Unforgettable - IIT. SHER SINGH
Saturday, August 4, 2012
Continued from yesterday ...
A mile or so from the railway station, past the General Post Office, the road suddenly runs out of steam. The street turns dark. There no stores, no offices, no homes. Not even the usual street-side shacks or jhuggis. Even the street lighting evaporates. And so does the traffic.
Our rickshaw squeaks along the sprawling Hardinge Park which, further down, culminates in the evocative Martyrs’ Memorial, heralding the grand, colonial-era buildings of the State Legislature and Secretariat. But, as it has turned dark, there is no sign of life.
The dark of the park on the right is reflected in the pitch dark on the left. Jagtiani instructs the rickshaw-driver to pull up on the left side, where a platform a hundred feet long is the only structure in sight. A lone light reminds us that this is where VIP’s are usually received by the populace, allowing their train carriages to park here, away from the din and chaos of the Patna Junction train station.
Jagtiani pays off the rickshaw-wallah and we walk around the platform and find the train tracks. The rickshaw disappears. There’s not a soul in sight as we leave the single light bulb behind. We carefully step along the tracks, barely able to make out the spikes and the tie-plates as we manoeuvre around them.
I clasp Jagtiani’s hand tighter. Ever since we were shown the film “Jack and the Beanstalk” in school not too long ago, I haven’t been very good with the dark. Jagtiani senses it and reassures me. We hop over one of the tracks and then trudge along the crossties. Into the night.
It’s a long few minutes for me. I begin to tug back, thinking it’s not a good idea after all, when a looming shadow pierces the darkness, right in front of us. It takes on the shape of a railway carriage.
We step off the tracks and walk alongside the long car. There are a couple of lights on in the windows. A guard is standing beside the vertical stairs ascending to one of the doors.
Jagtiani asks him if “Sahib” is in. He nods and say, “He is having his dinner.”
“Go tell him I want to see him,” says Jagtiani.
“And, your good name, sir?”
“Tell him Jagtiani Sahib wants to see him.”
The guard climbs the steps, yanks the door open and steps inside.
A series of lights come on in the car. A few minutes and the guards reappears at the door. “Please come up,” he says.
Jagtiani isn’t able to help me up. The guard comes down, lifts me up. Jagtiani follows. We are led into a large room furnished with sofas and chairs … the usual paraphernalia of a “drawing room”, a living room as we know it now, only fancier. I’m awestruck by it all. Never seen a train compartment like this one!
We sit down. And wait.
In walks a Sardar. Has an under-turban on, and a night-gown. He stares at Jagtiani for a few seconds. Then bursts into laughter as they embrace each other.
He steps back and surveys Jagtiani up and down. “You’re not looking well, my friend,” says Karnail Singh.
“That’s because I haven’t been well,” says Jagtiani. He suddenly seems to remember me. “And this is my nephew, Tapishar Singh. I’ve brought him to see you.”
They sit down and a barrage of loud talk follows. They remember me and ask a servant to show me around the carriage while they chat.
The tour of this “home on wheels” remains etched in my memory. There are rooms, one after the other. A bedroom, with a real bed. A kitchen. A dining room. A bathroom, but not the cubicle you usually see in trains … a real bathroom.
When I’m brought back, they’re still talking. It goes on for ages. I nod off to sleep. Next thing I know, I’m being woken up. “Let’s go, beta. Time to get you home.”
Jagtiani sounds chipper. “It’s all taken care of,” he says and pats me comfortingly on my back. “Anything for you, Jagtiani, anything! You know that,” says Karnail Singh.
After a number of attempts at a good-bye, we finally leave. A guard carries me back along the tracks, as Jagtiani finds his way alongside us, holding the guard’s flashlight. A car pulls up at the platform, and drives us home.
All I remember after that is Jagtiani giving daily reports to my father. And lengthy discussions on the merits of each school. Any school, I’m told, but I need to select which one. I look at all the pictures … they all look wonderful.
They zero in on St Columba’s in New Delhi. Looks like all has been arranged.
One night, when my two sisters have been put to bed, and I’m alone with my parents, they ask me if I’m excited about going to a new school. I’ll have to live there, they tell me. I hear the term “boarding” for the first time. Even at night? I ask. Yes, they say.
I think about it for a while. Sounds like fun, I tell myself. And how about Baby and Sunder, I ask, will they be there. No, they say, your sisters won’t be coming with you.
That’s sounds good, I say, but to myself. The pests! I think some more.
“And you’ll come to see me everyday …?“
They’re quiet for a long time. They don’t answer.
The next day, my father and Jagtiani regroup. There’s a flurry of phone-calls. A solution is found.
