THIS ABOVE ALL
Life of giving
write about a person very few people would have heard of. I do so
because I know of no one else who has spent all her life giving away
whatever she has and asked for nothing in return. Her name was Yvonne Le
Rougetel, a name more French than English. But she was English-born in
the Channel Islands which, though a part of the UK, is as much French as
it is English.
Yvonne was bilingual.
She had no problem getting a job in the steno-typing pool of UNESCO in
Paris. Though good at her job, no head of department was eager to take
her as his or her personal secretary and steno. She was looked at as an
eccentric, known to take off her sweaters and give them to beggars
shivering in the bitter cold of winter. She was known to pick up
famished prostitutes and feed them lunch in the office cafeteria.
When I joined UNESCO,
as head of the Press Department, Yvonne was deputed to work for me. I
was also looked upon as an eccentric. We hit it off very well. She found
my family a home in a Paris suburb. She found us a Scottish lass, Meg,
as a cook and housekeeper. Meg married an American, Jew Duchovny and
left for the US. Her son has made it good in Hollywood. Yvonne found a
replacement — a pretty young English girl, Mary, the daughter of a
It was almost a
round-the-clock association: all day in office, followed frequently by
her dropping in at home in the evening to see that all was well.
Everyone she met with us like Prem Kirpal, who was head of the UNESCO
Cultural Department, became part of her family. She asked for nothing in
After two years with
UNESCO, I resigned my job and returned to Delhi. Yvonne kept in touch
through the post. Some years later, I got a Rockefeller Fellowship to
write a detailed history of the Sikhs. It provided for the services of a
typist at a measly salary of Rs 500 per month. Even in those times it
was hardly a living wage. I wrote to Yvonne about it.
She gave up whatever
she was doing and arrived in Delhi a few days later. She stayed with us
for a week and then moved in as a paying guest with Kewal Chopra’s
family. I think she must have had private means because after paying for
her board and lodging and bus fares to and fro from Patel Nagar to
Janpath, she must have blown up more than she got from me.
She seemed to live on
nothing. She got her mid-morning and afternoon tea in my parents’ home
where we worked together all day. She was never taken ill and never took
a day off. She got me material from the National Archives and other
libraries. I have acknowledged her valuable assistance in every edition
of my two volumes of History of the Sikhs published by Princeton
and Oxford University presses. I did not sense her growing attachment to
India: she never picked up any Hindustani. She mispronounced Indian
names. My cousin Kulbir, who was my father’s secretary and shared a
room with her, remained Culbur to the end of his days. Whatever she saw
of India was when I was collecting material on the Sikh diaspora.
As I expected, she
adopted Kewal Chopra’s family. She got him over to England to stay
with her and took him on a visit to the US. She returned to India almost
every year and stayed with the Chopras. She came to see me every time
she visited India but spent no more than 10 minutes, as she sensed I
wanted to get back to my work.
The last time she came
was about six months ago. Yvonne, who I thought was ageless looked
really aged. She was bent double and her eyes were bloodshot. Before I
could say anything, she blurted out, "Khushwant, you’ve really
Yvonne died on June 29
of sepsis and infection of the urinary tract. The gentleman who wrote to
me about her death mentioned that her funeral service would be held in a
local church on India’s Independence Day. I never knew Yvonne to go to
church. She also left a will to the effect that her ashes should be sent
to India to be scattered over the Mahasu peak in Himachal Pradesh.
While Urdu is dying a
slow death in India where it was born, it continues to flourish in
Pakistan where it is recognised as the national language above the more
commonly spoken Punjabi, Pushto, Baluchi or Sindhi. However, there are a
handful of lovers of Urdu desperately trying to keep its flickering
flame alive in India.
The foremost among them
is Doctor K.C. Kanda, one time Professor of English literature who has
published over a dozen books of translations from Urdu to English. His
latest offering is Masterpieces of Patriotic Urdu Poetry (Sterling).
He has selected 38 poets from Sauda (1713-1781) to Kaifi Azmi
Not all of Kanda’s
selections can be described patriotic: quite a few are nostalgic elegies
about the past, some of deep regret at being deprived of their heritage
e.g. Wajid Ali Shah’s memorable lines on being exiled from his
Daro-deewar peh hasrat say
nazar kartey hain
Rukhsat ai ahle-vatan, hum
to safar kartey hain
(I cast a last lingering
look at these doors and walls.
Farewell my countrymen, I
embark on my long journey)
Among those Kanda has
chosen are lines from Ram Prasad Bismil (1867-1927), who was hanged on
December 16, 1923, for his role in the Kakori train robbery. His famous
lines inspired many Indian revolutionaries:
Sar faroshi kee tamanna
ab hamaarey dil mein hai
Deykhana hai zore kitna
bazoo-e-qatil mein hai
reads as follows:
(We are now raring to
die for our country’s sake
Let us see how much of
strength the assassin can display.
Ashfaq Allah Khan was
likewise convicted in the same case and hanged in Faizabad jail in 1927.
In the last poem that he composed, Shorish-e-Janoon (Roar of Frenzy),
Bahaar aaiyi hai,
shorish hai junoon fitna saamaan kee
Ilahi khair rakhna too
(Spring has come
ushering in a reign of frenzy wild
Save O’ God my collar
from my talons wild)
I disagree with many of
Kanda’s rendering. He takes more liberties with the original than a
translator should. Nevertheless I recommend his anthology to all lovers
of Urdu poetry.
Despite the old saying
‘Don’t take your troubles and worries to bed’, many people still
sleep with their wives.
Loo and behold
Which is the most
spacious toilet in the world?
track because we can use it from Kanyakumari to Kashmir."
(Contributed by Shivtar Singh Dalla,