Saturday, April 20, 2002

My cousin Kailash

Yesterday, we had an enquiry from a company in Belgium. It’s a company in the same line of business as ours, and they found us easily on the internet. Would we be able to provide them software development services? Of course we would.
People call from around the world. But when talk turns to Belgium, I think of my cousin Kailash. We never spent much time together, but I’ll never in my life forget how the little boy with the cheeky smile clung to me like an octopus, and had to be peeled off, screaming, when we parted seventeen years ago.
On his fifth birthday, I took Rs300 from my savings – it doesn’t sound much but it meant a lot to me then – and paid for a special meal for the children in the orphanage. Since outsiders weren’t allowed in, I don’t know whether they made a hero of Kailash and thanked him, or if he even knew it was his birthday. I’m pretty certain they didn’t have balloons and candles, though. A few weeks later Kailash was adopted and sent off to Belgium.
I was happy that he went to parents who had longed for him, as an adoptive couple surely had. My grandmother was shown photos of a jolly-looking, big-built pair, and deducing that they loved food, she felt comforted. She was also pleased that both were lawyers, since her husband and son had both been in the legal profession.
Kailash’s father was seven years older than my mother, and she had adored him as a child. By the time the family fled their ancestral home soon after Partition, there were three others, and still more on the way.
Perhaps it was the trauma of the move; maybe his education had been interrupted; maybe it was lost love. The handsome, gifted young man, who had embarrassed my mum as a teenager by writing poetry under her name, somehow turned wild, took to drinking and fighting in the streets, and was eventually disowned by his father, by then a magistrate of the Bombay Presidency. He settled in far-away Bikaner, a desert town near the border.
They were five brothers and three sisters – a loving, boisterous clan. My grandmother mourned her firstborn alone, and in silence. Until one day I opened the door, and recognized at once, with a shiver of delicious apprehension, the villain from a photo in the family album! He was fifty now. A minor reconciliation took place. My grandmother’s heart sang; the others remained aloof.
Kailash was born in Bombay. The first time I saw him was after his father died, a few months after Grace, an unknown Grace whose name I read on his birth certificate when I took Kailash up for adoption, had died. I acted with unthinking certainty – entirely uncharacteristic of me then – constrained to the course of action, I believe, by karmic forces. My grandmother, our grandmother, agreed that we had no better option. And surely they were karmic bonds that compelled Kailash – a chirpy, intelligent, laughing-eyed boy – to howl and cling to me, a complete stranger? That caused me to visit him every Sunday before he went away forever? That make me wonder, so often, how life turned out for Kailash?
Maybe one day, he’ll come to Bombay, searching for his roots. Or maybe one day, I’ll visit that Belgian company, and a dark young man, flanked by two hefty lawyers, his loving parents, will walk past.
And maybe I’ll recognize him at once, the way I recognized his dad whom I’d never seen before. And if that happens, my god, what will I ever say?

Monday, March 25, 2002

Freedom Struggle

It’s only been a few days since I learnt what actually happened to Lala Lajpat Rai. The name was familiar, naturally. But thirty years ago, history was not what it is today. I remember hearing, back in my single-digit years, about something called the Sepoy Mutiny. Later, by the time they had renamed it The First War of Indian Independence, I had lost interest and shifted focus to other ostensibly more cerebral disciplines, and remained unconvinced about the whole thing.
Three-quarters of a century later, I mourn for Lalaji, who succumbed to injuries from lathi charge while demonstrating against the Simon Commission in Lahore in 1928. My history textbook tells me that he had been referred to by the fond epithet Sher-e-Punjab.
My tryst with Indian history is a peripheral circumstance of the ICSE examinations. This year my two darling daughters will battle for their lives in the all-important, career-defining, life-and-future-delineating event. So here I am, busy stroking heads to keep panic levels down, administering B-complex and iron tonics, and saying prayers. Besides, of what use is my 100 wpm typing speed if not to prepare long lists of mark-scoring objective questions for easy reference? As I dash them out, I’m swamped by images of the brave and visionary men and women who fought and died for our country.
My own grandfather would have been in the prime of youth at the time. But, with his family responsibilities and personal code of ethics, he was not one of those who quit his government job in hot-headed response to the Non-Cooperation Movement.
This was not a man I ever knew, since he had died when I was only a few days old, but I have a distinct impression of him as a uniformed, stern-looking person, from the black and white photograph on my father’s chest of drawers in days gone by.
And now, along with the images of our (glorious) freedom fighters – images dominated, to be perfectly frank, by scenes from Attenborough’s film Gandhi – I’m further burdened by multiple images of my father who is reduced to a quivering, diseased, inarticulate person, physically dependent on those around him. Images of my dad coolly smashing his opponent’s service, and winning the tennis match. Driving us across the country, singing at the wheel. Entertaining his goggle-eyed children with the great literature of the world  before we had learnt to read. Today he’s ill and helpless, and we with our frantic lives can spare him no more than infrastructure comforts, hurried hellos, and perhaps a few useless, sentimental tears late at night when everyone else is asleep and the cares of office, kitchen, and exams, are briefly on hold. Back during the freedom struggle, he would have been a boy playing football, reciting Elegy in a Country Courtyard for the school elocution, getting whacked for the mischief his naughty sister had run away from. When Lala Lajpat Rai died, he wasn’t even born yet. Today, Sher-e-Punjab is the name of the restaurant on every street corner. And life goes on.
First appeared as ‘Down memory lane’ in a Times of India Middle on 25 Mar 2002