Apparently St Columba’s has a branch school in Kurji, a dozen miles outside Patna. It’s the same institution, same Brothers, same order ….
One thing leads to another, and I end up in a boarding school called St Michael’s High School come January. My parents are pleased with the school … but, more importantly, Jagtiani is happy.
Having successfully re-structured my life, Jagtiani turns to my father and concentrates on him henceforth.
Not surprisingly, within a year or two, my father is out in the wee hours of the morning everyday … on the golf links.
He’s signed up for flying lessons at the Patna Flying Club, and appears in the skies overhead every Wednesday, on the dot at 10:30, doing figures-of-eight in a Tiger Moth.
He’s started charting a trip abroad, geared to exporting a whole list of products which he had never heard of before he met Jagtiani. When I come home from school on holidays, I hear mention of exotic distant lands … Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somaliland … A trip is planned.
Jagtiani also introduces my father to something called the stock market. It’s a whole new concept, almost impossible to understand, as Jagtiani labours through its intricate ins and outs.
My father can’t fathom it at all, and is wary of it. But has come to trust Jagtiani, but barely. So, he says: here’s what I’ll do. I’ll give you a thousand rupees to invest and you do whatever you want with it; I want to see what you mean.
So, Jagtiani starts buying and selling. Every now and then, things come in the mail. I remember riffling through them. Reams and reams of paper, with occasional cheques for a few rupees. True, it didn’t make any sense at all.
Your money has doubled. Gone up by 40% … 70% … 90%. Yeah? But where is the money, my father would ask, I can‘t see any. It’s in the value of the shares, Jagtiani would try to explain, you’ll see it when you sell the shares. So sell the shares, let’s see the money, my father would say. Not yet, Jagtiani would say, not yet. Let’s wait a bit more …
And so went on our lives.
Through all of this we wondered about Jagtiani himself, but he would not pull back the curtain he had drawn around himself. Where did he live, where did he eat? Did he have any money? Where did it come from? Where was it?
He wouldn’t say. Why was he so secretive? Was he hiding something? Or from something? From somebody? Was he embarrassed?
We did find out a few things. My cousin, Harbhajan, who worked at the store, was jealous of Jagtiani and all the attention he was getting from us. He didn’t like Jagtiani’s “airs” either, what with the suit and the tie and all that. So, he would stalk him during his off-hours. And came up with a few nuggets.
Jagtiani lived in a third floor room in a hotel outside the train station. New Delhi Hotel, it was called. Owned by three Sikh brothers - Partition refugees from West Punjab. They were good to him, knowing he was in dire straits. No, they too did not know the why’s and the where’s and the when’s.
Food? Harbhajan reported that Jagtiani ate at the hotel’s restaurant whenever he was hungry. And the terms were the same: he did not have to pay.
We knew that Jagtiani would go away at times. He would simply disappear for a few weeks, sometimes for months, and then suddenly appear at our door with a “Sardar ji, a cup of your wife’s masala tea …!”
No explanation would be offered.
A few times we saw that he was bloodied, having been waylaid by street urchins who saw his western dress and figured he would have some money on him. He would simply come in as usual, asking for tea, but wouldn’t offer a word of explanation for his wounds. We’d have to drag him to a dispensary to get them treated.
A couple of times he asked for a place to say. “Only for a few nights,” he would add. No explanation offered. We had a spare apartment unit close by where Harbhajan roomed as well. We would put him up there, but the two did not get along. Harbhajan could be a bully, Jagtiani a pest, and the two demeanours did not mix well.
But somehow he’d always bounce back and revert to his routine. If that is what one could call it.
And then, one day we realized that we hadn’t seen him for some time. A long time actually. Weeks, no, months, had gone by.
We made some enquiries. No one knew.
We never saw him again. Not a word as to where he was, where he’d gone, or what had happened.
That’s it. He had appeared in our lives out of thin air. And gone back, into thin air. And had left us transformed.
A dozen years later, when our family decided to move to Canada, we divided up chores amongst the adults in preparation for the departure.
One of mine was to go through our papers and tie up loose ends.
I found a stack of share certificates on a shelf. Had no idea what they were. Asked my father. He said: “Oh, I think those are the shares Jagtiani had bought with the money I had given him.”
I started looking around to see what I could do with them. There were no stock-brokers in Patna. Our family lawyer looked at them and said we’d have to go to Calcutta and see if someone at the Stock Exchange there could help us out.
I had a number of things to do in Calcutta. So, on my next trip to the metropolis, I took along the satchel of documents I had unearthed.
It didn’t take me long. I was directed to a ’dalal’ - broker - who came highly recommended. Did I want to sell them, he asked. Yes, I said, but can we do it today, because my train leaves at 10 tonight?
Come back at 3 pm, he said, and I’ll see what I can do.
