My Grandparents

Pandit Devidas Sharma, my grandfather would be the simplest person I have met in all my life. He was not greatly educated by today’s standards nor did he have a fancy job. Well, during pre-independence days how many commoners could have a fancy degrees or jobs? If one had passed VIII, he was looked up to and someone with X certificate was considered well educated and would be hot on job scene. Pitaji, as we all called him was in higher league having passed 10th standard, from Bassi, Ludhiyana. He was also the captain of the school cricket team. I wonder if piercing ears was considered fashionable back then; he did sport, ‘nantiyen’ or ear studs. His first job was that of clerk in Ambala. Later he joined Military Engineering Services (MES) as a unit accountant. He had lived with his family in Lahore and Quetta, both in Pakistan now. He used to talk about the winter in Quetta, “you know the water in the tap would freeze and no water would come out for use. So, we had to wrap that pipe with cloth, pour kerosene on it and light it up! As it heated, a pencil of ice would get spewed out of the mouth of the tap and then only regular water supply would start.”

Pitaji along with his wife Leelavati (Biji) and five children; four sons and a daughter moved to Allahabad around 1945 and stabilized himself. It was good that the family did not experience the violence of post independence migration; they were safely well inside India. His MES job continued. He had taken up a rented house in Khuldabad, very close to famous Khusro Bagh. It was a huge flat by present standards. It did not have electricity initially and the rent was Rs 30 per month! It seems electricity arrived to that building few years later and the rent was raised to Rs 35! First floor of this house had 4 large rooms of the same size. One of them was a kitchen, which had bathroom too. The bathroom had a large tub (hauz) made of bricks and cement. When water supply would start around 4am, pitaji would fill the tub with the help of a bicycle tube, tied to the tap! There was no regular rubber pipe. First room was quite empty. It had only a hospital type iron bed. I used to sleep on that, of course with cotton bedding over it. The window next to the cot opened towards Khusro bagh! But as a child I had no taste to appreciate that. Next room was pitaji and biji’s bedroom. And yet another one was like a store. The house had a very strange toilet. On the floor above this was a large verandah, large terrace and a small room, which also had the same bagh view. In younger days Shyam chacha and Om chacha used it. Above this too there was a terrace, half of that was covered with tin and half was open. On one corner there was a ‘minar’ (minaret). I could easily fit into it at age 11-12. I used to spend a lot of time flying kites from there.

I stayed with Pitaji for 2 years as a student of class VI, from Kesarvani School and VIII, from CAV School. Other than this we used to visit Allahabad during vacations or he and Biji would come over where ever we lived.

My grandfather was very popular and respected figure in entire Khuldabad area. Whenever he walked down the road, every shop keeper on both sides of the road called out with a ‘namaste Sharma ji or Pandit ji’ to him. The vegetable vendors and milkmen all showered respect on him. Gaining that kind of respect obviously must have been a slow (Home, turn right at the end of steps)   process. He was very fond of cricket and followed the test matches by news paper and radio. So, during matches when he had time, he would walk down to his friend ‘Beni’ who owned a radio repair shop close by, to hear live commentary. Those days you could earn respect if you just happened to be employed, did some social work and were a good human being. Today that alone may not be enough. Pitaji and Biji both were devoted to ‘arya samaj’. In fact both husband and wife were presidents of men’s and women’s sections of ‘arya samaj’, located in Chowk area of Allahabad. He was often called to various people’s homes to perform ‘havan’, which he would do very professionally. I too have been part of many such occasions and that helped me too memorize entire procedure.

In 1961-62 I was in 8th standard, my school was very far from home. I can’t really gauge the distance now, but after my father visited the school, he realized it. So he bought me a cycle called Eastern Star for Rs 135. In fact I really want to go back and walk that distance once again, just to know how long was that walk? Pitaji must have noticed that I had nothing to do post school time. I had friends and there were no activities for a child of my age. So, he took me to join a shakha of RSS. Whether he agreed with RSS philosophies or not; it did well for my physique. His decision was right. I got opportunity to run around, play constructive games, learn their deeply nationalist prayer. And in a short time I became a leading member. I was made in charge of hoisting their orange flag up and take it down at the end of shakha time and lead their prayer, ‘Namaste sadaa vatsale matri bhoomay…’

He knew I was very fond of movies. I would be always singing film songs that were being played on 78 rpm records all over. We obviously had no radio or a record player at home. On returning from school I would often jump on his back and he would keep moving around the house doing his chores, with me on his back. Once I returned after my Hindi exam and when he asked me to show him the question paper, I gave him the flier of film ‘Main Chup Rahoongi’. He looked at it and burst out laughing.

He was fluent in Urdu language, as was everyone else of that generation. I remember he had kept a very old Urdu news paper in his cupboard. In fact today I wonder if he had kept it as a pre-independence memory from Lahore or Quetta. One day he read out a story about a dacoit from that paper. It was a very interesting and emotional story. The dacoit happened to be a good soul. After hearing it for the first time I had tears in my eyes. He knew that, because he did not refuse to reread it whenever I asked for it again. May be he found seeds of emotions and recognizing goodness in people was germinating inside me.

