I can see in my
mind’s eye, as I await my turn on the bench in the waiting room, the muddy rivulets
as they unite into torrents that rush downhill via pukka nullahs which open into Naini
Tal lake, roiling its blue-green waters.
I can see people huddled under the bandstand, lovers taking advantage
of the situation to steal a kiss behind their umbrellas. Colorful raincoats sprout
everywhere. The ubiquitous squelch-squelch of soaked feet inside gumboots is proof
that raingear, no matter how well made, cannot cope with a typical Monsoon
cloudburst in the hills. Memories of Naini Tal assail me; I hate this stuffy place and
this unfamiliar ordeal. I want to walk away. My name is called.
There are only three persons at the table. They introduce themselves.
The one in the center is Rev. Sircar himself. On his right is Mr. R.I. Shankland, on
his left is Rev. William Rajpal, the Dean. Mr. Shankland explains why they can’t
oblige by giving me English Honors: I didn’t have English literature as an elective
subject in the school-leaving examination. I curse myself silently for my pig-headed
masochism in dropping English in favor of Biology, seeing as the school had made
Addl. Maths, Physics, and Chemistry compulsory.
I see the logic behind this later; these subjects stood boys in good stead
when they took competitive examinations such as those of the Services Selection
Board. In those days, a decent percentage of Sherwoodians joined the Forces, some
rising to the highest ranks (like Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw). In both the World
Wars, they covered themselves with glory. In the small chapel is enshrined the roll of
honor, names of ex-Sherwoodians who fell in battle. We read the names with pride;
they inspire us from beyond the grave.
They offer me History (Hons.). I jump at it; not because I love History (I
loathe the subject) but because it means I am in St. Stephen’s. I cannot countenance
joining Hindu College, or any of the others. Best of all, it means the pardner and I
will carry on where we left off, years ago. I sign my acceptance, and after thanks and
a round of welcome and congratulations, I emerge into the corridor thronged with
hopefuls. They crowd around me to find out what the grilling was like. I paint a very
gloomy picture of the ways of the Inquisition. Their apprehension is mirrored on
their faces; these young men really take life very seriously, I think to myself.
40
But then, I am not a young man yet. I feel like a lost and frightened
schoolboy, alone and vulnerable. I spot a familiar face, with a dark shadow of beard,
atop a sturdy, six-foot-one frame. It is..yes, it’s Behram (Varji) Mody, taller and well
filled-out. He is already through (same subject) but has come with a seedy-looking
individual called Ardeshir Dalal. with them is Bobby Vaid, a Sherwoodian who’s
joined the merchant marine, and has tagged along with Varji to check out the famous
institution he has heard about but never seen. I’m feeling better already.
Dad heaves a sigh of relief. Some of his tension dissipates; he has been
under some considerable stress, chain-smoking as usual. He is upset at the loss of his
precious Parker ’51, his favorite pen. Someone borrowed it when we were filing up
the application forms, days earlier, and never bothered to return it. Dad was so tense
he forgot all about it till he got home. But he is pleased that St. Stephen’s has agreed
to give me hostel accommodation, only here, it’s called ‘residence’. Use of the word
‘hostel’ is actively discouraged. I go around to the office to pay the fees.
During the crisis of ‘forms-submission day’, an obviously high official
of the College had terrorized everyone, barking instructions and tongue-lashing
dazed applicants, who cowered meekly before the wrath of The Great Dictator.
Lesser ones, like me, trembled before him. I remember quaking in my shoes (Bata
size 8) with apprehension as I handed over my form to him at the window. He had
imperiously accepted it. I was tempted to touch his feet in gratitude for this small act
of kindness. He, Mr. Rampal, had condescended to personally accept my unworthy
application from my very hands.
Now, as my turn came to part with currency, I froze in terror. It was Mr.
Rampal again. But wait a minute; the board at his counter read ‘Cashier’. I’m afraid I
giggled, the first and the last time I did so within those hallowed precincts. Rampal
was just the office cashier. He had had his day; the reign of terror was simply his
annual ego trip. It was the one day that made up for the rest of his crummy year, I
intuitively sense, a petty clerk who was boss for a few hours, allocated a crumb of
glory to relieve the drudgery of his otherwise probably joyless life. I feel for him. I
address him meekly as ‘Sir’. He glances apprehensively over his shoulder and
quickly counts the money before handing over a receipt, unable to look me in the
eye.
The real boss was Roberts Sahib, a bluff, hearty individual who was a
human computer: I mean it, a human computer who understood the problems of
those who came to him. He was no longer young, not by a long chalk, but he put in a
twelve-hour day, every day except most Sundays. He was a straightforward, God-
fearing man of the old school who quietly demonstrated that work is worship. You
only had to tell him once that you needed such-and-such certificate, or snatch a few
minutes of his precious time to discuss some particularly aggravating problem and
seek his advice.
When you turned up at the appointed time to collect your piece of paper
or to seek the solution to the baffling quandary, it was always ready, endorsed by
41
Rev. Sircar who, quite understandably, reposed complete and absolute faith in him. A
man of few words, Roberts Sahib never seemed to be in a hurry, yet arrears in his
department were quite unheard of. He was a legend, to put it simply. They say no one
is indispensable; quite possible. Those who have known Roberts Sahib can but
wonder how College runs without him, for he is, alas, now no more.

I move into room number G-2, in Rudra North block. (All residential
blocks are named after departed Principals). It is a tiny room, very oddly shaped on
account of the staircase that runs above it to the first floor. There is not enough room
to swing a cat in. I make a mental note not to swing any cats in this here room. The
view from out my window is pleasing but uninspiring, nothing but a stretch of green
lawn. To my eyes, accustomed to the glory of Kumaon, it is little more than a barren
landscape. (In later years, confronted by vast, soul-shriveling expanses of cement
concrete, I belatedly realize what a lovely, soothing view my window offered).
Opposite G-2 are the rooms of Brij Raj Singh, a member of the college
staff. Never before in my life have I heard Hindi spoken with an Oxford accent. But
he is a dear old boy (he is all of thirty-two), a pipe-smoking bachelor, and has the
rather disconcerting habit of blinking his eyes rapidly, REM style. It is a nervous tic.
I find the effects of studying English Literature varying from case to
case. Some are punsters, some metamorphose into dreamy, poetic types. I dismiss
them most of them as pseuds. Some are just plain loony. These I can handle. It’s the
pseuds who get my goat. Brij Raj is all right. He explains to all and sundry that he
doesn’t blink because he likes blinking; he blinks, he says, because he can’t help
blinking. It is a perfectly satisfactory explanation. If a man blinks incessantly because
he can’t help blinking, it shouldn’t be held against him, I feel, letting the matter drop,
once and for all. It is getting a bit too heavy for me.
Rev. Wiliam Rajpal is the Dean. One should not speak ill of the dead,
and I don’t, but I wish he had reached his point of equilibrium by the time I joined
College. I suppose the man was a victim of his own, self-created, identity crisis. It
was strongly rumored that he started life as one Ram Sadan. Then, as he moved up
the ladder of life, the name changed to Ramsdon (probably on conversion). Now he
was known to the world as Willy…ooops! Rev. William Rajpal! To give him his due,
he had obviously worked hard at reinventing himself repeatedly. He was tall, portly
(which accounted for his astounding displacement), apparently erudite (he took
English (Honors) classes), and he had the same vast, bone-marrow-freezing expanse
of bare upper lip as had Bertie Wooster’s Headmaster, the terrifying Aubrey Upjohn,
M.A.
Willy had cultivated an interesting hybrid accent, not quite Oxbridge,
not exactly Stanford, surely not St. Stephen’s…it fell somewhere between these three
stools. And that was the whole problem; it was hard to nail him. It would have driven
a librarian nuts, the task of cataloguing Willy. You didn’t know quite where to put
42
him, so to speak. So you ended up either putting him out of your mind, or putting
him in his place (if you were tired of life in residence, that is).
But someone up there had a soft corner for him. He had a lovely wife
and two attractive young daughters. The eldest, Madhu, grew out of her schoolgirl
awkwardness into a dazzling beauty. She was pardner’s sister’s classmate at Mater
Dei Convent, so one even got to talk to the vision, on rare occasions. Normally,
closely chaperoned by her mother (who knew only too well that girls will be girls and
boys will be boys and ever the twain shall meet), she was out-of-bounds. She was
ultimately carried off by a young (English, if I remember rightly), handsome
diplomatic service officer, and rarely seen except at exotic locales where her husband
was often mysteriously stationed.
There is an old saying that no matter where you go, you’re bound to
bump into a Stephanian. Vivid reports of Madhu Rajpal sightings by globetrotting
Stephanians continued to trickle into India as late as the ‘80’s. She had been spotted
at a nightclub in Rio, she was seen at Las Vegas, she had met someone in Cannes.
She was even lovelier than before; western dresses suited her tall frame and the
classic hourglass figure. Man, that’s one dream babe the Stephanians of my
generation aren’t going to forget in a hurry.
Willy succeeded Rev. S.C. Sircar as Principal of St. Stephen’s. The
elevation mellowed him and broadened his mind; there’s nothing like exposure to
challenges to bring out the best in a man. Willy did himself and the Board proud; he
surpassed himself. Beckett-like, he grew into the high post that life had given him,
and, by all reports, he did a rather good job. He changed, becoming receptive to
constructive criticism, adopting something akin to a democratic form of functioning
absolutely unthinkable during his tenure as Dean. He relaxed his strict control over
his daughters, allowing them more freedom. I heard later that he went on to a
distinguished tenure as Principal of St. Stephen’s College. I have no problems with
that. Why should I? He had served College well; that was enough, as far as I was
concerned. The Lord rest his soul and give it peace.
The Head of the Department of History is Professor E.R. Kapadia, a
short, typically Parsi gentleman with atrocious French pronunciation. Since he taught
European History, which seemed to me, between bouts of day-dreaming during his
dreary classes, as being all about France (“Mukerji, did you hear what I just said?”
“Er…sorry, no Sir: could you please repeat it?” “Well, as I was saying, when France
sneezes, Europe catches cold.” “Ha ha ha, excellent, Sir!”) I can’t bring myself to be
rougher with the lovable old boy; his son, Farrukh, is an Old Sherwoodian, four
classes above me. It’s his old, yellowed notes, which he constantly consults, that
send shivers up and down my spine. I realize that European History must be really
history, when the notes he’s lecturing to us from are themselves history.
One day, a prankster with a sense of history breaks into Professor
Kapadia’s office and removes the aged notes, no doubt giving them a decent, well-
deserved cremation (they are never recovered). Professor Kapadia (Kaps) suffers a
43
nervous breakdown; he has taught from those beloved notes for thirty years. He
cannot function without them. Farrukh probably comes to the rescue, passing him his
own notes. Kaps resumes classes. We notice a change in the tone of the lectures; they
are better constructed, more analytical. Best of all, the old, stale jokes are gone. In
our final year, a new Kaps greets us. He is barely recognizable. He has spent the
winter in the south of France, where Farrukh (now in the foreign service) is posted.
He spouts French at the drop of a hat, waxes eloquent on French wines and the Great
Impressionists, and sports Hawaiian beach shirts. It all takes a bit of getting used to.
France has a way of doing things to people; I’ve never met anyone who
came away unchanged from Paris. I adore people who know, and speak, French. To
me, it is the world’s most sophisticated language, with Punjabi at the opposite end of
the linguistic spectrum. Both have their uses. The latter is an excellent safety valve in
Delhi traffic, I discover, after I get the hang of a few choice phrases. Unfortunately,
my French does not extend much further than “Enchante, Mam’selle” and “Merci
beaucoup.” I have no gift for languages, and finally decide to give the Gallic tongue a
wide berth. I remain a hill-billy at heart, a sucker for dazzling, brainy babes good at
French…the language, I mean.
Kap’s classes now become quite popular. The episode of the stolen
notes and his visit to France gave a fresh lease of life to his sagging career and God
knows what else. The average marks scored by his students begin to show an upward
trend. Kaps takes to the Coffee House circuit, (an unprecedented development for
him: he used to be rather stuffy and conservative) where he continues to hold forth
(minus notes of any sort). It is touching to see a man with a resurrected, revitalized
career. But there is another cause for his sudden rise in popularity; Homai, his
attractive teenage daughter, aka Dolly. Dolly has bloomed overnight. Many of the
guys are crazy about her. I think she knows this, with the age-old wisdom of Eve.
There are three other girls on the Stephen’s campus; Doc Ghose’s
daughter, Lolita, an intellectual type who has her own circle of admirers, Mr. Prem
Chand’s daughter, Saran Prabha, an extroverted, hyper-intelligent type who has the
guts to ask guys out for movies. She is excellent company. And lastly, there is Deepa
Bhalla, daughter of late Professor Bhalla. She is a quiet beauty, slim, tall, and
shapely. She looks more like Waheeda Rahman than Waheeda Rehman herself. I
confess to admiring her shyly from a distance.
Later, I learn that her suitors are legion. I don’t know how he did it, but
one Suresh Sharma woos and wins her. He is one of those rakish, dissipated-looking,
Kohlapuri-shod, jhola-slinging, Coffee House hangout types, one or two classes
before me. He smokes Charminars with an abstracted, philosophical air. He leaves
the university with a brace of thirds under his belt, the hallmark of the true-blue
pseudo-intellectual. This species encounters such heavy weather in coping with the
rugged demands made on them by pseudo-intellectualism that they have no time left
for studies (which, in any case, is infra dig for a pseud).
44
It is a wonderful world to be plunged into. There is, of course, the
ragging and lots more besides, but do you think it can wait? It’s time for dinner, and
if you are late you have to catch the eye of Prof. Stephen Charles Francis Pierson,
dining alone at the High Table, and bow your apology to him. He composes one
outrageous Grace after another, my all-time favorite being “Daily, Lord, we’re
getting thinner: Could it be this lovely dinner?”…. Amen!
**************

