Saturday, October 11, 2014

My Father - An Essay in an Autobiography

Pita Ji Writing... Another Har Dyal - Born to be
an Extraordinary Scholar-Physician. About 1954.
He was born, according to an authentic written record in the family, on Monday, August 30, 1920. He was the first born - the Jayeshatha Saputtar - of his parents. The various conversations among the elders of the family which included my two most loving great grandfathers and an adorably talkative great grand-aunt, called Bhua Ji by the entire village, often innocently overheard by me as a child of four-five years, had confirmed this to me. They mentioned that his father Dwarka Nand and his grandfather Giata Nand were also the first born of their parents. And So Am I - his son, now 71+ years according to the date of birth in the Matriculation Certificate, and so are our eldest son, Aditya and our six year old grandson, Antariksh!

Pray, don’t misread this opening statement in any overtone of machismo or a parade of any gender bias - it is but a humble mention of the facts of my family tree. My father was named Har Dayal Nand by his Guru-grandfather Vaidya Bhushan, Kaviraj Pramatma Nand Ji (d. October 19, 1947), the most renowned scholar and Ayurvedic physician of his era. The name might have been inspired by the popular perception prevailing in those years of Har Dayal (Later famous with the prefix ‘Lala’, though he was a ‘Mathur’), the legendary scholarly genius with a miraculous memory. According to the lore in the family, Baba Pramatma Nand Ji had also selected my name, even before my birth! That story could wait till the time when I write about myself! This piece of narration is dedicated solely to the sublime, sweet and sour memories of my father, “Shri Haridial Nand alias Haridial Singh Vaid, Ayurved Rattan, Ayurved Manishi, Gold Medallist, Proprietor, Shri Gajnesh Ayurvedic Aushdhalaya, Ahmedgarh.” A uniquely engaging conversationalist with all the old world wonderful charm of a philosopher-physician, he was destined to fade away, like many extraordinarily gifted persons, including his name sake Har Dayal, in despair and deprivation on April 19, 1978 - at the age of 57 years, 7 months and 19 days! I had sent him my first - and fatefully the last - birth day greetings card from Tehran promising to ‘fulfil all your dreams and expectations of Me!’ I am reminded of the soulful moment in 1955 in my school when he had, pointing at the youthful Deputy Commissioner S.D. Bhambri (I.A.S. 1950) of Sangrur, that, “in independent India now such young persons who are bright in studies and succeed in competitive examinations will the real rulers of the country!” A dream had been planted in my mind and soul!   

L to R: Channa (Major Charanjit Singh Jagdev), Pita Ji, Jangi (Brigadier Jagjit Singh Jagdev) Children are sons of Pita ji's friend Air Force Official Randhir Singh who had taken this photo. About 1954.
It will be noted that my Father, if alive, would have been 94 this month. I feel uniquely luckier to meet Ambassador V.M.M. Nair, going fine at 95+ years and the I.C.S. batch of 1942, during the walk-and-talk in our residential complex. Ashwani Kumar I.P., the film-hero-type-super-Cop and for many years Mr Hockey of India, is exactly of the age of my father. Kumar is known to be fully alert and moves around actively, though confined to a wheel chair. I feel quite convinced that my father had all the ability to qualify for the I.C.S. if the family had the right exposure and guidance to educate him in the British system of education. He was, however, tutored totally at home in all the traditional learning of Sanskrit classics, Ayurveda, Kavya Shastra - Prosody, Sangit Shastra - Musicology interpretative religious studies, including the modern ideologies of Gurmat, Arya Samaj and new wave ideas of Swami Shivananda and Sri Aurobindo. He was trained to be a good horse rider - I remember once riding behind him on a journey to my mother’s village - and also a champion chess player!

Father was most rigorously trained, in the Gurukul-style dawn to dusk routine, for more than two decades to be a perfect calligrapher in both Gurmukhi and Devanagri scripts. Professor Bachittar Singh I.R.S., his 12 years junior beloved nephew who had become the first Post-Graduate in English in the area in 1950, confirmed to me, “Chacha Ji was known to be very bright but was equally naughty too… Baba Ji (Pramatma Nand) used to tie a rope to his one leg so that he did not stray away during the day long lessons!” No Wonder, that no scholar could discern any shade of difference in the ‘pearls-like’ handwritings of Guru Pramatma Nand and disciple Har Dayal Nand in the various voluminous works ‘penned’ jointly by them! Well versed in music, he had become the most sought after Pathi - reciter - of Granth Sahib - in the far and wide area. The circle of his influential Sikh admirers persuaded him to become an Amritdhari - baptised Sikh - on July 26, 1947. I vaguely remember how he had suddenly stopped sharing ‘hookah’ with grand-father Giata Nand Ji and had also adopted an attire of the Sikh tradition. 

As per the custom and practice of the time, Father’s marriage had been arranged at an age of about twenty years. There is, however, no written reference in the family of the date and year of marriage. The conversations in the family have revealed that my mother, though not formally educated, was a very talented and hardworking lady. She had a great passion for all type of knitting including making the large size carpets and durries, many of which had remained in use for decades since her passing away. Though I have never been clearly told about it, She is understood to have died sometime in early 1946 due to complications after a delivery. It has been further understood that my father was deeply depressed over her demise and had tried to seek solace for some time wandering in the guise of a sadhu. My grandmother, a deeply pious lady with prayers on her lips all the time, was the most worried soul in the family about the remarriage of her son who had become a widower at the age of less than 26 years. And strangely at the same time, she would often narrate to me the stories of ‘Dhroon-Dhruv’ Bhakat, Pooran Bhakat and other noble children who had been maltreated by their step-mothers! Finally, after many efforts and a go-between role by a highly respected relation, Babu Ji Patram Singh, the second marriage of my father was solemnised on March 9, 1953 in the village of Pawala, near Rajpura in a large family of ex-service men. 