He was a very active person all day. He would wake up at 4 to fill the hauz with water. Then go out to get milk, come back, light the choolha, boil it and then leave for his walk and meeting with friends in Khusro bagh. His friends were also mostly from ‘arya samaj’ or others who enjoyed his discourses. Pitaji would read out parts of ‘Satyarth Prakash’ and explain in Hindi meanings of Sanskrit verses. This was everyday routine. He would be back around 7.

I was very lucky in the fact that I was the eldest son of his eldest son. That gave me a lot of lead over my brothers and cousins in getting his affection and attention. He used to give me ‘one anna’ as my pocket money when I was in class 8. I remember I never spent any of those one anna coins. And finally one day I presented him 16 of them and demanded a one rupee note, which I got. I was very thrilled to have my own whole rupee in my palm! Memories fail here… He told about this to my parents. I have a vague feeling that my savings of one and a half rupees was lost to my mother. Perhaps she thought that was too much money for a child to possess.

One day during peak winter I was in bed, but was awake a little as Pitaji was filling water. In fact I can pin point the period; it must have been winter of 1962… I heard a puppy crying. I was concerned. Our house was on the historical Grand Trunk road that connects Kabul to Calcutta. A lot heavy traffic moved on it especially at night. I started imagining that the puppy is in the middle of the road and is too scared to move, frozen with cold and fright etc. The unceasing wailing was very disturbing for me and I was filled with concern. I wanted to find the puppy and move it to some place safer… When I emerged out of the building with my cycle, I found it the puppy right in the middle of the road, as I was imagining! I wondered how it survived so many passing trucks. It was a very small light brown fluffy pup. I picked it and went back up. Pitaji was ­surprised to see me back and that too with a puppy! I pleaded to him to keep it. I went to school with the pup in mind and was dying to get back home at the earliest. I could not keep it at home more than 3-4 days.

Pitaji would make breakfast for me every day. But I remember one dish out of a few and that was, ‘two slices of bread soaked in milk with sugar’ and heated on fire of ‘choolha’. He would light up the wood fire for that little job and extinguish it soon after. People, who know about it; know that lighting a choolha is not easy nor is it quick as a flick of switch… It is strange but still sometimes, back of my hand emanates the smell of that simple dish.

Getting to see movies there was an impossible thing, as Pitaji didn’t see them and I was too young to be sent alone. Still I managed to see two films that year by pushing Biji to the wall. I forced her to take me to see two most unlikely films a child of my age should see, ‘Dil Tera Deewana’ and ‘Baat Ek Raat Ki’. ‘Dil Tera Deewana’ was playing in Palace theater in Civil Lines. As soon as we entered the hall, Biji was horrified, ‘hai hai, there is not a single woman here!’ When the movie was over, I had soaked the entire movie in my nervous system. I had memorized the entire film including music in opening titles, dialogues, songs, interlude music…! I could played it back at will to anyone interested. It must be during my last few months with my grandparents, when one fine Sunday afternoon, we three were ready to go to Arya Samaj, me most unwillingly. I did not want to go through repetition of ‘havan’ mantras and the rest of it. I showed my displeasure openly, but they also did not want to leave me home alone for so many hours, which was fair. To compensate me for my reluctance they said that we will go to eat ‘chat’ in by-lanes of Chowk and that had held my interest. Chat was really excellent there.

A ‘tonga’ was hailed at this ancient gate outside the Kishorilal building. Biji and Pitaji sat at the back and I hopped in front with the tonga-wala. Still mildly bitter, I sealed my displeasure with a final salvo, “अगर पिताजी कहीं गुम हो गए तो वो स्वामी दयानंद के पास मिलेंगे और अगर मैं खो गया तो मैं देव आनंद के पास मिलूंगा.” (if Pitaji is ever lost, he will be found with Swami Dayanand and if I am lost then I will be found with Dev Anand.”

Well, it seems sincere utterance of those well meant wailing words got engraved in my future timeline. It turned out to be a freaky prophesy that people still remember with a smile. I did join Mr. Dev Anand in 1973, exactly 10 years later!

Next year I was in 9th standard and was back with my parents. My father was posted in district Basti. Calculations tell me that it was the morning of, 19 Aug, 1963. It was raining very heavily. We four brothers were covered with rain coats and caps, ready to go the school. Servants were waiting to take us on cycles. Due to heavy down pour, I was very reluctant to go. My excuse was that teachers will any ways give us a ‘rainy day’ and send us back, but both parents were pushing us to go. I wished something should happen ‘right now’ so that I don’t go to school in this horrid weather.

As I was fighting daddy’s insistence and my reluctance, the phone must have rung. I think my mother picked it. I don’t know what happened; but she came to the verandah and addressed us, ‘change your clothes, we have to go to Allahabad… adding, Pitaji has expired.’ Her voice cracked and she burst out crying and then got busy packing for the journey. It was so strange that in spite of the earth shattering jolt, I felt relieved. Slowly I got rid of my rain coat, school bag and uniform. My single-track thinking did not allow the bad news to take its rightful place in my mind. In fact it sank in only next day, when I saw Pitaji’s body placed on large ice slabs, on a platform under the stair-case to our house. My body reacted very violently. With grief my feet twisted sideways and I had to go up to the house to recover from the shock.

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