Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Bliss of Not Knowing

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A year ago, on this day, I had two events to attend. My son Anand was having the first public talk of his year's sabbatical, at IIT Delhi, about his book Jinnealogy: Time, Islam, And Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi. It's an immensely fascinating subject, and his audience was soon deeply engrossed. Anand's talk started at 3 p.m., but we both knew I couldn't attend the full session if I was to reach Ramjas College in time for Ankit Chadha's newest offering.

I remember the first time we met Ankit Chadha. It was on the 15th November, 2014, at Chounsatth Khamba, Nizamuddin, where, along with Bindhumalini, Vedanth Bharadwaj, and Ajay Tipaniya, he had given a performance of Khusrau ke Rang: A Musical Journey. It was truly magical, and so very moving. The SRE and I were both delighted when Bindhumalini introduced us to this team of very talented young performers. After that, we made it a point to attend this young Dastango's performances whenever we could. We saw him perform dastans on Sant Kabir, Rahim, Partition, The Little Prince, etc., some solo, some with a partner. We would always exchange a few words with him, either before or after the performance, sometimes both times, and it was always wonderful to have those moments with him. He was always warm and friendly, and had the gift of giving you his complete attention. On a cold winter evening we attended Dastan-e Khanabadosh at the IGNCA (December 2016), a solo narration about the nomads of India. It was, as always, scintillating. When we met Ankit before the show, and asked him what he planned to do next, he said he was going to stay in Sabarmati Asram for some months, working on a dastan on Gandhiji. So this particular dastan was truly long awaited...

Given my paranoia about punctuality and the cooperation of the traffic on that day, I managed to reach Ramjas College with a little time to spare. I was delighted to meet Anand's teacher, Professor Mukul Manglik, and exchange a few words with him. He was happy to know that Anand was in India for the year, and hoped to see him.(The world is a strangely miraculous place: Anand was the first person to tell me about Dastangoi, and thanks to him, I attended performances by Mahmood Farooqi and Danish Husain, and Ankit knew him as a friend of both of these dastangos!)

I greeted Vedanth, who is a singer and musician par excellence. Ankit and I had a brief conversation. For the first time I asked him about his family. His father wasn't keeping well, so Ankit was planning to travel less, after meeting his present commitments. That same night they were catching a train to Bhopal (or was it Indore?), and in late March were performing in Bangalore. In April he had several performances on the East coast of the USA. I told him that Anand and family were around, and he said that he hoped to meet him this year. There were many people at the venue who wanted to meet him, and soon it was time for the performance.

It was an open stage, with tall trees around. There were some traffic sounds, but they could not muffle the power of the narrative. In an interview with The Indian Express, Ankit speaks at length about Praarthanaa.

It's been a year since I saw this. I remember being deeply moved by the narrative. Ankit had interwoven many beautiful, little known stories about Gandhiji among the popularly known ones. He speaks at length of Gandhiji's teen years, his desire to commit suicide at one point, his sorrow mixed with guilt at his father's death and the death of their first child, their experiences in South Africa. Death is omnipresent in this narrative, often in the background. His account of Gandhiji's and Ba's response to the death of his secretary Mahadev Desai was heart rending. Vedanth's rendering of bhajan's both familiar and unfamiliar, was exquisite. The Kabir bhajan he sang after Ankit's extremely moving account of Ba's passing, was heartrending in its beauty:
Kar le singaar chatur albeli.
(I wish I had Vedanth's version to share with you).
When I am deeply moved by a performance, I get goosebumps. Many a time that evening, I had goosebumps. I had always had great respect for Ankit's dedication to his work and the depth of his research, as well as the brilliance of his performances. That evening, I recognised him as a truly evolved soul, 'bahut hi pahuncha hua'. I remember also a moment of fear, that he had come too close to Death for Death's comfort. I brushed that fear aside, and went to congratulate him on this absolutely scintillating, extremely moving work. As an elder, my heart was full of blessings for him, and as a seeker, I felt that I needed his blessings. For me, that day, he had become a wise sage, a guru.

Little did I know then that it was the last time I would see him alive. About two and a half months later I would meet Vedanth at his funeral...