It must be mentioned that Father had been pushed to take up many responsibilities at a much younger age in the multi-generation joint family because of a long drawn civil litigation over the properties. The deaths of the saintly elders - Pramatma Nand ji on Oct 19, 1947 and Giata Nand Ji on August 20, 1951 - altogether altered the circumstances of the larger clan - khandaan. The family had started shifting to Ahmedgarh, initially for the education of my uncle - and I also joined the school there in May 1951 in the 3rd grade. Father, making a break from the family tradition, set up there “Shri Gajnesh Ayurvedic & Unani Aushdhalaya”, to begin with, in partnership with Shri Lal Chand Jai, a friend and registered Hakim of the Unani System. Soon Father started his independent practice and was able to rent a shop and a residence located in close proximity - at a rent of Rs. Ten for each of the two! Ch. Vivekanand Koshal, a well to do and progressive minded land lord, was very kind and respectful towards my Father for his learning and wisdom.

Pitaji as Pradhan Mantri i.e., General Secretary of the PEPSU Vaid Mandal. Holding the welcome address at the state level conference, March 9, 1952. Behind - Police Inspector Dharam Chand, City In charge Ahmedgarh.
Having not studied in any formal school system, Father was extra keen to obtain the recognised qualifications as an Ayurvedic practitioner. He, therefore appeared privately for the examination conducted Ayurved Vidyapeeth, Allahabad. To his great surprise, he was declared ‘Pratham, Sarv Pratham - First Class, First’’ in the ‘Ayurved Bhishak Examination’ held in 1952. He was awarded a Gold Medal by the Govt. of the PEPSU, then headed by S. Gian Singh Rarewala, declaring, “A Sikh Tops the Examination of Sanskrit.” He had actively involved himself in organising the Vaid Mandal movement in the state and worked tirelessly for the registration of Vaidyas under the new legislation.  On the basis of his newly obtained qualifications, he was able him to get a job in 1955 as Vaidya in Govt. Ayurvedic Dispensaries and served on a small salary of those days for more than a decade. Then he resigned to resume his practice in the wake of deterioration in his father’s health. He started contributing articles, with references from the handwritten books of the family like the one interestingly named ‘Mohtam Sahib’ and the rare works in the Gurmukhi script, to the prestigious journals of Ayurveda including ‘Dhanvantri’, ‘Sachittar Ayurved’, ‘Ayurved Mahasammelam Patrika’, etc. He participated regularly in the national Conferences on Ayurveda; I witnessed one such ‘Sammelan’ at Vithal Bhai Patel Bhawan in New Delhi in December 1974.  

Father, apart from his multifarious scholarship, had remarkable abilities for organisational matters and dealing with the governmental machinery. He enjoyed genuine friendships with activists of all political parties. He was at his best in the company of ‘Sants and Mahants - saints and abbots’ of great spiritual learning who were also quite wealthy and socially influential. It was a great privilege for me to enjoy listening discretely to their learned discourses. Father was quite clear and keen that I must excel in modern education. He seemed, of course, intuitively aware that I had my own path to traverse and avail the new opportunities in independent India. There was, to admit honestly, an unavoidable and unbridgeable generational gap between us; the back-breaking burdens of the family accumulated from his second marriage vitiated and soured the emotional bond between us. His health, with early signs of high blood pressure, had started deteriorating sharply with heart and diabetic conditions. He must have been fully aware of all his ailments and had started looking much older at the age fifty.

Author's Father and Father-in-law
at his wedding, Aug 12, 1973
I think that the occasion of my marriage in August 1973 was the most fulfilling moment for him. The Akhand-path to celebrate the birth of his grandson on the Lohri of 1975 with Tikka Kuldeep Singh Bedi, a descendant of the Sikh Gurus, reciting the Granth Sahib was his greatest - and sadly the last - moment of celebration. He and my father-in-law Shri Nand Lal Ramdasia, had become very close friends and the latter’s sudden death in a suspicious medical accident-reaction to penicillin injection - on December 4, 1977 left my father completely shattered person. His own demise within a period of less than five months was a big double shock for me but it was no surprise. While taking leave of him at the railway station of Ahmedgarh on 17th January, 1978, I had an eerie and foreboding feeling that it was, perhaps, my last glimpse of him. I could piercingly fathom from his face and foresee in his eyes that light of his life might be fading fast.   

Shrine of Author's Ancestor - Baba Gajjan Shah Ji
On the 19th of April this year - the 36th death anniversary of Father - I chose to make a pilgrimage to the more than 170 year old shrine of the family patriarch Baba Gajjan Shah Ji in in our native village of Falaund Kalan. After prayers, I spent some time with Manohar, a childhood play-mate who had lost his eyesight at the age of five years in an attack small pox. I requested Manohar to recite again my favourite Kabbit - fast rhymed poem with profuse alliteration - of Sant Gulab Das - and I have noted it this time. Then I chanced to come across there an older person; walked across to him and introduced myself in the name of my ‘Vaid’ Father. He immediately extended his arms and embraced me tightly saying, “I am Shah Nawaz Khan and I am now more than eighty years old. Your father Vaid Har Dayal Ji had saved my life sixty years ago when I was almost dying of persistent dysentery… he was the best Vaid of his time in the area!” I surprised him by telling him that I do remember having seen his father, Rattu Khan, a tall fellow who used to graze the goats of the village! And standing a few steps away from the sacred soil of the cremation of six generations of forefathers, I could not control the incessant and profuse flow of the tears of pride in my eyes, in the most pious memory my Father! 

