This collection of 18 stories is amazing for its variety. While taciturn Hakim Waris Khan’s alchemy can bring relief to the married couples-through murder, ‘Little Steps in Stride’ is a moving story of a couple with five children growing old gracefully.
‘Bindusara’s Talisman’ evokes memories of history with Chandragupta Maurya befriending Chankaya with a talisman helping him and his son Bindusara till……’ An encounter with a Panther’ and ‘A Chief Minister goes hunting’ is bound to bring smile on every face.’ The Miniature Taj Mahal’ takes us back to the British era of the 19th Century with the precise Sir Horace Butler, the Governor of U.P. buying a priceless antique. But something goes wrong…. And then an amazing discovery is made.
‘Roses of Gratitude’, ‘An Affair to Remember’,’ Prabhakar and the Kid’ are sentimental stories of love and gratitude. In ‘Companionship in Twilight’ we again see the glorious melody of old age, whereas ‘Farewell, My love’ is a story happening all the time in numerous hospitals. All the stories are set in India. They are superb. Those who love stories would love this book.
Roses of Gratitude
Ajay Prasad flushed. Why was his teacher looking at him, her lips pursed in dissatisfaction?
Ajay who was ten, worshipped Mrs. Kumar—a tall, slender woman whose face normally wore a serene smile. He had felt this way ever since, in front of the whole class, she had tousled his hair and told him he knew the answer, he must simply think. Beet red but grinning, Ajay had thought hard—and solved the problem. From then on, pleasing her was the most important thing in his life. Now, what had happened? Where had he gone wrong?
At home after school, Ajay studied his reflection in the mirror for a clue to Mrs. Kumar’s disapproval. His ragged clothes and worn out tennis shoes—hardly sufficient to shield him from the cold---were not his fault. It was the winter of 1953 at Lucknow.
Ajay Prasad’s father worked as a foreman in an iron foundry until 1950 when the factory closed and he was laid off. While his father searched for work, his mother worked as a part-time domestic servant. The family, then with four children, lived in an old three-room house. The rats that scrabbled in the dark, decaying floors terrified Ajay.
Mrs. Kumar couldn’t know about the rats, could she? Ajay was mystified. He was a good student, and had done well for someone who spoke no English until he started going to school. That night, as he huddled under his covers, Ajay decided he would ask his teacher what was wrong.
But the next morning, Ajay’s resolve melted life an icicle in sunshine. At noon, as he was about to go home, Mrs. Kumar suddenly appeared beside him in the verandah of the school. “Come with me, Ajay.” Ajay followed, thinking they were going to the Principal’s office.
Mrs. Kumar walked briskly out of the school, and strode into a shoe shop with Ajay right behind her. “Sit down,” she told him.
“Have you got a pair of shoes to fit this little boy?” she asked. The salesman took off his tattered tennis shoes and measured his feed. He found a pair of shoes that fitted Ajay perfectly.
Outside, their purchase in a cardboard box, Ajay started back towards school. Without a word, Mrs. Kumar turned around in the other direction, again leaving him no choice but to follow. They entered a clothing store. Now Mr4s Kumar bought him a shirt and shorts. Ajay gaped at the notes she used to pay for them---it was more money than he had ever seen. They took the purchases and went back to school where Mrs. Kumar got two cups of tea for Ajay and herself.
As they sat in the staff room, Ajay tried to find words to express his thanks. But Mrs Kumar’s quick gulps and hurried manner told him there was little time for talk. “We must go, Ajay,” she said. In her smile he again saw the serenity he treasured.
I will never forget this, Ajay Prasad said to himself as he watched her saree flutter as she left.
Soon after, the school was closed; its pupils and teachers were scattered. Ajay lost track of his beloved teacher before he had ever found the right moment to thank her.
In time Ajay Prasad finished school and became an engineer. He married and fathered two boys.
Then, in early 1991, Ajay suffered a massive heart attack. Lying in a hospital bed, he recalled his teacher of long ago.
He wondered if she was still alive, and if so, where she lived. He thought of his promise, and knew he had some unfinished business to tend.
In August 1991, Ajay Prasad wrote to his old school. A few days later he got a letter from Mrs. Kumar’s son. His mother and father had retired fifteen years ago and moved to Dehradun. He gave Ajay their telephone number.
“Hello?” He recognized lilting voice of his former teacher.
“Mrs. Kumar, this is Ajay.” He found he had trouble speaking. “Ajay Prasad.”
After he told her why he was calling, Sheila Kumar said, “Ajay, I am sorry, I don’t remember you. There were so many hungry, ill-clothed children….”
“That’s okay,” he assured her. He told her he was coming to Dehradun to meet her.
“Oh Ajay,” Mrs. Kumar said. “That’s too much trouble.” “I don’t care,” Ajay said. “I want to do it.”
She was silent for a moment. “You visualize me the way I looked then. I’m old and wrinkled now.”
“I’m not young either,” he said.
“Are you absolutely certain you want to come?”
“I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.”
On September twenty three, Ajay Prasad took a train to Dehradun. There he hired a taxi, bought a bouquet of long-stemmed roses and drove straight to the Kumar’s residence. Sheila Kumar met him at the door in her best saree, her grey hair freshly curled, her eyes sparkling. Ajay swept her up in his arms and hugged her. “Oh my Ajay,” Mrs. Kumar exclaimed.
They sat in the Kumar’s drawing-room to catch up on forty years. Ajay told them about his life as an engineer, where all he worked, his wife and two children. “I often thought about you, those shoes and the clothes,” he said to Mrs. Kumar.
As he was leaving Sheila Kumar said, “How can I ever thank you for all the trouble you’ve taken?”
“Just think how much interest I owe you for the shoes and clothes,” Ajay squeezed her hand. Mrs. Kumar, eyes misty, stood a long time looking at the long stemmed roses in the flower vase. Their fragrance lingered for a long time in the room.
An Affair to Remember
When Malini Tambe came to teach at Greenfield School, Pune, it was the summer of her twenty-fifth birthday and the summer when Deepak Pradhan would turn sixteen. She was the teacher for whom all the children wanted to bring greeting cards and pink flowers. She was stunningly beautiful. She was like the cool air on a hot June afternoon. And those few days in the year when the climate was temperate, neither cold nor hot, those were the days when everybody felt were the days which looked like Malini Tambe.