A Freshman in Stephania

“You will be mercilessly ragged,” Dr. B.N. Ganguly is warning me. “So
what?” I reply. My retort is unintentionally rude, a result of bravado at the coming
ordeal, with all its promised horrors. I bid my parents good-bye. As the black
ambassador with Bailey at the wheel rolls off, I am reminded of another day, way
back in March, 1957,when I bade them goodbye in similar fashion as I prepared to
settle down to life at Sherwood. I was only eight then: I am over sixteen now, nearly
a man, but the old lump returns, unbidden, to my throat. To divert my mind, I unpack
and settle down.
There is thunderous knocking at the door. “All freshers line up in the
lawn outside.” The ferocious voice belongs to a bull-necked, tousle-haired goon with
wide gaps between his tombstone teeth. A mean bruiser, if ever I saw one. Reminds
me of Ernest Borgnine. His belly looks soft, though; ‘a hard, low right punch,
straight-armed, to the solar plexus, full bodyweight behind the blow, then dance
away, jabbing with the left, in case he has the wind left to follow. Alternatively, you
can try a left uppercut if he folds—remember to bend your knees as the glove comes
up, then snap them straight just before impact, to add body-weight; remain focused
on his chin’…Thapa’s voice rings in my ears. No, this is not the boxing ring at
Sherwood, it cannot be done, this is a ritual, going back to pre-historic times when
the young, would-be warriors are ‘blooded’. I join the queue of sacrificial lambs.
(‘Borgnine’ is later to be revealed as Vik Atal, one of the jolliest blokes going. It’s
just as well as I didn’t try anything funny, though; he is as tough as they come. He’d
probably have taken me out in seconds. Besides, it’s just not done).
An hour of reciting, and acting out our favorite nursery rhymes, follows.
I guffaw at the antics I see all around me. The bruiser is not amused. He complains
loudly, in a martyred tone, that this is one hell of a fresh Fresher. No matter how
rough the ragging gets, I just can’t help enjoying it; it shows, to his consternation. I
seem to be a first, for him. He’s determined to sort me out. When the others are
through, he selects ten of us, myself among them, and marches us off to his room (in
Rudra South, I think it was). Calisthenics follow: routine stuff for a Sherwoodian, but
some of the guys don’t see much point in endless deep-knee bends while clutching
one’s ears in a crossover hold.
45
We are told to lie down on the floor, one atop the other. The pile of
bodies is unstable, as heaving chests labor for air. Fresher pressure, our tormentor
gleefully calls it. I am second from the bottom. Between the hard floor and me is a
slight frame, bespectacled and of scholarly mien. I feel sorry for him (the world
knows him later as Dr. Arvind Narain Das, Gold Medallist in B.A. (History Hons.), a
genuine intellectual and prominent Leftist thinker/ writer, and the author of many
books including The Republic of Bihar [Penguin]. His sudden demise in August 2000
leaves an army of friends and admirers shocked and deeply grieved).
Two cricketing types hi-jack us from Borgnine. From frying pan to fire!
One is a thickset, gray-eyed fella with wiry forearms who reminds me of Charles
Bronson. The other is a slim, Hugh Grant-type with a comma over his right eye, like
Bond in Dr. No. He would have been handsome had he not pasted that bored,
cynical expression on his face (it’s a façade, I see later---he is the legendary Michael
Dalvi—his partner is the equally famous Pradeep ‘Bablu’ Bhide, an opening batsman
of a class Stephen’s rarely sees). The lawns are flooded ankle-deep; the deadly duo
make us ‘swim’ two lengths of a pool—naturally, the smart fellow who decided to do
the Dolphin finished miles ahead of the rest—he just stretched out, then dragged his
knees his up to his chest, then stretched out again---and so on. Funniest sight is
Giddy (James Gideon), doing the crawl: he thrashes about for half-an-hour at exactly
the same spot.
We are bedraggled, grass-stained, thoroughly soaked. The two heartless
hooligans march us off to where they’ve lost their hearts---Miranda House. Here, at
the boundary wall, we present impromptu versions of the Romeo and Juliet balcony
scene---on the road. Judging by the cheers and the titters from the jam-packed
windows, the performance is highly appreciated by a knowledgeable audience.
Traffic crawls. Shakespeare seems to be highly popular with the Kingsway Camp
dadas, turned out in full strength; now we have one audience trying to outdo the
other in cheers, jeers, catcalls, and wolf-whistles. Things are getting slightly out of
control; we are marched off in the pairs, holding our partners up close and personal.
The applause is deafening. We are mere cannon fodder; we have but served our
purpose. Body language (at our cost) has done what words have failed to do. (The
deadly duo connects unerringly, later on, with their respective heart-stealers).
We are now marched off to the College café and treated to a gargantuan
meal of scrambled eggs, buttered toast, and mince chops. Introductions follow, the
signal that our battered bunch has earned the right to live in Stephania, as far as the
going concern of Mike & Bablu are concerned. Henceforth, we are invited to resort
to nicknames when addressing them, equals in a land where we are more equal than
the vast, unwashed multitudes of the outside world. It is a never-never land that, once
left, we will never, never again encounter, though we will search for it all our lives.
A word about the café. The St.Stephen’s café, at first glance, looks
somewhat run-down and frayed at the edges. It is situated indoors. Two spring-
loaded wire-mesh doors (which later prove to be portals to a paradise of rare
46
gastronomic delights) afford ingress to a large room (about 25’x 25’), with a split-
counter on the left leading to the alchemist’s alcove (the kitchen). There are about a
dozen tables with four or five cane chairs set at each, and there is no music or
carpeting. It is well ventilated, however, so cigarette smoke is not a problem. There
are ceiling fans whirring away overhead, and the walls and ceiling are whitewashed.
That’s all. It is a man’s kind of place.
But first-time visitors learn that appearances can be very deceptive. For
in this hallowed place are available the best scrambled-eggs-on-buttered-toast, mince
chops, and shikanji (sweet-lime) in the world. The wizards responsible for these
wonders are known to the faithful as Dolly and Shelley (although it is rumored that
their secret identities are Daulat Singh and Shailendra Singh). They never reveal their
secrets, handed down from sorcerer to sorcerer; for decades, foreign powers have
sent agents/ moles to steal the magic recipes. They return empty-handed, including
one Zia ul Haq, who, in spite of graduating from Stephania, fails to lay his hands on
the secret formula. His frustration ultimately turns to belligerence. It’s a case of
tortured taste buds. We, the cognoscenti, understand.
It is common currency that Ian Fleming thought up Blades for Bond and
his boss, ‘M’, and P.G. Wodehouse invented the Drone’s Club for the Last Of The
Woosters, after sampling the atmosphere and fare of the café we had just left. We
know for a certainty that the outside world, large though it is, will never be able to
satisfy our palates, at least as far as the items we have just gorged on are concerned.
They will remain a mirage to tantalize and madden our spouses, whose culinary skills
will be put to the ultimate test and found wanting. Breakfast, it is said, is the time
when the Stephanian, married and addicted to scrambled-eggs-on-toast, is on his
shortest fuse. Ambrosia, alas, is only available on Olympus… not in Eden.
Under the shade of the large, leafy Neem tree outside the café sits
Sukhia (he has been there for as long as anyone can remember). He is a Barfi and
samosa specialist, and that’s all he stocks. The quantity is limited, but the quality is
not. After sampling Sukhia’s wares, from which the aroma of homemade ghee wafts
like a cloud, attracting swarms of bees (a sure sign of purity, Agmark or no), one
becomes rather suspicious of other mithai-wallahs. One complainant, unhappy about
the shrinking size of the Barfis, is silenced by the acerbic observation that he himself
is but an etiolated, effete version of his father… a grand gentleman who was never
heard complaining. Just thinking about Sukhia’s offerings, not merely the edible
variety, makes me salivate, even after all these years.
Ominous news: the annual ‘Miss Fresher’ contest is scheduled for the
coming Saturday. But before that, one has to be blessed by the ‘Blacksmith’. This
mysterious deity turns out to be the huge water-cooler opposite the notice board. The
exact reasons for this nomenclature are lost in antiquity. Suffice it to say that every
Fresher has to make obeisance before, and swear fealty to, this icon. Then he has to
recite the Blacksmith’s Song; recite, because the score has been misplaced ages ago,
and no Stephanian, not even venerable Khushwant Singh or the brothers Bharat Ram
47
Charat Ram, can recollect the tune. I once even asked Dr. Karni Singh of Bikaner,
ace marksman and Olympian, but he couldn’t recollect any tune, either.
The lyrics compensate, in large measure, for the lost music. They are
full of earthy wisdom, imparting deep insights into certain aspects of general
anatomy. They provide the wet-behind-the-ears Fresher a vivid glimpse into a murky
world of human predilections, even as they inspire research into an esoteric area of
mechanical engineering. Unfortunately, certain laws of the land, common to civilized
societies, come in the way of my reproducing them here. In any case, I do not wish to
be drummed out of the Old Stephanians’ Society for committing a breach of faith.
Like the Rosicrucians, I am only allowed to externalize the mantra on select
occasions (viz. Stephanian get-togethers), linking arms with my fellows and hollering
it at the top of my baritone, while the foam froths down the sides of my beer-mug.
The magic chant, it is said, has the power to rejuvenate, to roll back the years as it
were. It works.
The Blacksmith is the logo on the masthead of the college fortnightly,
