13 Aug 2011


Mr RC Singhal passed away on 6 Aug 11.

He died in the saddle, as the Principal of Cambrian Hall, a premier private school in Dehra Dun, after an illustrious teaching career that spanned 64 years. He was a mentor to many illustrious persons, as also very ordinary mortals like me, in our most impressionable age from 10-16. Before Cambrian Hall, Mr Singhal was a teacher, house master and Vice Principal of RIMC between 1947-84.

 In England they philosophically say, ‘The King is dead, long live the King’.

In this hour of mortal tragedy, I cannot find words to describe the loss, the words to write an appropriate eulogy about this incredibly awesome man.

.I met RCS Sir last, few months ago, 45 years after leaving RIMC . My classmates of 62-66 (Mamu Mamgain, Surdy Jasbir, Tinda Arvind, Tota TJ, and I, all of us by now senior citizens ourselves), we went to his house to pay our respect at 1900 hrs on 11th Mar this year. He was at the door to receive us, impeccably turned out in his characteristic tweed coat and tie. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine him just as he was on the day I first met him in 1962. He did not look a day older, he was as ram rod straight and awesome as he was when I first met him. My elder brother and I had arrived at RIMC in a ‘Tanga’, and near the Commandant’s office stopped to ask directions from a smart gentleman who was walking along briskly in the same direction. ‘Oh.... I will show you where to go’, he had said and got into the Tanga along with us and took us to the awesome senior ante room. While my brother and he chatted, banter between two people of the same age, I surreptitiously observed the gentleman whom I subsequently got to learn from, and to love, as Mr Chips, RCS Sir, Pratap’s section master. I was then put into Ranjit and did not see much of him, at least till much later, till I was appearing for ISC and NDA, more or less at the same time. That is what I thought, or what I recollected as I went to see him at his house in Mar 45 yrs later.     

 In the fraction of the second that we took contemplating whether to touch his feet, as we wanted to do, RCS stuck out his hand and shook our’s, one by one. ‘Thank you for coming to see me’, he said in a melodiously clear and affectionate voice. When my turn came to shake his hands, I found that his hands were frail but his grip was firm and determined. I also noticed that he patted me on my shoulder twice, something he had never done before, something which he did not do with others along with me that night.

 While RCS Sir chatted with my peer group one by one, I stood aside chatting with his two sons and DIL, rather shy and reluctant to face the frail old man. My peer group that night were illustrious boys in school, very accomplished men afterwards, RCS had reasons to be proud of them.   I was unsure whether he would remember me, or whether he would be happy to see me. After all, I was one of his worst pupils, a problem child. After about 45 mts of chatting with others, he gestured to me. ‘Come and sit next to me’, he said patting the sofa. I went and sat at the edge of the sofa, I am sure he noticed my hesitation and discomfort.

‘Sir, my name is Kartha, UG Kartha’, I said hesitatingly. ‘I doubt whether you will remember me’. I spoke loudly, assuming that he may have some problem hearing.

‘Did you have a problem jumping off the 7 mtr board in NDA ?’, he asked looking into my eye. His eyes were twinkling, the corner of his lips were twitching with merriment.

‘No, Sir, I had no problem, I jumped often from 10 mtr, afterwards even qualified as a paratrooper’, I said absentmindedly, wondering whether the old man had gone senile. Suddenly my mind jumped out of my head, about 50 yrs backwards. Memory came flooding back. Havildar Major Limbu lining us up on the 3 mtr board in the indoor swimming pool in our first term in RIMC. We were to jump into the pool and swim one length to pass the physical. One by one, everyone ahead of me jumped, and swam. Then came my turn, I stood there immobile, my legs weighing like a bag of cement. I did not know how to swim. I never told anyone, no one had asked me either.  Limbu Sahib got impatient and let fly a long burst with his whistle, ‘Jump Karo Cadet’, he shouted. In the closed environment of the indoor pool, the long burst of whistle reverberated and echoed with menacing overtone. I was so frightened that I jumped, not into the pool but to the side. I fell half in the water and half outside on the edge,  my face hit the pool edge and my nose and upper lip started to bleed copiously. I started to cry. I don’t know what RCS was doing there. He gathered me up in his arms and ran with me held to his chest to the MI Room next door. While waiting for Matron to prepare her sewing needle, to stitch up my lip and nose, RCS asked me very kindly, ‘How old are you ?’

‘I am 11 yrs old Sir’, I said, sitting up and drawing myself away from him.

‘When do you think it is a good age to stop crying, and to be a good soldier ?’ he asked with his characteristic straight face, I could see his lips twitching in a suppressed smile. ‘The matron is going to stitch you up, it is going to be quite painful, would you rather cry now or afterwards ?’, he asked with much compassion, like a father.

