(Gopal Gundo Gokhale was born in Belgaum on June 23, 1911 and died in Talegaon on March 20, 1967. He was a journalist for the larger part of his working life, his longest stints being with the Times of India, first as Assistant Editor and later as Special Correspondent.)
I am keenly aware of the need to investigate the whys and wherefores of a memoir thoroughly before plunging into one. That you believe your father to have been an excellent human being who had lived a life more unusual than others, simply does not make the cut; nor the fact that he was thought of as a colourful character by those who were fond of him and as odd, even eccentric, by those who were not.
As I was mulling over the idea of writing about him, I came across Neil Gezlinger's review of four memoirs in the New York Times Book Review that sounded very much like a warning. "In these days of oversharing," he observed, "if you're planning to browse the "memoir" listings on Amazon, make sure you're in a comfortable chair, because that search term produces about 40,000 hits, or 60,000, or 160,000, depending on how you execute it. Memoirs have been disgorged by virtually any-one who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight. By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an under-privileged child or been an under-privileged child. By anyone who was raised in the '60s, '70s or '80s, not to mention the '50s, '40s or '30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job."
Would a memoir about my father belong somewhere in this scathingly ironic list of reasons for writing one, I asked myself. Fortunately the answer was no. I had no suffering or fatal disease to report, nor an outstandingly noble deed that made an ordinary life extraordinary. My father had not been raised in a fashionable age, nor had he "held a job". Indeed, his not having held one but ten jobs, was what made his story somewhat unusual. Moreover, he had never been guilty of over-sharing. In fact, he had shared so little that it made the ground beneath a prospective memoirist's feet positively crumbly. In the process of eliminating the reasons for writing a memoir that Gezlinger had attacked with a combination of sledge-hammer and hacksaw, I crystallised my own.
If I was contemplating a memoir of my father at all, it was because he had been an active participant in our society's transition from a colonial to a post-colonial age. As a journalist with the Times of India, headquartered then in Bombay, he had been a keen observer of and passionate commentator on the most important events of the time that were likely to shape the future of this country and its systems of governance. Viewed thus, Gopal Gundo Gokhale was a representative dot in a larger picture that framed a historical moment.
Three things occurred one after the other then that pushed me into making a start. One was an unexpected call from a Marathi literary critic who had been intrigued enough by references to Father in the leading literary journals of the time to want to write about him; the second was my realisation on June 23, 2011, that Father would have been 100 that day had he not died so suddenly at the age of 56; the third was Jerry Pinto's idea that people who had lived in the interstices of big events should be as much written about as celebrities. This was in 2012. I was 72. I had already outlived Father by 25 years. If I was to write about him at all, it could not be later than this.
But what was I to do about my fading memory which had already devoured much detail, leaving me with the mere shapes of events. Most of Father's friends, colleagues and relatives, who could have cleared the shadows, had passed on. The voices of my eldest uncle Dada, his eldest son Babanbhau, Babanbhau's wife Sharayu Vahini, Father's colleagues from the Times, Mahendra Desai, M V Mathew, B. G. Verghese and his friends from academia, film and literature, M. V Rajadhyaksha. G. R Kamat, P. A. Chitre, people with whom I could have revisited his life, had long been stilled. I was left lamenting like The Wanderer, although less poetically and even less dramatically, "Where is the horse now? Where is the rider? Where is the gold-giver? Where is the seat at the gathering? Where now are the feasts in the halls?"
However, all was not lost. There was my sister Nirmal next door, my cousin Bapubhau in the US of A and Vijaya Mulay (Viju Mami to us) in Delhi. All endowed with phenomenal memories, they were more than willing to help. Here then is my father as I and others remember him.
March 13, 2017
My grandfather, Gundo Narayan Gokhale and his wife Anandi (nee Sathe), produced five sons. The eldest, Anant (Dadasaheb), was 20 years older than Father. He became the virtual head of the family when Gundo Narayan lost his job. Grandfather had started his working life as an apprentice clerk without pay in the police department. He moved later to the revenue department of the local district office. He was around 45 or 50 when several stamp papers were stolen from the department. "Instead of looking for the thief," says Bapubhau, "the British government fined all five people in the department who had access to the safe where the stamp papers were kept." Grandfather was one of them and had to pay a fine of some ten or 15 thousand rupees. He did not have that kind of money; so the government commuted half his pension. Dadasaheb who was working for the government distillery in Nashik, rushed to Belgaum to pay the other half, preventing grandfather from being jailed.