Kooler Talk, aka KT (or Katy, for short, not to be confused with Katy Mirza, she of
the good-old Dolly Parton school of BOOBS [Birds Or Other Beasts Savory]
representing a laissez-faire approach to promoting and popularizing abundant natural
resources as tourist attractions, i.e., before Dolly’s entirely unwarranted ‘surgical
rationalization’ of said abundant assets—which triggers off a global hue-and-cry
against the criminal vandalization of an international, UN-certified cultural heritage
site. It is Sanjeev Misra, breathing fire and brimstone at my appalling GK, who fills
me in on this vital bit of information during a tough ragging session from which I
emerge with the distinct impression that nothing I know is worth knowing). Phew!
KT claims to print all the talk that’s kool to print. It is a trendsetter, a
breeding ground of many future writers and journalists. The captions and headlines
are often over three decades ahead of their time: even the snappy bold-print of
today’s newspapers is hard-pressed to match the best of KT. It is unique, presented in
esoteric idiom for a select audience, not unlike The New Yorker or The Field (both of
which are available in the reading room, rubbing shoulders with Punch, TIME, The
New Statesman, National Geographic and The Economist. I freak out. ) Illustrious
names have figured on the editorial page; I can remember Arvind Das’s name on it
vividly. As a wit that wagged full-time, only one K. Doraiswamy (passed out,
unfortunately, before I joined) – better known as ‘Doray’—is said to equal Arvind’s
stature as Editor of KT.
A trio hauls me away from the reading room. One is Yashwant Sahai
(son of Ram Sahai, IAS, an old friend of Dad’s from his army days). His fellow
inquisitors are a surd who is an ex- Sherwoodian a year my senior, who therefore
grins and takes a back seat. The other is one who finally reveals himself as Deepak
Dhawan, only the D’s and P’s come out as ‘Fr’s’ on account of some acoustical
aberration; my interpretation of his name, therefore, is highly confusing.
48
The last of the threesome is a short, barrel-chested, rubicund roundhead
with sparse brown hair and an infectious grin. He finds out I am a Sherwoodian like
his surd friend. I am grilled mercilessly about C.S Bedi’s (for that is the sardarji’s
monicker) school record. Fortunately, it is quite outstanding, so I have little difficulty
in remembering; besides, he was my House Captain. In an inspired moment, I even
recollect the full version—Chiranjiv Singh—a rare occurrence, since only surnames
are used in Sherwood. My ex-chief grins proudly at my tormenters, and pulls them
off me. I have got myself a staunch ally from the past. He lets it be known that I am
an old friend. The ragging begins to abate.
The barrel-chested one is Lawrence Rydquist (“Just call me Larry”), a
rock-hard boxer-type from St. Xavier’s, Hazaribagh. He is an irrepressible jokester,
who loves it when the joke’s on him (which it often is: no one can resist kidding
Larry. If I were a girl, I’d probably describe him as ‘cute’). One thing I notice is that
ragging is a fantastic icebreaker; we come to know each other intimately, even to the
point of often remembering, for the rest of our lives, which school the other fellow
went to. Snobbish? I don’t think so, merely someone else’s personal details, long
remembered, and very flattering to a friend…a bond-enhancer if ever there was one.
Stephania, I discover, is a tiny country in the clouds where everyone knows everyone
else well nigh inside out.
A burly figure with a powerful, metallic voice commandeers me and
marches me off to his room in Allnutt South. The shelves groan under the weight of
myriad classics. He has a profound knowledge of Shakespeare; I am grilled on
Laertes and Ophelia, Lear and Mercutio. I have to recite the Seven Ages of Man. The
aristocratic figure nods without comment at my fumbling attempts to match the range
and daunting sweep of the questions flung at me. He exudes confidence and
authority: his erudition is scary. He seems to be a throwback to some senator of
Roman times, a patrician type born to sway the masses. I, a mere stripling of a
freshman, am awed. He starts looking bored, asks me to name any ‘difficult’ word I
can think of. If he doesn’t know the meaning, I am off the hook. I come up with
“Hector”. His eyes twinkle (relief? amused pride?). He insists it’s a proper noun, a
character from Ovid. “From Homer, Sir”, I correct him. “Ah, yes, Homer. The Iliad,
of course.” That twinkle again: he is toying with me. “But what does it mean,
fresher? It has no meaning.”
“It has, Sir,” I protest, “it means ‘to bully’.” He asks me to look it up for
him from the dictionary on the shelf. I locate the word and present the evidence. He
reads it with satisfaction. “Bully for you, Fresher. Good going.” He is genuinely
appreciative. (But why the pride in my performance? Simply because, I see in a flash
of prescience, he is a born leader and motivator). “By the way, call me Kapil, as in
‘Kapil Sibal’”, he says, as he shakes my hand, the signal that the ragging session is
over.
I have just met Stephania’s legendary orator, Shakespearean actor non-
pareil, and a great gentleman. No production of the justly-famous Shakespeare
49
Society of St. Stephen’s College is ever complete without him; he is Hamlet, he
Julius Caesar, he is King Lear, he is Romeo, he is Henry II, he is a hundred
characters from other plays like ‘Rhinoceros’; he is history come to life in living
literature. In a word, he is unforgettable. In time, he becomes the leading lawyer of
India’s Supreme Court of Justice, the first Indian non-parliamentarian to address both
Houses of Parliament, to finally himself sit in the Upper House and go on to a cabinet
post. He achieves fame and fortune through sheer merit and honest toil, quietly
accepting the respon-sibal-ities he was pre-destined to carry across his massive
shoulders. A fine Indian it was my privilege to have met in my formative years.
How can I possibly take the names of all the great men with whom I had
the privilege of breaking bread with in Stephania? Today, if I recount their names, it
will seem as if I, an unknown Stephanian, am attempting to shine in their reflected
glory by mentioning illustrious names in my little book. But I have mentioned so
many who, great men all, are not in the public eye, that I do these stalwarts an
injustice by omitting to mention them merely because they are already newsworthy.
How about Suman Dubey, tall, serious, bearded, very fit as per the requirement of his
hobby: mountaineering. A brilliant student, who plays a key role in the Ministry of
Finance and Planning Commission? Or Siddharth Kak, film-maker and theatre
personality extraordinary?
Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy, fresh-faced and energetic, keeping a very low
profile despite being the Indian squash racquets champion (1969) and undoubtedly
one of the all-time greats of the game, who has become a legend thorough his social
service organization in Tilonia, a remote little village in Rajasthan that he has
transformed by his pioneering efforts? How about Roshan Seth, famous thespian?
Mighty Manjit Singh, now a top gun in the Audits & Accounts Department? Rajeev
Sethi, India’s Czar of Culture, always in the dailies whenever avant-garde is news?
Maybe Rana Talwar, sharpshooter turned Banking mogul? Top bureaucrat Ajit
Jadhav? Kabir Bedi? Shakti Maira? Charan Das Arha? Gobinder ‘Goofy’ Singh?
Kiran Rai? Nirupam Sen? Naren Belliappa? Badal Roy? Nirmal Andrews? Shiv
Shankar Menon? Cricketers like Ashok Gandotra, and cousins Jeevan and Sheel
Mehra? Media personalities Suraj and Chander Rai? If I let my mind freewheel any
more I’ll run out of paper. The corridors of power, the media, the creative arts are
where you find the best of Stephania; no matter where you go, you are bound to
bump into a Stephanian!
Ragging is banned in Delhi’s colleges today. In recent years, the influx
of undesirable elements (often said to be politically-sponsored) into the university,
has given it a bad name. Excesses, in the name of, and under the guise of, ragging,
have had serious repercussions of a law-and-order nature. Ragging, too, apparently,
therefore, carried within itself the seeds of its own demise: it just needed the right
socio-economic conditions to ignite the fuse (see “A Farewell to Arms.”). With its
passing, a whole new generation will step out into life after an insipid, uninspiring
experience of passively joining an institution, studying for examinations, and passing
50
out, without ever having known the euphoria of close friendship and intimacy, the
stuff that esprit de corps is fashioned from.
It was not elitism, it was not a bourgeois tradition, it was simply a great
way for young people, who would otherwise have remained closed doors to each
other, to function effectively as a group and make the most of college life. It helped
forge lasting bonds that served them well throughout life, the sap of the ‘Old Boy’
network that sustained and supported the ever-growing edifice. It was a golden
opportunity for developing inter-personal skills that enabled one to better endure, and
perhaps cope with, the inanities and pettiness that life in the great, big world outside
would be found to be brimming with.
If the other name of Stephania was Utopia, ragging served the useful
purpose of helping one keep firmly in touch with terra firma. No ‘five-pointer’ (five
points are the highest possible marks in the inversely-structured marks-sheet system
of the Indian School Certificate Examination) ever got shorter shrift than the one
Stephania gave him. It chastened the proud and uplifted the meek and the modest. It
taught one how to stiffen the spine in the face of apparently hostile elements, to laugh
at oneself and at life, and perhaps inspired solutions that enabled one to win over an
opponent.
It smoothed-out the rough edges, buffed by a hoary tradition driven by
peer-pressure. Many an intractable rough-diamond departed as an exquisite brilliant
whose fine-cut facets reflected the fire that burned brightly within. It also served to
raise lasting mental memorials to friends never seen, met, or heard from again.
Young people today, I feel, are much the poorer for its passing.