The first morning when Miss Tambe entered and wrote her name on the blackboard, the school-room seemed suddenly flooded with illumination. Deepak sat with a wad of paper for throwing, hidden in his hand, but let it droop. After class, he brought in a sponge and began to clean the blackboard.
“What’s this?” She turned to him from her desk, where she had been correcting spelling papers.
“The blackboard is dirty, I thought I’ll help. But then, I suppose, I should have asked permission,” he said haltingly.
“I think we can pretend you did.” she replied smiling, and at the smile he finished clearing in a burst of speed and pressed the sponge so furiously that the air was full of dust.
The next morning he passed by the place where she lived just as she was coming out to walk to school.
“Well, here I am”, he said.
“That’s wonderful”, she said. “What a nice surprise.”
“May I carry your books?” he asked.
“Of course. Thank you, Deepak”.
They walked for a few minutes and he said nothing. She glanced over and slightly down at him and saw how at ease he was, how happy he seemed. When they reached the school boundary, he said; “I better leave you here. The other students wouldn’t understand.”
“I don’t either”, said Miss Tambe.
“Why, we are pupil and teacher,” said Deepak with a natural honesty.
“Deepak—“she started to say, “Never mind.” She walked away.
And there he was in class and there he was after school for the next few weeks, never speaking, quietly clearing the blackboard while she worked, and there was the rustle of papers And the scratch of a pen. Sometimes the silence would go on until almost five when Miss Tambe would find Deepak in the last seat, waiting.
“Well, it’s time to go home,” Miss Tambe would say. And he would run and fetch her bag. Then they would walk across the empty yard and talk of all sorts of things.
“What are you going Deepak, when you grow up?”
“An Air Force pilot. I want to go up high in the air and see this beautiful world from the top, as birds see it”.
“Oh, that’s a big ambition”.
“I know, but I’m going to try”, he told her.
He thought for a while and said, “Do me a favor Ma’am?”
“Yes, what is it?”
“I walk every Sunday to the central park with the beautiful lake near your house. There are a lot of ducks and small fish in it. May be you’d like to come too.”
“I’m sorry no; I’m going to be busy.”
“I wish you’d come.”
“Have I offended you?” he asked.
“No, of course not. You’ve every right to ask, she replied.
A few days later she gave him a copy of ‘Midsummer Night Dream’. He stayed up all night reading it, and they talked about it.
Each day Deepak met Miss Tambe and on many days she would start to tell him not to come any more, but she never could.
He talked with her about Shakespeare, Tagore and Kipling, coming and going to school. But she found it impossible to call on him to recite in class. She would hesitate, and then call someone else. Nor would she look at him while they were walking. But on several late afternoons, as he moved his arm high on the blackboard, sponging away the arithmetic symbols, she found herself glanced over at him for seconds at a time.
Then one Sunday morning he was standing in the park lake with his trousers rolled up to his knees, bending to catch fish, when he looked up and saw her.
“Well, here I am,” she said, laughing.
“Thanks for coming,” he said. “I’m so glad.”
“Show me the fish,” she said.
They sat next to the lake with a cool wind blowing softly about them, fluttering her hair and the ruffle on her saree and he sat a few meters away from her.
“I never thought I’d enjoy an outing like this so much,” she said.
“I’m so happy you came Ma’am.”
They said little else during the afternoon.
That was about all there was to the meeting of Miss Malini Tambe and Deepak Pradhan; long hours of sitting and staring into the sky, a copy of Kipling and a dozen fish.
The next Monday, though Deepak walked a long time, Miss Tambe did not come out to walk to school. She had gone on ahead. That afternoon, she left early with a headache.
But on Tuesday after school, they were both in the class room again—he sponging the board constantly, and she working on her papers in peace, when suddenly the clock chimed five.
“Deepak”, she said. “Come here.”
“Yes Ma’am.” He put down the sponge.
She looked at him intently for a moment until he looked away. “Deepak, I wonder if you know what I’m going to talk to you about.”
“Yes,” he said at last. “About me.”
“How old are you, Deepak?”
“Sixteen. Going on seventeen.”
“Do you know how old I am?”
“Yes Ma’am. Twenty-five. I’ll be twenty-five in nine years. Ma’am, I shouldn’t say it,” he hesitated. “I sometimes feel I’m twenty-five.”
“Yes, and sometimes you almost act it.”
“Now sit still. It’s very important that you understand what is happening. First let’s admit we are the greatest friends. I have never had a student like you, nor have I had as much affection for any boy I’ve never known.” He flushed at this. She went on. “And let me speak for you-you’ve found me to be the nicest teacher you’ve ever known.”
“You are wonderful. Very, very nice, Ma’am,” he said.
“I’ve thought this over Deepak. Don’t think I’ve been unaware of your feelings. You are no ordinary boy. And I know I‘m not sick, mentally or physically, and that whatever has evolved between us has been wonderful, lovely. But it is not correct.”
“If I were nine years older and fifteen centimeters taller, it would make all the difference,” he said.”
“May be,” she said. “But you are not. We live in a world where persons are judged by ages and heights. Many times two people want a certain thing to happen when it shouldn’t happen. I can’t explain why.”
“What can we do?” he asked.
“Not very much. I can secure a transfer from this school…..”
“You don’t have to do that,” he said. “We’re moving. My family and I.”
“It has nothing to do with all this has it?”
“No, no, my father has a new job in Bombay. It’s only a hundred-and-fifty kilometers away. I can visit you, can’t I?”
“Of course. But there is no point.”
“No, I guess not,” he said.
They sat awhile in the silent school-room.
“Why did all this happen?” he said, helplessly.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Nobody ever, knows. They haven’t known it for thousands of years. May be they never will.”
They looked away from each other. The silence in the room was complete. Time ticked away....
“There’s one thing I want you to remember,” she said finally. “There are compensations in life. Sopmething will happen to remedy this. God has his own way of remedying injustice. Do you believe that?”
“I’d like to,” he blurted.
He sat there for a long time. “I’ll always remember you,” he said.
She went to erase the blackboard.
