Saturday, January 20, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Of time-wasting rituals
By Khushwant Singh

UJJAL DOSANJH, Prime Minister of British Columbia (Canada), spent a fortnight in India. His main purpose was a pilgrimage to his village Dosanjh Kalan. He was given a rousing reception wherever he went: Welcome arches, guards of honour, mammoth crowds, marigold garlands, speeches — everything one could think of for a son returning to his mother’s embrace after many years. He found time to see me in my little flat, as I had known him over two decades. I asked him how he felt. He admitted he was overwhelmed by the reception he got everywherehe went and added, "I wish our people would not waste so much time and money on meaningless rituals. I had to go through a painstaking schedule of four or five speeches everyday. I was pressed for time. It made no difference. More than half the time I had allotted for a meeting was spent in being garlanded. When my face was obliterated by marigold flowers Ihad to off-load the lot to make room for another round of garlands. Then another. On the dais there would be another ritual of presenting bouquets:Now Shri so andso will present a bouquets on behalf of the Sanatan Dharam High School to our distinguished guest, now Sardar so and so will present a bouquet on behalf of the Khalsa College to our distinguished guest. This would go on for another 10 minutes or so. In the end I was left with barely 15 minutes to talk about Canada and India. You must write about this in your column."

Dying flame burns bright
January 13, 2001
Honouring Gurudev
January 6, 2001
Assamese are the friendliest Indians
December 23, 2000
The Father Teresa of Punjab
December 16, 2000
Metros bursting at the seams
December 9, 2000
Going for Ganga darshan
December 2, 2000
To be among celebrities
November 25, 2000
The dawn chorus at Santiniketan
November 18, 2000
A priceless Divali gift
November 11, 2000

Making documentaries is her forte
November 4, 2000

The Indo-Malaysian connection
October 28, 2000
Lessons terrorism taught us
October 21, 2000
Blood-letting in Punjab
October 14, 2000
Translating the Japji Sahib
October 7, 2000

And so I do. I have also been at the receiving end of such ritualised procedures of welcoming guest speakers in all parts of our country. First the garlanding — marigold flowers or shavings of sandal wood, an aarti by young ladies followed by a tilak on the forehead. Then a rosette with ribbons of silk or nylon of different colours pinned on the chest. The guest of honour is then led to the dais and asked to light oil lamps. There are not enough matches; so he is given a lit candle to light five diyas. Some wicks have soaked enough oil to be able to oblige; if the meeting is in the open, flames flicker and go out. That’s a bad omen.

Many meetings open with a song. It may be one of welcome taken from Hindi film Sunee aahat aap kay aanee kee, apney ghar ko sajayaa hamney... (as Iheard the sound of your approaching footsteps I decorated my home to welcome you. Or words to that effect.)In most Rotary Club meetings they begin with Jana Gana Mana or Vandey Matram solemnly sung at attention and out of tune. In Kashmir and other Urdu-speaking areas it can be Allama Iqbal’s Saarey Jahan Say Achcha Hindustan Hamaara. Not to be outdone, every meeting where Sikhs predominate proceedings begin with Guru Gobind Singh’s invocation to Lord Shiva: Dey Shiva bar moehai, shubh karman tay kabhoon na taroon: (Lord Shiva this boon of thee I ask, let me never shun a righteous task.) Everyone is asked to stand up while it is being sung, as if it is the National Anthem or God Save The King (now Queen) in England.

These rituals are charming in themselves but they do take a lot of time.

My Bengali family

One afternoon in 1984 I happened to be in Calcutta’s Airport Hotel awaiting to catch my flight to Delhi. I prefer to stay near the airport rather than in the city to avoid hassles of bandhs and processions which are the bane of life in this metropolis. Also, one is less accessible and the chances of being left alone to read in peace or idle away the hours doing nothing are brighter. That afternoon my phone rang. "This is Piyali speaking," said a young girl’s voice. "Piyali Sengupta, I am working for my Ph.D. Can I see you for a few minutes? I learnt from Anand Bazar Patrika office you were staying at the Airport Hotel."

Basanti SenguptaI invited Piyali Sengupta for tea. An hour later she came armed with her father as a safety precaution as she was a pretty, 19-year-old college girl. He brought me a bottle of Scotch as a friendly offering. Evidently he knew the way to my heart. We sipped tea and talked about her Ph.D. As the only child of her parents, she wanted to stay single as long as she could with them. At the time I did not know that another reason not to hurry into a marriage was her mother’s fragile health; she was suffering from Myasthenia Gravis, a disease which impairs muscles and nerves.

Thereafter, I met Piyali many times. Whenever she came to Delhi in connection with her research, she dropped in to see me. Whenever I happened to be in Calcutta, she came over to spend some time with me. I became her chacha. Two years ago she invited me to her wedding. I went all the way to Calcutta and found myself in a huge brightly-lit mansion among well-dressed bhadralok, none of whom I recognised. There were no ladies to be seen. Ultimately word got round that a Sardar was loitering about in the garden. Then a lady came out of the house and introduced herself. "I am Piyali’s mother. Come inside, she is being prepared for her wedding." I accompanied her. There was Piyali decked in all her bridal finesse and sandal paste dots being made on her face by a bevy of girls. She touched my feet and stood up. I took her in my arms. "Chacha, I am so happy you have come." It was a very emotional meeting; just as if I was giving away my own daughter in marriage. I noticed how closely the mother and daughter resembled each other.

Piyali’s mother Basanti Devi was a distinguished woman in her own right. She was the daughter of a renowned signer and composer of music, Gopal Dasgupta who was music producer with the AIR. Music was in her blood. She began singing as a child artist in Shishu Mahal in 1948. Years later when she was afflicted by Myasthenia, she fought it back, taking on more work. She took a degree in journalism while she continued to perform for radio and TV. In the memory of her father, she set up the Banitirtha Gopal Dasgupta Academy of music and art. She was associated with the Children’s Little Theatre. She was honoured by the Bangiya Sahitya Sammelan for her contribution to music. She was a great wit and passionately fond of dogs. She led a life full of cheer and laughter.

Meanwhile, Piyali and her husband settled in Delaware. She continued her post-doctorate research work; he joined the Dupont Corporation. Piyali rang me up at least once a month. The dialogue was the same. "Chacha, how are you?" My reply was "Fine! when are you going to make me a grand uncle? When are you coming back to India?"

The last time she rang me up was on New Year’s day from Calcutta to give me the sad news. Her mother Basanti Sengupta had died in Woodlands Hospital. She was 63.

Fall from glory

Azhar and the other tainted guys,

Under the watchful BCCI eyes

Ruined the glorious game

And brought national shame

As their heaps of ill-gotten wealth touched the skies!

Jethmalani’s gussa

Veteran Jethmalani at seventyseven,

Takes on Vajpayee, Anand and other mighty men,

For calling him "impertinent";

Says he is quite "transparent",

And his virile pen exposes "Big Egos of Small Men"!

(Contributed by M.G. Narasimha Murthy, Hyderabad)