Saturday, October 13, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L


Worshipping the mother of all rivers
Khushwant Singh

TWO days after the full moon in early October, I set out for my bi-annual visit to Har ki Paudi on the west bank of the Ganga in Hardwar. I have a good excuse to do so: I am on the Board of Delhi Public School, Ranipur, which is barely a 20-minute car ride away from my destination. I made no secret of my wish to be on the school board because like Allama Iqbal my caravan stops on the banks of the sacred river as did caravans of our Aryan ancestors.

The car picks me up at 7 a.m. Pandit Amlesh Kumar Sharma of Gorakhpur is at the wheel. He knows every unmarked speed-breaker, and how to go past buffalo carts, cycle-rickshaws, trucks, buses and tractors. A strapping handsome sardar, Pavinder Singh Bal, sports master of the school, is my escort. Exactly two and a half hours later we pull up at the Cheetal Grand, which has become a must on my journey to and back from Hardwar. It has become the meeting place for people who take ashes of their loved ones to merge in the Ganga and those who return after having done so. There must be many others who stop there because the service is fast, the food gourmet quality and the garden has a lot of colours. It receives an average of 7000-8000 visitors every day. Not bad for a wayside eatery near a non-descript village called Khatauli. By now the staff recognise me and the owner, Urooj Nisar, does me the courtesy of helping me into my car when I leave.

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We reach Ranipur at noon. I beg to be excused and lock myself in to have an undisturbed siesta.

Presiding over a school board is no problem. I know nothing about how a school should be run and so take a back-seat. I believe that once you select a headmaster, you must not meddle in the way he or she runs the school. The head co-chairman is H.N. Gupta. Then there are Miss Nanda, Sharda Naik, Nina Sehgal (D.P.S. Noida) all of whom know a lot more about childrenís education than I. I cover my ignorance by maun-brat ó vow of silence. We are through with the agenda in an hour.

People in charge of the bandobast at Har ki Paudi know me as a regular: Pandit Raj Kumar Sharma, minister of the swagat committee and Inspector Nagendra Pratap take me down the steps to a takhat posh overlooking the river. A panda applies a red teeka on my forehead; I get a flask of ganga jal and a packet of prasad. I wish to be left alone for my communion.

The sun goes over the hill. A deep shadow spreads over the ghat. Lights begin to twinkle. Leaf boats with flowers and diyas (oil lamps) race over the swirling waters. A cry goes up bolo, bolo Ganga Maata ki. A thousand of voices respond in unison jai. Gongs are struck to pay homage to the lesser gods. Scores of lamps are lit and the aarti begins to the chant: Om Gangey Mata. It is a chaos of sight and sound, fragrance, clanging of gongs, temple bells, blowing of conch shells and singing. There is scent of flowers mixed with incense of aggar battis, flares of fire and dim lights of diyas. I am transported to another world. Ganga Mata carries me on its turbulent waves. My throat is choked; my eyes blur with tears. I donít know why this pagan worship of the mother of all rivers has come to mean so much to me; I do not want to know.

Among Shivalik monkeys

Late September, early October, not a flower is to be seen on the hillsides. Not many birds, and little bird song. All day long I sit in the garden looking at the deep blue sky and an occasional white cloud floating lazily whichever way the winds take it. My garden, normally full of chattering of white-cheeked bulbuls and cawing of crows, is strangely silent. In the afternoon a troop of langoors arrives from nowhere and begins stripping leaves of fruit trees. A large mama langoor carrying its little baby perches herself on my bird-bath to drink water. She ducks her babeís head down to teach it how to drink. A male langoor strolls across the lawn and seats himself majestically on the bench watching his family from where he sits. Another plants himself on the tank a couple of yards away and glares at me through his malevolent yellow eyes as if asking why I am where I am.Another cheeky fellow seats himself on a branch of the toon tree under which I sit. His long tail dangles a couple of feet above my head. There are dozen of them chasing each other on the corrugated tin roof, romping about the lawn, completely at home in my home. They make me feel a trespasser on their domain. They seem to have driven rhesus monkeys away from my side of Kasuali.I havenít seen a rhesus in the two days I have been here and never before have so many langoors invaded my property. They are beautiful animals, silver grey, jet black faces, sinuous bodies and long tails. And not so aggressive as the rhesus. Why rhesus are scared of them, I do not know.