“I’ll help you,” he said.
“No, no,” she said hastily. “You leave for your home.”
He left the school. Looking back, he saw Miss Tambe through the window, at the blackboard, slowly sponging out the chalked words.
He moved away the next week and was gone for twenty-two years. Her never got to Pune again until he was almost thirty-nine and married. Then one spring they drove to Pune and finally stopped for a day.
Deepak left his wife at the hotel and walked around town and finally asked about Miss Malini Tambe.
“Oh yes, the pretty teacher. She died in nineteen hundred and fifty two, one year after you left.”
“Had she ever married?”
“No, she never did. In the last few months before she died, she looked rather sad and forlorn.”
Later in the day the people in the locality saw Deepak Pradhan’s wife strolling to meet him. She was like the cool air on a hot June afternoon. And those few days in the year when the climate was temperate, neither cold nor hot, those were the days when everybody felt were the days which looked like Deepak Pradhan’s wife.
While establishing our factory near Gwalior in 1991, we needed a guest house. We located one at forty three, Sri Ram colony.
Once we occupied the house, we needed a caretaker. Our chairman Mr. Iyengar, a Tamilian of Spartan habits, recommended a young Tamilian living in Noida, a suburb of Delhi. This ‘boy’, as he called him, did all his jobs like filing his income and sales tax papers, getting odd repair jobs done in his flat and having his care repaired. The ‘boy’ worked in a factory and Mr. Iyengar paid him a nominal amount each month to look after his interests.
One day the ‘boy’ came to meet me. He was dark, short, had a pleasant disposition, and a smiling face. He could not have been more than twenty two years in age and was unmarried. He came from Banglore. When asked whether he knew cooking he replied, “Not much, sir. But I can learn”.
It is this which impressed me—his readiness to learn. I hired him. His name was Shivmoorthy.
Meanwhile we also appointed a contractor, a Mr. Sri Nath to do our civil works. He too was from Banglore and a young bachelor. The contract with him was that he will stay in our guest house.
Both Sri Nath and Shivmoorthy reached Gwalior on the same day from Delhi. I reached a day later.
While Sri Nath and I broke the sod to start our civil works, Shivmoorthy went about organizing our kitchen and buying some essential items for house furnishings. The understanding was that I will visit Gwalior every fortnight to oversee civil construction and look after other matters pertaining to factory management.
When next in Gwalior, Shivmoorthy was at the railway station to receive me in the company’s car. When asked who was the driver, he smiled and said, “I have learnt driving sir”. On reaching the guest house, I found it was fairly well furnished with chairs, tables and two beds. Shir Nath told me Shivmoorthy had bought all these items for a bare five thousands rupees. I was impressed.
That evening, after Sri Nath and I returned from the factory, Shivmoorthy asked me whether he can buy a sofa-set with side tables, a dining table with chairs, two more beds with mattresses, a carpet and some other furnishing items. He said he had found a place where a ‘garage sale’ is on and we could-buy all these for twenty thousands rupees. He took me to the concerned house and I promptly purchased most of the items. It was a great bargain.
As months passed I found that Shivmoorthy was not only a caretaker but managed all Sri Nath’s finances and other matters pertaining to civil construction. He would be awake by five in the morning and have the meals ready by seven. Then onwards he would be on the telephone helping Sir Nath with his suppliers and other sundry matters. When Sri Nath left for the factory at eight a.m., he would be given his packed tiffin.
Later, Shivmoorthy would do all types of odd jobs like arranging for bricks, cement and what not. Very often he would himself accompany the transporters truck to the factory to ensure that materials reached in time. During the day he would do various other chores—Bank, telephone and electricity words, purchase of groceries and so on. Since we had installed a telex machine in our guest house, he had also become a telex operator.
The most remarkable thing about him was that he was always smiling. Tell him anything and he would do it. He never complained or shirked work. He was also completely honest.
Within a year the civil works were over. Sri Nath left for Bangore and a new team of engineers were at Gwalior to operate the factory. The attitude of Shivmoorthy to them was as positive as to Sri Nath, although most of these engineers were from Delhi.
As production started in the factory, the problems of running a factory began. Sometimes the raw-materials had not arrived, sometimes there were breakages, sometimes proper quality products did not come out, sometimes production had to be shut down for technical reasons, and so on.
I was now spending most of my time in Gwalior and the tensions of running a factory were increasing. Shivmoorthy understood my problems and always cheered me. I found him an excellent companion. His presence made me feel better.
Once, on returning from the factory in the evening a telephone came from our General Manger that the production of polyester resin, one of our products, that the production of polyester resin, one of our products, had stopped as the shaft inside the container was not rotating property.
We needed this polyester resin to be ready next day for dispatch to Bombay. We had a time bound export order and it was essential that the resin leaves for Bombay the nest day. Its non-despatch would have caused us a loss of 1 lakhs of rupees and also a loss of face with an important foreign buyer.
The General Manager told me that the only way to have the shaft repaired was to have it taken out of the container and sent to Delhi in a special truck. It was not possible to have these repairs done at Gwalior as there was no proper workshop locally to do this job. Although the repair was not major, Yet the journey time, to and from Delhi, would be two days. Thus, with all speed, we could not start production for another two or three days.
I immediately instructed the General Manager that he should have the shaft taken out of the container and dispatched with an engineer to Delhi. The engineer must personally supervise its repairs and bring it back post-haste to Gwalior. The moment it arrived, it was to be fitted back and production started immediately. If the engineers were required to stay in the factory the whole night to achieve this, they must do so.
As I paced up and down the living-room thinking what excuses I could give to the foreign buyer, my adrenalin rising and worry writ large on my face, Shivmoorthy came to me and asked, “Sir, what is the problem?”
To lessen the burden of my mind, I explained the problem. He too became very grim.
“Sir,” he said after sometime.” I know somebody who can help. May I try, sir”?
I pooh-poohed the idea and while thanking him, asked him to serve my dinner.
I spent a sleepless night. When I awoke the next morning and hollered at Shivmoorthy to get me my morning cup of coffee, I found him missing. This further annoyed me.
I rang up the factory to check whether the shaft had left for Delhi. The General Manager who was on the line said:
“Sir, it has been repaired and we are now fitting it back into the container”.