*********

Miss Fresher’s Night

Men are given to celebration; they love spectacle, and so they are
always on the lookout for a spectacular way of celebrating something by whatever
means appear to be appropriate. This could help explain victory processions,
seasonal festivals, fertility rites, or even the ritualistic changing of the guard at a
certain palace on a certain foggy little isle. The Romans fed the early Christians to
lions, and gladiators killed each other for the crowd’s benefit, morituri salutamus
and all that. Heathens danced around the Maypole or offered human sacrifices to
Ba’al. Rome countered with Bacchanalian orgies and Vestal virgins. The Greeks
answered with their Olympic games.
Stephania has its Miss Fresher’s Night. I use the present tense because I
haven’t bothered to check whether the event that marked the peak as well as the
51
culmination of ragging, has managed to survive to the present day. Probably not, for
—horror of horrors—there are now real, live females in Stephania, in residence, to
boot!
Who, and under the evil influence of what, allowed this to come about, I
do not know nor do I care to find out. Post mortems do not interest me particularly.
All I know is that sacrilege has been perpetrated. No more will the likes of Jainder
Singh or Jitu Gohain crawl out of bed after a night’s revels and stagger to breakfast
just in time to beat the 9.00 AM deadline. No one cared to remark on their
grumpiness, their unshaved cheeks, their tousled hair or the crumpled pyjamas. It was
all part of their personae. With femme fatales around, there will never again be any
more genuine Jainders and Jitus. Sad.
Incidentally, Jainder’s room was a true work of spontaneous modern art:
it always looked as it was meant to look: a Daliesque 3-D mural created by a
wayward Texas tornado that had sucked up books, old newspapers, notes, tutorials,
back issues of Playboy, sundry items of attire and toilet articles and, after mixing
them thoroughly, had scattered them in surreal confusion all over the room. Such
wonders will have passed forever from the sight of men, for females have overrun the
last frontier. Stephania will never be the same again, RIP.
All this foregoing is, naturally, part and parcel of my argument as to
why the memory of the original, annual Miss Fresher’s Contest is even more
meaningful from a historical point of view. With so many misses joining as freshmen
(which paradox makes the muddle all the more hideous), how could there be a Miss
Fresher? There would have to be a Master Fresher as well, a title hardly euphonic or
even logical, a ridiculous exercise in futility. Nevertheless, let us return to the golden
days when men were men and the only sex (meaning ‘gender’ ahem! Of course, there
are a few notable exceptions: see “Stephania or Bust!”) resident in College.
Now, given Man’s propensity for celebrating at the drop of a bra…
sorry, hat (see how rattled I am with all this females-in-College bit), the Miss
Fresher’s Annual Contest was a BIG ONE! Here, half-a-dozen freshmen of tender
years, whose lack of fully-developed secondary sexual characteristics, viz., facial
hair, etc., and smooth complexions which, apparently, were entirely due to copious
use of Lux soap—the creator of Fair & Lovely cream was in diapers then, and
unable to play an active role—were cosmetically metamorphosed into transvestites
for a night, ersatz women to be pitted against each other for the title.
Rules of the arena were followed; thumbs down meant the participant
was axed, whilst the loudest whistles, cheers, and obvious unanimity of the experts in
the crowd of seniors automatically threw up a winner. The object of the whole
exercise, I suspect, was to prove, over and over again, how right Tennyson was when
he wrote:
“Woman is the lesser man, and all thy passions, match’d with mine,
Are as moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine---”
52
A panel of seniors whittled the field down to about ten contestants, some
of whom were Benjamin Gilani (Eng. Hons.), Dennis Michael Joseph (Eng. Hons.),
Rajiv Sethi (Hist. Hons.), Barun Lal Barua (Phy. Hons.), Saket Mohan (Hist. Hons.),
and…to my dismay…the undersigned (also Hist. Hons.)! Costumes were designed
and re-designed; make-up men practiced feverishly, while certain light-fingered
fellows were commissioned as ‘cosmetics and accessories suppliers’.
Sisters, mothers, and even girlfriends must have complained bitterly
about choice goodies that mysteriously vanished overnight from vanity cases and
lingerie drawers. The venue, as usual, was the JCR (the Junior Combination Room—
a classic bit of convoluted nomenclature so typical of Stephania). It was, as its name
deliciously hints, the recreation room. It had a music room equipped with a state-of-
the-art stereo record player-amplifier-speaker system, ably supported by about three
dozen or so LP’s (which meant ‘Long Playing’ records, designed to be played on a
turn-table set to rotate at 33 ⅓ RPM (revolutions per minute). There were caroms,
and a table-tennis table that saw a lot of action. And there was the television set.
In the early sixties, television was a novelty. In The Beginning was
Doordarshan (a single channel, thankfully), which dished out sundry garbage for
viewers to take or to leave; a monopoly, I believe it’s called. I’m sure that, for most
people, ownership of a TV set was just a personal statement, more of a status symbol
than a real source of entertainment or enlightenment (some things never change---it
still is, only the sets grow more sophisticated with each passing year, with
manufacturers adding a plethora of features in competitive desperation, features that
few users either need or know how to use).
DD’s signature tune gave me the creeps, as it still does. Imagination has
never been DD’s strong point. Creativity was an optional extra…a novelty
discouraged in State-sponsored outfits. Images were fuzzy, studio subjects poorly lit
and composed, and sound quality was terrible even if one had the premium, up-
market, State-owned (naturally!) Uptron brand (which we did). At that moment,
however, I was deeply thankful that the event was not being recorded for telecast.
DD was a staunch follower of Henry Ford I; customers could have any
color of image, as long as it was black. White was thrown in for free, a value-
addition that did not go unappreciated by the novo cognoscenti, the new breed of TV
couch potatoes. If white failed to appear at times, no one complained; one doesn’t
look a gift horse in the mouth, does one? It speaks volumes for the human penchant
for novelty, that large numbers of the image-hungry (and image-conscious, too, it
may be said) residents sat around the set, deeply absorbed in the miasma it spewed
forth.
My life-long aversion for The News, going back to the early days of
valve radio-sets, was given a fresh lease of life by the fiendish new torture of a
captive audience devised by DD. A newscaster called Salma Sultan was the only
audio-visual guaranteed to please. The sole program worth watching (at least as far
as I was concerned) was a pot-pourri of global happenings called “Mirror of the
53
World”, anchored by Prakash Mirchandani. He was succeeded by Kabir Bedi, who
did an equally splendid job.
I was pleasantly surprised to find Kabir in College. He was a
Sherwoodian two years my senior, a serious, intellectual type with a physique like
that of a Greek God who did his bit on the sports field with determination if not
always with distinction. His mind seemed to be on higher things, even then. The
Gods had smiled on Kabir, blessing him with the amazing good looks and boyish
charm that remain with him today. He accepted the gift of manly beauty graciously if
somewhat absent-mindedly, never really conscious of it or hamstrung by it. He was,
and is, in essence, a person of the spirit.
It was all the more galling for me to find that in his final year, I had, by
some lucky fluke, equaled his marks in the senior school General Knowledge
examination. To make matters worse, my being two years his junior meant I got two
handicap points by way of weightage, which landed the prize, so deservedly his, in
my clumsy hands. I could never really look Kabir in the eye for a long time after this.
He was unfazed; prizes mattered little to him. He was after Life itself, and the Grand
Prize it awards its devotees. As we all know, he got it…after Sandokan, he never
looked back. No one ever deserved success more, especially because it did not spoil
him; it simply added even more depth and texture to what was already a masterpiece.
It is said of Paul Baumer that he fell on a day that was so sleepily
uneventful that, in dispatches, it was tersely dismissed as being ‘All quiet on the
Western Front.’ Miss Fresher’s day could have matched Paul Baumer’s last one,
dispatch for dispatch—till darkness fell, that is. Then all hell broke loose, as they say
in Westerns. In the music room, temporarily converted into a field greenroom, the
contestants were being readied by their trainers and make-up artists to charm (and
calm) the yelling, stamping, whistling savages outside. Bets flew thick and fast as to
whose ‘horse’ would win, for each contestant had a ‘sponsor’.
Behind the scenes, bottles of war paint were all over the place. Lipstick
of all the garish shades possible to imagine were being thickly coated on lips, and eye
shadow seemed to be in more in vogue in Stephania than in Vogue itself. As we, the
miserable few who’d qualified for this particularly testing ordeal for reasons beyond
our control were being readied for the ramp, the impatient hooligans outside raised a
clamor fit to raise the dead. Even through the haze of misery that seemed to envelope
me (for I was, and had always been, unmistakably hetero in my inclinations…drag
was abhorrent to me), I seem to remember that I put my foot down when it came to
having my legs shaved. D.M. Patel, in school, was rather particular about his legs,
but I was no transvestite. I resisted strongly; so strongly, in fact, that my sponsor
backed off: a last-minute substitute was impossible to arrange.
And so it was that I walked the ramp (I felt I was walking the plank) in a
grass skirt, stuffed bra, and Hawaiian slippers. I was meant to sashay down the
catwalk doing the hula. Unshaved legs under grass skirts are hardly the stuff that
turns a crowd on. When the legs do the Camel’s Walk (for some unknown reason,
54
this came to me naturally), and hips gyrate Elvis Presley fashion, boos and jeers are
but natural.
A somewhat prominent set of trapezius and triceps muscles also does
nothing for the male libido, ditto for a tell-tale bulge in the nether regions. Excellent
make-up (I have to admit I looked rather fetching in the wig) notwithstanding, I got a
standing---er, what’s the antonym of ‘ovation’?
Wodehouse, as lost as I am here, uses the term ‘bird’. The disappointed
hooligans gave me the bird in no uncertain fashion. Boos and hoarse cries of
thwarted passion rebounded from the rafters. I was hastily recalled by those in event
management. In the ultimate analysis, natural talent will always win hands down.
Rajiv had it…in spades. Possessed of sharp, attractive features, a
smooth, dusky complexion, wavy hair, large, soulful eyes with lashes to match, he
was tall, slim, and walked with a lissome grace that would have given many a
Mirandian a complex. The crowd went wild…and the title was his.
Even today, he is a very handsome man. Age has bypassed him, but not
fame, and his thick, black hair is as lustrous as ever. He dominates the country’s
cultural scene, a highly creative artist and visionary and India’s globe-trotting
cultural ambassador. Rajni…oops! I mean ‘Rajiv’, has countless friends among the
Bold and the Beautiful of the world, one of them being his long-time chum Bianca
Jagger.
And to think that we endured history lectures together, breathing the
same air and yawning at the same lousy jokes! What strange bedfellows doth Fate
bring together.

**********

I Rode With Patankar

It was in one of the Sunday supplements that I spotted an article on him.


It seems he had been making spectacular television documentaries for National
Geographic Channel in partnership with Mark Shand, a Brit who shares his passion
for an Indian elephant called Tara. When I last bumped into him (in Connaught Place
nearly twenty years ago), he had a well-used Nikon F2 slung around his neck. He had
been in a tearing hurry and the few moments we had, on the sun-baked flagstones,
were mainly devoted to squeezing the life out of each other.
I did not recognize either of the tanned, fit, but middle-aged and balding
filmmakers in the picture that went with the article. Obviously, the olive-skinned one
was Aditya; I remembered his infectious, dimpled smile, the wild, untrammeled
55
spirit… and the hair-raising lift I once hitched from him to CP. I had little idea what I
was letting myself in for.
He rode a CZ Jawa, a fast, temperamental motorcycle popular with the
university crowd over thirty years ago. I had barely mounted the pillion when the
bike seemed to shoot out of Allnutt Gate like a bullet, tilted at an impossible angle. I
remember almost falling off in the shattering burst of acceleration. The nightmare
had begun.
Going up the Ridge, the throttle seemed to be stuck at the farthest limit.
The engine was wailing deliriously with only an occasional, lightning gear-change
affording it brief respite. I clung to the machine, as it swayed and vibrated, with an
iron grip born of sheer terror.
He rode as if all the hounds of hell were after us. I shut my streaming
eyes after the chilling discovery that the ‘picket fence’ on the left was actually a
sedate procession of well-spaced electric-supply poles. My breakfast was dying to
get off. Secretly, so was I.
Life seemed to be a mélange of exhaust-boom, vicious acceleration,
cruel braking, unrelenting centrifugal forces and nausea. Just as I reconciled myself
to an early demise, the machine slowed and jolted to a halt. The tortured engine
wound its way down the octaves and died, grumbling in basso profundo. I got off
shakily. I was alive!
My watch had stopped, no doubt in lieu of my heart. It was the ride of a
lifetime…it was a lifetime. The present one is a bonus, a gratuitous second round.
Every day is a precious gift….courtesy Aditya Patankar. I’m glad he’s still at his old
game of showing people how to live.

Postscript: After college, I got myself a Jawa, but it felt all wrong, and I
switched to another make; mere transportation minus transport. I realized, sadly, that
a song is nothing without the singer.

*******

The ‘New Age’ and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin


“If men cease to believe that they will one day become gods, then they
will surely become worms.”—Henry Miller, ‘The Colossus of Maroussi.’

Most of us are so absorbed by the dismal details of daily existence that


we usually miss the larger picture, hurrying through life without seeing the wood for
the trees. There is no plausible explanation for existence, for the apparently brutal
56
randomness of the giant puzzle. We remain untouched by the magic of Creation, the
spellbinding wonder of it all. My days in the field, apparently in innocent pursuit of
fish and game, fortuitously brought me closer to Nature, which many call God. Not
that I became a ‘godly’ person; far from it. But the little insights that came to dwell
in me unconsciously, helped me, I think, to sense a Greater Hand at work, a Greater
Scheme of Things operating behind the apparently unintelligible, illogical, haphazard
chain of events that we call ‘life’. In my small world, I realized time and again that
surrender to that larger purpose always brought forth a corresponding response.
I have no doubts that as realization grows in us that we are, at bottom,
not body but spirit, we will see that there is a purpose to life, something that, I have
intuitively felt for a long time, was designed to enable Man to evolve to a state of
consciousness that brought ‘him’ to the stage where he merged with what perhaps we
know as ‘God’. It is this stress upon spiritual evolution to a state of, and unity with,
Godhead, that is common to all religions, whether Judaism, the Christian faith, Islam,
or Hinduism; the latter, far from being a pantheistic religion, is first and foremost a
monotheistic faith. One has only to read relevant passages from the Bhagavad Gita to
appreciate this. In the Bible and the Holy Qu’ran, we read that Jehovah, God, Allah
insists that ‘Thou shall have no other gods but me.’ Now observe what the Gita says:
“There is nothing whatsoever higher than Me, O Dhananjaya. All this is strung on
Me, as rows of gems on a string.”…verse 7, chapter VII.

Or consider this:
“At the end of many births, the man of wisdom takes refuge in Me,
realizing that Vasudeva is all that is. Rare indeed is that great soul.” …verse 19, ibid.
Or this:
“And whatever is the seed of all beings, that am I, O Arjuna. There is no
being, whether moving or unmoving that can exist without Me.”…verse 39, chapter
X.
Or this:
“All this universe is pervaded by Me in My unmanifested form; all
beings exist in Me, but I do not abide in them” …verse 4 chapter IX.

Or this (I could go on and on, for the Gita is like that, sheer intoxication):
“I am the Self, O Gudakesa, seated in the hearts of all beings. I am the
beginning, the middle and also the end of all beings.”...verse 20 chapter X.
It was Palti Menon, a year senior to me in College and an ace long-
distance runner, who told me of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and urged me to read
him. Of course, I didn’t…we usually avoid reading something we are strongly urged
to read; at least, I’m like that, stupid cuss that I am. I like to feel my way to a book
instinctively, even stumble across it serendipitously, rather than be goaded into
reading it. I must have missed many great books because of this unfortunate tendency
of mine. But at the same time, I also have a sneaking suspicion that a great book is
57
lying in wait for me on the path ahead; it will come to me when I am ready for it.
And so it was with Paramhansa Yogananda’s ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’: urged to
read it ever since college days, it was fated that I finally buy a copy (from a second-
hand bookshop) in the closing year of the 20th century. And then I remembered
Teilhard…and connected.
Nature, apparently seized of the tragedy of Man’s lamentable short-
sightedness, occasionally relents; born are men who, while assiduously pursuing their
vocation, have the gift of another vision, enabling them to pierce the mundane and
intuit a Greater Scheme operating behind the apparently chaotic disorder of the
cosmos. They are men of a different breed, marching to the beat of another drummer,
for whom the ordinary little things dovetail into a larger vision of Reality that enables
them to transcend the illogic of the Human Predicament and see in it a credible,
logical symmetry. Such a man was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Teilhard, born in France on May 1, 1881, was the son of a gentleman
farmer, and joined the Jesuit order when he was 18. He was ordained a priest in
1911, and chose to serve through World War I as a stretcher-bearer instead of taking
up the safer, but perfectly acceptable, duties of regimental chaplain. His valor under
enemy fire earned him the highest military decoration France can offer, the coveted
‘Legion of Honour’. It was already clear that Teilhard was cast in a different mould.
After the war, his early interest in geology progressed from paleontology to
paleoanthropology, in a striking parallel to Charles Darwin. Marooned in China
(where his interests in paleontology and geology had drawn him repeatedly since
1923) during the World War II years of 1939 to 1945, a virtual prisoner, he
astonished the world by the major role he played in the discovery of ‘Beijing Man’,
(Sinanthropus pekinensis), the fossil remains of a hominid carbon-dated to be about
350,000 years old, now reclassified within the Homo erectus group of Early Man.

