Saturday, February 7, 2004

In the sunset of their lives
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghTHERE were a few English families which even during the hey day of the Raj preferred friendship with Indians over friendship with their own kind. They lent tacit support to the freedom movement, stayed in India after it gained Independence and reluctantly returned to England when their bread-winners retired. They continued to retain their India connections as best as they could by keeping open house for their friends visiting England.

On the Indian side, such friendships were restricted to the Black sahibs or wogs (westernised Oriental gentlemen) who could meet the Brits on equal terms, speak their language as well as they spoke it, have the same taste for food and liquor and subscribe to the same values. It was a small community which did not gloat over the end of British rule as good riddance to an oppressor but continued to harbour nostalgic memories about it. Most of them are now dead or in the sunset of their lives. I was lucky in enjoying such friendship with a few: Sinbad Sinclair (Burmah Shell), Charlton (The Statesman), Croom Johnson (British Council), Guy Wint (The Guardian), Zinkin (Lever Brothers). Whenever anyone of them visited Delhi, they stayed with me. Whenever I went to England, I stayed with one of them in London or Oxford.

Sinbad died quite some time ago. I can never forget his description of this last meeting with Pandit Gobind Ballabh Pant to settle terms of the take-over of Burmah Shell by the Indian Government. Both men suffered from Parkinsonís disease and their hands shook while holding the draft of the agreement in their fingers. Wint had a stroke in the train on his way from Oxford to spend the weekend with me in London. He was the next to go. I spent one summer with his wife Freda and their two children in their home in Oxford. Freda converted to Buddhism. She is 92. Henry Croom Johnson went some six years ago; his wife followed a few months later. The same happened with the Zinkins: Maurice died last year; Taya followed a few months later. Of my closer English friends, only Elinor Sinclair, who is the same age as I, remains. I was told her memory was fast failing. However, when I called on her in London about four years ago I noticed no lapse of memory. She asked about every member of my family, had me autograph books I had sent her and told me she was writing her Indian memoirs. Some months ago, I wrote to her from Kasauli. I got no reply. I concluded she too had deserted me. Fortunately that was no so. Her daughter Margaret, who looks after her, had responded but her letter never reached me.

A few days ago, Sinbadís son Mark Sinclair rang me up from London to tell me he would be spending an evening with me and bring a copy of Margaretís letter. So he did. It said her mother was in poor shape. Her memory was gone, she was confined to a wheel-chair. She also mentioned Joy Charlton who had been in good health but had suddenly died while she was at work. The Statesman, which her husband had edited for many years in Delhi and Calcutta, did not have a word about her going.

It was a long evening by the fire-side. Mark who looks the spitting image of his father from the snow-white mop of hair down to his toes has his motherís intonation. He went down the list of obituaries. I felt like one in a deserted banquet hall from where others had departed. I recalled lines from Thomas Moorís Oft in the Still Night:

When I remember all

The friends so linked together

Iíve seen around me fall

Like leaves in wintry weather.

I feel like one

Who treads alone

Some banquet hall deserted,

Whose lights are fled,

Whose garlands dead,

And all but he departed....."

Lovely laddoos

By way of a Lohri gift, Poonam Sidhu Khaira of Chandigarh sent me a box of laddoos and panjiri (a kind of dried halwa). They were tastefully packed in a box, bearing the Sikh logo Ek Onkar in large letters with the name and address of confectioners Lovely Jalandhar Cantonment. I have tasted nothing better in the way of mithai. In my thank-you letter, I expressed surprise that such excellent stuff could have been produced by sardars not famous for their skills as halwais. Who was Mr Lovely? She sent me the details. It turned out to be a heart-warming success story.

The confectioners known as the Lovely Group are not Sikhs as I had presumed from the logo, but Mittal banias who had a modest army contract business in Sialkot (Pakistan). After Partition, they moved to Jalandhar, hoping to resume that business with the Indian Army. They did not do as well as they had hoped. The eldest Baldev Raj decided to go into confectionery as a side business: every bania has mithai in his blood. He was an instant success. He opened his shop for only two hours in the evening from 6 to 8 p.m. Everything he made got sold out by then. In 1986, it became a full-fledged mithai shop. For reasons unknown, they named it Lovely. Soon they were catering for large wedding parties and other celebrations in Punjab, Kashmir, Haryana, Delhi and Rajasthan.

I am not sure whether it was Lovelyís laddoos that persuaded Rahul Bajaj to give the dealership of his motor cycles to the Lovely Group when he visited Jalandhar in 1991. Five years later, they got the Maruti Agency as well. Today the annual turnover of this once impoverished refugee family from Pakistan, is over Rs 120 crore.

Baldev Raj has three sons: Romesh, Naresh and Ashok. They live under one roof, but work in different offices. The family is giving back to the people some of the prosperity it owes them. They started with the Lovely Institute of Management and added institutes of engineering, pharmacy, architecture, law and education to it. They now plan to set up a university.

Junglee city

There is an Urdu quarterly Tamseel-e-Nau, edited by Dr Imam Azam of Qilaghat, Burdwan, which I make a point to read: it has good articles, short stories and poems. In its last issue, I came across a short poem by Shahid Kadeem Ara entitled Yeh Tasveer Nahin Jungle Kee (this is not the picture of a jungle). It tells its own tale in a few memorable lines. I render a very free translation :

Lofty mountains and running streams,

Cluster of trees with green leaves,

A tiger springs with all its might

On a thirsty deer in full flight

A snake has a frog in its mouth,

The frog in its mouth a butterfly

It is not the picture of a jungle, it is a lie,

It is the picture of a city doomed to die

It has humans but no humanity.