Unforgettable - IT. SHER SINGH
Friday, August 3, 2012
Decades ago, the Reader’s Digest used to have a series of articles which appeared regularly in every monthly issue: “The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Ever Met”. Introduced to it by my Grade 7 teacher, I became addicted to it and religiously awaited it every month, lapping it up within the first few minutes of receiving the magazine.
It also became an occasional feature during our Thursday afternoons in class. The last hour was routinely set aside for essay writing. Brother Johnson would give us a topic, and we’d spend the hour writing our separate versions, to be finished later that night, to be handed in the next morning.
It became my favourite subject - after Mathematics - and the only homework I hungrily looked forward to every week. Once every few weeks, we’d be asked to write our own version of “the most unforgettable character I’ve ever met.”
Ever since, I’ve kept a mental diary of people I’ve known in my life who I have assigned to my private and personal list of those who have met the criteria that I had crystallized, in order to be termed unforgettable. It’s not a very long list because I’ve been very finicky about who I am willing to allow into this exclusive club.
Close to the very top of the list, and one I had zeroed in on in my earliest attempts at this exercise, was a man I knew then and vividly remember as just “Jagtiani”. That’s what we called him, even I; never “Uncle” or “Mr Jagtiani”, for some strange reason. Certainly, we knew of no other name he had.
I vividly remember the first time I saw him. I was six years old, hanging out in my father’s store on Fraser Road. The monsoons were in full swing; it had been pouring endlessly all day. It was late in the evening; I remember it was dark.
A figure lurked in the shadows outside, taking shelter from the rain. He stood there for a long time. I couldn’t help noticing that he was markedly different from the others standing beside him, wet and shivering.
He was in a three-piece pin-striped suit. He was wearing chappals - flip-flops - instead of shoes. He had a dishevelled look about him; his hair was mussed, his tie askew, his chin unshaven, his suit soiled and limp.
I pointed him out to my father, who found him all the more intriguing. He sent a servant out to invite him in, to have him sit down and dry himself outside.
He did. He sat in a corner, quietly. He had a newspaper rolled under his arm, which he then transferred to his lap.
The rain continued. My father’s day was coming to a close, and he was unwinding. I sat beside him.
My father shouted out to the man in the chair and asked him if he would like a cup of tea. He nodded. A servant was sent to our residence which was right behind the store then, and returned shortly with a tray: a steaming cup and saucer, and a plate of cookies.
The man wolfed them down in no time. Looked grateful but didn’t say much. Then, suddenly remarked that the tea was the best he had ever had.
“Yes,” said my father, “my wife makes great tea.”
The man suddenly turned garrulous. He went on and on and about the flavours he had discerned in the tea, and commented on all the spices he could figure out were in it.
He then waved his gratitude, and disappeared into the night.
It would’ve been a week or two later, as my father was preparing to close the store for the night, that the man appeared again. This time he waited until he could see that my father was free. Then he stepped forward, greeted my father. And then asked if he would be kind enough to offer him a cup of tea again: “That wonderful masala tea that your wife makes so well!”
Sure, said my father, and gestured to a servant. He then invited the man to come in and sit down in the small office-area he had, next to his desk. As the man stepped into the light, I saw that he looked exactly as he had when he was here last: the same clothes, the same tired, run-down look, only, the clothes were even more limp and soiled. A strap on his chappals was detached; he had to drag the foot a bit to keep the chappal from slipping off.
I could see that my father noticed all of this too, and searched his face for answers.
Waiting for the tea, they broke into a conversation.
I am Jagtiani, he said. He lived near the railway station. Was currently waiting for some papers to arrive, then he would be leaving town. His Hindi was nasal, his sentences ended oddly, always with an “a”, it seemed. Certaintly not like how I heard others speak the language.
My father did not press too much for information, sensing that the man was in some kind of trouble. As he left, my father told him he could come back any time he felt like a cup of that masala tea he liked so much. He nodded. And hurried away.
I asked my father why he spoke so funny. “He’s Sindhi,” my father said. “It’s a Sindhi accent.”
Why is he dressed so strangely, I asked. My father shook his head; he too was puzzled by what he had seen.
The next time around, it didn’t take long for Jagtiani to be back. He appeared the very next night, and every night thereafter that the store was open. I began to look forward to his visits; being summer holidays, I was allowed to stay up late a bit and hang-out with my father at the store.