After Dadasaheb came Narayan. He was training to be a doctor when he died in the great influenza epidemic of 1918. The third son, Dattatreya (Tatyasaheb), 13 years older than Father, worked for Associated Cement Companies as their trouble-shooter. The fourth, Hari, worked for the Railways. The fifth and last, my father Gopal, came nine years after Hari. Although all of Father's older brothers must be assumed to have left Belgaum for work during his secondary school years, one nephew, Babanbhau, the eldest of Dadasaheb's six children, appears to have spent a few years there. Only eight years younger than Father, he grew to be very close to him. Not so Bapubhau, Tatyasaheb's eldest son, supplier of the above information. He confesses not to have cared for Gopu Kaka. The reason may be surmised from the story that follows of Father's "rebellion".
Although Father was a very open man and talked to us about all kinds of things, he never spoke about his childhood or his school and college years. We heard shreds of stories from others. His cousin Shanta (Shanta attya to us), told us how grandfather would kick Father out of bed at five every morning for school. That is hardly a story. But the one Babanbhau told Nirmal is. When Father was in the tenth standard at Sardar High School, he realised that his history paper had been incorrectly marked. He demanded to know from his teacher where he had lost the missing marks. The teacher's reply was not convincing. So he told his father he wanted to change his school. The school principal got wind of it. Loathe to let a bright student slip through his fingers, he hurried over to the Gokhale home and persuaded Father not to leave, promising to have the offending history paper rechecked. The rechecking revealed the mistake in the marking. His rightful marks restored, Father stayed on to do his matriculation from Sardar High School. This must have been in 1926-27. The Lingaraj College in Belgaum was only started in 1933. Before that the college to go to for Belgaum's young men and women was Karnatak College in Dharwad, just under 80 km away.
Dharwad must have been like a breath of fresh air for Father, coming from the rather limited life in a conservative, not too well off Chitpavan Brahmin family in Belgaum. Two stories are told about how Dharwad missed the bus to even more greatness than it achieved as a centre of education and culture. Dr Manmohan Tavangeri, who has lived most of his 82 years there, says that when the British wished to move their capital from Calcutta, Dharwad was one of the towns they had considered but finally dropped in favour of Delhi. Dharwad had also been chosen as the headquarters for the Madras and Southern Railways. Vast amounts of land were acquired, impressive buildings built; but finally Secunderabad was chosen as the headquarters.
With a number of spacious, solidly built empty buildings now available, a series of educational institutions were set up in them. One of them was taken over in 1920 for Karnatak College which had been functioning from another railways building from 1917. Perched on top of one of Dharwad's seven hills and built as the main office of the railway headquarters, it is a long palatial structure of ground floor and one storey, painted rust with local laterite stone powder. An ornate wrought iron grill surrounds the terrace above the portico through which you enter the building. An iron staircase with decorative wrought iron banisters take you to the lecture halls on the first floor, fronted by a wide breezy corridor. Two graceful wrought iron spiral staircases lead to the galleries and terrace above. There is a badminton court somewhere inside and vast open spaces outside with tennis courts and long walks. If there was a place for young minds and bodies to grow and blossom, it was this.
Dr Amrut Yardi who heads the Marathi department, showed me the Principal's chamber (yes, it is still called that). A wooden board hangs here bearing the names of all the old principals. And there he is, Father's principal, Mr A C Farron. The seminar hall across the corridor is named after him because he was the longest serving principal from 1930-45. The long seminar room was once the library where Father must have pored over Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes; possibly Karl Marx and Charles Darwin; and certainly Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. Karnatak College was, after all, a leading liberal arts college, attached in Father's time to Bombay University. Karnatak University was established years later in 1949 by which time Father was into his fourth or fifth job.
With his mental horizon expanding at college, Father began to question some of the practices and beliefs he had been brought up with. One of the first things he dismissed as being socially regressive was the caste system. He could not register his protest by changing his name, a give-away marker of his caste. But he could change other markers. Like his dhoti, his shaved head and the tuft that hung from the back of it. He took to wearing pajamas instead, grew his hair and refused to attend thread ceremonies because they were the prerogative of the three upper castes.
