Saturday, June 15, 2002
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

How to handle compulsive talkers
Khushwant Singh

ONE thing I look forward to in these infernally hot and dusty days is to escape to the club bathing pool and stay in the water for one hour to cool off for the evening. One thing which often deters me from doing so is the presence of a retired Colonel. No sooner do I enter the changing room, he starts talking to me. I have to extricate myself to take a shower. He follows me into the pool and continues talking. One pause and I plunge into the water to do my prescribed quota of lengths. He awaits me in the changing room and resumes talking while I change into dry clothes. He continues his monologue till I leave the club to return home.

What makes some people compulsive talkers? I try to find an appropriate word to describe them. Talkative, monologist, loquacious, garrulous, chatter-box — none of them quite fit persons I have in mind. In the end I opt for monologist as the closest to what I have experienced. I drew up a list of monologists I encountered. I found that without exception that though somewhat tedious, they were well-meaning and likeable. Also that men far outnumbered women. The only woman put on my list happens to be the most likeable of the lot, writer Ajit Cour. Whenever she deigns to visit me, she becomes the life and soul of the party because when she sets off talking, there are no awkward moments of silence. She flies off in different directions to return to her main theme only to fly off again. The remaining on my list are men. They can be divided into Communists and retired soldiers. At one time I could boast of being a close friend of the late Danial Latifi. He was an absolute gentleman but when he got talking, his monotonous voice had a soporific effect which could lull his audience to sleep. Comrade Jagjit Singh Anand is a different mould. He assumes you know nothing Marxism, the class struggle and the evils of capitalist imperialism. He sets about teaching you with the zeal of a Christian missionary sermonising about the gospel.

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Retired soldiers have a high place on my list, the topmost being the late General Nathu Singh. Everyone in my family: parents, brothers, sisters-in-law loved him. But once he got going, we had to take turns to listen to him. Then there was Colonel Pratap Singh who became Governor of Goa. I happened to be on the same flight from Goa to Delhi. He ordered his ADC to change places with me. And talked non-stop for the two hours that took us to get to Delhi. He had not finished. He was kind enough to give me a lift in his car to my flat which is close to Goa Bhavan. His sons have inherited some of this quality from their father. Once General Himmat Singh Gill accosted me on a road in Kasauli. He asked me if he could drop in on me for five minutes the next morning. He came and launched on a long bit of advice on what I should be writing. "Enough of inane stuff", he said, "if you have nothing better to write about, leave it to people like me who write on serious matters". His five minutes stretched out to an hour and a half. His brother Manohar Singh Gill is also never short of words but it is a pleasure to hear him because he is about the most erudite of Civil servants I know.

Two retired diplomats on my list are Ranbir Singh and Jagat Mehta. Ranbir is Rajkumari Amrit Kaur’s nephew, a Christian conscious of being a descendant of Sardar Jassa Singh Ahluwalia. He used to visit Delhi every winter and without prior warning could descend on me and regale me with stories of valour of his Sikh ancestors. I got tired of hearing them year after year and once asked my servant who had gone to answer the door bell to say he should make an appointment before he called. Jassa Singh Ahluwalia’s son and make an appointment with a nondescript pen-pusher! He walked off in high dudgeon and never came back.

Jagat was among the brightest of men in our foreign service. He ended his distinguished career as Foreign Secretary. He could have been our Ambassador in Germany if he had not fallen foul of Mrs Gandhi. During his tenure as Foreign Secretary he signed more treaties with foreign countries than all other Foreign Secretaries put together.

There was also no tension with Pakistan. "Not a rifle-shot was fired from either side of the Line of Control,"he says. He is very upset with the way our Government has handled Afghanistan. He has written a book on the subject "The March of Folly in Afghanistan: 1978-2001 (Manohar). The last time he dropped in he told everyone about it. They were not interested.

Most of the talkers are blissfully unaware of being longwinded. That reminds me of my fellow villager Nazar Hayat Tiwana, son of Sir Khizr Hayat Tiwana, once Prime Minister of Punjab. It was Nazar who first made me conscious of endless talkers. It was impossible to stop him. I began to make excuses to avoid him. One day he said to me, "My wife says I talk too much." And waited for me to contradict the statement. I kept mum.

My Bengali daughter

Sometime in 1983 I happened to be in Calcutta staying at the Airport Hotel: I often choose to stay in Airport Hotels when in Bombay or Calcutta to avoid traffic jams and be in time to catch flights back to Delhi. Being a good distance from the city it also saves me from compulsive callers. However, this time I was rung up and a very girlish voice asked me if she could see me for a few minutes. I invited her over for a cup of tea. An hour later she arrived with her father. Her name was Piyali and she was in the first year in college; her father was Pradip Sengupta who had established reputation as a scientist and an entrepreneur.

I don’t recall why she or her father came to see me, but thereafter the process of bonding began. Whenever Piyali or her father were in Delhi, they came to see me. Whenever I was in Calcutta I invited them over to join me for a meal. Piyali began to address me as chacha I was flattered and began to look upon her as my Bengali daughter. She was the only child of her parents.

Piyali got her degree and a doctorate. She invited me to her wedding on March 1, 1994. I went to Calcutta. At the wedding site (it was a rented palace), I knew no one. Her father was busy with the bandobast; the baraat had yet to arrive. I was escorted to the ladies chamber where Piyali was being decked up as a bride. She embraced me warmly; I waived my packet of kanyadaan over her head and handed it to her. I was overcome by emotion and left abruptly. I felt like any father would when giving away his daughter in marriage.

Piyali’s husband, Saurav Sengupta, was with Dupont posted in Willington Delaware. After a few weeks of their wedding, they left for the United States. I assumed it would be the end of my close association with Piyali and her father. It was not so, Piyali made it a point to ring me up once a while to find out how I was doing. Once a year she come to visit her parents in Calcutta and make it a point to stop a day in Delhi to see me. She was there for a longer stay when her mother Basanti died on New Year’s Day of 2001. Meanwhile I got to know her father better and learnt something about his distinguished career.

Pradip Sengupta was born in Silcher (Assam) in 1933. Since his father was an engineer in government service, the family moved from city to city. He graduated from St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta, and went on to IIT, Kharagpur, where he topped in his class. He became a polymer scientist and joined the Indian Cable Company at Tatanagar, where he worked for 17 years. He then joined Universal Cables in Satna where he was for 27 years and retired as President. He was involved in research projects and inventions in optic fibre, glass, ceramics, radiation, isotopes and much else which was above my head. One passion we shared was tackling crossword puzzles.

Last month Piyali was back in Kolkata. She rang me up to tell me that her father was very ill and in intensive care of Surakhsha Hospital. She rang up everyday to tell me how he was doing. She did not call on May 21. She did the next morning and said in an anguished voice: "I lost baba yesterday". Then silence. Pradip was only 69.

In a few days Piyali returns to the US with her husband. It was my suggestion that in future she address me as baba and not chacha. She concurred because she is my Bengali daughter.

Note: Khushwant Singh is away on tour: There will be no column next week.

..................................... This feature was published on June 8, 2002