Each time he appeared, he’d wait outside until he’d made sure that all the customers were gone and that my father was free. Then, he’d inch forward and call out: “A cup of your wife’s wonderful masala tea would bring warmth to my bones!”
Night after night, as Jagtiani began to feel relaxed, seeing he was genuinely welcome, he began to open up and to talk more freely. There were piece-meal revelations every night, bits of a much larger puzzle. Except, we didn’t know which pieces belonged and which had nothing to do with the main story -- or even reality itself.
I heard each and every word, and the more outlandish or improbable it was he said, the more I relished it. I would ask my father later about the inconsistencies and the strangeness of it all. It didn’t take us long for us to conclude that Jagtiani was a deeply troubled man, with skeletons in his closet -- or was it just mental illness?
He was a lawyer, he said, a barrister. Read the law in London. Had been working for a while. Did well. Made lots of money. Hit high society. Fell in love. With Chamberlain’s daughter. Chamberlain? Neville Chamberlain, he said. Who’s Neville Chamberlain? Oh, he was the British Prime Minister, he said. Apparently, things were going well, and then suddenly, it all ended.
He would stop at this juncture every time and offer no more. Get a bit agitated and then hurriedly leave. He said he was expecting a package and he’d better hurry home to see if it was there.
There was one constant in his daily visits. He always looked the same, only progressively dirtier and run down. He brought a smell with him, which would disappear one day, and then start building gradually as the days progressed. We attributed it to his infrequent baths.
The nightly sessions became longer, sometimes even hours at a time, leading late into the night. The store would close, but we would continue to sit in the office. My mother would join us, and then Jagtiani would gush endlessly over the masala in her tea and he would press here for the recipe. She was noticeably flattered and sometimes invited him home for dinner. We collectively welcomed these longer evenings.
The tales he wove became grander: of parties and court cases, of political forays and … of Neville Chamberlain. And his daughter. He was engaged to her, he would say, they were to be married, and then … he would stop. And the evening would end abruptly and he would leave.
We learnt never to press further in that direction.
It was 1956. India was young. My father was young, still struggling to establish a business. Uprooted from a distant Punjab, finding refuge in this backwater of a state (Bihar) a thousand miles away, he was new to many of the ways of a brave new world.
Jagtiani, on the other hand, introduced him to a larger canvas, painted with broader brushes, splashed with new colours, new strokes, new materials even.
I don’t know what my father saw in Jagtiani, but a bond developed between them. One, a careful, studied, balanced, rational, intelligent, simple, decent man; the other … well, we weren‘t sure. Sure, he was intelligent. Seemed to be well-read. Well-traveled. Well-educated. Or was he? Or was it all madness, figments of a deranged mind. A pauper, albeit an unusually dressed one. But how did one reconcile a three-piece pin-stripe suit, with matching tie, cuff-links, a pocket time-piece, and a pair of pince-nez to boot … with the chappals, the fact that he seemed never to get out of this set of clothes; or with his erratic behaviour, his ramblings, his strange and far-fetched stories …?
Somehow, a friendship developed between these two men who lived in world apart. He retreated to his own, lonely and isolated, mysterious and unfathomable to us, after an hour or two each evening; my father to the structured, disciplined, planned world that he inhabited with his family.
Yet, I know a bond grew between them. And, strangely, a trust. Jagtiani became a guide, a mentor, though my father never let his guard down. But he began to explore new worlds with him. Jagtiani would open doors that my father hitherto did not even know existed.
One day, my father mentioned in passing, for no particular reason, that at the end of the year, I would have to switch schools and he had to figure out where I would go.
I was in Grade 3 in Mount Carmel Convent School, which was primarily a girls’ institution. Boys were allowed till Grade 3, and then had to switch to another school.
My father wanted the best available for me and was studying the options.
What are you considering, asked Jagtiani. My father said he was still looking, still didn’t know.
Jagtiani, I remember, was outraged. He didn’t know? Did he think that having six more months before I started a new school would be enough to figure out where? Did he know that admission into the best schools was not easy, that in some you had to register your kid when you knew you were expecting one, not just six months before?