Education, it has been said, is what remains after learning has been
forgotten. But Teilhard, a true empiricist, exercised his considerable erudition as he
went about his seminary, geological, and paleontological activities. The ancient
rocks, and fossil-remains of early men took on new meaning, as he visualized the
march of the eons. As his fertile brain absorbed the coded messages from the remote
past, he scientifically interpreted their relevance to the present, and extrapolated the
process into the future.
He saw the Earth and Man in the throes of a continuous, logical
procession of change and evolution. From protoplasm to predator to the ‘Parousia’
(or second coming of Christ), he saw Man, in his mind’s eye, become a proto-god, a
creature endowed with consciousness moving towards super-consciousness, towards
an ‘Omega’ point, and a climactic union with the ultimate source of intelligence, or
God. There came to him revelations of strange new dimensions. He stepped through,
as it were, into a new universe whose presence few suspected.
58
He perceived that men, usually seeing themselves as single, isolated
entities, were possessed of joint-consciousness. The constituent cells, i.e. human
beings, united to form a single, sentient whole, a Human Being, as it were. And this
Human Being was itself part of a greater entity, a mere cell functioning within the
order of a larger organic, thinking entity, planet Earth, whereof Human Being was
itself but a small component. His vision of the ‘Noosphere’ (from the Greek noo, for
mind) as a sentient membrane covering the planet was almost biological - it
postulated a globe with a brain, and, by extension, the globe was itself a living,
thinking being with feelings, attitudes and a destiny. Teilhard wrote that the
Noosphere "results from the combined action of two curvatures - the roundness of
the earth and the cosmic convergence of the mind." Astronaut Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin
often recalled that as he saw the Earth from orbit, a lovely blue-white pearl sharply
contrasted against the dead blackness of deep space, he knew it was alive! This
mystical experience changed Aldrin’s view on life.

Teilhard’s pre-space-age vision encompassed both scientific and


theological perspectives. He felt that a merger of physics and metaphysics would
provide the answers to the mystery of life and its ultimate purpose, for they were but
parts of a whole, and not mutually exclusive. Everything, from rocks to people, took
on a holistic importance for him as they all moved inexorably towards a common
ultimate destiny, propelled by a growing consciousness. And it was the evolution of
consciousness that brought about over-all evolution. In other words, thought
impinged upon physical reality and transformed it, indeed transcended it.
Over a period of thirty years, from the 1920’s to the 1950’s, Teilhard
crafted a number of inspired works (The Divine Millieu and The Phenomenon of
Man were his major works) that, unconsciously or otherwise, served as the
foundation for a new philosophy, (r)evolutionary in its grand sweep, that finds
increasing favor in modern times. Teilhard, along with his Russian contemporary
Vladimir Vernadsky, resurrected the ancient Gaia hypothesis (later enlarged by
James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis). The legend of Gaia, or the Earth Mother, had
lain dormant for centuries. The reverence of the ancients takes on a new meaning
under Teilhard’s facile pen, and in this he is not alone; poets (usually the first
prophets) like Tennyson, John Donne, and Walt Whitman had also seen the larger
picture.
Julian Huxley, universally acclaimed as the founder of modern
evolutionary synthesis, acknowledges his debt to Teilhard when he says that he
“...effected a threefold synthesis…of the material and physical world with the world
of the mind and spirit; of the past with the future; and of variety with unity, the many
with the one...". Teilhard's vision, far ahead of his time, is becoming increasingly
relevant with each passing day. As Man destroys his environment, we remember the
old legend of the Native Americans, who believed that when the Earth and all its
creatures are dying, the ‘Warriors of the Rainbow’, Rainbow Warriors, would come
59
to the rescue. (How appropriately have the environmental activists, Greenpeace,
named their flagship!) Along with his Indian contemporaries, Sri Aurobindo and
Paramhansa Yogananda, Teilhard’s message rekindles faith in the mental and
spiritual evolution of humankind, in an age characterized by blatant consumerism
and spiritual bankruptcy.
Teilhard approaches his work with the sword of scientific discipline in
one hand, and in the other a trident of knowledge, religious insight reinforced by
deep meditation, and inspiration. The resultant blend has a unique flavor ….he insists
that “All around us, to right and left, in front and behind, above and below, we have
only to go a little beyond the frontier of sensible appearances in order to see the
divine welling up and showing through. But it is not only close to us, in front of us,
that the divine presence has revealed itself. It has sprung up universally, and we find
ourselves so surrounded and transfixed by it, that there is no room left to fall down
and adore it, even within ourselves.”
He knows that the cosmos is pervaded by the Divine Being, indeed, is
that Being…a Dancing Shiva. Have you, by any chance, read Fritjof Capra’s seminal
work, ‘The Tao of Physics’? [Shambhala Press]. If not, I urge you to do so.
So should not the constantly evolving human machine tend to discard its
dependence on the ecosphere that supplies it with nourishment (and Paramhansa
Yogananda mentions several persons who have done so), and progress to a higher
level of existence, more akin to thought, to pure energy: a notional state? Exactly
what matter now appears to be, in the ultimate analysis!
20th century discoveries in particle physics appear to support what the
great philosophers intuited, discoveries that have shattered our older perceptions of
what constitutes matter and space-time. Basic concepts pertaining to reality now lie
in ruins. Post-Newtonian insights at the sub-atomic, speed-of-light level unveiled by
Relativity Theory and Quantum Theory, are deeply disconcerting; matter, apparently
solid, is composed of sub-atomic particles such as electrons, which, under
observation only display ‘a tendency’ to exist somewhere along a path...a tenuous
existence neither real nor unreal! It is impossible to record both its position and
momentum simultaneously…and each experiment is uniquely colored by the
observer’s own methodology. Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle makes this
abundantly clear.
Moreover, matter, including light, exhibits the characteristics of a wave
as well as a particle! Things are always in motion, even though seemingly at rest. It
is almost as if what we see depends on what we think we will see! Space-Time is a
relative concept, bent by gravitational forces, and Time itself flows both backwards
and forwards! The natural order is nothing if not viewed holistically, a four-
dimensional, constantly shifting, changing, and evolving deeply inter-related process
in which everything impacts on, and is part of, everything else.
Later discoveries merely confirm the paradoxical duality of existence,
that inevitable interaction of complementary opposites like good and evil, heat and
60
cold, which the great masters of Zen, Sufism, Tao and Vedanta appear to have
demolished (only to speak thereafter in riddles, overwhelmed by the sheer
impossibility of explaining the inexplicable and the unthinkable within the
limitations inherent in speech).
In a very real sense, Teilhard may be considered to be one of this select
band who, like Sir James Jeans (The Mysterious Universe), saw that the universe
seemed more like a great thought than a great machine. The only way Man can
escape the painfully imperfect condition of paradoxical duality is by evolving to a
stage that takes him outside it; in other words, by merging with the Infinite. This,
incidentally, is what the Bhagavad Gita, and many other scriptures, also says.
This was the ‘Omega’ point Teilhard postulated, the culmination of
evolutionary processes designed to refine Man to the point where he merges with his
Creator. Predictably, the Catholic Church of his day frowned upon Teilhard’s work.
The Vatican saw him as a threat. It disallowed the publication of his religious
writings, (all his books had to be published posthumously), he was forbidden to
lecture or teach on religious subjects, and he was banished from France (he went to
China). But his invigorating ideas were widely circulated by the underground route.
He became a cult figure for a younger, freethinking section of the clergy, paving the
way for a neo-renewal within the Catholic Church.
Teilhard’s prescience encompassed a marvel of modern technology, one
that took his concept of the Noosphere to an amazing vindication: it anticipated the
InterNet, that complex electronic web of communication that now girdles the Earth.
In its nodal-neural construction, nothing could better illustrate the concept of a planet
with a brain comprising an infinite number of smaller, component brains, and
possessed of intelligence greater than the sum of the parts. Annihilating as it does all
barriers of time and distance in joining human brains together, evolving towards a
never-before, all-encompassing repository of the entire fund of human knowledge,
the Internet of the Noosphere, with all its deeper implications, still lies in the future.
No less a personality than Marshall McLuhan, the definitive prophet of the media’s
impact on the 20th century ‘global village’ (‘The Gutenberg Galaxy’, ‘Understanding
Media’) owed much to Teilhard’s philosophy.
Artificial Intelligence aficionados take the idea of the Noosphere further.
They see the ‘tangential energy’ Teilhard speaks of, trying to emerge in new, non-
tangible, virtual life forms. As John Perry Barlow says, "Teilhard's work…. can
easily be summed up in a few words …the point of all evolution up to this stage is
the creation of a collective organism of Mind."
According to Teilhard, this invisible virtual life has been with us since
the beginning. The Net shows us what virtual life really is. It is not the binary 0s and
1s, argues Barlow; virtual life exists in "the space between (italics mine-sm.) the 0s
and the 1s. It's the pattern of information that is relevant. Invisible life is composed
of those life forms emerging in the space between things. Cyberspace helps us see
these forms by taking us past the mechanical barrier."
61
Teilhard died on April 10, 1955, in New York City. Philosophers,
writers, and holistic ‘New Age’ thinkers, including Norman Vincent Peale, Jose Siva,
Wayne Dyer, John Gray, Fritjof Capra, and Gary Zukav, to name but a few, owe
much to his path breaking work. Each has added to the edifice by introducing
constructions stemming from his particular field of specialty and metaphysical
predilections. In a very real sense, Teilhard was their spiritual ancestor. Ralph
Abraham, a co-founder of chaos theory and co-author of The Web Empowerment
Book, a World Wide Web primer, feels "Teilhard de Chardin gets too little credit for
the quality of his insights….he was successfully deprived of his influence by the
popes."
By revealing to our conscious mind hidden paths to an apparently more
fulfilmentling and durable reality, perhaps lying buried deep in the unconscious,
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin may have substantially reinforced the recrudescent human
collective consciousness.
In thus playing his appointed role in Man’s upward journey along an
evolutionary path to Aurobindo’s ‘Superconsciousness’, Omega point, and beyond,
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was an early herald of the coming of the Greater Man,
whether as a carbon-based life form or even as a notional being transcending the
limitations of space, time, and matter.

