Remembering Jugnu: RAVINDER SINGH
As I sit to write about her, memories flood my mind.
Where do I start? How do I recount the intense joy – and pain – of having known her?
When she passed away almost forty years ago, I tried to capture my feelings in a diary entry, which I share only to show how unsuccessful I was in articulating my feelings then.
“Amala passed away on the 20th of July at about 11:15 PM. The end came at the All India Institute. Margaret called to tell me. For the first time in my life, I know what it means to lose someone whom you have loved with your whole being; it is indeed terrible.”
All I could say was that it was terrible. Perhaps I could be forgiven then, being too young to understand my feelings for her or what love meant.
But as I write this piece forty years later, I am still at a loss. I can still feel the pain but can’t express it. Perhaps such intensity cannot be contained in words. I take solace in the fact that my association with Amala was a gift from the heavens. I had never given myself so fully to another.
In retrospect, I am thankful that I could feel such intensity for another person.
We called her Joggoo, a name she got from a maid who could not say Jugnu (firefly), which was her nickname. We were just a few years out of high school when she succumbed to the grim reaper.
She had fought an autoimmune disorder with grit and defiance, drawing strength from her deep Christian faith, Although the disease kept her out of the sun and wreaked havoc with her body, she continued to live a full life, never complaining about her condition and never losing that smile – it could light up a room.
I first set eyes on her when I was in the seventh grade. She was a transfer from out-of-town and her presence in the school made quite a stir. The product of a mixed marriage - her Bengali father and English mother had met as students at Oxford in the 40’s - she had inherited the best of both worlds: good looks, brains and a flair for leadership.
There was something pristine about her.
I was much taken with her but did not have the courage to approach her. Instead, I would watch her from a distance and follow her around. As luck would have it, we found ourselves riding the same school bus. I seized on the opportunity and began “reserving” a spot for her – next to me, of course! She had little choice but to acknowledge me. I was in seventh heaven.
I distinctly remember our first date – a date, at least in my mind! It was a movie at Plaza Cinema in Delhi’s Connaught Place. None of my friends (especially my Sikh friends) believed me. In their minds, the reason was simple: why would a very popular, sought-after girl go out with a Sardar like me?
And that was not an unreasonable question. We Sardars had a reputation.
I had spent the first eleven years of my life in Singapore but my father had packed me off to Delhi to live with my grandparents - all part of the family’s plan to ground me in the culture, so to speak. Essentially, that meant learning to speak Punjabi, which was a serious concern for my father.
Delhi Public School, where I was enrolled, discouraged the use of Punjabi or Hindi – or any native language for that matter. English was the lingua franca and any transgression was frowned upon.
But defiance is an old Sikh tradition. I had hitched up with a bunch of Sikh boys, who also happened to be from affluent families. They had little interest in academics, convinced that studying should be left to others - who would ultimately revert to them for a job!
We walked around with a swagger, always looking for a challenge, always defiant and questioning any established norms. Flouting the school rule about speaking in English was embraced as a worthy cause. We spoke Punjabi, were loud and boisterous and always in trouble with the Principal. To boot, I was also involved in the very dehaati (local) activity of wrestling.
Having cultivated this image of a boisterous Sardar - to match the popular stereotype - I too, like all others, was taken by surprise that Joggoo would be willing to go out with me. I, more than anyone else, was bowled over when she agreed.
At one point, she confessed to me that some of her friends (the more refined and literary lot) were equally surprised. What, they wondered, was she doing, hanging out with an “all brawn” Sardar!” That was their way of getting back.
And being a real Sardar, I wanted to know who had made that remark. I did find out and despite her plea, confronted the individual, offering to give him a little taste of brawn if he so desired. She was not happy …
I soon became a regular to her house, often dropping in unannounced and spending the afternoon – eating, chatting and taking the occasional snooze. The family embraced me warmly, treating me like family. Her mother was particularly fond of me. She is 85 now and I still maintain contact with her.
Joggoo did not know much about Sikhs. This despite the fact that her family had close family ties with Professor Harbans Singh, the famous scholar. He had been a student of her father when he taught English at Khalsa College, Amritsar, and the families had retained their bonds.
But hanging around me, she did learn a thing or two. “Haa(n)ji,” and “Acchhaji” became part of our standard conversation. I took her to the major gurdwaras in Delhi, and then home to meet my grandparents who did not know what to make of this kurrhee (girl) with me.
I would often take her to Karim’s dhaaba (a curbside eatery) for kebabs. As I look back, I realize that was quite a foolhardy thing to do. Karim’s, you see, is located in the heart of old Delhi, the Mogul capital. It is a rather forbidding place for those unaccustomed to it: narrow winding lanes (gullies), unsavory characters blocking one’s way, and not to mention rickshaws and horse driven carts (tongas) making a beeline for one’s rear end.
To show up there with this beautiful girl was inviting trouble.
My first visit to her home was an eye-opener that changed my life forever. As I walked in, books lining the walls everywhere greeted me. The sound of a piano accompanied by a beautiful voice resonated in the background. It was her mother, Margaret, a Professor of Philosophy and an accomplished musician.
I had never seen a home with so many books. It filled me with awe and instilled in me a desire to become “learned,” to overcome the “all brawn” image. Amala became my mentor and guide in this process. And I, as an eager student, trying to impress.
She has been gone almost forty years, but I find that I am still trying to impress her, never sure if I have met with her approval. And I continue to read and write - secretly seeking that nod, the assurance that she thinks I am now educated.
Despite my need for her approval, and the fact that the learning in her home awed me, I was never intimidated – something that she noticed. I assured her that we Sikhs were supremely self-assured, a gift of Guru Gobind Singh.
My relationship with Joggoo defies conventional labels. It was wonderfully magical and has left an indelible mark on my life. Through it all, I never had the courage to say, “I love you,” even though it must have been abundantly clear to her.
I never could figure out where I stood with her. Were her feelings more than platonic? I will never know. That she acknowledged me would have been more than I asked for, but God bless her, she treated me with the utmost tenderness, giving me love and affection - and bear hugs whose warmth I still feel.
As I finish writing this, I feel her presence over my shoulder, nodding her head in approval!
October 1, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: Jasmeet Kaur (Chandigarh, Punjab), October 01, 2012, 11:21 AM.
Loved your story. Sad and touching, moving and uplifting too ... Thanks for sharing it. "Better to have loved and lost, than ..."
2: Harkrishan Singh (Flordia, USA ), October 01, 2012, 11:24 AM.
Beautiful story. Has wakened some of my own dormant memories. I hope these stirrings will give me strength to write my own piece. Hope to, soon. Thanks for this new series. Good luck.
3: Surjit Singh (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), October 01, 2012, 3:15 PM.
Beautiful story. Thank you.
4: Navi Singh Deol (Detroit, Michigan, USA), October 01, 2012, 11:58 PM.
Love this story. I wish the author told us more about the characters.
5: Kartar Singh Bhalla (New Delhi, India), December 27, 2012, 12:58 AM.
The story is truly touching and tender. The language is admirable.