‘I  will not cry Sir’, I told him with new found determination of a 11 yrs old. Afterwards, I have not cried, at least not for silly things like pain or injury.

 ‘I haven’t cried much afterwards Sir’, I said to him very seriously that night, 50 yrs later, with all the seriousness of a 61 yrs old man.  I wanted him to be proud of me, as much as a son desires that his father is proud of him. I was all of 11 yrs, all over again.

‘You write well’, RCS told me nodding his head. ‘But you still use big words and make spelling mistakes’. He was smiling now, his eyes wrinkled in good humour. My mind somersaulted again, 48 years backwards this time. I was in the quarantine with Measles, all by myself in the building next to the MI Room. RCS had come by, and saw me there. ‘How are you?’, he had enquired.

‘I am bored Sir, I wish everyone had caught Measles’, I said to him quite seriously. I did not have wit or wisdom then.

‘Ummmm’, he said with a straight face, ‘I cannot help you there’, he said. ‘But I will come by in the evening again’.

That evening he brought me Enid Blyton’s ‘Five On A Trip’, which set me off on a career of reading. I now read everything that I can lay my hands on, with as much aggression and zest as soldiering. Writing was only a progression, though I confess that I have yet to master the English language. He came by every evening that I was in hospital, and encouraged me to start writing short stories as ‘time pass’.

 ‘How is your health ?’, I asked with genuine concern, back being a 61 yr old.

‘Oh, I am OK, as good as it can get’, he replied waiving off my concern. ‘Do you still like puzzles ?’, he asked. ‘My god, this man remembers each day of my childhood, as if it was yesterday’, I mumbled under my breath. I could remember him sitting in his Spartan office, the corner of the teachers room, with ledgers and note books piled up end to end. He would call me often to counsel me. My homework usually consisted of doodles or ink blotches and holes in the paper where I had broken off the nib of my pen (the dip dip type pens those days).  I did that on purpose sometimes to avoid doing home work. ‘I see that you don’t like to do home work, is that it ?’, he once asked me, in very gentle tones.

‘Oh, I don’t like anyone marking my mistakes in Red Ink, that is why I don’t do home work’, I told him with the irrefutable logic of a 12 yr old. He sat there silently for a while. ‘Try to do things for yourself, do it in such a way that you feel proud of what you have done, satisfy yourself and don’t worry about others, whether they like what you have done’, he said afterwards, with empathy and affection. In all my adult life, whenever I have had to shovel shit of any kind, I have tried to make a ‘Taj Mahal’ with it, and I have never forgotten what he said to me that day. I do things now, everything, to satisfy myself and have had trouble only because I am my own biggest critic. No one writes red ink remarks in my note books, not any more, I write it myself.

I was very bad in mathematics. Once he called me to his office and gave me a simple puzzle and told me to sit there and solve it, ‘I challenge you to solve it’, he said, rather seriously. I solved it within a few minutes and gave it back to him.

‘Hmmmmm’, he mused. ‘You are intelligent enough to solve puzzles, but you need someone to throw a challenge at you each time, only then you would want to use logic and your brain’. He was silent for some time, looking at me. ‘Mathematics is a science of logic, do you think you can challenge yourself to try and solve it like a puzzle ?’, he advised. Afterwards, whatever I did was a challenge, a mountain that I had to climb motivating myself to do it, and I have never forgotten RCS’s advice.

‘I don’t want to study’, I told him another time, when he had advised all my peer group to appear for external ISC exam.

‘I just want to join NDA and become an officer in AF, so that I don’t have to study’. I was rather convinced that was how things were going to be. He just smiled, with unfathomable patience, ‘OK, do this for me, would you ?. Can you show me whether you are capable of doing it ?’, he asked.

I went along like a meek puppy, I did the ISC, did it well too, at that time thinking that I was doing it for him. Afterwards, learning and studying became a never ending routine and in the AF there was no respite, every day I had to learn something new, there were never ending examinations. In retrospect, there was none that I wanted to please more, he was my surrogate father. He was a surrogate father to everyone in my peer group.

 Sitting with him in Mar this year, the years shrunk, I was like a child all over again, basking in the unrequited love, affection and pride that RCS bestowed on me. In so many ways he has given me so much. His valuable time, attention, patience, advice, wisdom, and above all encouragement, more than any of the others in my peer group who were better and hence did not require all of it. I required all of it and more, he knew that I was a maverick. The last thing he said to me that night is something very cheerful, wisdom that comes with age and exposure.

