THE story begins with my uncle’s (mamu) first day at nursery school. Grandfather marched him to the neighbourhood English-medium International Academy for Boys. The Headmaster asked grandfather the boy’s name. Grandfather said gingerly, ‘He’s called Kala at home.’ Then turning to uncle, he asked, ‘What is your name, boy?’ Uncle shook his head, whereupon grandfather said, ‘Go, run along. Go home and ask your mother what your name is.’
It is a true story, recounted by my uncle, who never got over that first day of school. Need I add that my maternal grandfather, Sardar Isher Singh ‘Bhaiya’, was a renowned Punjabi poet.
According to family chronicles, on one occasion, unexpected guests turned up at the house and grandmother said it would be nice if they could have samosas to go with the tea. Grandfather gamely offered to go to the corner snack shop to get them. He went and seconds turned to minutes and minutes turned to hours. But no sign of grandfather. Sick with worry, his son, my uncle, went looking for him. At the snack shop, he enquired if they had seen his father (my grandfather). They said they had. Apparently, just as he was paying for the samosas, someone came running and said, ‘Bhaiyaji, you are here! There’s a mushaira going on at the Red Fort and they are looking for you.’
‘Really!’ remarked grandfather, who quickly paid the shopkeeper and rushed off with the man and the samosas.
Grandfather surfaced after two days, without the samosas, but with accolades galore for his poetry.
He created a comic persona called ‘Bhaiya’, through whom he expressed his sharp and insightful comments on society, exposing its foibles and hypocritical actions in a language at once witty and satirical, without being malicious or hurtful. His fame spread beyond the borders of India and he was invited by the Punjabi diaspora to recite his poems abroad.
Once when he was visiting Kenya and staying with his elder son in Nairobi, he decided to go to a park to work on his poetry. The park was green and quiet. Grandfather sat down on a bench and decided to get comfortable. He took off his shoes, jacket and turban and placed them on the bench beside him. He tucked in his feet and immersed himself in his notebook. It was only when he stopped writing several hours later that he noticed his clothing had been stolen! When his son subsequently took him to report the theft at the police station, grandfather could not even recall the colour of his own turban or the jacket or the shoes! Genial and generous, he was the proverbial absent-minded poet who lived in a world of his own.
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