He paced back and forth and lectured my father into submission. He rattled off the list of the top schools in the country. My father had never heard of them. Good, announced Jagtiani, it’s settled. I will look after this!
In the next few weeks, mysterious packages arrived in the mail. From Doon School and Mayo College. Sherwood College and Modern School, St Columba’s …
The four of us -- my father, mother, Jagtiani and I -- pored over their contents in the evening, my parents’ riddling him with questions, Jagtiani digging through the documents for answers, and I admiring the pictures.
There was a snag. Application deadlines for all of these institutions had long expired. Not a problem, said Jagtiani. Let me fill out these applications and send them out right away, we’ll worry about the rest later.
He walked in one evening not long thereafter, so excited he couldn’t sit down. In his hurry to break the news, he had walked out barefoot, and turned up at our door with no chappals. The combination of the rest of the picture, and the dirty and bruised feet, was not one to inspire confidence in a man who had taken over charge of your eldest child’s education!
Again, I don’t know what my father saw in him, but he listened to him patiently, nevertheless, while I struggled to suppress my giggles at the spectacle of a bare-footed destitute in a three-piece suit having a serious discussion with my father.
“I know exactly what we’re going to do!” Jagtiani began. “I’ve read in the papers this morning that Sardar Karnail Singh is going to be in town. He’s our saviour!”
“Who’s Karnail Singh?” my father asked.
“You don’t know who Karnail Singh is? The Chairman of the Railway Board?“
My father shook his head. “Another Chamberlain story?” he must’ve been thinking.
“He’s an old friend of mine. We went to school together. He did engineering, I did law. He’s now one of the most influential men in the country. A phone call from him will open all doors.”
My father looked at Jagtiani’s feet and sighed.
“You sure you know him? And how’re you going to get to see him?“
“Not a problem at all. I’ll figure it out!”
He came back the next morning and asked my father to be ready that night to go see Karnail Singh. My father stared back: “I can’t go. But you can take Sher with you.”
“Sure,” said Jagtiani. “I”ll come at 7:00 tonight to pick him up and the two of us will go. We’ll get the job done, you’ll see!”
“You have an appointment with him?” asked my father.
“No, he hasn’t arrived yet. He’s due this morning. But he’ll see me, trust me. I know where his railway car will be parked for the night. So, we’ll go see him there at dinner time.”
Karnail Singh, being Charman of India’s Railway Board, apparently had a whole railway bogey of his own, in which he traveled across the country and in which he stayed when away from home. A home on wheels, Jagtiani explained. I was all agog and couldn’t wait to see a train where people actually lived.
Finally, I was going to get to visit one of Jagtiani’s many fantasy worlds.
That night, Jagtiani showed up. He had his chappals on. The strap had been tied up with a string so as to be functional again. His hair was a little less unruly, his chin was shaved. The suit was a dusted but still with no trace of a crease. Or a recent wash. The tie, the same stringy tie, but hung symmetrically.
I had been duly bathed, scrubbed and dried, oiled and polished, my hair done up neatly in a braid bundled at the back of my head. I was trussed into a knicker-body, a two-piece garment I hated with all my heart, but was given no choice. The shirt tucked into the pants, and a string of buttons horizontally laid out on the shirt at waist level conveniently slipped into matching eyes on the short-pants’ belt-line. I had my Sunday shoes on. I reeked of coconut oil from my freshly groomed hair.
“Can I borrow a five-rupee note from you, please?”
My father dug into a pocket and handed him a bill.
“Let’s go, beta,“ Jagtiani said, and took my hand in his. We hopped onto a rickshaw.
“Hardinge Park,” he said.
Continued tomorrow …
Conversation about this article
1: Harshpal Singh (India), August 03, 2012, 9:15 AM.
Not fair to take a halt at this point. Eagerly waiting for the next part.
2: Jasleen Kaur (New York, USA), August 03, 2012, 10:41 AM.
aaa-hh-hh ... Continued tomorrow! Not fair at all ... eagerly waiting ... :)
3: Neeru Kaur (Chicago, Illinois, USA), August 03, 2012, 4:08 PM.
As usual, such a well-written piece! Your words flow like the spring-time brook, gentle, rythmic and welcoming, soothing sounds to parched ears. Looking forward to everything you write ... my own little dosage of daily inspiration.