‘Shadow of the New Men falling


On the screen of future climes,
Hearing other voices calling
From beyond the veil of Time!’
***************

The work environment…then and now

Over the last thirty years or so, sweeping changes have taken place in
offices. The most obvious one is that there is less paper around. When I joined the
Shriram Group in 1970, the first thing I noticed was that those officers who had the
best typists got the plum jobs…or was it the other way around? Everything went
through the typist, and an officer’s efficiency was only as good as the quality of
typing in his department. Typists were a hard-worked but pampered lot. A newly
recruited officer’s training began with learning the basics of punching, filing, and
record keeping. Instant recall needed a good memory and an even better filing
system. But officers never typed! Today, only officers (such as they are) type!
An officer was only as good as his initiative, his drafting, his
proofreading, and his man-management. Innovation was encouraged, indeed
mandatory! Efficiency was the watchword, and fast decision makers scored.
Officialese was still terse and businesslike, but capital letters, paragraphing, and
62
punctuation were vital elements to good written communication. No one ever
blamed a typist for typos. Officer-like qualities included motivating typists to give of
their best. ‘Follow-up’ and ‘feedback’ were the primary mantras.
The Boss’s steno, Manmohan Gupta, was superb at taking dictation and
returning error-free material. I rarely saw him use an eraser or erasing fluid. Within
six months, I had more or less commandeered him. A year down the line, as my
Boss’s understudy, I shifted some of my routine work to him. One day, he rebelled.
He wanted to know why he should do my work. I told him that I had already got the
hang of it and I felt it was time he should take it over from me, as I myself had taken
over some of the Boss’s functions. Delegation. It was the key to growth.
Of course, Mr. Gupta, talented as he was, could revert to being just an
ordinary stenographer anytime he liked. But if he aspired to promotion (as Office
Assistant / Supervisor), it was an opportunity he should welcome. I wanted him to
learn the work well enough to one day take my place as second man to the powerful
HRD & Personnel Manager. How else was I going to move up if I didn’t create a
replacement for myself? Indispensability has been the graveyard of many a career.
And he should, in turn (I hinted) train one of the typists secretly aspiring to become
stenos and learning shorthand from him, to take his place.
The message sank home. Sharma, Mr. Gupta’s protégé, became a stand-
in steno, while Manmohan Gupta not only took over most of my routine work but
also enrolled at the Institute of Company Secretaries. Pushing forty, he suddenly
realized that, for the first time in his life, an officer was willing to train him to take
over his job. Today, he is also an ICWA, apart from a registered Company
Secretary, and after a successful career and retirement still functions in an advisory
capacity in a large organisation.
He was my first challenge (and success) in personal growth and
motivation, and the source of immense satisfaction for me, at the age of twenty-
three, to see that it was possible to motivate a co-worker to surpass himself and,
unleashing his dormant potential, reach heights of achievement he had never dreamt
he was capable of. But the major credit goes to the culture and impeccable systems
of that great organisation where I worked and which made the dreams of ordinary
men and women come true. There were outstanding men on the Board of that
company who had joined as peons, and I never forgot that.
In later years, it was my good fortune to motivate many a clerk,
godown-keeper and peon to become an officer and rise to the post of Branch
Manager in the bank. These talented people, who responded gallantly to my urging
and the challenges I threw their way, are my real wealth. As are the great bosses I
worked for, incredibly creative, hard-working, dedicated yet fun-loving men all.
They are still my role models. And to my immense good fortune, in my own twilight
years, I again (perhaps as a reward) got a boss cast in the same mould as the giants
of the past, to serve under.
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Always interested in hierarchies within systems, and organizational
structures, it takes me time to adjust to the fact that organization charts have
flattened. Vertical has given way to horizontal, laying me low in the process! There
are only two discernible levels, workers and managers—and I’m in the former! It’s
an interesting experience. I am comfortable within a vertically structured system, not
very relevant in the multi-tasking, multi-reporting relationships favoured today.
People young enough to be my kids call me by my first name. They dress in clothes
I wore when I went hunting. Worse, they call the Boss by his first name!
What the hell is going on? It is comfortable, predictable, manageable,
to report to only one person. I like the idea of vertical structures (within limits) and
as an ex-personnel department hand I can see the advantages of it. Web-based
organizations have been largely responsible for this innovative compression of the
Christmas tree-like organization chart of old into two-tiered bogeys.
I am left to conclude that organizations themselves have changed in a
not-so-subtle manner. One-to-one working relationships, something I’m used to and
which I love, have been diluted by LAN systems and intercoms. People sit around
all day on their asses and look at screens. This is what we did after we got home!
The imperatives of the market place and the tyranny of the bottom-line have joined
hands to crush the old P-to-P equations that were so crucial in the past. Friendships
are shallow and transitory. We made colleagues our friends for life. I am fortunate
that I get a large share of the old-style ‘personalized’ supervisory style I cherish. No
amount of cold-blooded emails can replace a chat over coffee with the boss or a
colleague to get things moving. It is time well spent, for face-to-face plainspeak is
worth a million bytes.
Almost everything was done manually when I was a beginner. There
were no electronic calculators to take the drudgery out of counting and accounting.
True, there were large, heavy mechanical FACIT calculating machines in the
Accounts Department, but fortunately I had no need for them. All organisation
charts, graphs, tables and statements were either made by hand or typed. Here again,
a maestro like Manmohan Gupta was worth his weight in gold, for the Chairman,
Dr. Charat Ram, had a penchant not only for accuracy but flamboyant presentation.
We had heard that things called electronic calculators were on the anvil,
but it was only in 1975 that I saw my first one, a small model that ran off two AAA
batteries (then unavailable in India. Alkalines, Lithiums and rechargeable NiCads
were a decade away). Two years later, Señor El Tomâso, the mustachioed rally
driver from Kuwait (who had brought me the now-legendary Minolta XE-1 and a
200 mm telelens, thereby catapulting me into the ranks of serious photographers),
brought me my first LED-screen CASIO pocket calculator, powered by two AA
cells. I promptly gifted it to Dad. It speeded up his work (he was a Distillery Plant
Designer and Alcohol Technologist, and his project reports needed lengthy and
complicated calculations). Then in his mid-sixties, Dad went ga-ga over the gizmo,
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and it always accompanied him wherever he went. It was still going strong in 1996,
eight years after his death, when I gifted it to a friend.
There was no STD…correction: there was plenty of sexually
transmitted disease around, according to government propaganda…but there was no
Subscriber Trunk Dialling. A ‘Lightning’ priority call was the fastest (but
prohibitively expensive) way to get a trunk call through quickly. A ‘lightning’ call
was supposed to mature in two minutes…and I used the facility several times in the
bank…but it rarely came through on time. You waited, sweated, and you paid eight
times the cost of an ‘O for Ordinary’ call. And explained to the RM, in a lengthy,
carefully worded Office Memorandum, the compulsions that necessitated the call.
The AGM/GM okayed it (if all went well, and the matter was condoned). Otherwise,
its cost was liable to be deducted from salary). Trunk calls could be a pain.
So could telex. The telex was a cross between a typewriter and a
telephone. The telex operator dialed a number through the Telex exchange and
proceeded to type out the message, which scrolled out of its jaws on a roll of paper,
on the receiver’s machine as well as yours. It was a bit like a chat room of today;
and telex operators had their own ‘shorthand’, abbreviated language to save time,
paper, and cost. The ‘tks & rgds’ I type today on my emails dates back to the time-
honoured signoff of the telex operator ‘ok tks rgds’ followed by the cryptic
signature. Even TTs and LCs came over telex, duly coded/ encrypted. Halcyon days,
gone forever. The nostalgia still blooms strong in my nostrils, the romance of a
bygone era we’ll never see again. The excitement of using these ‘modern’
communication aids, at the age of twenty-five, bursting with youth, curiosity, and
inexhaustible energy can never be recaptured.
There was no such thing as a facsimile photocopying machine. All
communications that had to be circularized—which used up about 30% of a bank’s
energy at the Regional and Head Office level—that meant they had to be
cyclostyled, an excruciatingly boring, messy, and lengthy solution. Shourie and
Gestetner were the big players in the duplicator market. One got the matter typed
out on a ‘stencil’ sheet, which was a wax-coated tissue paper with light cardboard
backing, the perforations on the wax serving as entry points for the ink as it passed
through the rollers of the machine. Crude, smudged copies emerged at the other end.
Years would pass before Chester Carlson and his Xerox machine revolutionized
copying…true facsimiles…and many years would go by before someone would
stumble upon the idea of mating a telephone with a photocopier to invent the fax
machine we take for granted today.
Letters—the backbone of communications—went by post. Sea mail
gave way to airmail. But it was only with the coming of fax, cable TV and, of
course, the Internet, that the age of instant communications—foreseen by Arthur C.
Clarke—dawned. The world shrank to the global village Marshall Macluhan had
written about in ‘The Gutenberg Galaxy’. Teilhard de Chardin’s ‘noosphere’, the
globe with a network of nerves stretched on a membrane that represented the
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collective brain of mankind, is already visible in the prototype WorldWideWeb, the
precursor of electronic and cyber intelligence whose ultimate reach we can only
speculate on.
Global handheld telephony was a costly experiment—in the ill-fated
Iridium Corporation—a wonderful but unviable convenience that had to wait till a
cheaper, more technically and economically practicable stallite telephony emerged.
Meanwhile, mobile telephony technologies like CDMA, WAPS, GPRS, and
Bluetooth have paved the way for a series of innovations including the new
cellphones that do everything except wash one’s clothes! One can even take digital
pictures and transmit them instantly over the Ethernet! Laptops and palmtops are
already passé. Soon, everything related to communications and entertainment will be
worn on the wrist a la Dick Tracy. But instant transportation? Teleportation is
science fiction today…but tomorrow, who knows? I have seen too much science
fiction come true in my lifetime to snigger at even the wildest idea.
Machines that do the impossible—machines that think—are coming.
The Man-machines—the cyborgs and the androids—are on their way. The world is
changing faster than many can adapt to. The boot is on the other foot now, for Man
himself is now hard-pressed to adapt. But adapt he must, perhaps even evolve, to
keep up with his own creations that threaten to overwhelm him. Whether all this
‘progress’ is a good thing, I cannot say. It will take the perspective of another
century to judge its impact. Man will continue to reinvent his future as long as he is
Man…for the stars beckon, and he must answer their call.
***********

The Last Word

“Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem, in my opinion,


to characterize our age.” – Albert Einstein, ‘Out of My Later Years’