“Repaired?” I said in disbelief. “How could it have been repaired?”
“Shivmoorthy got it done. It seems he knows some mechanic at Gwalior. He brought him to the factory in the night and after it was taken out of the container, we noticed it had some-hair-line cracks on one side. Shivmoorthy and the mechanic mounted it in our jeep and took it to a workshop. There the mechanic soldered the hair-line cracks in a special way in his garage workshop. It is now back and once it is fitted into the container, we’ll start the plant. Let’s hope it functions properly.”
I was too flabbergasted to say anything. I rushed to the factory.
The General Manager, engineers, the mechanic and Shivmorthy wre there. The engineers had just started the plant. The shaft was working properly.
I asked the General Manager whether he was satisfied with the repair work. He answered in the affirmative and said that the production batch would roll out in a few hours.
“All parameters of production are working properly,” he quipped.
I looked at Shivmoorthy. He was looking at me with his usual smile. I didn’t know what to say. I smiled back at him.
“Can I take you car to the guest house, sir?” This was Shivmoorthy asking me.
“Of course. But why?”
“I have to cook your tiffin and bring it back by lunch time, sir.”
Postscript:- Six months after this incident, Shivmoorthy was over by a speeding truck at Banglore.
A Chief Minister Goes Hunting
In 1967, India’s political scenario underwent a dramatic change. In a general elections, the Congress party fared very poorly and could barely manage to scrape through with slender majorities in many northern states. Some of the Congress M.L.A’s, ( Members of Legislative Assemblies) along with their leader defected to form new parties. The leader and his M.L.A’s. in association with the opposition parties like the Jan Sangh, Socialists and Independent’s formed coalition governments. Most of the M.L.A’s. became minister and the leader, the Chief Minister.
In Madhya Pradesh, this leader was Mr. Vijay Mohan Singh. His grouse was that he was not given a suitably important portfolio by the then Congress Chief Minister. So, along with about forty five M.L.A.’s, he defected.
Once installed, the new government of Madhya Pradesh quickly began a very important task; transferring government servants. In a short span of one year, I was transferred twice as a Collector.
On the first occasion, the local M.L.A. was annoyed because I did not grant arms licences to whosoever he recommended. On the second occasion some local leaders incited the school boys to violence and urged them to pelt stones at passing vehicles and local houses. I asked the police to be lenient to the school boys but register criminal cases against the leaders. I was quickly transferred.
Within eighteen months, the government of Madhya Pradesh was on the verge of collapse. I was then Collector, Surguja.
One day, all ministers in Mr. Singh’s ministry resigned as part of a ‘understanding’, Mr. Singh retained only one to ’help him shoulder the burden till he re-constituted the ministry’. This gentleman, Mr. Dina Prasad Chaurasia, happened to be from my district. He was given half the portfolios of the government, the other half being retained by the Chief Minister.
Mr. Chaurasia, who till then was a junior and an unknown minister, was overwhelmed and quickly became the Chief Minister’s great admirer. He convinced Mr. Singh that he should take a few days off in Surguja where he would arrange a great’ shikar for him.
One night in March 1969, Mr. Chaurasia telephoned me from Bhopal that the Chief Minister had agreed to visit Surguja and we should now arrange a great shikar for him.
“As the Chief Minister is very busy, he can spare only three days,” said the excited minister.
Mr. Chaurasia arrived the very next morning and started working to make the shikar a success. The people who were helping him were all government servants, mostly working in departments under his charge.
Meanwhile, my transfer orders for my posting to the Government of Himanchal Pradesh at Shimla had come and I was keen to leave quickly. I was not being relieved because Mr. Chaurasia had developed a ‘soft corner’ for me. It was his belief that he along with me, could develop Surguja into a great district.
The Chief Minister arrived on the appointed date in his state plane at Chirmiri, a coal town, and was received by Mr. Chaurasia and a host of local officials including myself. The Chief Minister was tall burly man, full of life and humour. However, because of his political trouble, none of this was visible when he arrived. He was quiet, grumpy and aloof.
To justify his official trip, he went to see some coal mines; he was bored in half an hour, and in the evening gave a public speech. The public speech considerably enlivened him.
The next morning we drove to the shikar site, a small quiet, forest rest house in the midst of the jungle, a good two hundred and fifty kilometers away. When we arrived at the rest house, I was amazed at what I saw.
Shamianas had been erected in the compound and in one corner sat a group of musicians playing the ‘shahnai’. In another corner were tribal men and women doing their traditional dance. A few people were blowing the bugles. There must have been at least sixty to eighty people waiting for the Chief Minister with garlands and an assortment of gifts which included live snakes, parrots and a variety of beautiful birds in cages and a pair of panther cubs. Many of them had rifles slung on their shoulders, while many others were with bows and arrows. Some fired in the air to show their appreciation at the Chief Minister’s arrival. Some shot off their arrows in the air with joyous shricks. Many were with painted faces. As the Chief Minister descended from his car, the tribal dancers surrounded him and he was made to join their circle to dance with them. Not to be outdone, Mr. Chaurasia and I also joined.
At the back of the rest house a ‘langar’ was operational. While umpteen varieties of food were being openly cooked in a nearby fireplace, dozens of people including police constables, irrigation engineers, contractors and forest officials were having puri with vegetables or tea with ‘pakoras’. In an adjacent tent I saw many inebriated men. These people had wisely decided that the best way to celebrate the Chief Minister’s arrival was to be away from him.
Seeing his welcome, the Chief Minister was overwhelmed. He forget his political troubles, regained his joviality and quickly got into an expansive mood. He took a chair in front of the rest house and surrounded by sycophants began making the necessary enquiries of how and when he could kill the tiger.
He was told that two tigers were in the nearby jungles and their location had been identified. He was further told that two ‘machans’ had been built in each of which three people could sit. The bait, a goat would be tied at seven p.m. on the tree below the ‘machan’ and two ‘haka’ parties of sixty to seventy five people each would began their work thereafter.
