I can clearly remember where I was on May 27, 1964, the day Nehru died: in my aunt’s charming cottage in Mukteshwar, up in Kumaon. Delhi then seemed very far away to us small towners and there was no television then to bring us ‘Breaking News’. My uncle broke the news to us when he came home for lunch and a pall of gloom descended on the family. I don’t think we have ever mourned the death of a public figure with quite the same level of grief. It was as if all of India felt orphaned and adrift. My generation was born long after Gandhiji died, but the mood in the nation was no different when his favourite acolyte passed away 16 years later.
In the decades that followed, Nehru’s memory began to fade but after his daughter Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister, many felt as if a part of him still looked after this country. How wrong that hope was and how quickly the fair name that was the very heartbeat of India was besmirched by the dynasts that followed. Today, Nehru has become everyone’s favourite whipping boy: he was declared guilty of gifting away a chunk of India to Jinnah on the persuasion of the Mountbattens. He was responsible for the ruinous socialist policies that prevented free markets and individual enterprise to flourish. He was a Left-leaning Fabian whose political ideology was unfair to Hindus and so on. He was a trusting fool who was cheated by China’s Panchsheel talk and died a defeated man.
The list of crimes he is said to have committed is long and now parroted by every two-bit political commentator. The ‘chalu’ slogan of a Congress-mukt Bharat is shorthand for a country that needs to be purged of the pluralist, welfare state that Nehru dreamt of. Yet, how can we forget that whatever survives of the tatters of that legacy is what still keeps us Indian in the true sense. He was the one who made the world sit up and take notice of a country that was struggling to come out of the coils of a long colonial rule. Those who never saw that India and those who have been brainwashed into accepting uncritically that he is responsible for all our current problems need to be reminded that all that is still worthwhile in this country is his lasting legacy.
Today, I wish to remember a special friend: one who was so much a part of our family that it still hasn’t really sunk in that that joyous, generous and dependable man is gone forever. Gurcharan Singh Chani first became known to us in 1976 through his subversive street plays. In those days, full of the terror of the Emergency and censorship, he would hold these brilliant performances in locations that were under the police radar. Some of us began to follow his work and the thrill of defying the state’s repressive laws became a game that we participated in whole-heartedly. ‘Dafa 144’, ‘Bulldoze Notice’ were the two that I remember most clearly. His actors were young college students or little-known theatre artistes who went on to become known for their work later. Chani lived then in a barsati and soon became a regular presence in our lives: his love of garam phulkas smeared with ghee and his appreciation of the food in our home won him our utter love. From our Raju in the kitchen to my mum-in-law who loved him like a son, to our boys whose favourite uncle he became, Chani warmed himself into our lives and stayed there until we lost him recently to Covid.
We have lost so many friends of late that each new death brings numbed disbelief, but Chani’s going has been a body blow. I keep remembering the Chandigarh of the 1970s, when it was just a raw collection of buildings and spaces. It was people like Chani and Nek Chand who brought the whiff of freshness and daring into its cultural ecosphere to make Chandigarh a throbbing, vital city. In those days, the danger of it surrendering to a ‘Woman and Home’ kind of suburbia was real. It was left to people like Champa Mangat Rai, Navjiwan Khosla, Guddo and Naveen Thakur and the nascent Panjab University that had poets like Kumar Vikal and Surjit Pattar to add their contribution to the modernising of the city. The Department of Theatre, with the redoubtable Balwant Gargi, became a site of some memorable performances and recitals. Its amphitheatre (then a new space) had magic for us that is difficult to convey in words. We were all in our twenties and full of idealism and hope. I wonder if that fervour still exists or whether Chandigarh is just a bureaucratic city that has shiny malls and restaurants like any other newbie Indian city. Do people still go to the Indian Coffee House for endless cups of coffee and dosa? Or have they taken to gymming instead?
That world died a while ago and now as we lose all those friends who made Chandigarh Chandi-ghar for us are leaving too. Farewell Chani, our dearest friend.
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