The family had begun to have grave misgivings about him; but being the youngest of five, he was probably given a longer rope than his older brothers would have got. Else pajamas and a full head of hair should have been anathema to them, being symbolic of western ways overriding our cherished culture, customs and traditions. There may have been another reason for their indulgence. It is possible that they did not interpret Father's sartorial choices for what they were –a rejection of caste, the very foundation of Hinduism. Had they guessed at the truth, they would have found it impossible to forgive him for the transgression. Those were times when reformists were running riot, challenging and overturning venerated brahminical values which included barring women from education and child widows from remarrying; and seeing no wrong in pre-pubescent daughters of poor fathers being married off to rich old men with one foot in the grave. Yet the family only glowered and endured.
However, the time to act came when it was revealed that Father had not only gone astray sartorially and sprouted hair, but also sprouted opinions to match. I will now try to stitch together scraps of information that came our way from different sources in order to create a coherent story. This is the scene as I see it. Father is in Belgaum for his vacation. The family has sat down to lunch. This is the time when family problems may be aired and resolved, the more acrimoniously the better. Halfway through the meal, Tatyasaheb whips out a newspaper cutting and passes it around for his brothers and father to see. It is a letter to the editor of a newspaper, written by Gopal Gundo Gokhale, supporting an article that has appeared in the paper earlier holding that the only way India can become a strong and healthy society is if inter-caste marriages are encouraged.
"If young Gopal supports inter-caste marriage today," thunders Tatyasaheb, "he might even bring home some low-caste woman as his bride tomorrow." Then, going metaphorical, he declares (it was my grandmother who remembered the exact words), "One rotten mango in a basket will soon infect the others unless it is cast out instantly." Father is the rotten mango, and out he goes. He is not even allowed to finish his lunch. Or perhaps, being stubborn, he decides not to finish it, rises from his place and walks out into the unknown, only allowing himself time to pack his bags.
Disowning children who do not follow caste and community customs has been and continues to be common practice. Decades after Father was thrown out of his house, Dadasaheb disowned his only daughter for marrying a Muslim with whom she had fallen in love on the badminton court.
The family chronicle, never too reliable, falls silent at this point. Neither Shanta attya nor Babanbhau, were able to throw light on what happened after Father walked out. What we do know, however, is that Dadasaheb, later honoured by the British government with the title of Raobahadur, contributed to Father's board, lodge and fees during his post-graduation years at Fergusson College, Pune. But the extent to which he could do so, did not cover two meals a day. His college friend, the late Madhavrao Ganpule of Parshuram Pottery Works, Wankaner, once mentioned that Father went through college on one meal a day.
The mists of half knowledge part slightly when Father finishes his post-graduate studies and gets his first job. Babanbhau's younger brother Vishnu Anant Gokhale (Balbhau to us), long-time resident of the west coast of the U. S of A, recalls that Father's first job was with the Security Printing Press in Nashik. He remembers clearly, or he did before he was struck by Alzheimer's, that he would go to Father's room in the printing press campus every night to sleep so he would have company. The job had undoubtedly come to Father on Dadasaheb's recommendation. Had Father craved job security, this would have been the perfect placement for him. Here he could have had what every college-educated youth in those days aspired to-- a government job where you went in at one end and came out at the other, 40 years older, grey and creaking, assured of a pension and a retirement gift, generally a wall clock, as acknowledgement of loyal services rendered. A commonly used phrase that young men's fathers used to persuade influential men to give their wards a job was, "Hyala jara chiktawoon ghya." (Please glue him in.) But security, government quarters and a pension at 55 was evidently not how Father pictured his future. His notorious letter to the editor in support of inter-caste marriages was an early indication of his penchant for swimming against the current. The araldite of the government job failed to hold him. Within a year he had unglued himself from the Security Printing Press and made his way to Patna.
Here documents more reliable than the family chronicle take over the job of continuing Father's story. I have before me a brief bio-data written when Father was forty-four and applying for a job once again. I say once again because, in a professional career spanning 31 years from 1933 to 1964, he changed jobs nine times. This bio-data was tucked away amongst a sheaf of testimonials and letters in an ancient tan leather briefcase with a zip that still runs, by my mother, The Great Preserver (hereinafter referred to as TGP) of the written word -- her husband's, her own and occasionally mine. There is another bulkier briefcase full of newspaper cuttings similarly preserved, which provide concrete evidence of how Father's career progressed after his brief stint in Nashik.