‘Haka’ is a form of entrapment of the tiger by a semi-circular human chain. A large number of people with sticks, drums and bugles make a semi-circle at a suitable distance from the tiger. Then making loud noises with their sticks, voices, drums and bugles, they advance towards the prey. The tiger hearing the noises, perforce moves towards the open side of the semi-circle, and unwittingly starts approaching the ‘machan.’ Once there he see’s the bait. With his usual roar he goes for thxe bait and “hey-presto,” the bullet from the ‘machan’ does the rest.
The shikari thinks that by so killing the tiger he exhibits great bravery but this has never made any sense tome. What chance does a poor tiger have when he is pitted against hundred’s of people and a shikari sitting on a high machan with a rifle? The tiger cannot even keep and reach upto the machan. But tell this to a shikari, and for the next few hours he will regale you with stories of how it is a great risk just to be sitting on a machan.
Our Chief Minister was one such shikari.
That evening, The Chief Minister left for his shikar around eight p.m. with five other shikaris, all local people. Mr. Chaurasia like myself had no love for shikar and so we stayed back. Whereas I excused myself to go to sleep in another nearby rest house, this one was too crowded and noisy, MR. Chaurasia said he will stay awake till such time as the Chief Minister returns.
The next morning I reached the Chief Minister’s rest house at seven a.m. It was still dark and a big bonfire was burning in front of it. Near it sat the Chief Minister on a reclining chair with a huge dead tiger lying in front of him. He was surrounded by hords of his admirers who were clapping and cheering everything he said, Mr. Chaurasia was also one of them. The Chief Minister was in boisterous spirits. The moment he saw me he yelled.
“Come here, Chandra sahib. See this beauty.” And then he repeated the story of how he had killed the tiger for the umpteenth time.
Very simply it was that around eleven p.m. he saw the tiger approaching their machan. As soon as it got sufficiently near, he shot twice and the tiger was dead.
The second tiger could not be found by the ‘haka’ people and so escaped the death sentence.
As the morning sun rose, the Chief Minister became more and more expansive and garrulous. He gave detailed accounts of his earlier trysts with shikar. Mr. Chaurasia myself and many others laughed and clapped enthusiastically whenever these trysts indicated acts of bravery by Mr. Singh and there was no shortage of them. Very often we interrupted him.
“Sir, how could you put yourself in such danger?” To which the answer would be,” all of you must know that everybody cannot be brave. But all of you must try to reach the heights of bravery which shikar demands.”
His mood was so good that whatever was wanted by anybody was quickly granted. Mr. Chaurasia put up a paper asking for the sanction of some irrigation projects in his constituency. The Chief Minister promptly signed the sanction order. They added up to a few crore of rupees-----a big amount in those days.
In the afternoon, the Chief Minister, the minister and I left by road for Baikunthpur, Mr. Chaurasia’s constituency-----a good two hundred kilometers away. Before leaving the Chief Minister directed that “bakshish” from him should be given to all who helped make this visit such a wonderful experience. He further desired that the tiger should be skinned, sent to a taxidermist and then sent to him at Bhopal.
Who footed the bill for all this I didn’t know. But as Mr. Chaurasia was also the Irrigation Minister and the whole staff of the irrigation department, including their executive engineer were present, I guess they did the needful. Needless to say, they must have done this very efficiently and recovered their investments with good bonus shortly afterwards.
Till midnight at Baikunthpur, the Chief Minister regaled us with shikar stories of his father, some British Officers and of course himself. Sometimes it was outright ridiculous. But both Mr. Chaurasia and myself listened to it with rapt attention and kept interrupting him with suitable remarks.
“Sir, did you really shoot that tiger while crossing that rivulet, when the tiger was barely a few feet away from you?”
“Of course I did. Had I not done so, it would have pounced on me.”
Towards the end I knew my time had come and I should now make my killing.
“Sir, I said,” as you perhaps know my orders for posting to Shimla have come. But I am not being relieved.”
“Who is coming in your way?” thundered the Chief Minister.
Mr. Chaurasia looked sheepishly at me. “Sir, We would like to retain Mr. Chandra. He is doing an excellent job here and …..” he said haltingly.
“You can’t spoil his career,” interrupted the Chief Minister. “If he wants to go, who are you to come in his way?”
“Chandra sahib, you can return tomorrow morning to your district headquarters and start packing. I will see that you are relieved immediately,” said the Chief Minister.
Mr. Chaurasia gave me the grin of a defeated man.
I returned the next morning to Ambikapur, the district headquarters, and asked my wife to begin packing.
A few days later I got my orders of transfer.
A few days later the government of Mr. Vijay Mohan Singh fell.
A Jacket for Chottu
He was Kundan Lal’s first star. A small wooden puppet about twenty five centimeters tall, Chottu had a slightly surprised look on his face, a lock of pointed back hair and a pointed nose that always needed retouching.
In the 1950’s Chottu appeared in the small touring show that began Kundan Lal’s career as a puppeteer. Originally, he had created him as Chandan Singh, but then he became a character in his own right, around whom Kundan Lal produced a series of adventures.
Each year he survived against impossible odds in a new scenario. All alone in a forest tigers who wanted to gobble him up. As Maharana Pratap’s assistant he fought two men who had come to poison the Maharana’s food. He always walked hesitantly through his plays because his knee joints were slightly out of alignment and no amount of surgery could correct them.
At the end of each performance, Chottu would climb on to Kundan Lal’s shoes at the footlights and wave to the children in the audience. Delighted at being acknowledge by him, they squealed with pleasure and waved back. As they left the hall, they were a little sad, not knowing when they might see Chottu again. In those days, Kundan Lal toured the districts over most of Rajputana, now Rajasthan. To protect Chottu from the dust of the desert, he put Chottu and the other puppets in cotton bags, closed by a drawstring.
One cold winter evening, as he was about to ease Chottu into his bag after a performance at Jodhpur, a little girls of about twelve came backstage, alone. Hesitantly, she stepped through the lighting and scenery boxes until she stood besides Kundan Lal. “He will be cold,” she said. “The bag is made from thin material”.
Kundan Lal looked at her. “It is warm inside the covered bullock cart”, he replied. “There are many puppets there”. He began placing Chottu’s leg in the open bag.
“Wait!” said the little girl. She brought her hand from behind her back. “Here is something for Chottu,” she said.” I made it myself”. In her hand, neatly folded was a miniature jacket. Kundan Lal took the gift and covered Chottu with the jacket.