References to this article

  • This article was included in the collection "India of the Past, Preserving memories of India and Indians"

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Great ‘Babu-cracy’ of India - Origin, Changes and Challenges of Today

The word ‘babu’ has a bona fide entry in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (COED); I have the Fourth impression 2006 of the Eleventh edition, 2004, First Published in 1911. The meaning reads: a respectful title or form of address for a man; an office worker - Origin from Hindi, lit. Father. The ‘Babu-cracy’ - i.e. bureaucracy, to be exact, had its formal beginnings in India, in its current connotation, in 1765 when the British East India Company had first organised a cadre of civil servants with the sole objective of assisting to collect revenues from the people of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa under the right granted by the Mughal emperor. This dual role of the Company as trader and ruler continued till 1833 when it succeed in acquiring control over extensive territories all over India. The Company, in its new role as ruler, soon recognised the need for a bureaucracy devoted exclusively to administration, unburdened by any responsibility for trading operations.

To quote the veteran bureaucrat Dr PC Alexander, 
“In 1853, the Company accepted the most distinctive feature of the Covenanted Civil Service of India which became the Indian Civil Service (ICS) after India came under the direct rule of the British Crown in 1858.” 
The process of selection through competitive examination and the most magical nomenclature ‘Indian Civil Service’ -  hailed by historians as the ‘ Heaven Born Service’ and ’Steel Frame of India’ - had been given by the special Indian Civil Service Act of 1861. The history of the ICS and its ‘reincarnation’ as Indian Administrative Service since independence indeed represents transformation of India as a modern democratic polity with all the ups and downs in the life of the nation.

Both Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru and Deputy Prime Minister cum Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai devoted an extraordinary attention to reassure and reorient the ICS and also to guide the Service towards the new goals of the independent nation. Nehru and Patel along with Dr BR Ambedkar were instrumental in putting in place the constitutional and related institutional frame work for the security and neutrality of newly designed All India Services - with the Indian Administrative Services at the top of the pyramid - and the other Central Services. To quote Patel,
 “…you will not have a united India if you do not have a good all India service which has the independence to speak out its mind, which has a sense of security… The constitution is meant to be worked out by a ring of Service which will keep the country intact.” 
The grateful bureaucracy of India has adopted the day of the address by Sardar Patel to the All India Services Training College, Delhi on 21st April 1947 as the ‘Civil Services Day of India’ since 2006, quoting Patel’s masterly exhortation to the civil servants to be always mindful of their, “dignity, integrity, incorruptibility and impartiality.”

The Nehru era - glowing with the higher values of the freedom struggle- witnessed a very fruitful flowering of the trust and collaboration between the well-meaning and patriotic political leadership and the gifted and competent top brass bureaucracy. There were shining examples of the efficient execution of many a visionary schemes for the development of the country and the welfare of the masses. The ‘steel frame of the ICS’ was indeed skillfully tempered to serve the requirements of the ‘sovereign (later amended to include socialist, secular too) democratic republic’ - in the making. How the stresses and strains of the party politics since 1969 and a good bye to the higher pursuit of “not power at any price but service at any cost’ have been adversely affecting all walks of national life - including the highest rungs of bureaucracy - need not be narrated at length. The manner in which the competence, integrity and impartiality of the top civil service has been continuously compromised, blatantly in the states under the rule of the rapacious local leadership, makes a sordid saga of the great betrayal of the people who put them into the seat of political and administrative power. The corruption at the political and bureaucratic level has indeed corroded the national psyche and endangered our survival as an independent state.

The Election Commission of India has been once again recipient of the great applause and admiration of the world for conducting the gigantic task of enabling the largest electorate of humanity to exercise their most precious right to vote in a free and fair manner. Comparatively on a different – quiet and sober-note the Union Public Commission of India had also declared the results on 13th of June of the Civil Services Examination 2013. The UPSC, it may be mind boggling to know, has selected during the last six decades nearly a quarter of a million candidates after examining over 46 million! This year, a total of 1,122 candidates were declared to have qualified one of the toughest three tier examinations so meticulously devised and spaced out over twelve months to select the brightest of the youth of the country for the most demanding and prestigious positions in the service of the state. The allure of the IAS seems to have become the most irresistible national obsession; it is rated far superior over all the other options of careers: the best are prepared to spend their best years chasing the civil services dream. It was reported that some 5,36,506 candidates had applied for the preliminary exam of the Civil Services in 2012. The mushrooming of civil services coaching centres / academies in the two localities of the capital of the country attract hundreds of thousands of civil services aspirants from far and wide in the country. They camp there ‘to try, try again, and again… and again till their respective limits of age or the chances get exhausted’.

It is said that India has the most elaborate - rather the most forbidding and intimidating - systems of examinations but, perhaps, not one credible system of education. The education system meant primarily to qualitatively improve life of the people of the country, millions of them being marginalised in society, has been, of course, continuously subjected to various processes of reforms. The new trends in higher education have also been amply reflected over the years in the UPSC’s agenda of reforms. Chairman of the UPSC Professor DP Agrawal has underlined that the changes in the pattern of Civil Services have to be ‘consistent with the need for selecting the right kind of persons from a huge pool consisting of multiple languages, creeds, culture and communities.’ It is indeed quite baffling for the former civil servants like myself, now a senior citizen of 70+ years, how in the changed times in India, the serious policy issues like the syllabi of the Civil Service Exam; issue of age limit; the number of chances, etc., have become causes for public protests by the aspirant candidates. And the government of India has created precedents that such protests and demonstrations in the capital can be effective in getting rules amended! Is the country marching towards the ‘Street- smart Civil Services Examination’?