The bio-data does not give Father's birth date. But it mentions his age at the time of the application as forty-four. That makes the year of application 1955 and the job he was applying for, as we shall see later, the one at the Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company (TELCO). The bio-data confirms that Father did his Masters in Economics and Sociology from Bombay University in 1933, passing in the second class. It also tells us that he worked with various newspapers in Patna from 1934 to 1941. But it overlooks a minor stint he did with the Allahabad newspaper The Leader. We know about it from a reference letter written by Mr Chintamani, chief editor of the paper, on a palm-size yellowed letterhead dated October 19, 1934. It says, "Mr G G Gokhale was sent to The Leader office with a strong recommendation by Mr S. B. Tambe, who was for some time acting Governor of the Central Provinces. He is a highly educated young man. He has been working for about a month as an apprentice in The Leader office. I understand that he is applying for the position of a junior sub-editor on the staff of some other English daily newspaper. I wish him success in his effort."
Father did succeed in his effort. In the course of the next eight years he worked as sub-editor, news editor, leader writer and correspondent for The Indian Nation, The Bombay Chronicle, The Statesman and The Searchlight, respectively. The last paper was founded and published by the first President of Independent India, Dr Rajendra Prasad. TGP's briefcase of cuttings has some samples of Father's writings from those early days. In the July 14, 1935 edition of The Bombay Chronicle, he writes against the back to nature movement that had caught the public imagination at the time. His nom de plume, Iconoclast, tells us what his approach to journalism was; and his no-nonsense, call-a-spade-a-spade style of writing bears it out.
"Back to the village is the cry of cowards, of defeated men. Ignorant as they are, they mistake the branch for the root, the symptom for the disease, the symbol for the reality. They hate the machine, forgetting that it is because of the machine that they make themselves public [one word erased]. Our disease is not the machine but the social system in which it works. We must study that system, we must find out those defects in it which lead to the prostitution of the machine for the swelling of the few and the death of millions. The wheel of life must be pushed forward, not backward."
In The Searchlight he wrote about the problems of transport during the war years, of the fifth column in Britain which had to be identified and uprooted forthwith, of the injustice of news supply which put India at a severe disadvantage because it received foreign news only through a single monopolistic agency. For The Statesman he wrote about the slowness of India's judicial system -- a state of affairs that has not changed even today: "It is of course widely known that the problem can be solved only in two ways which have to be adopted concurrently: one, simplification and rationalisation of laws and legal procedures, and two, structural changes in judicial administration."
One of the enduring images I have of Father is his restless pacing up and down the verandah of our Mumbai flat, brooding over public issues that he could only write about but never put right. This frustration was at least partly responsible for driving him away from journalism to poultry farming in Talegaon, when he still had a full year to go before retirement. But about that, later.
I must backtrack here to bring Mother, Indira Gopal Gokhale (nee Yamuna Narayan Behere) into the picture; because without her, Father would have been, in the words of one of his close friends, "a wild horse without reins." Mother was a combination of toughness and tenderness. She knew how to apply the reins without letting Father think she was restraining his desire to gallop.
Unlike Father, Mother was a story-teller (and a story writer and versifier too). Consequently, we have a fuller picture of her life. We know about the tiger cub her rice-mill manufacturing Gandhian father once brought home from the jungle. It died of pneumonia after a servant decided to soap and bathe it to make it spanking clean. Meanwhile it had acquired a taste for Alphonso mangoes. We also know how Mother jumped into the well in the courtyard of her Dahanu home to teach herself swimming while her uncles looked on in disapproval mixed with awe. She drew a word picture for us of how she and her younger brother ran after their mother's bier after she died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. Mother was five and her brother Ghanashyam (Anna) only two-and-a-half. We know how life changed for the motherless girl in the great big Behere joint family when her father remarried and her half-siblings started to arrive, one a year. She was taken out of school in fifth grade to look after them. But her native intelligence and efficiency were such that she became her father's right hand in business, keeping his accounts and pacifying employees when he lost his temper with them. Without a mother and with a father whom she loved dearly but who would rather not lose her because she was so useful, she appeared to be headed for spinsterhood.