“Now he won’t catch cold”, the little girl said.
“Thank you “, Kundan Lal said.” What’s your name?” But she had gone, running between the boxes, jumping over the lengths of stage settings, unitil she vanished behind the curtains.
That night Kundan Lal removed Chottu’s string, and fitted the jacket. It was of fine cotton with a layer of warm wool inside and the sleeves stretched over his large hands.
The following year, Chottu retired from the stage. For some time Kundan Lal had an ambition to create puppets inspired by India’s unique fauna- fox’s, deer’s, tiger’s and elephants. Thus, the ‘jungli duniya’, the animals who live in forests, came into being.
Their success built the original small touring group into a large string-puppet company in the Hindi speaking provinces. It won sponsorship from the government and after being translated into English, made overseas tours for the department of Foreign Affairs. Chottu had traveled extensively to various countries but only as the company’s mascot. He remained in his bag in the corner of the spare-parts box, and was seldom unpacked, in more than twenty years.
During those years Kundan Lal had less and less contact with his audiences. He became preoccupied with administration, got involved in the politics of subsidized theatre and fought to keep a staff together and employed all the year. No longer could he share the excitement of the children seated in the darkened halls.
Finally, he decided not to produce any more ’jungli duniya’ shows but to return to what he had once been, alone performer with a few puppets. Chottu was taken out of his bag and repainted, and once again he performed at Jodhpur. As he was Chottu into his bag, a voice behind him said, “He hasn’t aged at all.”
“Puppets don’t age,” Kundan Lal said, and turned to see a woman in her thirties with prematurely graying hair, holding the hand of a pretty little girl of about eight.
The woman smiled. “You won’t remember me,” she said. “Once you gave me something I have never lost. My life has not been easy…” she paused, then smiled again and looked at the puppet.” Even during the worst times I was able to make a story about Chottu to tell my daughter.” Then she looked down at the little girl and said: “This is Chottu.”
The woman stroked Chottu’s head. Her fingers moved down his neck and paused to touch his worn and faded jacket. Kundan Lal saw tears in her eyes and then he remembered.
“I hope he still means as much to you as he does to me”, she said.
“Yes,” he replied. “He does.”
Kundan Lal bent down and picked up the child. Holding her in his arms next to Chottu, he told her the true story of that other little girl, who, long ago, had made a jacket for Chottu and warmed his little wooden heart.
Farewell, My Love
The large clock at Wodehouse nursing home Calcutta read two fifty p.m. As she climbed the stairs, she wondered what she’d have to do in the next eight hours of her life. Would it be simply controlling a patient’s pain with a little morphine, or would she be constantly running mental calculations to keep drugs balanced and respirators pumping smoothly?
She reached the last step and had to juggle her lunch-box and purse to open the door to the green waiting room. As she walked under the acute coronary care sign, she noticed a woman, in a light yellow saree and white hair sitting on the couch crying. Another elderly woman leaned over her, touching her shoulder, saying nothing.
She passed them and opened the door into the world of the critically ill—four rooms, each holding a single blue bed. Only one of the monitor banks was lighted and running. Bed Two.
She walked to the locker and took the white-cotton uniform from its hanger. Lacing her white shoes, she wondered about Bed Two. How old? Man or woman? How bad was it? The grieving white-haired woman in the waiting-room hinted at the answers.
“Both his electroencephalograms have been flat, and I haven’t heard results of the head scan he had this morning,” the on-duty nurse told her. “He 8is sinking fast. It is a question of time.”
Briefed, the nurse coming on duty walked quietly into the coronary-care room. The respirator was on. She looked closely at him. A mist of sweat covered his balding head.
She walked back to the door and pulled the blue curtain all the way around the glass room. They were alone now. She began routine assessment, like analyzing a dysfunctioning engine, piece by piece. Hear rate: one hundred and forty. Blood pressure: eighty. Skin: wet and mottled. Colour: bluish grey. Drugs: dopamine, procainamide, and lidacaine. Neuro: pupils widely dilated, all reflexes absent.
He had been laughing and very active only a few hours before it happened she had been told. There had been a family dinner that day, and she could imagine the joking and grandfather’s joy at being there. After all her experience, it still amazed her how quickly it could happen.
Her initial assessment finished, she allowed the family in to be with him, one at a time, according to policy. His sister walked in first. “Oh Ronu, Ronu goodbye now,” she said in a low voice. Her tears fell on her brother’s arm, and she made no attempt to wipe them away. “I always called him Ronu,” the sister explained. “It was his nickname.” She started to say something else to her brother, her lips moving without the sounds. She put her hand to her mouth and backed out of the room.
Ten minutes later a thin young man in is late teens walked stiffly into the room, A grandchild. The youth reached out to touch his grandfather’s face but caught himself halfway. Suddenly, the boy’s shoulders began to shake. He turned away and quickly left. The nurse’s hand moved to the patient’s forehead and slowly wiped away the sweat.
She moved down to the end of the bed and massaged his white feet as they lay still and cold. She noticed the monitor: heart rate seventy, blood-pressure seventy four. He was slowing down.
Twenty minutes passed and the soft whooshing noise from the respirator lulled her into a kind of trance as she sat at the nurse’s desk doing her charting and preparing the paper work. A deep voice startled her. She looked up and saw a very tall man with a pretty woman standing close to him.
“How is he?” the man asked, hope hanging on the words.
“Not good,” she said.
The woman moved towards the nurse, wringing her hands. “We’re good friends. Is he going to pull out of it?”
The nurse stared directly at the woman. “He is dying now… as we talk.”
“Look,” the man said, “if we go and get the best doctors, would that help?”
“No,” she said. “His brain is gone. We are keeping his heart beating with drugs, and a machine is breathing for him.”
Both visitors looked away from her. “He was a wonderful man, the tall man said. “The best. He made everyone laugh. He helped people feel good about themselves.” He paused, then he spoke more slowly: “Special, yes. He was special.”
The nurse said, “Yes, I’m sure he was.” Then they left , and she returned to her patient. The thermometer now read ninety six degrees Fahrenheit. She walked to the outer door. Through the waiting-room window she could see the white haired woman still sitting on the couch. The nurse opened the door and asked her to come in.