I returned at three. He asked me to sign a bunch of papers and handed me a package. Proceeds, he said, from the shares; all had been sold. It was all in cash. It was 1971 - still a cash society.
The money I took back to Patna was 46 times what my father had given to Jagtiani a dozen years earlier. Before I left, I remember, the broker complimented me on the choice of shares we’d bought. If you’d kept them longer, they would do really well. Na-aa-ah, I said.
Once in Canada, my father struggled in finding a niche, Ultimately, he went into real estate, but during the intervening years, he floundered around a bit. And then remembered Jagtiani and all the tips he had given, ones that didn’t make any sense then.
My father became a stock-market investor. And for years lived off the income from it.
Not surprisingly, I too ended up in the stock-market. Not by accident, but by design. I zeroed in on it as a career choice. I wonder why. It’s a different story that I fled from it once I saw its inner-most workings.
Through the years, I have asked around, especially those from Patna, if anybody had ever heard of Jagtiani. Or was he a figment of my imagination, Neville Chamberlain and all.
Until I mentioned him one day to a close and dear friend from my university years in Patna. He now lives in Toronto.
His eyes instantly lighted up. Of course he knew Jagtiani. But he remembered him from another town where my friend, Neeti Prakash, had grown up: Sahibganj, also in the state of Bihar. Yes, he remembered the limp suit and the scraggly tie. And the chappals.
He was crazy, yes - Neeti said - but he was brilliant. Neeti’s father was a lawyer, and so was Neeti’s eldest brother. He recalled how, whenever they were immersed in lengthy or complicated court trials, they would summon Jagtiani and he would belt out legal briefs in no time. Neeti remembered all the praises they heaped on the quality of Jagtiani’s work. But didn’t know how or where or when they had first met him. Or where he had gone.
Neeti has his own bag of stories about Jagtiani. And they match mine.
But, despite all that we know about Jagtiani, it’s but the tip of the iceberg. He remains a mystery to this day.
But then, all good things are.
Conversation about this article
1: Manjit Kaur (Maryland, U.S.A.), August 04, 2012, 9:05 AM.
Wow! A great conclusion worth the wait! An incredible story of Jagtiani, like a guardian angel we all have time to time in our lives; someone who looks over us over our shoulders but we fail to recognize at the time. Only later does it make any sense why some people walk into our lives and just give unconditionally. Loved it - a great piece, Sher.
2: N. Kaur (USA), August 04, 2012, 2:54 PM.
Awww! I guess some questions remain unanswered, leaving us to our own imaginations. I'll forever wonder who this man was. But one thing's for sure ... he left his mark on many lives. What an enriching life you've had too, S. Sher Singh ji, because of Jagtiani!
3: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), August 04, 2012, 3:49 PM.
Sher ji, you have opened a Pandora's Box. Let me share a story from my archives; it shows how one can meet someone accidentally, and it changes one's whole life. His name was Fleming, a poor Scottish farmer. He heard a cry for help coming from a nearby bog. He dropped his tools and ran to the bog where, mired to his waist, was a terrified boy screaming and struggling to free himself. The farmer saved the lad from a slow and terrifying death. The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up to the Scotsman's sparse surroundings. An elegantly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy that farmer Fleming had saved. "I want to repay you," said the nobleman, for saving his son's life. "No, I can't accept payment for what I did," and waved off the offer. At the same time, the farmer's own son came to the door of the family hovel. "Is that your son?" the nobleman asked. "Yes," the farmer replied proudly. "I'll make a deal. Let me provide him with the level of education my own son will enjoy. If the lad is anything like his father, he'll no doubt grow to be a man we both will be proud of." And that he did. Farmer Flemming's son attended the very best schools and in time graduated from St. Mary's Hospital Medical School in London, and went on to become known throughout the world as the noted Sir Alexander Fleming, the discover of Penicillin. Years afterwards, the same nobleman's son who was saved from the bog was stricken with pneumonia and saved his life with penicillin. The nobleman was Lord Randolph Churchill, and his son's name? Sir Winston Churchill.
4: T. Sher Singh (Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada), August 04, 2012, 4:24 PM.
I should have added a footnote: I found out years later that the Sardar I had met in the train that night - S. Karnail Singh - was the younger brother of Dalip Singh Saund, the first Sikh and Asian member of the United States Congress.
5: Harshpal Singh (India), August 07, 2012, 6:59 PM.
Wonderful experience to read about. Indeed the story was marvelous, and equally fascinating was the incident related S. Sangat Singh.
6: Ravneet Sangha (Jalandhar, Punjab), August 08, 2012, 4:33 AM.
Loved it. Worth the wait. It is true, in this world we have such saints who spread their fragrance.