The one thing I have against langoors (and rhesus) is that they have taken to chewing telephone wires. My telephone was dead for two days till the wires were replaced. I hope the wire is coated with stuff that monkeys donít relish.

How the years take their toll. There was a time when my evening walks on the three hills of Kasauli took me two hours at a brisk pace. The walks became shorter, the pace slower. Last year I went down to the bazaar only once to let my shopkeeper friends ó Om halwai, Panchi the chemist, Satto paanwala and Guptaji, the general merchant and Pemta my Tibetan heart-throb ó know that I was still alive. Now I find the steep climb from my villa to the road difficult to negotiate. I leave it to my friends to ring up and drop in. Among my regulars is Munshi Mohan Lal who comes to exchange Urdu verses with me. Comrade Dharm Dutt, who came from Dharampur, died a few months ago. So I am left only with the Churamanis who drop in for a drink every other day. I have found a new friend in the young and lovely Baljit Virk. She teaches in Palmgrove School. Whenever I ask her, she comes by bus to have tea with me and returns before it gets dark. Besides being easy on the eye, she is a good talker. I often wonder why she has not married because she looks as nubile as any girl her age. I am reminded of an Urdu couplet:

Is say barh kar waqt kya dhaayega sitam

Jism boodha kar diya, dil jawaan rehney diya

(What more punishment can age inflict on me

It has made my body old but left my heart young)

***

Maneka Gandhiís case against the publication of my autobiography Truth, Love and a Little Malice pursued me up to Kasauli. The injunction she got against its appearance was vacated after six years. It became a minor media event. I thought I would leave it behind me in Delhi. Star TV thought there was still some interest in the event and sent its team to catch me in haven of peace. Sunil Sethi arrived at my doorstep along with his team, including cameramen, at 2 pm on a bright, sunny afternoon. "It will take the whole afternoon to finish the shooting", warned Sunil. "We have to get your reaction to the lifting of the embargo against your book, the souring of your relationship with Maneka. And while we are here, we thought we might as well make a full coverage on you."

"To use for my obituary?" I asked.

"No, no, no," protested Sunil and the two girls patting my shoulders. "You are in good shape and will remain so," he said thumping a wooden table. "We call it archival material." They felt uneasy because obituary was exactly what they had in mind.

We got down to business. I explained my support for Sanjay Gandhi and the Emergency when it was first imposed. I criticised it later when it began to be misused. Sanjay rewarded me with nomination to the Rajya Sabha and editorship of The Hindustan Times. My enthusiastic support of Maneka when Sanjay was killed in an aircrash angered Mrs Gandhi. Maneka used me to publicise her being badly treated by her mother-in-law and being expelled from the house. And so on and on till I had enough. The final break, her case against me and its aftermath. His last question was to elicit my views on death and life hereafter. That confirmed my suspicion about the timing of the use of their so-called archival material. I answered it as I always have. There is no reason for believing in a day of judgement nor in re-birth after death. Death is a full-stop. About what remains after it no one has a clue. It took me more than five hours of shooting in the open and indoors, showing me at work in my book-lined study. Some of it you might have seen before this column appears. The rest you may see the day I depart.

***

The week in the Shivaliks came to an end far too soon. I found myself at Chandigarh railway station an hour before the Shatabadi Express to Delhi was due to leave. I sat in the hot waiting room leafing through magazines I bought at the bookstall. Humra Qureshi joined me. Then came 19-year-old Nagina Kohli with a carton full of kababs from her hotel Aroma. She was followed by Sharda Kaushik with a box full of sandwiches. The fourth lass was Bulbul Sharma who was on the same train. When the doors of the Shatabadi were opened to let in passengers I was escorted by four beautiful women to my compartment. I heard someone remark: "Who is this buddha Krishna with gopis?"

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