The wife touched his face and kissed him. “Ranjan don’t go just yet. Not just now, Ranjan. Let me go first.”
The nurse pretended to rearrange the plastic tubes and grey monitor leads that were no longer of use.
“He woke up several times that night,” the white-haired woman said. “You know, the way we old people do. But the last time, when he walked back towards the bed, he called my name. He was scared and he wouldn’t answer me. I kept talking to him, but never said anything.” The woman picked up his limp hand and put it to her cheek. She stood a long time holding it. ‘Farewell, my love’, she seemed to be saying. Then, putting his hands down, she walked out of the room without another word.
The nurse was turning him on to his side when she looked up and saw his doctor, who monitored her to the monitor bank.
“The head scan showed massive cerebral hemorrhage. Go ahead and stop the drugs and discontinue the respirator. His other doctor and I have discussed it with his family … they want it this way.”
The nurse made no move towards the bed. She waited for the doctor to leave.
Carefully letting down the side rails, she put her hands gently under Ronu’s shoulder and spoke to him in a whisper. “You are very fortunate to have all this love. Did you feel it today? You can leave this behind you now.”
Her face touched his.
Blood-pressure forty, heart rate thirty two. She squeezed his hand and felt a lump rise in her throat. His face was blurred by her tears.
She reached towards the blue intravenous fluid that kept his blood-pressure up, and turned the valve switch to “off”. Then the yellow fluid, keeping his heart pumping. “Off”.
Again, the monitor flashed and buzzed as a straight line moved across the screen. No pulse, blood-pressure zero.
“Farewell, Ronu uncle,” she murmured softly.
The respirator suddenly seemed loud and obnoxious, diminishing the dignity of death. With one swift movement she pulled the plug from the wall. Silence.
She removed the tubes and the tapes from his body and washed him with warm, soapy water reserved for the living. The she covered him with a soft blanket.
Just after midnight, she walked through the empty waiting-room. She felt drained. Yet, as she stepped out of the hospital, the nurse found that she carried something with her – the dignity of the mourning wife and family, and the love that had surrounded him. He had never spoken to her. There had been no gestures. But his spirit … lingered.
An Encounter with a Panther
In 1963, after joining IAS, I was posted as Assistant Collector in Ambikapur, District Surguja (MP) for training. My entire life earlier had been mainly spent in Lucknow and Delhi and so I had not even heard of a district called Surguja. Enquiries at Mussoori, where I was under training, revealed it was located in north-east Madhya Pradesh and was largely inhabited by tribals. I also learnt it was formerly a princely state, nearly as large as Kerala, heavily afforested and the district headquarter-Ambikapur- not connected by train. All this was a shock.
After I reached Ambikapur through a long ardous route via rail and bus from Delhi, I was aghast at seeing Ambikapur town. It was no better than a village. It's population was 15-20,000, most houses were a mix of kuccha and pucca with tiled roofs, no water town supply ( water had to be pulled out of wells attached to most houses) and electricity in some houses. There were dry sanitary latrines in most houses, a small market and hardly any cars. What was most irritating was there was no bakery to supply bread, no English newspapers and ofcourse no cinema hall.
In these dreary surroundings my time was spent in my office in the Collectorate, playing tennis in the club in the evenings, listening to radio at my home for news and music and travelling all around the district in a jeep on tours.
The entire district was full of forests and wild life was aplenty. The Raja of Surguja, now living in his dilapitaded palace in isolation was rumoured to have shot dead over 1,000 tigers and panthers in his lifetime- a world record. The favourite pastime of village landlords was drinking and shikar. As for the tribal population, it was content with drinking, dancing and merrymaking. Mahua liquor flowed in the district like water. Promiscuity was widespread among locals and the outside non tribal population, mostly traders, took full advantage of it.
And so my bachelor life proceeded with nothing very exciting.
One summer morning as I opened the latch of my door to step outside into my verandah, I saw a two tribal youngmen standing outside with a covered basket. Behind them stood my domestic servant who came daily to my house around this time to do his usual chores of cooking, cleaning etc.
My servant smiled and said,''Sahib, yeh log gaon se aye hain aur apke liye ek bhet laye hai ( Sir, these people have come from the village and have brought a present for you)''
The two tribal villagers opened the top cover of the basket and I saw two little tiny brown cats with black stripes sitting inside atop a piece of cloth.
"Yeh kya hai? ( What is this?)"I asked
"Tenduae sahib. Aapke liye( Panthers sir,.For you)."
I stood there dazed for a long time. I touched one of them and he moved. There was a small metallic cup with milk inside the basket and one of them licked some milk.
It was a good 3-4 minutes before I recovered my senses and asked:
"Mai kya karunga inka? (What will I do with them?)"
At this one of the tribal man picked up one little cub and shoved it into my hand and said: Rakhiya aur inke sath Khilaye sahib. Bade pyare hain( Keep them and play with them,sir. They are very cute)
I asked my servant to make tea for all of us. I was too dazed to say anything else.
I played with the two cubs for sometime. I liked the feel of them crawling around my feet.
It is then that I got talking to the two villagers and asked what at all made them bring this unusual present for me.
They said they are brothers and in one of the land dispute cases which had been going on in their village for many years with their neighbours, I had come to the village talked to the two parties and decided the case on the spot in their favour. They were eternally grateful and had brought these cubs as a present to thank me
"And how did you get them?"
At this my servant replied: "Sir, these people live next to a forest. Very often the panthers stray near their house and sometimes the cubs get left behind. These villagers keep the cubs in their homes for some weeks, feed them with milk, and when the cubs become bigger and dangerous, they let them back into the forest."
"So what do I do when the cubs become older?" I asked
One of the men looked smilingly at me and said, "Put them back in the forest, sahib."
I played with the cubs for a long time while the villagers and I drank our tea. I thought to myself: 'how will I feed them when I am alone and my house is locked for the whole day. Again, after a few weeks how do I go about releasing them back in the forests. No, no, I said to myself. All this is impractical'.
' After sometime I told them, "Thank you very much but I cannot keep them. It is too difficult for me."