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Ashaji: A Remarkable Life

I first heard of Ashaji from my older daughter, a little over a year ago. I was on my way home after watching an amazing, brilliant, heartwarming play. (Contempt, by Danish Shaikh). A friend of a friend of a friend of my daughter was looking for someone to write/ghostwrite his mother’s memoir. My daughter’s friend had read my book, Of This and That, and felt that I might be the person who could do this.                       
It sounded interesting, and challenging, because I had never done anything like this before. But since my older son and his family were in town for the year, I also wanted to be free to spend time with my grandchildren. However, Ashaji sounded interesting: a lady who had lead a glamorous life as an air force officer’s wife, who had worked in the hotel industry, who had divorced her husband, remarried, divorced the second husband and went back to the first, and then became deeply involved in the spiritual life, and also did a great deal of social service. She happened to be suffering from a relapse of cancer, five years after the first bout, and her son felt that she must record her story for posterity, especially for her grandsons. Her husband had passed away early in 2017, and her older son had passed away as a young man decades earlier, so she was the chief repository of the family’s older memories.
A few weeks elapsed before I heard from her son. He was based in London, but did come to India to spend time with his mother. We spoke at length over the phone, and then we met. He was trying hard to convince his mother to agree to this memoir, which was no easy task. She finally did agree to meet me at a mutually convenient time. I reached her home, which was a short car-ride away from mine. Ashaji was a petite, short-haired lady of indeterminate age. We had a very casual conversation that first day, just to establish a rapport, and Ashaji was, as always, very hospitable. She seemed to be in reasonably good health at the time, and I found it hard to accept that she was terminally ill. She didn’t really feel that her life or achievements were in any way noteworthy, but was willing to give it a shot.  (My husband was the one who knew that it wasn’t going to remain an easy situation: he could anticipate the pain of loss that I underwent several months later). In the meantime, he bought me a voice recorder to help me with my work. I would meet Ashaji twice a week, on an average. I would have a list of questions for her, on a particular aspect of her life that I wanted to know more about.  She also gave me the telephone numbers of people who knew her well, and I was able to conduct some personal interviews and some on the telephone. A pattern was emerging, and slowly she also began to believe in our project. She was very frank and forthright about her life. It was a remarkable life indeed, especially her seva journey which was marked by her dedication, generosity, managerial qualities, and her willingness to put in great efforts of her own, as well as motivating others to do so as well. After various spiritual experiences, she was now a staunch devotee of Shri Sathya Sai Baba. When she went to London for a few weeks, we remained in touch, and on her return we resumed our frequent meetings.

Her warmth and kindness invited confidences. There were days when we would simply chat together as friends. She planned to visit me at my home some day. She always insisted that her driver drop me home on the days I came by taxi. If ever a scheduled meeting couldn’t take place she would phone, most apologetically, and we would fix up another date and time. We spent hours going through stacks of photographs, trying to shortlist what seemed useful for the book. Voices acquired faces, and her family and friends all became people that I felt I knew!

And then, towards the end of October, the disease struck, hard. Her son, purely fortuitously, was in the city. Perhaps it was ordained that he was there to look after his mother at such a critical juncture. Along with all the medical arrangements, he and a friend of his also managed to put the book into the shape he desired. I managed to do a final interview with Ashaji on the 14th November, in her hospital room, and they had some copies of the book ready for her 77th birthday on the 20th November. She came home from the hospital around the 22nd. I went to visit her on the evening of the 27th, but couldn’t meet her as she had had a very bad night, and had just dosed off. On the morning of the 30th, I had a dental appointment. As I came out of the clinic, I felt an overpowering urge to go and see Ashaji. When I rang the bell, an unfamiliar person answered the door. I asked about Ashaji. She had passed away the previous evening. Her body was laid out, beautiful in eternal peace, in a refrigerated glass container. Sai Baba bhajans played softly in the background. Her son sat on the staircase. He insisted that I have a cup of tea. It seemed fitting to have one final cup of tea in Ashaji’s presence…

It now seems unreal, this intense interaction over eight brief months. But I do have pages and pages of notes, her voice on the voice recorder, and a copy of the book, a testimony to this remarkable, affectionate, courageous and generous soul. I am glad that I had the privilege of knowing her.