Saturday, August 19, 2006

A nice man to know
Khushwant Singh

One day I thought of recalling names of the most unusual people I had met in my long life. The one that kept going round and round in my head was M. Sleem. I am sure his real name was Mohammed Salim, but he preferred to use only M for Mohammed and Sleem for Salim.

He was a Punjabi and spoke Urdu but was most at ease speaking English. Being a lawyer, he had to read court documents which were in Urdu and cross-examine witnesses who only spoke Punjabi. I could assume he was fluent in both but preferred to speak in English.

By the time I got to know him through his nephew Manzur Qadir, he was Advocate-General of the Punjab High Court in Lahore. He was a bachelor and lived alone in his office-cum-bungalow facing the main entrance of the High Court. He neither welcomed visitors nor attended social functions. I don’t recall his coming to the Bar room.

It was common knowledge that he had turned down the offer of being elevated to the Bench and refused to accept Knighthood. He did not talk about them. He never talked about himself. His only preoccupations were law, tennis and gourmet food. After spending his mornings and afternoons at the High Court, he drove to the Gymkhana Club to play tennis for a couple of hours. He had been India’s number one player longer than anyone else and captained the Indian Davis Cup team for many years.

After tennis he joined his friends and their wives for tea: usually they were Justice Dalip Singh and his Bengali wife Reba; S. M. Sikri, who was his junior (later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), and his wife Leela. On his way back he stopped at Stiffles restaurant on the Mall and discussed the menu for his dinner. He examined birds he was to be served — pheasant, partridge, quail or duck. He chose the appropriate French wine to go with his food. He proceeded homewards, had a bath and got into his dinner jacket. He ate his dinner alone savouring his food and wine. After a cup of black coffee and cognac, he smoked a Havana cigar and went back for the night.

Though born Muslim, Sleem was never known to offer namaaz, go to a mosque, fast during Ramadan or observe Islam’s culinary code. Nevertheless, he was as mard-e-Momin —man of faith — as anyone I have known. He never lied or said anything hurtful about anyone. He had no love affairs with women nor was he gay. He had no interest in politics, hastily scanned headlines of newspapers nor bothered with national or world events. He read no books besides law books. He had more fulfilment in life than anyone else I can think of.

With Partition in 1947, I thought I’d never see Sleem again. One of his regular schedules was to spend a couple of months in Europe during the High Court vacations. Paris and London were a must in his itinerary.

One day when I was working with UNESCO in Paris, Sleem showed up in my office: he had learnt of my whereabouts from his nephew. "What is Joint?" he asked me. I explained what UNESCO stood for and what it did. He had not heard of it. Needless to say he invited my wife and I to dine with him in a restaurant known for being an epicurean’s delight. I could not afford its price.

A year later I ran into him in London. We found ourselves standing next to each other in Piccadilly Circus tube station’s urinals. We were in no position to shake each other’s hands but blurted out. "Fancy running into you here of all places." But for his greying hair, he had not aged. The same aquiline features —hawk-nosed, grey-eyed, athletic slim. We walked out together. I invited him to my home. We talked of our days in Lahore.

I discovered he kept up his old schedule minus the law: he played tennis and enjoyed his special dinners. "Aren’t you too old to play tennis?" I asked him. "I play only doubles, two sets. But I think I can take you on for a singles match." He was in his eighties; I still in my 40s and playing as well as I ever did. "Dinner on the winner," he said. We shook hands to confirm the bet.

He was a member of the Queen’s Club, which had covered courts with wooden floors. He had no difficulty in beating me 6-1, 6-3. He had chosen a gourmet eatery in Soho. He ordered dinner for three with vintage French wine. It was a memorable feast.

That was the last time I met him. A couple of years later I read his obituary in The Times (London). When I went to Lahore I made it a point to visit the grave of my closest friend Manzur Qadir. There among the thousands of graves in the sprawling, dusty, Muslim cemetery lay Manzur, his parents Sir Abdul and Lady Qadir and close to them M. Sleem. Does anyone remember him? I do, and will to the last of my days.

Tree worship

Some years ago when some Sikh temples started giving devotees saplings of trees as prasad instead of the traditional halwa, I got very excited. At long last the priestly class, not famous for innovative ideas, had woken up to the reality that planting trees was a better way of paying homage to the Creator and his creatures than swallowing a concoction of flour, ghee and sugar or batashas.

I hoped other religious institutions would follow the example and the greenery of India would become a people’s movement backed by faith. Alas, as with similar brave gestures, our enthusiasm for tree planting as a religious ritual did not last very long. The movement of saplings as prasad soon fizzled out.

A revival of sorts has been initiated by D.S. Jaspal, a senior IAS official, in charge of the Punjab Government’s Publicity Department. While travelling round the state he discovered that a large number of historic gurdwaras bore names of indigenous trees which grew there. As is the practice of Sikhs to add the word ‘Sahib’ to objects they revere, there are 17 varieties of Sahib trees alongside these shrines.

They are Bohr (barh) Sahib, Pipli (peepal) Sahib, Jand (prosopis spicigera) Garna (capparis horrida) Sahib, Kareer (capparis aphylla) Sahib, Ber (zisyphus jujuba) Sahib in Harmandar Sahib, Phalahi (acacia modesta) Sahib. Luhura (cordia latifolia) Sahib, Reru (mimosa leucophioea) Sahib, Imli (tamarind) Sahib, Tahli (shisham) Sahib, Neem (margossa) Sahib, Amb (mongol) Sahib and others.

Jaspal held an exhibition of colour photographs in Delhi and persuaded Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh to inaugurate it. I don’t know if it will give an impetus to greening India but it was certainly worth trying.


Two college girls were having a gup-shup. One asked, "Yaar what kind of talk do boys have when they do gup-shup? The other replied, "The kind of talk we are having." The first one remarked, "Oh yaar, they are very be-sharam (shameless).

(Contributed by Gurdershan Singh, Chandigarh)