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March 30, 2009 / zanzi


“गर्दिश-ए-अय्याम तेरा शुक्रिया,
मैने हर पहलू से दुनिया देख ली |

बच-बच कर चलने वाले की भी क्या ज़िंदगी,
दरया-ए-ज़िंदगी में जो मौज बनके ना बह सके |

इंसान क्या जो ठोकरें नसीब की ना सह सके,
इंसान क्या जो गर्दिशों के बीच खुश ना रह सके |

मैं किश्ती को क्यूँ ना छोड़ दूं मुलाहों के मुक़ाबले, तूफान के मुक़ाबले,
वो किश्ती क्या जो भवर में कायम ना रह सके?
इंसान क्या जो गर्दिश-ए-नसीब को ना सह सके |

मैं समुंदर की हद देखना चाहता हूँ,
मैं तूफान की ज़िद देखना चाहता हूँ,
की शायद वहीं कहीं हो तरक्की का ज़ीना |”

Dadaji passed away at seven this evening. Papa called up shortly afterwards and told me. He asked how I was first, and what I was doing, but I answered in a line or two and then fell into silence. He’d said he would call later tonight, and something in his voice made me ask if things were okay. The silence was momentarily screaming with the struggle of his putting the words to tongue, but I needed to hear him say it even though I knew, to know with the irreversible finality of death that dadaji had passed away.

He’d been fighting pancreatic cancer for almost a quarter of a year now. It isn’t pretty, what it does to one, and there’s a part of me that’s glad to know he’s out of that pain. I last saw him in December, had my last chat with him sitting outside the porch, next to the drive, where he liked to take in some sunshine late morning. That afternoon I said goodbye, and he was fit as ever, to all appearances. Leaving home that night to head back to college, things were a bit rushed, and I didn’t do my customary final circuit of the house to see each person one last time before taking off. So I didn’t get to touch his feet and get his blessing (he would always mouth “God bless you” while protesting and not letting me kneel too far down, to which I would quietly reply “he does if you do”). We didn’t get to hug. I simply took off.

It was in January that they diagnosed the illness, and it was clearly terminal. I couldn’t bring myself to speak to him over the phone, wanted to see him in person, but that not being possible, it was on the 31st of the month that I called him up, to wish him a happy 84th birthday. That means he saw a thousand moon cycles in his life. I wonder if dadima realized that, amazingly good as she is with dates.

I was at Shivasamudram, where two of India’s highest waterfalls are, and called from near a roadside shop where a full breakfast, coffee and packed lunch for two cost thirty rupees. That’s the only time we discussed his cancer. He said, as he always did, that I must do my work and be fully immersed in it. Then he added that he must do the same, and that whoever is above would as well. And who are we to get in the way of that universal will? He wasn’t much of a believer in god, but he sure was that rare man who didn’t need the fear of god or the courage others draw from god. He had that incredible courage, resilience and strength which was born from having lived the life of an honest worker. While he reached his tether physically today, mentally and morally I can hardly think of anyone who comes close.

A convinced man in many ways, he was sure of his actions and principles. He stood for what he believed in, and he believed in what he stood for. But he hardly stood, he was almost always on the move. During those thousand moon cycles, the miles he covered on foot and by inconceivably numerous modes of transport make for many a story. I’m fortunate enough to have heard several of them, and the more memorable ones many times over, especially his favourites. There would be frequent Urdu quotes inserted in there for emphasis, to drive home a point, or weaved in as part of the narrative. Ghalib was the favoured source, but every story had a smattering of couplets that I’d struggle to latch on to. And he’d know from my face when I needed a word explained, and would elaborate. In his diaries of old one could chance to find the odd page with a shayari or ghazal out of the blue. Dadaji wrote Urdu and English, though he never tried picking up the Hindi script of Devnagri.

The oldest of six children, born to peasants in a tiny rural part of Punjab, he learnt to shoulder responsibility early. There are stories of fetching water from the well over and over again, of poultry bought, sold and kept. And of course there are stories from before his time that I heard from his parents when they were still around, throughout my childhood. They bring up images of a country that was still loyal to its age old ways, where tradition held mystique and charm, and innocence roamed wild and free.

