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Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

Once I was afflicted with extreme sadness. I was young, just out of my juvenile years. I felt as if I were the unhappiest person in the world. I tried, but could not think of an immediate cause. I was usually short of cash and no girl was taking interest in me. But that was the case with several of my friends. All the time I was brooding over the futility of living. I was losing interest in eating, playing and even going to see a film which was my passion. Then a chance remark by a close friend gave me a spark.

The friend (one among the few close friends I had) had for days been trying to improve my mood in various ways possible. But all in vain. Then one day in sheer exasperation, he put an end to his efforts with a shout: ‘you are not alone, almost everyone feels unhappy for one reason or the other.’ It got me thinking and thinking. Then I decided to find out for myself if others were also unhappy.

I went to the stationer’s and purchased a pocket notebook. I made it my mission to ask everyone I met if he/she was happy in life. I would note down his/her name (and the place and some personal particulars) along with his or her reply. In this way I ‘interviewed’ over 700 persons from Varanasi to my home town in Punjab over a span of several months. Only two of them had replied without a moment’s hesitation: ‘yes, I am perfectly happy in life.’ one of them I discounted for the simple reason that she was a young girl, married only about a month — and that is the period when a girl floats on cloud nine. The other was a genuinely happy person. He was the Registrar of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).

Sometime in 1963, a three-day youth leaders’ convention was held at AMU.  I also attended it by virtue of being President of Students’ Union of my University. One day the AMU hosted the dinner to the participants. It so happened that I was sitting next to the Registrar, a slightly bulky man with thick ‘khichdi’ beard. As the dinner was in progress, I asked him if he was happy (it had become an obsession with me). Mr Khan (I am unable to recall his first name now) stopped eating, looked at me for a few seconds and said in a deep voice: ‘Yes, I am perfectly happy’. At my further query, he elaborated: ‘young man, I am 58. I have good health. I have much better appetite than you, though you can see I am more than double your age. I have a loving wife. I have two sons and both are well settled. And I have enough savings for a comfortable life after retirement. What else do I need?’

On the last day of every such gathering, there is always a flurry of address-sharing and promises to keep in touch (internet and mobile were not yet known). A beautiful girl from Baroda was generously writing her address for anyone who asked (almost all the boys appeared to be wanting her address). She would, however, tell everyone that no one had ever succeeded in getting a reply from her. Prudence prevents me from giving her full name; so let’s call her by initials G P. I accepted her challenge and told her that I would get a reply from her. She wrote down her address in my notebook. During the three days I had seen that she was showing special interest in a boy from her own State, Gujarat. On getting back to my place, I wrote her a postcard (yes, postcard it was) asking her the address of the boy as I had (I wrote) misplaced his address. I promptly received a reply from G P, giving me the address of the boy. I wrote reminding her of her bragging that no one could get a reply from her.

She thought (and wrote to me) that I was clever but I attributed it to the revival of my spirits with the knowledge that I was not alone feeling unhappy in this world.

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That the self-styled godmen beguile the gullible is understandable. What, however, is surprising is the manner in which the educated persons, quite rational otherwise, block their critical faculty before such a godman even when the godman has been proved to be a crook. It may not be out of place to cite an instance from my student days in Varanasi.

One Jhumari Tiwari disappeared from home and after several years surfaced in Bombay (as it was then known) and assumed the name of Ram Lakshman Acharya. It was rumoured that he had spent the intervening years in the Himalayas where he had practised yoga and attained divinity. While teaching the citizens of Bombay how to attain moksha, he landed in the police dragnet on a complaint from the wife of an influential industrialist. He was prosecuted and awarded seven years’ rigorous imprisonment for the offence.

Sri Prakasa, an eminent citizen of Varanasi, was then the Governor of Maharashtra. A delegation from Varanasi approached the Governor with the request that the godman be transferred from Bombay jail to Varanasi jail. The Governor obliged (those days there was not such a public scrutiny of the actions of Constitutional authorities as it is now). As soon as Ram Lakshman Acharya entered the Central Jail in Varanasi, he was declared ‘ill’ and shifted to the Shiv Prasad Gupta (district) Hospital at Kabirchaura.