‘Once your father wrote to me’, he said conversationally. ‘He wanted to know why you did not excel in RIMC’.

‘What did you tell him ?’, I asked with insatiable curiosity.

‘I told him that some seeds take longer to grow into a tree’, he paused. ‘When the sapling is good, with the right amount of water, sunlight, manure and a bit of encouragement, they will all grow into tall flowering trees’. He then smiled enigmatically.

‘Sir, I think what I am today is all because of your effort’, I said with all the sincerity that I could muster.

“No, No”, he shook his head with mock gravity, ‘You did all the growing and running, all by yourself, I was just a sign board in your life’.

 Ramesh Chandra Singhal, my surrogate father Sir, I wish you bon voyage on your eternal journey. I salute thee in farewell. In death you are closer to me than the distances that you have chosen to go. You shall live on, till the last of us who love you, and owe you, fall in our own mortality.

God bless your soul.

1 Aug 2011

Pism & Em Coca

‘Sirjee, Yeeeee Em Coca Ki Honda hai ?’ (What is Em Coca ?) I asked ‘Aye Jee’ my friend  yesterday in the best Punjabi twang that I could muster. As a multilingual Malayalee, I can also make the same thing sound Malayalam, Bengali or Gujarati, depending on whether I was speaking to Aye Jee, Gen B, Air Mshl C or Rear Adm D, the ABCD of my life, all my old peer group, much retired and withered just like me. ‘Aye Jee’ is special, the others are all stupid soldiers like me. ‘Aye Jee’ was the boss of Police somewhere, a very powerful ‘Danda Jee’. He always knew the whys and hows of my very troublesome socially inspiring questions because he had done a tenure in ‘IB Jee’ and was as Intelligent-jee as the Babu-jee.  
The sun had set. Except for the mosquitoes and the stragglers, there we as no one to watch the comic throes of our heaving and hawing. I was unsuccessfully trying to do ‘Pranayam’, like Mr Baba Ram Dev, in the large DDA park adjacent to my house.   ‘Aye Jee’ my friend was deep into karmic meditation, with his legs wrapped around his neck, and hence did not reply.
“I just went for a pee behind the bushes and this very curious lady came to investigate and threatened to put me in jail for life, using ‘Em Coca’,  I said conversationally.
‘Em Coca?”, shot back ‘Aye Jee’ from the depths of intellectual coma, the place I believe yoga takes him to. In return he thinks that the XXX Khoday Rum that I drank for over 40 yrs gave me ‘Love Failure’, a potent ischemic decease that only Pranayam and pelvic thrusts can restore. 
‘Aye Jee, Sirjeee, I was simply peeing behind the bushes and this strange lady came and threatened me with Em Coca‘. I increased the pranayam rate and pelvic thrust to make my point. ‘Why can’t a lady let an old man pee behind the bushes in peace ?’ I asked with incredulous curiosity.
Aye Jee was silent. He keeps his mouth shut when I ask stupid questions. When I was young and impressionable, and said silly things, my mother used to make me wash my mouth with Dettol.  My friend Aye Jee in his youth was an ADC to Morar Jee, the ‘Pee Yem Jee’. When he said something stupid, I think Morar Jee used to make him rinse his mouth with you know what, his ‘Pee Jee’ that probably tasted a wee wee bit worse than Dettol.
‘Why do women have a problem with men peeing in the open ?’, I asked Aye Jee after he had reverted back into intellectual coma. I did not want to embarrass him and leave a bad taste in his mouth, like Morar Jee.
 After much study and analysis, it seems to me that amongst the many democratic freedoms in India, the most sought after one is the freedom to 'Defecate and Urinate in public''. If it inconveniences other people, like doing it on your neighbour's door step, the pleasure of freedom is even greater. Ours is not to reason why but to do it, and do it, again and again, till we die.
 The urban, TV watching,  Indians who have acquired a veneer of civilised behaviour, have bought themselves WCs (Western Commodes). However, the WC is not so much to do with defecating and urinating, as much as to do with the national pride and possessiveness. Since Nadir Shah took away the Peacock Throne several hundred years ago, Indians have come to view the WC as their symbol of renaissance. My wife T for example, cleans and polishes the WC every day with so much pride and dedication, more than she does to any of the other family heirloom. To my mind she does this only because she thinks of the WC as her own Peacock Throne, the seat of serious contemplation, daily inspiration and judgement. Hence, it breaks my heart to defecate and urinate in it. I prefer to do it outside my neighbour's bedroom window. If the neighbour is watching, I get added pleasure and usually give it a more vigorous shake than normal. Just because Gupta-ji my very civilised, Oxford returned neighbour, thinks it is his democratic right to make his well trained dog to do it daily outside my bedroom window !!!!!
