Saturday, March 3, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L



Tagoreís offerings of love
BY Khushwant Singh

I often wondered why no publisher had bothered to produce an ornate de luxe edition of some of Rabindranath Tagoreís well-known works. You can get beautifully produced illustrated editions of Ghalib and Iqbal with floral designs round the margins and lavish use of gold letters. Perhaps Visva Bharati, Santiniketan which had the copyright till recently did not print one. Now we have one of his best-known works, Gitanjali, by Macmillans. It has a beautiful sketch by painter William Rothenstem with an introduction by W.B. Yeats who proposed his name for the Nobel Prize for literature. Every page has a picture or a painting to go with it. It is a lovely gift to give or receive.

Nanak SinghYeats read Gitanjali in English manuscript form. He wrote: "I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days, reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me". He noticed that Tagore, despite his saint-like appearance, was a lover of beautiful things, including beautiful women. In one poem he writes: "Deliverance is not for me in renunciation. I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.... No I will never shut the doors of my senses. The delights of sight and hearing and touch will bear thy delight. Yes, all my illusions will burn into illumination of joy, and all my desires ripen into fruits of love".

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Dying flame burns bright
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Honouring Gurudev
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Assamese are the friendliest Indians
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The Father Teresa of Punjab
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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


During my years in Modern School our morning prayers began either by singing Tagoreís Jana Gana Mana or the recitation of his "Where the mind is without fear". Once a while the teacher read out another of his poems which became my favourite and I committed it to my memory:

"Here is thy footstool and there rest thy feet

Where live the poorest, and lowliest, and lost.

When I try to bow to thee, my obeisance cannot reach down to the depth where thy feet rest among the poorest and lowliest, and lost.

Pride can never approach to where thou walkest in the clothes of the humble among the poorest, and lowliest, and lost.

My heart can never find its way to where thou keepest company with the companionless among the poorest, the lowliest, and the lost".

Flamboyant Sardar

The most flamboyant character I have ever met in my long life was Nanak Singh who died in mid-February just short of turning 80. Not only did he move from a hovel to a three-storeyed marble mansion, from plying a cycle-rickshaw to riding a chauffeur-driven Mercedes Benz, from a pauper to becoming a multi-millionaire, he was also a lavish spender the like of which I have never met. A lover of beautiful women, and lover of Urdu poetry, he was also illiterate.

He descended on me one Divali morning some 10 years ago. My servant refused to let him in because he had not made an appointment. A few minutes later he rang me up from nearby Khan Market to say who he was and did not think he needed an appointment to see anyone on Divali. And added, "I am told you donít believe in God; I want to tell you I have met God face to face." I apologised and asked him to come over. He was back in a couple of minutes. I opened the door for him. Following him was his chauffeur carrying a huge basket full of dry fruit, two water melons (garma and sarda from Kabul) and two bottles of premium scotch; an wholly unexpected bonanza from a total stranger.

After he was seated, I asked him about his meeting with God. He replied curtly, "Not today. Youíve spoilt my mood by turning me back. Iíll tell you about Him another day".

Thereafter Nanak Singh came to see me many times ó after making an appointment. Nanak Milk was delivered at my doorstep free of charge every day. Despite my protests, he gave hundred- rupee notes to my servants. He told me about his past but evaded my direct questions about his dialogue with the Almighty. He came from a Hindu-Sikh family (his brothers were Hindus) of very modest means, living in a small village in Montgomery district (now Sahiwal) in Pakistan. One Bakr Id day he saw a butcher leading a young cow to slaughter as sacrifice. He was overcome with compassion, ran to his uncles and aunts and begged them to lend him money. He paid the butcher double the price of the cow and saved its life. He was hauled up before the All-Muslim Panchayat of the village and asked to explain his conduct. He pleaded guilty and said, ĎRaham aa gayaa, aap bhee raham karo". The panchayat forgave him. Nanak Singh explained his success in the milk business to the blessings of the Gow Mata whose life he had saved.

On Partition of the country, the family first settled in Amritsar. He plied a cycle-rickshaw and sold milk. The milk business prospered. He got a contract to supply milk to the army depot in Amritsar. He got more contracts from other army establishments. He moved to Delhi and set up chilling plants and acquired a fleet of milk tankers. During the 1971 Indo-Pak War over the liberation of Bangladesh, his tankers kept our jawans fighting on the front. He supplied milk to them. He became the single largest milk supplier of India. And a multi-millionaire. He expanded his business to producing country-liquor of good quality. And became a billionaire.

Nanak Singh liked the company of beautiful women. For his sons, he chose brides ó the prettiest he could find from Sikh families of modest means. Once he invited me to bring all the beautiful women I knew to his home for dinner. I took five: Kamana Prasad, Sadia Dehlavi (and her husband Raza), Reeta Devi Verma, my wife and daughter. He ordered his daughters-in-law to be attired in their best sarees and jewellery: he was a dictator prone to order everyone around. Before we sat down to dinner, he ordered all of us to come out to his entrance gate. There were more than ten beggars awaiting him. He had parcels of warm clothing and blankets which he made us distribute among them. This was his daily routine: before he sat down to his evening meal; he gave dasvandh (1/10th) prescribed by Sikh tradition.

His youngest sonís wedding was the most lavish I have ever attended. Instead of an invitation card, there was a sandal-wood music box. As you opened it, you heard Bismillah Khanís music on the shehnai. Then Nanak Singhís voice inviting you to his sonís nuptials in the most florid Urdu. The music box must have cost at least Rs 5000. The reception was on the lawn behind Ashoka Hotel. It was done up like the Taj Mahal. With me was Maya Ray (S.S. Rayís wife). Everyone who mattered in Delhi was there. Crates of French champagne were opened and guests squirted with expensive nectar. Nanak Singh was like a boy playing Holi. Famous qawwals, including Shakila Bano Bhopali, entertained the guests.

Nanak Singh had a mechanical bent of mind. Apart from designing his own electronically operated garage doors, he had designed a conveyor belt which on the press of a button brought your chosen brand of whisky from the shelf to the dining table where you were seated. Though he was not able to read or write, he often came to consult me on some petition or the other drafted by his lawyer. He would put his finger on a particular paragraph and ask me to read it: "There is something missing here," he would say. He was always right.

Much as I tried I could not pin down Nanak Singh to tell me of his encounter with God. He would put me off by evasive replies: "Is not my life proof enough that there is God: how else could a pauper become what I am today, hain?"

Some years ago Nanak Singh went into deep depression. (He was hyperactive). He was flown to the USA for treatment. At his sonís behest, I rang him in hospital. I tried to cheer him up. "What happened to your God? Isnít He looking after you?" He was in no mood for jesting and just moaned, "I donít know why this is happening to me." By the time he came back, he was beyond communication.

Like father, like son

A school teacher wrote a note to Harshís mother: "Your son Harsh is a smart little boy, but he spends all his time with girls. I am trying my best to make him break with the habit."

Harshís mother wrote a note back: "If you do succeed, please let me know how you did it. Iíve been trying for years to make his father give up the same habit."

Lover not teacher

"My girl says she thinks she could learn to love me," remarked Raju to his friend.

"How come, you donít look very happy about it," remarked his friend.

"How could I be! Learning is going to be very expensive. I took her to the film last night and dinner afterwards. Damn it, the first lesson cost me Rs 200," replied Raju.

(Contributed by Dr K.C. Taneja, New Delhi)

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