Still a convict and undergoing sentence, the godman could not be allotted a private or special ward under the rules. He could not be put up in a general ward, along with lesser mortals. So a way was found out. General Wards 6 and 7 were connected by a small corridor. In the middle of the corridor was a room where the nursing staff assigned duties for the two wards had their paraphernalia. The pieces of furniture and the almirahs were dumped in Ward 7. To create room for these items, some beds of Ward 7 were moved out into the veranda. The nurses’ room was allotted to Ram Lakshman Acharya.

Every morning the ‘hospitalised’ godman would walk some four kms (a couple of constables trailing half a km behind) to take his bath in the Ganga. On return he would shut himself up in the room for a few hours to perform pooja. By the time his pooja was completed, top government officials, Divisional Commissioner of Varanasi Division, the DIG of police and the Jailor downwards, most of them along with their wives, would be waiting outside to touch his feet and obtain his blessings. All the surgeons and physicians of the District Hospital — barring one — took turns to pay their obeisance to the convicted godman. Dr Dutta (I am unable to recall his initials) was the only doctor who would, after completing his round of Ward 6, head straight to Ward 7 without casting a glance at the room situated between the two wards.

I was witness to this shocking degradation of the educated class. During that period, I was an inmate of Ward 7 undergoing treatment for pleurisy.

A man in my village in Punjab was a member of a cattle lifters’ gang which had its operations in the nearby villages. For a while, he was also involved with an inter-state gang of girl abductors and had narrowly escaped from the police dragnet. Some people in the village did have suspicions about him but no one cared much because he did not follow his criminal intents in the village.  

He brewed (illegally) his own liquor from the acacia bark which occasionally landed him in police custody. He would drink heavily in the evening. Though ever ready to pick up quarrels with any one on the most insignificant issues, he would seal his lips once he started drinking at his house in the evening. That went in his favour. 

Under some peculiar circumstances, I became his confidant in his later years. Whenever I visited the village during vacations, he would sometimes come to me and tell me about his exploits — both successes and failures. One incident, which he narrated to me, would explain his modus operandi. 

One day, he said, he and his colleagues in the gang had stolen a camel from a particular village and hid the animal in another village till the dust had settled down. The owner of the camel lodged an FIR at the police station and gave his name as the suspect. The Thanedar sent for him. As the Thanedar had recently come on transfer, he had not yet made his acquaintance with him. As soon as he reached the police station, he touched the feet of the Thanedar and pressed one foot with two fingers. The Thanedar asked him some peremptory questions and let him off with the loud observation that he was not the thief. Once the heat had died down, they sold the camel for Rs 700 and he promptly went to the police station and gave Rs 200 to the Thanedar. (Rs 200 was a princely sum in the 1950s). 

The girl abductors gang, with which he was involved for some time, once picked up a girl of Class Eighth from Kanpur. She, along with four or five other girls, was kept in a ‘safe house’ in a village, not far from my village. The girl somehow managed to send a post card to ‘Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India, New Delhi’ in which she gave the information about their incarceration. Nehru sent the post card to Punjab Chief Minister Partap Singh Kairon who constituted a team of policemen and instructed the team to quietly raid the house without informing the local police. 

The man from my village was sent on some errand by other gang members and he had left the ‘safe house’ only minutes before the police team from Chandigarh raided it. ‘I thanked my stars and decided to keep away from big crimes and stick only to local cattle lifting affair’, he said.


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Outright Perilous!

An egoist as the head of the government is bad enough. An egotist is a nuisance as his constant chant of I…, I…., I….. jars on the listeners’ years. But when he loses touch with the reality and starts believing his imaginary achievements to be his real achievements, that’s outright perilous.

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