The All India Services including the Indian Administrative Service, Indian Police Service, Indian Forest and the entire range of various Central Civil Services including the Bharati Videsh Seva - the Indian Foreign (Diplomatic) service - have a unique role in keeping the country going forward and unified as visualised by the founding fathers of India’s federal structure under the Constitution. The upright, efficient, experienced, duty conscious and fair minded civil servants are an invaluable asset of any nation, more so in a developing democracy like India with the millions of the deprived reposing their faith in them for justice and a fair deal. The old usage of ‘mai-baap’ - the paternal officer for the district officer - remains relevant even now in the rural areas of India where the vast majority of the dispossessed, discriminated and oppressed live. An honest and helpful civil servant is indeed the best creation of any political dispensation - and, perhaps, divinity too. Those interested in making money and lusting for power may think of doing any other thing but must not ever think of a career in civil service.

I am tempted to look back, as far as the deepest recesses of my memories go, towards all my days, weeks, months and years of my own service and memories of so many extraordinary colleagues in the Indian Foreign Service- I had joined w.e.f. from 11th of July, 1971- and the IAS / other Central Services. By a strange coincidence, there is a get together of the ‘Batch-71’ on this very date in July in New Delhi. I look forward to meeting many colleagues of the IAS / other Services since we parted company in November ’71 after the common Foundation Course National Academy, Mussourie! Among the distinguished batch mates, Shri SY Qureshi, formerly Chief Election Commissioner, remains in the media focus as an author-commentator. Shri Madhukar Gupta and VK Duggal distinguished themselves as Home Secretaries. Shri PL Punia had the rare distinction of being Principal Secretary, respectively, to both Maya Vati and Mulayam Singh and later became an MP on the Congress. He is still in position as Chairman of the National Scheduled Caste Commission with the BJP nudging him to quit. I also remember those batch mates who died in accidental and unnatural deaths in the prime / peak of their careers including Shri Gian Chand Gill whose parents were still sanitary workers in Malerkotla. The UP cadre had a strange case of a wife killing her IAS husband for infidelity; suicide by a DGP rank officer and currently an imprisonment for four years for corruption of a former Chief Secretary of the state. The involvement of senior civil servants of all the prestigious services on a larger scale in the recent years has indeed been a disturbing tendency.

The media has reported in some detail about the two and half hour inter active meeting taken by PM Narendra Modi on 4th of June with the 77 Secretaries of the Government of India. It was underlined that such a meeting has taken place after more than eight years - kya top Civil services ke achhe din aa gaye hain !.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Kabir - the Visionary poet and Revolutionary Reformer

This article was first published in the monthly magazine Identity, in the June 2014 issue.

Kabir - the low caste Julaha, weaver - a bona fide ‘Korie’ voter in the current context of the mythological Brahmanical city of Benares a.k.a. Varanasi - has indeed witnessed a remarkable up-gradation of his stature during the last century. He has been hailed as a valiant saint-poet, a distinctly rebellious voice of a social reformer and a Messianic icon for the oppressed people of his epoch. He has been increasingly recognised as ‘a dare devil spiritual ideologue’ for displaying a rare courage of convictions and as an all-embracing poetic genius in hitting as hard as he could at the hypocritical, irrational and unjust practices of both the moribund Hinduism and aggressive Islam. Kabir has been hailed for his masterly magisterial pronouncements employing the most effective instrument of poetic satire. He certainly lifted the level of his saintly sermons to a refreshingly redefined realm - far beyond the prevalent traditions of Bhakti-Sufi School of Nirguna - Formless, Monotheistic - devotional movement.

The exact details relating to the life of Kabir have remained shrouded in uncertainties, as per the splendid ancient Indian traditions of ‘Smiriti/Shruti - remembered/received’, implying mainly the orally transmitted accounts. Kabir’s hymns had, of course, started getting transcribed more than a hundred year after his passing away. It has now been broadly agreed upon by the Kabirian scholars that this most extraordinary saint-poet had his earthly sojourn sometime around 1440 to 1518 A.D. The earliest account of Kabir has been recorded in a poetic work called Bhaktamal - ‘A Garland of Devotees’ compiled in C.1585 by Nabhadas who refers to him in a single stanza,

“Never did Kabir accept /
Distinction of caste ... Religion devoid of love /
is heresy, he declared.”

Many of the compiler-commentators and Kabir’s sectarian followers called Kabir-panthies have been busy weaving a halo around him that has gradually obliterated the original lustre and subtly distorted his pristine precepts leading again into ritualistic Brahmanic folds. Anantdas in Parichai - an introduction (C.1595); Priyadas in his commentary on Bhakatamal and Mukund Kavi in Kabir Chrit (1645) reconfirm him as a Muslim weaver living in Kashi but without any comment on stories about his birth. Saint Guru Ravidas, a contemporary of Kabir, according to some sources says,

“He whose ancestors slaughtered cows ... attained such height that he is revered in all three worlds” - Adi Granth, Malar, p.1203. 

As an inquisitive and compassionate child of his loving parents, Kabir is alluded to be keenly inclined towards learning at an early age. But how could a poor and low caste fellow fulfil his yearning for knowledge in a hierarchical society driven by the scripturally ordained caste system of the Hindus? There is a strong traditional evidence suggesting that Ramanand, a relatively liberal Vaishnavite saint, had grudgingly taken Kabir under his wings and the two together sought to realise the higher Truth. The single hymn of Ramanand included in the Adi Granth proclaims,

“Where need I go, for within my home I have been dyed in the divine hue... The Lord pervades all, says Ramanand...” - Raag Basant, p.1195.