How many people, I wonder, are given the privilege of looking back at,
and writing about, more than fifty years of their conscious life. For this opportunity,
again, I acknowledge my debt to my Eternal Muse, for it was she who made me
conscious of my eligibility for doing so.
I had never seriously considered the possibility that I might grow old,
and now I find myself rejecting the likelihood of such an eventuality outright! True,
the calendar says I’ve been around for over six decades, but what’s that got to do
with me? For some odd reason, I don’t feel old! For six years, however, silver starnds
have been multiplying in my hair, but I don’t mind that at all, it’s something I’ve
always wanted. Jet-black hair can become boring after fifty-five years.
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Hair! When I look around me, I’m surprised to find that most of my
classmates don’t have any hair left on their heads. Shiv Shankar Menon, our current
National Security Advisor, is a case in point. But I must say it makes him every bit as
distinguished as he in fact is. It adds certain indefinable dimension to his already
handsome features, and though the quintessential senior civil servant, I have no
doubts he'd have made a fine actor if he'd been so inclined.
I ought to be grateful, I keep telling myself. I’m no senior civil servant,
but then, I’m not anybody’s advisor, either! I’m a doer, by the grace of God. Besides,
I can almost stuff myself into my son’s jeans. My wife grumbles that it’s ridiculous,
a sixty-plus man wearing jeans, minus middle-age spread and cigar (a la Chandan
Seth, India’s cigar baron) that such men are said to favor.
She always dreamed of marrying a prosperous man who smoked cigars
and who sported fifty-two fly-buttons in his trousers! Too bad I can’t oblige—I detest
cigars, and I couldn’t accumulate money or acquire a respectable middle-aged girth
even if I tried. Such are the disappointments of life!
But if over thirty-four years have passed after the loss of my
independence and haven’t managed to change me much, sixty-one years of
independence have definitely changed the nation. The old stalwarts are gone, leaving
a vacuum uneasily filled by lesser men. History teaches us that the times throw up
the man, producing a Napoleon, a Gandhi, or a Mao at just the right point in time (or
so it seems; perhaps these men changed the times so much that they are identified
with them forever).
We deserve the corrupt, self-serving, cynical politicians who cling to the
chairs the greats once occupied. As Bertrand Russell said, “Politics deserves a better
name than it has, and has a better name than it deserves.” It is an age of mediocrity
more than anything else, an age of compromises, of unholy alliances to hang on to
political power, the devalued times we now live in. the British have gone. We have
gone from frying pan to fire.
The British felt they were superior to any other race on earth, but this
was an innocent belief in themselves and in their colonial destiny, howsoever
mistaken, fostered by a thousand years of conquest, naval supremacy, and the myth
of the White Man’s Burden. They made Indians walk on the bridle path known as the
Lower Mall in Naini Tal, reserving the Upper Mall for themselves. Dogs and Indians
weren’t allowed into First Class railway compartments, and it was a rare colored
man, perhaps a Maharajah or a senior bureaucrat, who was allowed to join their
clubs.
Most of them were elitist by definition (there were notable exceptions,
as anyone who has read Corbett knows). After the Revilot of 1857, few of them
preferred to mix closely with their subjects. Yet they were intimately azquainted with
the problems the country faced, and their administration, if sometimes autocratic and
biased, was balanced by their dedication to their work and their enthusiasm for
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perfection. It is my personal observation (based on my days at Sherwood) that they
were thoroughly objective, impartial, and encouraged men of merit.
A whole new ruling class has replaced the white men who left in 1947.
They are just as bad, some might say. I say, perhaps they are even worse, barring a
few notable exceptions. They live in a rarified atmosphere the common man never
gets to see, in the sort of luxury the British might have envied. The British looted the
country, transferring the wealth of India to the Crown. But they did much to bring the
benefits of modern civilization to India, let us not forget that.
The new rulers are thick-skinned, encourage sycophancy, despise the
poor by offering them the illusion of self-rule, they rape the country and transfer the
proceeds abroad. Accumulating wealth has become a serious pastime for most Indian
politicians, most of whom make hay while the sun shines. The upper classes emulate
them with glee. The age of the patriotic, enlightened industrialist or businessman of
the likes of J.R.D. Tata and Jamnalal Bajaj has passed.
As Gandhi said, India is a rich country full of poor people. Now, they
are even poorer, bereft of the comfort of age-old cultural and moral values, let down
by a new generation that is mesmerized by the mirage of globalization aand has sold
out to the multinationals. It is our faultthat we have produced a new generation that
mistakes indiscipline for independence, is disrespectful of the elders who gave them
their todays by sacrificing their own tomorrows, who treat the older generation with
contempt, who are only concerned with ‘I. Me and Myself’.
I, in turn, do not repose much confidence in this new generation. They
are a bunch of spoiled, lazy, qualified but uneducated bunch of Hinglish-speaking
boors berefrt of creativity and originality. They can copy but cannot create…the
flaws in the regimented system of education are all too apparent to old timers like
myself who have had the good fortune of studying in the earlier liberal system of
education left by the British.
The prevailing system, with its emphasis on marks over originality, on
analysis as opposed to rote learning – the outcome of an unimaginative, mechanical
educational system promoted by a government of dull ciil servants who have
squeezed all creativity out of GenNext, the effects of state-controlled high school
system are maling a mockery of education. Values have been replaced by
expediency…the devil take the hindmost, it seems. Everything goes, it seems, if
brings success within reach. The trouble is, none of these hip youngsters seems to
have bothered to define what success means to them. They want instant solutions
from an age addicted to the Internet and an IT culture that revolves around their
mobile phones and palmtops. What follows next is not hard to predict…
Everything has a price, and if the newspapers are to be believed, one can
wriggle one’s way out even after arraignment for crime and murder…if one has the
money or the clout—or preferably both. Money brings security, puts one above the
law, and opens hitherto unexplored social and ‘cultural’ vistas for khadi-clad
‘servants of the people’ who exhaust themselves undertaking strenuous foreign
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‘study’ trips so that can see the way to solving the problems at home! India is like a
vast battleship doing 22 knots on the high seas: it takes five miles to turn her, and by
the time she does, no one remembers why they wanted to turn her and who gave the
orders in the first place.
Hypnotized by the illusion of democracy (“Of the people, by the people,
for the people,” as Honest Abe said—catch any Indian politician saying it with a ring
of sincerity in his voice)—perceiving in it a means to their own salvation and
forgetting that such a democracy is a mere façade, the masses are lured on by
‘causes’ continuously invented by cynical politicians to make them chase the middle-
class mirage of progress to distract them from their misery or to fight for what they
are guaranteed to them by the Constitution—their sole, and lasting, heritage.
Democracy, a product of the ancient Greek city-states that were small
enough to hold a national referendum in a town square, is an unreliable transplant in
a huge country like India, with all its mind-boggling diversity. Nevertheless, it has
the innate resilience to work here, mutatis mutandis. But only if it is treated with
respect and manned by patriots, in keeping with the spirit of the Indian Constitution
and the Directive Principles of State Policy. Otherwise it can become the instrument
of a thralldom much worse than any foreign rule.
Alas! Confronted by a clamor against her totalitarian and increasingly
erratic rule, with the worst inflation ever witnessed in modern times, our leadership
has reduced political governance to a mockery. “Power tends to corrupt”, said John
Emerich Edward Dalberg (Lord Acton, historian, 1834-1902), “and absolute power
corrupts absolutely.” Indira Gandhi castrated the bureaucracy, disemboweled the
judiciary (especially after the State of Emergency she declared when she found that
Justice Sinha’s landmark judgment had fatally wounded her political career), and
beheaded the political process, bringing it to a stage where it has become a macabre
dance of zombies. Corruption, nepotism, and cynical self-service: these evils crept
into the nation’s bloodstream and have come to stay.
Contempt for due process of law and steady erosion in public morality
are the inevitable outcomes. But while she had the guts to take the bull by the horns
(she still had an aura about her that came with being the charismatic daughter of that
English Indian, Jawaharlal Nehru), the netas who followed her, lacking her intellect
and mass appeal, have carried on where she left off, to subvert Indian Democracy
from within.
A whole new tribe of professional politicians has come to power,
usually low on education, dubious of background, and in the game for the monetary
rewards and not because it is an opportunity to serve the nation (God save us from
such ‘servants of the people’!). Any political agenda is acceptable, irrespective of
whether it is good for the country as a whole or not, that serves their ends.
For example, the increase in communal tension and the massacres of a
minority community in Gujrat, March 2002, allegedly sponsored by an
administration in cahoots with goonda elements, has made every Indian hang his
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head in shame. The world watches, and compares it with pogroms earlier in history.
India’s international image, refurbished with such difficulty and individual enterprise
by men of sterling worth, has taken a bashing. So it’s hardly surprising that we get
side-lined when it comes to a Security Council berth in the United Nations. Our
nominee for the top UN comes close but misses; it is an honorable ouster. Corrupt
politicians will ultimately bear the brunt of their shortsighted policies and perish at
the polls. Darwinism extends to politics as well.
India’s wealth (and character) continues to be siphoned off, whether
from Bofors guns, Tehelka-exposed deals, Telgi stamp paper scams (Rs. 30,000
crores is a tidy sum; the sum totals of scams, in rupee terms, could eliminate all but
the last vestiges of poverty form India, which the trillions of rupee-dollars stashed
away by Indians in Swiss Bank accounts could not do).
Such a canker has spread through the circulatory system of the nation
that one sometimes despairs that ever will come the avatar who will be able to clean
the Augean stables. Perhaps his name is Charles Darwin. The nexus between
politicians, bureaucrats, and criminals is out in the open, but one doesn’t find
anybody blushing. Public memory being proverbially short (one-third of India’s
masses does not know where their next meal is coming from and have little time to
ponder on these issues—hunger is a harsh mistress), these politicians stay in
circulation for long periods, wreaking immense damage on the system from within.
Pliable men, men of mediocrity and flexible consciences, reach the
highest rungs of service in Government and Defence jobs. There is corruption
everywhere, but no one has the guts to take th bull by the horns. Those who do do not
last long. They tend to run into debilitating spells of bad luck or suddenly expire due
to unknown causes. Everything can be fudged for a price, from driving licences to
passports to customs records to DNA reports.
Scams surface with boring regularity, and scapegoats are inevitably
found. But governments, discredited by the actions and attitudes of these men, and
are forced to delink themselves from them in a hurry. The case of Ravi Chaturvedi,
once a big-time businessman alleged to be a go-between gutka barons and top-
ranking politicians and bureaucrats, who now has slid into disgrace and obscurity, a
la Jeffrey Archer, comes to mind, as does that a certain IT industry head. Another
gifted writer with a sudden urge for politics has bowed out of the arena after getting
entangled in the IPL fiasco.
It is difficult to understand why the meritorious, the honest, and the
upright, those who have principles and minds of their own, are usually given short
shrift by governments that need the services of such valuable men. Don’t the people
in power realize that to encourage mediocrity in high office is to sow the seeds of the
nation’s (and their own) downfall? Have they forgotten, for instance, that Hitler
signed away the only real chance of resistance to the snowballing Allied forces when
he ordered Reichfeldmarschal Erwin Rommel to be eliminated? Who knows how
many upright, fearless officers have been asked to take the cup of hemlock? Shored
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up, like the gigantic cardboard cutouts of Tamil supremos, democracy in India
staggers from one farcical crisis to another.
In their unseemly haste to sack the country, most of our netas have
displayed amazing ingenuity in raising issue after issue that encourages regionalism
and factionalism, and which chloroforms the sense of patriotism. There are few
Tendulkars who are heard insisting that all things are subservient when it comes to
India’s interest. India must come first, not petty issues that divert the mind, inflame
sectarian and parochial passions, Balkanise the country (like V.P. Singh’s infamous
Mandal issue) and give the politicos a chance to step in and skim the situation for all
it’s worth. It’s a time of ‘every man for himself’. Is it any wonder, then, that Indians
have lost a sense of their Indian-ness, a feeling that they are all citizens of one
nation? It is seen to revive when our countrymen go abroad, when they encounter the
infectious nationalistic fervor of, say, an American or a Frenchman.
The Indian masses—kept poor, hungry, ill-educated units of casteist
vote-banks—are bound to see through the game one day. We all know what
Abraham Lincoln said, “You can fool some of the people all the time, and all the
people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.” The story
may be apocryphal, but (as Tap would have said), it’s height (high) time, by Joe
(Jove) that our political leaders realized this for their own good and for the good of
the country. Indians are a patient, long-suffering people, but they have started to
come awake. Confused by the blatant show of wealth of the new rulers, disoriented
by the influx of foreign values and culture, the common man is in a belligerent mood.
The obsequious face of rural India that my uncle Brahma Deva Mukerji,
ICS, noticed with dismay has vanished. In its place is an aggressive, classless
egalitarianism, the ‘my money is as good as yours’ mind-set of a generation that does
not know what it means to bow under a foreign yoke
The well-bred ‘aap’ form of address has been replaced by the
democratic but rude ‘tum’ in the marketplace. Independence is sliding towards
indiscipline, I observe. It will be to the best interests of the politicians if they wake
up to this fact. We all know that, as a wise man once said, “Politics is the last refuge
of the scoundrel”, but let us hope that the masses will vote into oblivion those
scoundrels who manage to get a chance to fight elections thorough unfair means such
as bullets, booth-capturing, and ballot-box tampering. How far this will ever be
possible in the hinterland, now ruled by neo-feudal overlords and their muscle-bound
henchmen, without the High Commands of political parties denying them tickets to
contest elections, is a moot point. Ultimately, it is a question of the national interest
over self-interest. I find little in the past record, however, for much optimism here.
Yet, in spite of the drag of its anchor, the ship of India has sailed far. I
will not quote economists or reel off masses of statistical data to make my point, for
my point concerns the common man. He has changed everywhere except in
Laxman’s inimitable cartoons. The type of people I met at Captaingunj or at
Seohara no longer exists. No rustic youngster would be caught dead in a dhoti or
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pajamas. A boy from the chawls of Bombay, who goes under the screen name of
Govinda, has ensured that every penniless village lad can wear Levi’s jeans and
dream of dating his master’s daughter. Shashi Kapoor, an impoverished young scion
of a once-wealthy family, becomes a chauffeur to his former classmate and self-
conciously woos her when she throws herself at him (Waqt).
Govinda’s own rise to fame and fortune is a parable of modern India,