After sharing a silence with papa, then each of us telling the other to be strong and take care, he hung up to let didi know. I gazed out of the window at miles of forest and darkening sky, then reached out for a photo album nearby and flicked through the first few photos. There were two with pitaji (his father), dadaji, papa (the older of his two sons) and me. In one, it’s Lohri, the Punjabi new year, and we’re standing around the bonfire before lighting it. In the other, I’m a baby and he’s holding me with an arm. There were two others I looked at before putting the album away. One of the extended family, on a visit from the UK, and our joint family sitting together on the L-shaped grey sofa in the old lounge, with his arm around me and the little kid that I was in my favourite ‘circus nightsuit’ beaming up at him, all smiles. The other of him smiling as he looks on while I cut a birthday cake with family gathered all around. The last conversation we had was on my birthday on the 13th of this month, and his voice was weaker than I’ve ever known it to be. After that, when I did call, he was asleep, or too tired to speak. But in that last conversation, he began by asking me when I would be coming, rather than if. And I said I’d see him in May, as soon as the semester closed. Work, as he always told me, one must put all of oneself into. But meeting again is a promise I have not been able to keep. Just like his promise to visit me in college, this will be consigned to that silent understanding we shared and acknowledged complicitly.

When he came of age, dadaji was given 500 rupees by pitaji, who knew Sanskrit and the village life, and had the wisdom to do what he could to enable his eldest son to learn as much as he could about how the world worked. So dadaji left Ludhiana and the familiarity of Punjab, and started life in Delhi (or Dilli) living in a three-rupees-a-day hotel. He got into the building trade and never looked back from there. That was his way, to not look back. He was football captain in college. As a freshman, he made his mark by killing a snake that was causing trouble. That day onwards, he said, everybody knew who he was. And he used it to good effect in obtaining free mess facilities for the poorest students, getting a fund set up – images clipped from stories he’s told me of those times, although they would more often be about life after he began working.

One by one, he ensured that his younger brothers and sisters got educated and well-settled. Today, they and their younger generations dot the globe from the US and Europe to Australia. But himself, he never felt the wish to leave the country, although he traveled immensely within the North Indian states. He worked as a contractor, and bore out in action his strong wish to provide housing for the lower-middle and unprivileged classes. At one point he turned down an offer which would have probably meant a big advertisement in all the national dailies tomorrow, condolence for the death of a retired director of perhaps the country’s biggest construction firm. He only told me about this once in detail, and another time in passing, and said that the company name was best not boasted about, so I’ll respect that.

One thing that used to bring a smile to his face and is in the public domain is a photograph in which he is shaking hands with Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first PM, being congratulated on having built a hospital. He also worked on a dam or two, and I’ve been to the one near Varanasi. Having completed one in recent years, the last project he took up was an apartment complex in Allahabad. This meant that he and dadima spent the last few years shuttling between Varanasi and Allahabad, a three-four hour drive. He’d always sit in the back seat diagonally opposite from the driver, with Sonu (the domestic helper who has served him for many years now and whom he treated pretty much like family) sitting in the front seat, keeping it pulled in so that dadaji had enough leg room. These last few years his knees had been giving him trouble – a result of decades out on construction sites morning to evening, and having crossed eighty. He was all for continuing to work, having never known any other way, and less than half a year ago he was about to close a deal on another sizable project in Allahabad. By then we’d all been telling him that this was no age to work in that business. An honest contractor is a rare breed in India, and for good reason. Unless you’re smarter than the rest, you get ripped off, by the competition, by hired labour, by just about anybody. And even if you have your pulse on the factor and product markets, there are deals that don’t work without grey and black money, and a refusal to get involved with those comes with its own consequences.

I’m glad he didn’t suffer long. For someone who prioritized punctuality and couldn’t be satisfied at the end of a day unless he’d done his fair share of work (fair by his own definition), it must have been a terrible ordeal to have to stay lying down. He had a bout of jaundice during this time and that in itself is tragedy enough for someone who so loved his food. Dadaji in the kitchen is a sight (and sound) none of us will forget in a hurry. I wrote the IIT entrance for fun three summers back from Allahabad, and during the breaks he sent the car with sandwiches he’d made. During the first break I gorged on them and walked around watching kids play cricket. By the time the second two-hour break came up and Sonu brought lunch, dadaji’s idea of my appetite had its effect on me and I took an hour-long nap before heading in for the final paper. Today, while still digesting the news, I ate a silent dinner, and ended with fruit, just as he would have liked.