The incorporation of Kabir’s 532 verses in 16 Ragas - melodies - the third largest in number after the compiler Guru Arjan (2312 verses in 30 melodies) and the Guru Nanak (869 verses in 17 melodies) in the Adi Granth, compiled in 1604 A.D., was indeed the most significant authentication with far reaching spiritual consequences for positioning of Kabir. The tradition confirms that Guru Nanak had met Kabir on several occasions for detailed spiritual discourses. It is further believed that Guru Nanak could have been the first to get Kabir’s verses transcribed and passed on the manuscripts to his successors. According to Giani Gurdit Singh, Kabir’s contribution as an inspired saint poet indeed stands apart not only in terms of the output but also for the versatility of themes indicating his own inner development with the excruciating experiences of his long life. 

There are anecdotal references that Kabir had to face the wrath Delhi ruler Sikandar Lodi (1489-1517) in the wake of complaints against him by the Muslim Qazis and the Brahmin priests. Kabir’s poetry, therefore, appear to be directly addressed to listeners - of any religion or caste - with the trade mark, Kahai Kabir, suno Bhai sadhu - Kabir says, “Listen, O brother monk!” The passion packed and cryptic couplets engage the audience to wake up and peek within - “Kabir pounds away with questions, prods with riddles, stirs with challenges, shocks with insults, disorients with feints.” Kabir is indeed unique among the Bhakti poets in overwhelming us with his mastery of the vocative - “Pandit... let me know how to destroy transiency... You, Mr Qazi, who told you to swing the knife?” The impact of Kabir’s pithy poetic sayings must have been profound on the people crushed as they were in the crude formalism of the two competing mainstream religious divides. To quote Kshiti Mohan Sen, a scholar of Bengali Renaissance, “Kabir’s superior spiritual achievements came to have a sovereign influence on the people... his influence, direct or indirect, on all liberal movements that occurred in medieval times after him is uncommonly deep.” Since the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the western scholars, in their pursuit of study of Indian religious traditions and spiritual literature, had started taking a serious notice of Kabir’s remarkable hold on the common folk of the land; they hailed him as one of the greatest mystics and religious reformers in India. Swami Dayanand, however, remained adamantly hostile to all the leading lights of the liberal Bhakti movement describing Kabir - and Nanak too - as illiterate commoner, “Pandits refused to teach Sanskrit to this low caste weaver... Tab oot pattaang bhasha bana kar julahe aadi neech logon ko samjhane laga - then he started teaching low caste weavers, using crude and unbecoming language...” - Satyarath Prakash, 60th Edition, July 2005. 

Rabinder Nath Tagore’s anthology of the translation of 100 hymns of Kabir, published in 1917, with a comprehensive introduction by eminent Irish mystic-pacifist Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), opened the flood gates of Kabirian studies in the major vernaculars and European languages. The foreign scholars – cum missionaries were ‘clean bowled’ by the weaver-poet from Kashi and, in their enthusiasm, hailed him as ‘the Indian Luther’. The work in English of scholars like G.H. Westcott - Kabir and Kabir Panth, 1907 and the French researcher charlotte Vaudeville stating, “Kabir prefigured Tyagraja and Tagore and could even be considered the Gandhi of medieval times”, resulted in inspiring many more to undertake in depth studies on Kabir. Among the publications in Hindi, mention must be made of the monumental Kabir Granthavali series edited by Shyam Sundar Dass, Mataprasad Gupta, Parasnath Tiwari and many other eminent scholars. There were several editions published under the Bijak title. As regards the recent classic literary studies of Kabir, the writings of Dr Gobind Trugunayat, Acharya Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Acharya Parshuram Chaturvedi and Dr Ram Kumar Verma have indeed made path breaking contribution. 

The more recent interpretative studies of Kabir’s life and writings have dwelt more emphatically on his seminal relevance as poet-thinker-fighter for social justice; freedom of conscience; secular values in life; peace, understanding  and welfare of all. Kabir’s sublime couplets underlining the nobility of character; kind behaviour; honest living and fellow feeling effortlessly pierce deeper into the soul. Kabir’s frontal attack on the most callous caste system has make him an icon of the new age Dalit assertion. The writers and artists with progressive outlook and activists of secular forums have been amazingly innovative in rediscovering and reclaiming Kabir. We are also witnessing fiercely scholarly debates among outstanding Kabirians like Dr Purushottam Agarwal and Dr Dharamveer. Meanwhile the galaxy of the uniquely talented artists like theatre actor Shekhar Sen with mesmerising musical mono-act play; film-maker-singer Shabnam Virmani with her folk troupe of Prahlad Singh Tipanya and classical masters like Kumar Gandhrav - not to speak of so many popular singers including legends like Lata and Jagjit - have all made Kabir ‘a very, very cool guy’ for the 21st century among the young and old not only in India but globally. 

I was indeed the most blessed as a child to be amply introduced to the Dohe - couplets of ‘Kabir Julaha’ - and many an interesting anecdotes about him - by my grandmother even before I joined the school. And then it was in the summer of 1956: I had just been promoted to sixth class. The film Bhagat Kabir ‘arrived’ in our tiny market town of Ahmedgarh - to be screened in the make-shift small Sundar Theatre. I sought my grandmother’s permission to go to cinema to see this film about Kabir - her idol saint. I assured her that I had my own savings to buy the ticket - costing a few annas. “Cinema, film, no, not at all!” was the firmly reply by my grandma. “But, Dadee Ji, it is about Bhagat Kabir... you have been teaching me his Bani and telling his stories?” She remained unmoved, “No, no; these film makers must have made it something quite different containing dirty and vulgar things - ‘gandi aur Kharab baaten’ - about the saint and adding their own strange songs and dances - ‘Bure naach, gaane.’ I had no choice - how could I ever dare to defy my most loving and pious grandmother! 