albeit the interpretation can differ from person to person. On one hand, it seems to
signify that talent and merit will always succeed; on the other hand, it seems to say
that all men are equal, those who are crude and risqué are even more so, and whoever
does the most obscene dance gets the girl. To my mind, the opium of the masses has
been replaced by the fare dished out by Bollywood. To my mind, Bollywood movies
are doing a great disservice to the Indian people. They claim to entertain but only
titillate. They think to portray contemporay morality honestly, but all they are
interested in is the Box Office take. The public tries to ape what it sees in these films,
and Bollywood gallantly responds by sinking a few notches lower, from vulgarity to
obscenity. Some explicit scenes slip past the scissors of an eminent, conscientious
but beleaguered team of censors. Art is probably the hackneyed excuse. At least the
French have the grace to wink at the mention of that word. There is a fine distinction
between art and obscenity, more’s the pity, and few know where one ends and the
other begins.
The aping of Hollywood actors and their mannerisms by the younger
generation is understandable if not condonable, for the truly educated Indian is as
good as his or her counterpart anywhere in the world or better and, as such, is entitled
to a global lexicon and idiom common to youth everywhere. Youth culture is a
powerful force. Remember the ‘beat’ generation and the ‘flower children’—the
much-misunderstood hippie culture that stood for a peaceful, individualistic way of
life that did not want to clash with other ideologies—and played such a major role in
exposing the madness that was war (Vietnam) to the world? But the youth culture I
see around me does not deserve the ‘culture’ part of the term. Few youngsters today
know (or bother about) what culture means, other than biology types who culture all
manner of nasty little bugs in Petri dishes.
For the majority of poor, half-educated Indians with little or no hope
either by way of career or romance, it is either sheer mercy or utter cruelty to put
Bollywood-type dreams into their heads. Time will teach them that they are not the
chosen ones, and many will turn, in their frustration, to a life of drugs and crime.
This future has already arrived.
The age of domestic staff is at its last gasp. Men like Tika Ram and
Puran Singh are extinct. The pahari comes down to the plains now with some
education under his belt and makes a beeline for a clerical or subordinate-class job…
but he will not be a night watchman if he can help it. There are enough Nepalis
around for that job. The first thing a common man needs is a bicycle. A good English
(naturally) bicycle had cost my father Rs. 20/- when he was a college student. A
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decent bike today costs around Rs.1,600/-. The next step up is a scooter. These
machines used to cost about Rs. 3,000/- when I was in college (if you had the
connections to get one out of turn, for the waiting list was about ten years, the
foundation of Rahul Bajaj’s now rapidly-waning pre-eminence): today, they cost
around Rs. 40,000/- and go a-begging in showrooms.
When my father was in college, Rs.6,000/- on the nail meant one could
leave the showroom at the wheel of a brand-new six-cylinder Buick! In 1983, when
the Maruti was introduced, it sold for Rs.45,000/-. Today, its successor costs nearly
Rs.2,70,000/-, while a Chevrolet ‘Aveo’ or a Maruti Dzire goes for about
Rs.7,00,000/-! A Volkswagen Beetle goes for over Rs.20 lacs, and a Merc ‘S’ Class
for about a crore! Do we need all this? Ah yes, I almost forgot…this is an age that
says that if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Flaunt your money but not your education—it
doesn’t go down well with GenNext.
Are big, gas-guzzling cars really necessary for India? Can our roads,
now choked with vehicles, take much more of this? What price did we pay for
throwing open our doors to imports from other countries? Why did we have to open
our doors, to begin with? Has our move been reciprocated by beneficiary nations
who have flooded our country with cheap imports, or have they managed to retain
their protective tariff barriers? If so, why? Are they right, those who argue that India
has knuckled under to U.S. pressure, in view of the formidable loans from the IDA
and the IBRD, and opened its markets to manufacturers in developed countries…
markets desperately needed by them to prop up their own sagging domestic sales.
Foreign car manufacturers are either merging or going out of business…and rightly
so. Their relevance is coming to an end, as a crippled planet looks for alternate, non-
polluting sources of energy and transportation.
If India wants to keep on receiving foreign aid and avoid crippling
economic sanctions, what will it be asked to concede next? How long will it take
before domestic production collapses, unable to cope with the lowering of trade
barriers? How long will it be before we become another Pakistan? Did anyone bother
to read the small print? And what was in it for the politicians, based on the Bofors
experience? Did inflation come down? Did the GDP go up? Were old-age security /
welfare measures introduced, funded by taxation of conspicuous consumption? How
long will it take for India to have Social Security, as in U.S.A.? How much longer
will the poor, the old and the abandoned have to suffer the massive neglect of
successive governments?
Educated Indians – the few that are left – must ask themselves such
questions if they are to see which way the country is going. Why has the recent
global downturn not hit us badly? The answer, of course, is because we have a
parallel economy that serves to cusion the shock. We have created a captive market
for goods and services lucrative enough to support the meticulously trained white and
blue-collar workers, but food inflation has eaten away the common man’s disposable
income.
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We educate our best brains and export them to developed countries to
exploit…and then drop them like hot bricks when the going gets rough abroad. Only
those indigenous enterprises that have solid backlogs in their order books are
unperturbed; exporters, dependant on principals abroad, are shell-shocked at the way
foreign demand for their services has dried up. This illustrates one of the
disadvantages of the ‘global economy’; if one part falls sick—it may be Japan,
Southeast Asia, or U.S.A—the rest of it also goes into a tailspin.
I am from the old bricks-and-mortar economy, and I am one of a dying
breed that can remember a time when one picked up a telephone receiver …and
found a steady dial tone! Or opened a tap…and water gushed out, pure water that one
could drink minus an Aquaguard filter, not water from some water-sewage mix-up
somewhere up the pipeline. One flicked on a switch…and there was light! We took it
all for granted. Things worked.
The term ‘load-shedding’ had not been coined then. There was no such
thing as a power cut. There were few villages in India that had electricity then; now,
quite a large number of rural areas are electrified…but there isn’t enough electric
power to go around! In some sort of cruel Parkinsonian joke, excess capacity is
absorbed as soon as it is created. The gap between demand and supply will keep
increasing with India’s runaway population, now comfortably over the billion mark.
We’ll be plunging back into the Dark Ages if we don’t watch out.
As people increase in numbers, resources shrink in relative terms. There
is less and less of everything: scruples, broad-mindedness, vision, honesty,
principles, fresh air, water, electricity, housing, roads (it is estimated that 150,000
billion rupees are needed just to bring the national road transportation network up to
scratch), food, and jobs. Disparities in income continue to widen as inflation soars
and GDP / take-home income doesn’t. If it is not already too late, draconian
measures are needed to control population growth, or our nation will collapse under
the sheer weight of its own numbers. Do we have the political will to undertake
unpopular but essential programs?
Successive governments have pussyfooted around the problem; drastic
measures are needed, backed by financial disincentives (China has scored here).
Unless we do something now, it will be too late. Like it or not, we need to have a
good look at the Chinese model. Question is, who will bell the cat? Meanwhile, India
grows larger and poorer every day.
I had always felt that education was the key to India’s woes. Now, I am
not so sure. There are reasons for this. Firstly, no amount of legislation can educate
an entire country. At the subsistence level, which our law-makers are not familiar
with, children are harnessed in the daily task of survival: they fetch water, tend the
cattle or poultry, look after smaller children, supplement the family income by
begging, shine shoes, work as child labor in roadside dhabas and dangerous factory
environments, or are plunged into things far removed from the idyllic world of
children’s story books.
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Few children of the poor or lower classes have a normal childhood,
being beset early by adult issues that should never have intruded to shatter their
innocence. At this rate, we will turn into a society of neurotics and psychopaths, as
the poor outnumber the relatively better off. But for the life of me I don’t see how the
new Act for compulsory free education for children between the ages of 6 and 14 can
work. The dice are heavily loaded against it. What will the government do to
offenders, imprison the parents and admit their wards to government –run residential
schools? Is George Orwell’s ‘1984’ here, in the India of 2010?
Secondly, education has lost its charm: for two major reasons. One, it
has to be remembered that the educational curriculum, as well as the system itself,
was based on the legacy left by the British, who founded it to promote their own
interests, viz. to turn out an intelligentsia who, having absorbed something of their
culture, thought like them or at least appreciated their viewpoint. It was designed to
produce the army of bureaucratic civil servants from the indigenous populace, who
were to be the mainstay of the administration. Fifty years down the line, this system
has been replaced by a worse one. Read ‘DUMBING DOWN EDUCATION:
Producing the Qualified Uneducated’ in this column.
Administration has become an increasingly technical and managerial
function, yet we have seen bureaucrats in charge of critically important technical
departments who, howsoever superior their IQ or intellect might have been adjudged
to be when they were recruited, haven’t the foggiest idea of engineering principles,
management techniques, industrial psychology, or ergonomics. Issuing orders is not
the same as knowledgeable leadership. To our civil servants, they are synonymous.
Moreover, with the evolution of the Indian economy and the boom of
the eighties, it became apparent that education was not a sine qua non if one wished
to acquire wealth. One could go into politics, the time-tested formula for getting-rich-
quick. Move over, Napoleon Hill…the Indian politician has upstaged you! Being
street smart and unscrupulous was never more profitable. For many ambitious young
men and women with an unscrupulous streak in them, politics meant a chance to
plunge their hands into the pot of gold. Brought up in an age of instant gratification,
when money buys recognition and all the goodies of life, a few years of ‘political’
work as a Youth worker in the youth wing of a political party was preferable, in
terms of career prospects, to going to university and acquiring a degree or other
useless qualifications that did not guarantee security.
This is the single most important reason why Indian politics today
attracts an increasingly dubious class of thug. The tremendous competition for
government jobs was a daunting factor, and a first-generation literate usually was at a
distinct disadvantage without parental guidance and a family ambience that fostered
the right climate for such academic pursuit. Many students tended to take only those
courses that facilitated their entry into their family businesses. For the tough,
ambitious, glib-talking type, however, politics remains a quick and easy road to fame
and fortune. It is significant that in recent times, the average age of politicians is seen
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to be falling, and fairly young men and women hold important portfolios
incommensurate with their merit or potential.
For if money was the sole criterion of success, which it often is, politics
beats commerce—and commerce beats service every time. Illiterate millionaires
aren’t all that rare in India. The rapid urbanization of the villages surrounding the
metros has brought new wealth to rustic and formerly marginalized segments of the
population, as prices of suburban land have soared out of sight. This has created new
social tensions, as values and cultures have collided. The neo-rich are resentful that
their wealth doesn’t always open doors to social acceptance. Again, politics presents
a way out, for money—the more unaccounted the better—is the sinews of politics …
and vice versa. Money is not the sinews of war alone, unless one sees politics as
warfare. Many do. A political career is becoming an increasingly risky affair in the
subcontinent. Life is the cheapest commodity in India.
Business tends to be a dynastic process, and an education was thought to
be largely irrelevant till fairly recently, the norm being usually a B.Com. Degree
followed by an MBA, no matter how dubious the credentials from which the diploma
is purchased…oooops! Sorry, earned. Meanwhile, the numbers of unemployed
graduates and post-graduates from the humanities and even Science streams swell
into astronomical numbers. They have had to re-invent themselves to fit into other
vocations, abandoning their adolescent aspirations as they went along. Many
succumbed to survival imperatives, becoming bus conductors or timekeepers or
whatever, sinking into despairing obscurity with an irrelevant education under them
to ‘cushion’ the impact. Crime offered a way out, but a creer in crime is usually
short-lived. The cops often shoot first and ask questions later, once they have
identified elusive suspects.
Given that a drastic overhaul of the educational system is overdue, I will
stir the hornet’s nest further by insisting that the liberal system of education, both
entertaining as well as instructive, be reinstated. The CBSE model has not served the
purpose and must be abandoned or drastically overhauled. It must now teach young
people without indoctrination or bias, transferring knowledge in such a way as to
make thinking a habit. Learning must not be buried under a pile of facts; learnings
must emerge from facts. Rote learning really doesn’t help business, trade, industry,
or even government. It is useless a year after, as memories are discarded. Finally, the
young students know nothing of value; facts are half-forgotten and they have learnt
to use their brains to arrive at conclusions or solutions, so they have to go to school
again to learn how to think for themselves. I find the mass of today’s youngsters a
dull and intellectually crippled lot. It does not augur well for the future.
Those of lesser mental abilities ought to learn useful things like personal
hygiene, civic sense, computer repairs, inter-personal skills, a foreign language,
yoga, office administration, meditation for self-growth and stress-relief, principles of
accounts and commerce, and a trade or skill that will make self-reliant persons, able
to make a useful and saleable contribution to society from Day One. (This writer has
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none of these, so he has taught himself to type and is enjoying himself hugely by
using some of the words he picked up in the course of receiving his liberal education,
and keeping himself busy in the process).
Do I give up on India? No way! I am convinced that India, the real India
—not the mess we see in the papers—has a vital contribution to make to the world.
In an age of crass materialism and spiritual decay, when the West is reeling under its
own excesses, India alone can show the way to lasting peace and a freedom that
flows from the true brotherhood of man. When all the fads have faded away, the
eternal principles embedded in every religion will be found to have been distilled
down in India—a panacea not only to give suffering humanity abiding relief, but also
to light the way to human fulfilment.
Practical, pragmatic, and universal in scope, the wisdom that has
allowed this ancient land to absorb all invaders and integrate them into itself will
enable it to re-vitalize the world and play its appointed role in showing a bitter, strife-
torn, and despairing humanity the way to peace and self-realization. But India has to
kick-start her own transformation. As that day dawns, men will recall the words of
the great bard, who wrote thus in his immortal work, Gitanjali:

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depths of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening
thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country
awake!”

--- Rabindranath Tagore

The End