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

Women like her do not die...
Khushwant Singh


SHE died early morning on Friday, October 19. She was in the intensive care of Apollo Hospital for over a month; so her end did not come as a surprise. What sustained a little hope in my mind was that women like Dharma did not die; they faded out of memory like a lost dream. She was 73. I would add the word "only" to the sentence because she seemed agelessly youthful. She was more animated than any woman I have ever met. I write about her because all of us have someone or the other in our lives who means more to us than we care to admit till after they are gone.

It must be over 50 years ago when I first met her and her husband Lavraj Kumar at a large luncheon party in a garden. He was an executive in Burma Shell; she was working on her doctoral thesis for Cambridge University. She was the centre of attraction, sparkling with wit and humour and mimicking celebrities. She had everyone in splits of happy laughter. I was completely bowled over. For the next few days I spoke about her to everyone I knew and tried to get as much information about her and her husband as I could.

The Karnataka-Canada connection
October 27, 2001
Making English an Indian language
October 20, 2001
Worshipping the mother of all rivers
October 13, 2001
Salman Rushdie: Genius or eccentric?
September 29, 2001
A Telugu saga set in 19th century
September 22, 2001
A blot on the face of Mother India
September 15, 2001
Leaving for the heavenly abode
September 8, 2001
Controlling the urge to backchat
September 1, 2001
A tale of modern India
August 25, 2001
Reflections on the brother-sister bond
August 18, 2001
A dacoit or a dasyu sundari?
August 11, 2001
A case for moderate drinking
August 4, 2001
A dangerous twist to a harmless practice
July 28, 2001
No escape from pain and sorrow
July 21, 2001
A penny for Jagjit Chohan
July 14, 2001
The importance of bathing
July 7, 2001
An astral encounter
June 30, 2001
Footloose with Ghalib
June 23, 2001
Sangam of religions
June 16, 2001

Lavraj Kumar was from UP, the only child of well-known and rich parents. He was also a very bright student. He won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. Dharma was a Tamilian Brahmin and only child of a well-known scientist, Dr Venkatraman, who was the head of the National Chemical Laboratory in Pune. They met in England and got married. Lavraj answered all that Dharma wanted of a man. She had exaggerated respect for academics; almost all her cousins had gained firsts in Oxford or Cambridge; Lavraj had bettered them. She did not much care for wealth. She married him because he was brighter than any other of her many suitors. She, however, did not like Lavraj joining Burma Shell, becoming a boxwallah and taking orders from White sahibs. Lavraj was a soft-spoken and self-effacing man. Dharma was outgoing, garrulous and revelled in admiration. She was not the kind of woman I usually fell for. Her features were passable; she used no make-up or perfume. It was her animation which I found irresistible. Her legs and hands were never still. Her eyes sparkled as she spoke. Come to think of it, the only reason she responded to my overtures was that she was overwhelmed by my adoration. It was an entirely one-sided affair. I dedicated my second novel I shall not Hear the Nightingale to her. I don’t think she bothered to read it.

Her favourite put-downers were about a cousin Raghavan Aiyar. Like others of the family, he was a topper: first in MA philosophy from Madras; first class first in Cambridge and elected president of the Cambridge Union. While in the university, he acquired a group of admirers who assembled in his room periodically to hear him speak. He told them that the source of all human frailties was the ego. Unless one conquered one’s ego, there could be no peace of mind. One day a lady admirer asked, "I agree with all you say about the ego, but how does one conquer the ego?"

"Good question!" replied Raghavan Aiyar. "You will appreciate it poses a bigger problem for me than it does for you. For myself I have evolved a formula for self-extinction. Everyday I sit in padma asana (lotus pose), shut my eyes and repeat: ‘I am not the Raghavan Aiyar who got a first-class from Madras University I am not the Raghavan Aiyar who got a first class first from Cambridge University; I am not the Raghavan Aiyar who is the most brilliant philosopher of the East. I am merely a vehicle of the mahatmas, a spark of the Divine’."

According to Dharma when Raghavan Aiyar stood for presidentship of the union, he did not bother to canvass for himself but left it to his admirers. After the counting of votes, his fans rushed to his room to break the good news. They found him seated in padma asana on his carpet with his eyes shut: "You’ve won: You’ve won!" they shouted triumphantly. Raghavan Aiyar raised one hand with his finger pointing to the roof and exclaimed: "Victory is Thine O’ Lord!"

Dharma got her doctorate in economics. She became a Professor in Delhi School of Economics and wrote a couple of books which were very well received by economists. Her husband left Burma Shell to become secretary in the Petroleum Ministry of the Central Government. She was happy that she was no longer the wife of a boxwallah. But even as the wife of a much respected bureaucrat, she refused to entertain ministers or befriend their wives. When compelled to meet them, because of her husband’s status, she would go out of her way to belittle them.

Undeterred by her indifference, I continued to long for her company. The break came unexpectedly. Lavraj had invited her closest friends for dinner to celebrate her invitation for a lecture tour abroad. Very light-heartedly I asked, "Dharma, how did you wangle it?" She went pale with anger and burst out: "I don’t like that kind of insinuation. I am not a wangler." The outburst of anger took everyone unawares. An uneasy silence descended. The party was ruined.

The one thing I could not forgive or forget is people losing their temper with me. I swore to have nothing more to do with Dharma. She was the victim of uncontrollable temper, I of being unable to forgive. She did her best to make amends but something within me had snapped which I could not join together. After some months, our families began to see each other again. But I was never relaxed in her company. I transferred my affection to her husband and even more to her daughter Radha.

When her husband died suddenly, I went to the crematorium, expecting to meet Dharma and wipe out the uneasiness that had come between us. She was not there. I condoled with Radha and Lavraj’s uncle Dharamvira (former Governor of Punjab and Bengal). I told him "Dharma had all the gifts anyone would wish for except the gift of friendship." He agreed with me.

None of us who cherished Dharma realised that her fits of temper may have been due to things going wrong inside her. She developed a brain tumour and had to be flown to London for surgery.It did not help. Another tumour developed. Then another. Dharamvira was dead; her friends had deserted her. The only one left to look after her was her 94-year-old mother-in-law. She told everyone "Dharma is not by bahu but my beti." She was with her to the last.

It is hard for me to accept the fact that Dharma was mortal. I will not see Dharma any more. She may not have cared for me but I will cherish her memory for the years left to me.

Let there be light

As Ravan goes up in flames

And Meghnath, Kumbhkaran follow suit,

Jump and gyre, dance with the fire

For the demons have been given the boot.

The time has come to light the sky

With smiles and laughter,

The time has come to love thy neighbour,

The time when joy will join labour

And the time for the death of the blood-sucker.

The time once again of the moon and the tide,

The time of the bashful bride,

The time for a country of a billion

To feel proud of being Indian,

The time when patriotism will once again hold sway,

And only the others race to the USA

So from abode to abode

Let the crackers explode

And fireworks fly

To light up the sky.

(Courtesy: Kuldip Salil, Delhi)


Floral tribute

A florist had to send two bouquets — one to a new site of a business and the other to a funeral. But he mixed up the messages attached to the flowers.

‘Rest in Peace’ was written on the card with the bouquet received by the business house for the inauguration of its new site. Obviously the owner was furious and asked for an explanation. The florist apologised profusely and remarked, "I wonder how the bereaved family at the funeral will feel because the card I have mistakenly sent them, reads: "Congratulations on your new location."

(Contributed by Roshni Johar, Shimla)