To conclude: just to check references about Kabir in the google search, I put the subject, ‘Films and documentaries on Kabir’ - and, look, behold... there are 34,70, 000 results in 62 seconds!  The weaver poet of Benares has indeed gone global - and soul of my grandma would seem to approve and applaud it!!

I do earnestly hope and pray that people of Kabir’s own land would be heartily attuned with his soulful hymns of fraternity of humanity! He was never so compellingly relevant for India of Today, Tomorrow and the Day After!!!

*   *   *

Song from the movie Mahatma Kabir (1954)

Friday, February 21, 2014

Celebrating Sunshine: Spirit of Punjabiyat

This article was published in the monthly magazine Identity, in the February 2014 issue. 

In an honest endeavour to ‘rediscover’ India and ‘regain’ my deeply umbilical roots with Punjab in the silver years of retirement since 2004, after spending 26 summers abroad, I have been assiduously making efforts to attune myself with the manifestations of literature and culture in my adopted home city of Delhi. The mythological and historic heart of Hindustan - from Indraprasatha to Lutyen’s New Delhi - could be interpreted as both an aggregation of hundreds of typically ancient villages and also a fast evolving cosmopolitan metropolis. Always keen to nourish my most cherished memories of early childhood enjoyed in smaller villages and education in a national school in a newly founded (in 1905) grain market town and later moving to Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Bathinda for education and short stint as lecturer in College, I remain in heart, soul and mind a quintessential Punjabi who has been luckier to live in Pakistani Punjab too. This strongly surcharged ‘Punjabi Identity’ - so apparent but also often elusive like a mirage - well harmonised with the happier citizenship of the world, has indeed found for me a partial but substantial fulfilment in my association with two staunchly secular and forward looking Punjabi literary and cultural forums in Delhi - Bhai Vir Singh Sahit Sadan and Punjabi Sahit Sabha.

It was my childhood poet-hero Pandit Krishan Ashant who had firstly told me in 2005 about an annual open get together of writers and enthusiasts of Punjabi literature. Christened as ‘Dupp di Mehfil - A Merriment under the Sunshine’, the function was conceived and imaginatively implemented by the grand old gentleman of Punjabi printing and publishing, ‘Bhapa Ji’ Pritam Singh. The day chosen was to be Sunday falling after Lohri - the typical Punjabi folk festival heralding the beginning of the end of the severity of cold winter and an astronomical ascendance of Sun on its journey of the northern hemisphere. Bhapa Ji, gracious as ever for any cause of promoting Punjabi, offered his Navyug farm house in Mehroli to be the venue for this unique experience. Started in 1994, the event has been acquiring more and more popularity, participation and prestige, thanks to the dedicated team of office bearers of Punjabi Sahit Sabha and soulful commitment of Dr Renuka Singh, academician daughter of Bhapa ji. 

Adoringly addressed as ‘Bhapa Ji’ - dear elder brother - by generations of budding as well as established authors of Punjabi and his large circle of admirers including cultivated readers, Pritam Singh (b.1914 d.2005), was a remarkable self-made perfect gentleman who remained synonymous for five decades with the high quality Punjabi printing and publishing house - Navyug Prakashan - located in Chandani Chowk, the heart of historic Delhi. Amarjit Chandan has rightly said, “His life is arguably the history of Punjabi printing, journalism and publishing in the twentieth century.” Aarsee - Looking Glass - the literary monthly in Punjabi started by him in April 1958 indeed faithfully reflected his cherished ideals of beauty in nobility of creative writing till he decided to call it a day after issue of June 2000 when he might have felt, at the age of 86, that he could not physically cope with keeping up the high standards he had set for himself. The humility, sweetness, discipline and determination characterised this gentle colossus who indeed played a sterling role in ushering in a new era - Navyug - in Punjabi literary renaissance and thereby dressing and healing the devastating wounds inflicted by the catastrophe of the Partition of Punjab.

Dr Jaspal Singh, VC Punjabi University releasing Sukh Sunehe,

Dhupp di Mehfil - 2014 on 19th January indeed turned out to be the most well attended and the sunniest in atmosphere - Surya Devta played to be so kind and munificent on just that one day. Interestingly, the year happens to be the birth centenary of Janak - god father - of this festival - the beloved Bhapa Ji. President of Sahit Sabha, Gulzar Singh Sandhu, conducted the function in his authoritatively disciplinarian tone to ensure that program clicks according to clock. It opened with the old honey folk songs, including one on Pooran Bhagat, by the group led by Ninder Ghungianvi. Ashok Arora, a lawyer turned motivational speaker, seemed at a loss for words in Punjabi. He distributed a video CD of a documentary film dealing with the turmoil in the minds of the youth in the wake of the ‘Nirbhay’ tragedy in the capital. Dr Bhagwan Josh, a distinguished academic in the JNU, spoke about the angelic character of Bhapa Ji as brought out in his book, recently released by the National Book Trust. It were the scenes - with direction and songs, in his deeply melodious voice, by eminent theatre professional Wariam Mast - from Balwant Gargi’s celebrated play Kanak di Balli which impressed and mesmerised the large audience. My generation has strong reason to feel nostalgic about that golden era of Punjabi literature in the fifties of last century - before petty and vicious politics in Punjab on the false pretext of language resulted in further tearing apart and blowing away Punjabiyat. 

Veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar being honoured with a special award

The function was utilised to honour six Punjabis for the valuable contribution by each of them to the cause of Punjabi language and Punjabiyat. It comprised an impressive plaque of the Sahit Sabha and cheque for 50,000. Shri Kuldip Nayar, the nonagenarian journalist and crusader-commentator on problems of Punjab who has recently penned his maiden novel in Punjabi, received a big applause. The list of others who were honoured included eminent poet scholar Dr JS Neki; Secretary of Punjabi Academy, Delhi, Dr Ravel Singh; historian Dr HS Chawla; Dr Baldev Singh Badhan of National Book Trust and UK based Punjabi author and activist Ranjit Dheer. Dr Renuka Singh, chairperson of the Sabha was honoured with mementos of Baba Farid and the long services of Piara Singh (b.1923) to Sabha were also recognised. Howsoever deserving such awards might be, the peculiarity of all the prizes and honours bestowed on writers and activists of Punjabi have also their share of side effects. A number of books published in 2014 were also released by the VC Punjabi University, Patiala Dr Jaspal Singh who gracefully presided over the function without inflicting any speech on the audience, apparently interested more in meeting new and old friends, all knit by the deeper but often neglected bond of mother tongue.

Dr Jaspal Singh releasing the book by eminent theatre artist Wariam Mast

‘Dhupp di Mehfil’ has certainly carved a place of its own in the calendar of the Punjabi literary community not only in the capital city but also globally. It is indeed astonishing how a white-Khadi clad simple person with devotion to the tongue of his mother could single handedly do so much for it. I am reminded of the prophetic and spontaneous dialogue with novelist Nanak Singh recorded by Balraj Sahni soon after the formation of ‘little Punjab’ with ‘officially’ proclaimed Punjabi language, “Balraj Bhapa, two evils are sucking our society like leeches - one is communalism and second is petty politics… 'sooba-prasati' - provincialism is a deadly new evil… we had better a stronger and larger Punjab… till there was no exclusive Punjabi speaking state, Punjabi was faring much better… Punjabi was never promoted by political leaders, it were persons like Varis Shah, Qadir Yaar, Bhai Vir Singh…” I may emphatically add, “A person like Bhapa Ji Pritam Singh”

Our world is witnessing an unprecedented epochal era - a revolution as never before - in the domain of human communication. All human expressions are being subjected to mightily challenging situation - presenting both the vast opportunities and posing serious dangers. The Punjabis have been the greatest survivors; they have risen again and again from dire adversity to great prosperity. As one them who was indeed luckier in this life to be taught and groomed by the best of ‘the un-partitioned’ minds of Punjab and having seen this wider world, I do hope that Punjabis would seek their destiny beyond the narrow confines and divides of creed, caste and community - as so nobly and beautifully enunciated by Baba Nanak, more than half a millennium ago! 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Art of Letter as Heart of Matter: 'Selfie in the Shelf'

This article was published in the monthly magazine Identity, in the January 2014 issue.

The most interesting origin and bafflingly complex evolution culminating in the art and craft of ‘writing a letter’ would seem to embrace the entire history of the civilisation of humanity. The story telling, songs, festivals and rituals were the earliest oral attempts by our ancestors to preserve and underline their traditions and memories. The beginning of means of disseminating information to those located at distances might have included, ‘the marking of stone, indents of clay, knotted lengths of cord, scratching of plates of metal and wood, etc.’ The development of writing is understood to have taken place sometime after 3500BC. Sumerian writing had pictograms and ideograms for the start. Scribes were soon busy in simplifying the system, using symbols to represent sounds and syllables on tablets of wet clay to be baked later. This writing was called Cuneiform, from the Latin word cuneus, meaning a wedge. 

The ancient Egyptians were able to produce a large body of what could be termed as literature. An extract from one of the oldest book of letters containing instructions to his son by the Vizier Ptah-hotep to the Pharaoh, who lived about 2450BC, would seem to ring tellingly so true about the administration of state even today: 

“Do not let your heart be puffed up because of your knowledge… If you, as leader, have to decide on the conduct of a great many people, seek most perfect manner of doing so, that your own conduct may be blameless… Be active, doing more than what is commanded. Activity produces riches but riches do not last when activity slackens… Do not rebuff petitioner before he has said what he came for. A petitioner likes attention to his words better than fulfilling of that for which he came…”

The timelessness and universality of letter writing has indeed imparted this form of writing a rare uniqueness in terms of its historical, cultural and literary dimensions. By the 18th century, letter writing had become so common in the West that ‘one of the first prose narratives to be considered a novel, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela was composed entirely of letters of a daughter to her parents, and the epistolary method lent that novel what realism it possessed.’ The accomplishment in letter writing has been indeed considered for the last two centuries to be the finest attribute of a highly cultivated mind. The best minds in India’s struggle for freedom - from Assadullah Khan Ghalib to MK Gandhi including Maulana Azad, Jawaharlal Nehru, RN Tagore, Sardar Patel, Sarojini Naidu, Bhagat Singh - all have left behind tons of 24 carat golden letters for historians and ‘aam Indian aadmi/aurat’ as their authentic legacy.

The sharp decline in the practice of letter writing in the beginning of the 21st century, in the wake of the revolution of the new technologies of communication, would seem ‘to constitute a cultural shift so vast that historians may divide time not between B.C. and A.D. but between the eras when people wrote letters and when they did not.’ The historians in general, and literary chroniclers in particular, have depended the most on the written references and the personal letters fall in the special category as evidence of how our ancestors once lived, loved, argued, thought and above all expressed their innermost feelings. The untouchables in India and slaves in the world over were often illiterate by the perverse moral prescription of the caste system and the enacted laws that threatened them with death. The epistolary tradition historically belongs to free people - that means the upper castes land owning groups in India and the white people of property in larger parts of the world. The authentically written record is indeed the most precious instrument to illuminate the past, present and future.

