October 1991. We were spending two weeks in Kasauli in a bid to help my father recuperate post a nasty head injury. There was a very small market near our guest house and fresh supplies and milk used to come in at a fixed time only once a day. It was my duty to walk down daily to replenish kitchen stock.
Every afternoon at 4.30pm, when I used to set out with my shopping bag, I used to notice a man walking down the same path. He looked very familiar but I was sure I was mistaken as I had never been to Kasauli and knew no one there. Since there were many a chore to be done at the guest house and my father to be attended to I never got an opportunity to talk about this. But on my fifth or sixth time of seeing this man, curiosity got the better of me and I went up to the man in a bid to strike a conversation.
A wizened face with a broad forehead looked up. “ Yes? “. Just one word but the authoritative tone made me step back instinctively. “ Nothing”, I stammered. He raised his hand in salute, or was it in dismissal, and carried on. I ran back to the guest house.
The kettle was blowing its whistle. Tea was ready. I prepared a tray with a teapot, arranged some biscuits, cut a few slices of cake and went out to watch the sunset with my father.
“ Daddy, do you know what happened today”? My father was dozing in the warm sun, allowing the chirping of birds and the balminess of October to soothe him. He loved breathing in the mountain air. He mumbled a ‘hmm’ but continued to snooze. “Daddy”, I said a little loudly. “ Do we know any one here? There’s this old Sardarji with a bright yellow patka who I see everyday and he looks so familiar”. My father sat up straight. “ Beta”, he said, “ He is no old sardarji. That is Khushwant Singh”. “ THE Khushwant Singh”, I asked in excitement? “Yes, the very same, “ replied my father. “ He has a house in Kasauli but I did not know he spends time there. I thought he stays more and more in Delhi because of ill-health”, added my father.
The following day my father asked to walk with me to the market. I knew why but was afraid that the walk might tire him. He insisted, I refused, he picked up his coat, I tried to reason with him, he walked out of the house and I ran after him , shouting to Bahadur, the guard, to come with me.
We walked slowly and soon enough saw the familiar face. I nudged my father as unobtrusively as I could. My father, unable to contain his excitement, shouted a greeting loudly. “ Good afternoon Sir, what a pleasure to see you. May I exchange a few words with you?”
The two men met and started a conversation. My father waved a hand asking me to carry on to the market. When I returned, they were both sitting on a stone ledge and discussing politics, Lahore, mountains, whiskey and women.
My father was looking tired. The physical exhaustion of the walk and the excitement of a tete-a-tete with the Grand Old Acerbic Man had started taking its toll. I was wondering how to politely break up the conversation when Khushwant Singhji raised his head, called me closer and patted me on my back. “ How wonderful to see children like you who care for their parents”, he said. “ Take your father home now. We old men love excitement but it is not good for our health”, he added, his eyes twinkling,
I folded my hands in Namastey while the Two Grand Old Men shook hands. My father enjoyed his whiskey a little more that evening, I’d like to believe.
I was to have another chance meeting with Khushwant Singhji many years later. This was at Sujan Singh Park, New Delhi, at a celebration hosted by Ravi Dayal, Khushwant Singh’s son-in-law, and one of the publishers I did free-lance work for. Sitting on a sofa, his feet stretched in front, he was busy holding forth on the current state of political affairs. I waited for my turn, greeted him and went away.
Today I found myself going for Khushwant Singhji’s funeral. One in a multitude, I wanted to pay my respects to him. Coincidentally at the very same place where my father was cremated some years ago I prayed for his soul to find a peaceful passage to the other world.
I smiled, because such a full life has to be celebrated not mourned. I smiled even more as I thought that perhaps he would meet my father again and they would reminisce of politics, Lahore, mountains, whiskey and women.
( photo credit: http://www.outlookindia.com)
A homage to you, Sir, with your favorite lines
“Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea…
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness or farewell,
When I embark.” ( Tennyson)
Rest in peace, Khushwant Singhji.