For many years, while I was researching British Indian history, I was very keen to know what the colonial Englishmen of the 17 and 18th C in India ate & drank, what they wore, and more than anything else to know whether they defecated in the open and washed their posteriors like Indians afterwards.  After all, paper in any form was rather a precious commodity in India those days and toilet paper unheard of, even to venerable English ladies and gentlemen. I read reams and reams of history, in the archives and on the bookshelves, about life and times of colonial Englishmen. Sadly not much history about ladies in the archives. Mind you, the colonial Englishmen took great pride in recording everything concerning the life and times of not only about themselves, but also the natives around them. But not a mention of how they defected, or urinated, not a word anywhere in the history sheets !!! The answer to my quest I finally found in scrapbooks of the venerable La Martieniere, the famous 17C Frenchman ‘Resident’ of Lucknow who built ingenious indoor toilets in his palace ‘Dil Kusha’, where the elevated commodes had a tunnel access from the outside for pigs below to automate scavenging of human waste !!!. He remarked in French, in his scrap book, probably a diary (public library in Lucknow),  that he found it very difficult to convince his wife 'Gori Bibi' or any of  the visiting Englishmen to use the indoor convenience. Gori Bibi was the niece of Safdarjung, the Wazir of Delhi those days and hence her preferences are predictable. They all preferred to go to the open fields with a 'Lota' of water to clean themselves after the deed, even in inclement weather !!!!! India for 5000 yrs has been the land of the ''public shitters'', and hence have elevated the ritual to superior art form like ‘Katha Kali’ or ‘Mohini Attam’ dances. When inspired Indians migrated to Birmingham or Vancouver, they took their culture and art with them to foreign lands. It was only natural that the people of Vancouver came under the influence of the ''cross cultural pollination'' and adapted superior Indian ways to do, right there it in the parking lot !!!!!
 Some years ago, one enterprising Gujrati had the same kind of lack of cultural sensitivity and undemocratic thoughts like the municipality of Vancouver or my good neighbour Gupta-ji. However, being a Gujrati, he decided to make a private business of public toilets (PT). He floated a company called ''Suvidha Pvt Ltd'', obtained a govt license and a govt loan, and started a chain of PTs all over Delhi, with a board outside each of them saying 'Suvidha' (Convenience), and attendants to clean it out after use. One has to pay Rs 5 for entry. When I went to pick up my son ‘A’ from the airport some time ago, I had the misfortune to use one of them in the airport parking lot. I found that no ones goes inside and finds it more convenient to do it right next to the board which says 'Suvidha'. When I was coming out, I met a Sardarji Taxi Driver who was doing it on the sign board. I stopped and enquired, 'Don’t you want to do it inside ? It is very nice and clean' .
'Ki gal hai Sahib', he replied, 'Asi pagal honde kya ?' (What is the matter, do you think I am mad ?),  'Who is going to pay five Rupees just to piss in a room when you can do it for free here ? It says Suvidha, and doesn't it mean that I can piss right here ?'.
 Few months ago, there was an article in the HT Delhi edition. An article written with much inflated lung Indian pride, about a museum in Jaipur exclusive on toilets !!! Apparently the man who started this museum has been a student and collector of WCs for over 50 years. He had approached about 40 odd embassies in Delhi to help him find WC artefacts from foreign lands. The pride of this museum apparently is a wooden throne presented by the current French ambassador. The throne used by King Louis, with a clay chamber  pot beneath, on which the King held court during his morning constitutional, and hence the evolution of the much touted 'Constitution for the Republic''. Our esteemed political have two toilets, the upper house and the lower house,  and hence they can do a better job as bull shitters of the Indian constitution.
 India is an emerging superpower and well ahead of Vancouver, in tackling the menace of 'super shitters' (like Hitler's Waffen SS) and 'Pisim' (Piss Terrorism of Gupta-ji my neighbour). But my friend ‘IB Jee’ has found way out, he found the ‘Em Coca’ better suited to tackle the problem.  Under the Maharashtra Control Of Organised Crime Act (Em Coca), the non retired ‘IB Jees’ and the ladies in DDA park can put you away in Tee Jay Jee (Tihar Jail) no matter how many human rights candles are lit at Jantar Mantar Jee. I now wear double underwear just to ward off predators and the ladies in DDA park, and stay close to Aye Jee Jee and prefer to do it in my pyjama jee.   I have begun to think that constitutionally enshrined democratic freedom of expression is all Bakwas Jee.  Beware of Em Coca, it is like the Danda Jee of the Aye Jee Jee, not worth going to Tee jay Jee for just a Pee Job Jee.