I have had the good fortune to be most rigorously tutored in writing letters and luckier to be recipient of the most loveable responses from respected elders, distinguished wielders of the pen and so many sincere friends. I can vividly recall how during my fourth class in 1952, my father, himself taught in the rigorously classical tradition by his scholarly grandfather, had guided me to write a letter in Punjabi to the husband of my BhuaJi - paternal aunt - who was serving in the military. I had to write letters to my father who served the Government of Punjab for about a decade between 1956-66 and a teacher uncle who always preferred to be posted at distant places. I was myself away from home for about 5 years till 1971 both as a student and as a lecturer at the college. Then the career in Indian Foreign Service till 2004 made me a compulsive writer of letters during my postings to nine different capitals of the world. Most of my letters were in Punjabi addressed to friends who also replied in elegant Punjabi. The letters to my most revered school teacher who taught me English were exchanged in English - I think that both of us felt mutually proud of each other over our proficiency in Firanghi Bhasha!

When I retired in 2004, I felt a strong desire that the select letters written and received, originally in Punjabi, and all meticulously preserved by me including copies of my own since the availability of the photo copying facility, deserved to be shared with the Punjabi knowing readers. My resolve was strengthened by the pleasantly surprising discovery that Prof Pritam Singh, the most distinguished scholar and “a teachers’ teacher” of Punjabi, had forwarded my letters to him to the Punjabi Sahit Academy, Ludhiana for preserving them for their literary merits! The task to get one’s maiden book published in Punjabi on its self-proclaimed literary merits is, however, to quote two English proverbs learnt in school, amounted to an ‘uphill task’ or even a ‘wild goose chase’. My perseverance coupled with sincere encouragement by the eminent Punjabi dramatist Prof Charan Dass Sidhu - I had come to know him only during my period of retirement - put me on the right track. Shilalekh, a publishing house patronised by Amrita Pritam and my school-time poet-hero, Krishan Ashant staked their reputation to publish this anthology of original letters, penned during 1967 to 2009. 

This anthology titled, ‘Sukh Sunehe - Epistles of being O.K.’, covering 208 pages, has 154 letters to and from 23 persons. There are 52 letters exchanged with their replies by Prof Pritam Singh, in his chaste and inimitable style characterised by clarity and stern sweetness about the tasks to be accomplished. There are 14 letters exchanged with Prof Sat Parkash Garg (1937-1996), a soulmate friend and colleague of the vintage of my lecturership in the Govt. College, Bathinda. In his letter of 23rd January ’96 he had written, “I anxiously await your letter… when are you coming - we shall definitely meet, if I would still be alive…”, and that was not destined to be; he passed away on the operation table undergoing heart surgery when I was on my way to India! The third main series of letters is with Jang Singh Gill who belongs to my village. He was my class fellow in the initial two years of school and has retired as a competent and popular science teacher in the Govt. Secondary Schools. Jang Singh has been instrumental in graciously keeping my umbilical link alive with my roots. The letters by Ajmer Singh, a twelve years senior distant cousin from my mother’s side, poetically recapture the most creative and enjoyable atmosphere of early 1950s in the Ripudaman College, Nabha. There are intimate literary letters exchanged with prominent writers of Punjabi including Balwant Gargi, KS Duggal, Gurbachan Singh Bhullar, Dr S Tarsem, KL Garg, and Dr SS Johl.

21-12-2013, Sukh Sunehe released at Sahit Sabha, Malerkotla
L to R: KL Garg, author, Balbir Madhopuri, Dr S Tarsem, Jagir Singh Jagtar,
Dr Rubina Shabnam, & Sh Mittar Sain Meet

Sukh Sunehe was released on 21st December at an impressive literary function organised by the Sahit Sabha, Malerkotla. The erudite young poet and critic Kamal Kant Modi presented a competent paper on the book highlighting “its literary character and its being an extraordinarily authentic document of the four decades of the period of these letters.” It was indeed a soulful delight for me that several of my dear and distinguished class fellows including eminent Punjabi satirist KL Garg, Prof AS Sidhu, JS Gill, industrialist Vinod Mehra - all my intermediate class fellows in 1959-61 in the Govt College, Malerkotla, were also in attendance. It was a rare personal privilege for me that many dedicated senior progressive literary activists including Jagir Singh Jagtar, SohanLal Bansal, Naz Bharati, Tarlok Singh Rai, Mittar Sain Meet had graced the function. Malerkotla has indeed significantly emerged on the horizon of Punjabi literary scene because a dedicated scholar and multi-talented writer of the stature Dr S Tarsem has made a choice making his nest in this historic city. The day - the shortest in the northern hemisphere of the planet - was his 72nd birth day and his latest book of literary profiles, ‘Sagar Tet Challan - Ocean and the Waves’, was released and also followed by an animated discussion.

Many devoted practitioners of the art of letter writing have been feeling gravely concerned that the new age of instant communication technologies might soon herald the end of traditional type of letters. There are also still incorrigible optimists, including myself, who are convinced that letters as ‘a dialogue of the soul’ can neither be replaced, nor is it going to disappear - ‘no other form of communication yet invented provides you to put your essential self on paper…’ I think that by putting this anthology of letters, written originally in Punjabi, in the public domain I have done my duty to my mother tongue… before the hand crafted letters become a thing of the past.