I still remember the two tribal brothers leaving my house with smiling faces
The Miniature Taj Mahal
"Lot number eighty seven" declared the auctioneer at Sotheby, London. "What is the bid for this magnificent model of....
* * * *
Sir Horace Butler, 191 centimetre tall, was the Governor of the Indian state of United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) in 1888 and stationed at Lucknow. He was a precise man. He rose at six every morning, went for a horse ride, joined his wife for breakfast to eat one poached egg served on a semi cooked toast, another toast with one spoon of marmalade sprinkled over it, and one cup of Bengal tea. He would then walk to his bungalow office at Havelock Road, arriving punctually at nine a.m. After attending to his personal mail, he would go on horse¬ back from his bungalow office to the state secretariat, half a mile away to arrive at five minutes to ten and return home again on the stroke of five.
At five thirty in the evening he would be in the tennis court to play his two sets of doubles-light and weather permitting. His tennis companions spoke few words and never indulged in levity.
His other interests were travelling and more than an amateur interest in the art of the Mughal dynasty.
As his gubernatorial appointment was for only three years, Sir Horace frequently used his time travelling in a carriage into the outlying districts to learn more about the country and its people. On these trips he was always accompanied by his private secretary who acted as his interpreter and guide.
On one such journey, passing through the narrow, muddy streets of Unnao, a small town near Lucknow, Sir Horace chanced upon an old craftsman's shop. Leaving his servants, the Governor dismounted from his carriage and entered the ramshackle workshop to admire the delicate pieces of ivory that crammed the shelves from the floor to ceiling.
The craftsman bustled forward in a long yellow kurta and white cap to greet him. He bowed low and then looked up at the great man of the Crown. The Governor returned the bow while the private secretary explained who Sir Horace was and his desire to see the craftsman's work.
The craftsman bowed, did a ‘salaam’ and said, "I am honoured". He then pointed a finger to the back of the shop, beckoning the visitors to follow him. They entered a veritable museum with row upon row of beautiful miniature classic items.
"I have, Your Excellency, a piece of the seventeenth century that you may care to see. It is a model of the Taj Mahal, made by Ghiyas Beg, which the emperor Shahjehan approved. It was this model which was copied to make the great Taj Mahal at Agra".
"Please show it to me", said the Governor.
The craftsman passed the piece over for the Englishman to study. Sir Horace's mouth opened wide and he could not hide his excitement. The little miniature, no more than twenty centimetres in height, was a fine example of the Taj. Its intricate carvings were superb. In its interior were the graves of Shahjehan and his consort Mumtaz Mahal. Sir Butler felt confident that the maker was the great Ghiyas Beg, brought to India from Persia by one of the well-known wazir's of Shahjehan's court.
"It's magnificent'', the Governor said."Absolutely magnificent. I am sure it is the original."
The craftsman bowed, "Of course, Your Excellency. This antique came to me by chance. My ancestors went with Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last of the Mughal kings to Rangoon. It was there that the last emperor personally gave it to my forefathers before he breathed his last."
Sir Horace stood silent for a long time. He pondered whether he should ask the inevitable question. He was aware that when a person of his status asked this question, he would never get a fair answer. The replier was only too keen to please the representative of the Crown. In British India, it had its own advantages.
"How much would it cost?" asked the Governor after considerable hesitation.
The craftsman bowed. "It is not for me to quote a price Your Honour. For me it is enough that this treasure should grace your home".
"Well, let me give it a thought. May I come back to you after some days with an offer?" asked the Governor.
"Yes course, Your Excellency."
As the party travelled back to Lucknow, the Governor remained deep in thought. Keen as he was to acquire the miniature, he did not want to be unfair. He wanted his offer to be correct and just.
Observing his pensive mood, the private secretary uncharacteristically suggested, “Your Honour should not be unduly concerned with the price. The craftsman would sell it for any price that Your Excellency will offer because there are not many buyers for such pieces in these regions."
Once back, the Governor browsed through a lot of books in the Governor's library to see if he could discover a realistic value for the little master-piece. After diligent research and with the help of his staff and some prominent local people including a 'Nawab', who claimed Mughal ancestry through a concubine of the emperor Jahangir, he was able to assess its true worth.
Three months later, the Governor accompanied by his private secretary was back in the shop of the craftsman.
''I have returned, my friend, to make you an offer." Sir Horace then made an offer which was accepted with immense gratitude by the craftsman.
Sir Horace completed his tenure in Lucknow, then retired to his native England where he spent his final years with his wife and the miniature Taj Mahal. The piece occupied the centre of the mantelpiece in the drawing-room for all to admire.
And so the model passed along into the possession of young Tim, his grandson. Tim alas, had little love for antiques. His interests were more earthy-women and gambling. Within a few years he was in need of considerable money.
Tim took the model off the mantelpiece and drove to Sotheby's to instruct them to put the miniature up for auction.
"It will take a few days to estimate the true value of the piece", the head of the Asia department said, "but I feel confident on a cursory glance that the model is a fine example of Ghiyas Beg. Indeed, a few years earlier we had his model of the famous mosque that was made in Tehran. I could give you a floor price by Friday."
Tim returned to the auction house on Friday with a large smile on his face. He knew what his grandfather had paid for the model and felt sure that there was much money in it for him. The Asia expert met him with a sombre look on his face. Tim's heart sank as he listened to his words: "A nice little piece, your Taj Mahal, but unfortunately a fake; probably about one hundred, one hundred and fifty years old but only a copy of the original. I’m afraid, copies were often made because....”
“How much is it worth?” interrupted Tim.
“Six hundred pounds, seven hundred at the most”.
“I wonder sir....”
“Yes, sell the bloody fake. The swine.... these Indians,” said Tim.
“And what do you want me to do with the gems?”
“Gems! What gems?” asked Tim.
“Yes, the gems. The gems which are embedded in the graves of emperor Shahjehan and his beloved Mumtaz Mahal inside the miniature under the dome. I can’t imagine how...”
* * * *
“Lot Number eighty seven repeated the auctioneer.” What is the bid for this magnificent model of the Taj Mahal with gems embedded in the graves of....”
At the auction of Sotheby’s that Thursday morning, the miniature Taj Mahal was acquired by a Saudi Arabian price for twenty seven thousand pounds.