Dadaji loved fruits. He also loved making all his grandchildren happy, and to make up for being away in Allahabad (though we would visit during such times when we could) he would bring back huge quantities of goodies, and the melons from there that we so love. If he’d been at the Allahabad house today, he would have got back from the site in the evening, stopping by the fruitseller’s on the way and exchanging a few jests while clearing out the best stock. At seven he’d have changed into one of his usual chequered nightsuits, and there would still be a while to go before he put on the eight o’ clock news and dinner got underway.

I turned twenty-one this month. I’m the only son of his son, and two generations down from his time, the only one who will carry on the name Sareen. It’s hard to begin looking back on all the times we’ve had through these years. Even during these last few years of school and college, he made sure I never felt too far from home, though it’s fifteen hundred miles away. On my last birthday in school, I received a huge box full of pinni (homemade laddus, his style) and samosas to share with my housemates. The postal department had decided it might be a bomb and punctured the parcel, but none of my mates had tasted anything quite like that before. And at IITM, there would be that dear old card on birthdays, with the same writing on it every year, and the same simple authenticity. And a whole lot of loving when I came home for the holidays to make up for lost time, even though those visits have become shorter and further apart with each year.

On each visit we’d sit down and have a long talk. He had his own dreams for me, as he did for papa. But in that case, as in mine, he was clear about not letting that get in the way of what one wanted for oneself. His was counsel, mine decision. When papa had doubts about sending me to Rishi Valley, dadaji told me that as long as it was within his capacity, I would get the best education possible that I wanted, no matter if he had to take out a loan for it. When I got to Chennai for college, along with papa, I got my current mobile number, and he was the first person I called off it. On each of our conversations since, he would always ask how work was going. When we were talking face to face, this would be the take off point for lengthy, entertaining stories of incredible events in his life, full of all kinds of people and places, with the odd sort-of-moral thrown in for good measure, one of the recurrent ones being “there is always room at the top”.

He did his best to prepare me to face up to a man’s world. Things papa and I might never have talked about came up, and stayed between us. To date, there’s a line in any relationship that I’ve never crossed, and it’s in large part due to what I’ve imbibed from his words and actions that I’ve learnt the curious qualities of respect and dignity. They say that we each have in us a part of those whom we have known and loved, and when it comes to dadaji, whatever of him I have known, I have loved. As a family, there are deep shades that each of us have been embued with by the virtue of his company, becoming calmer, more balanced, giving people. None of us, I fear, to the extent that he managed, but in the presence of his memory, as during the time of his guidance, we will continue to have a voice full of kindly wisdom that is our beacon, and a feeling that there is someone there who will listen and understand.

I need to connect with that being now. This has taken as long as I can keep a distance from the tears, and DCF is suddenly too noisy and crowded. I need to go up on the department terrace and cry myself out till I’m spent. To let it sink in that something has changed forever and to get accustomed to a new space, while accepting in its proper place that which is no more.

Dearest dadaji, you are remembered. And I’ll do my best!


One Comment

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  1. Suresh / Apr 3 2009 1:13 pm

    Death of grandparents, especially those with whom we have spent memorable moments, is always a painful event. I remember the times i had spent with my grandfather… the tireals and tribulations… the discoveries and the adventures..especially the activities prohibited by my parents….go ahead and do it, it doesn’t matter, parents will always say it …. the special movement sof growing up. helping us as we grow up, grandparents become both the need and the refuge (when scolded by parents); they were always ready to donate you a precious 2 rupees to buy a cricket ball, or to spend in a local festival.
    partings are both poignant and painful … like my grand father said, take both in, together, simultaneously… learn to laugh and cry…

    our fortune was that we had grandparents who were beacons of hope, confidence… symbols of a connection with a past which dimmed as we ran around amidst play… but always the refuge and the symbol of security and permanence…. but alas, they too have to pass…

    at the end of the day their memory is the most valuable part of their gift to us… what we choose to make of ourselves, is the best way to showing our gratitude to what they did earlier so that we grow today…

    take strength from memories of happy days together. and share that sense of joy that he meant with others. thats what he would perhaps, best respect from you!

    a touching adieu … thanks for sharing it with us.

    S, S, T, T

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