When she turned 24, a very advanced age to be unmarried in those days, she decided it was time to take her life into her own hands. She began consulting advertisements in the matrimonial columns of magazines and fell upon one inserted by a Gopal Gundo Gokhale, M. A. of medium height, wheat complexion and good prospects in journalism, who was looking for a suitable bride. Mother was dark and thin and had studied only up to the fifth grade. But this was a chance she decided to take. She responded to the ad, telling the said Gopal Gundo Gokhale that in education she was but a glow-worm to his sun, but perhaps her other qualities might compensate for this inadequacy. Her spunk must have won Father's admiration. Photos were probably exchanged. There is one of Father's which I have under the glass of my work-table which shows a serious young man with a strong nose, full lips and cleft chin, looking at the world with a direct gaze through round, black-framed glasses. He is dressed in a cream sherwani, not too well cut, and a white cap. The formal pose suggests that this might very well have been the photograph that he sent to Mother. If this was her first glimpse of Father, it seems probable that his direct gaze encouraged her to be forthright with him. Her second letter to him said that she was prepared to treat their marriage as a case of "gajarachi pungi-- vajli tar vajli nahitar todun khalli". Literally translated this means, "If the carrot pipe plays, well and good; if not it can be snapped and eaten." This was 1937. The letter writer was a young woman who had studied till the fifth grade. And she was proposing that if their marriage failed, they could split. Gopal Gundo with his progressive opinions, must have been fascinated. A formal "seeing" ceremony was arranged at Dadasaheb's place in Nashik which Balbhau remembers vividly. On March 18, 1938, Yamuna Narayan Behere married Gopal Gundo Gokhale in a civil ceremony in Dahanu. Mother's father did not believe in Vedic marriage rituals nor did Father. All Mother's siblings except one were to have civil marriages. The exception, Naloo maushi, had a Vedic marriage because the conservative family she was married into wished it so. The Gokhale family, which had kept their distance from Father till then and had thereby lost their right to interfere with his decisions, were present but did not participate in the wedding as families are wont to do. No gold was exchanged. Father did not believe in gold, not then, not later. I peer closely at the photographs he took of Mother in Patna and see no sign of bridal ornaments anywhere on her body. She must have worn a mangalsutra, but it can't have been of the long, ostentatious variety that dangles prominently over the chest, ensuring that nobody thinks the woman is that ungodly thing, single. Father changed Mother's name to Indira at her request. Their carrot pipe played harmoniously for 29 years. On March 20, 1967, it suddenly stopped. Father had died of a massive heart attack.
When Mother set up home in Patna, she kept her masalas in cigarette tins. She often said that empty cigarette tins were the only gain there was from Father's smoking. Later in life when the couple could afford a proper masala container, she would suggest to him by devious and direct ways that smoking was not what the doctor ordered for the heart. His answer was, "Look at Churchill, forever chewing on a cigar but still alive and kicking." To which she would retort, "Are you sure you have Churchill's heart?" It wasn't as though he didn't try to kick the habit. But the alternatives he chose -- paan and snuff -- were messier and did not allow the continuous fidgeting that made smoking psychologically and physically so satisfying. Lying on his hospital bed after his heart attack, Father promised Mother he would give up smoking if he survived.
My parents' life in Patna was mostly a mystery till I realised there was one person who could cast light on it. Vijaya Mulay (Viju Mami to us), who arrived in Patna as a young bride, went to Leeds University to do her Masters in Education, returned to India to become a documentary filmmaker, film historian, writer, educationist and researcher. At the age of seventy-eight she decided to inquire into the images of India in international films of the 20th century. At the end of 12 years of travel and labour, she produced a 554 page tome titled, From Rajahs and Yogis to Gandhi and Beyond. She is 95 years today.
I emailed her asking her if she had any memories of my parents' life in Patna which she could share with me. What I got in response was a carefully composed essay. I reproduce it here in full, not only because it paints a vivid picture of Father as a young man, but also because it reflects the times in which my parents and the Mulays lived.
I met Gopalrao Gokhale first when I went to Patna as a young bride in 1940. He was then working in a newspaper called Searchlight, the only nationalist English language newspaper in Patna, inspired by Dr. Rajendra Prasad. My husband, Kashinath, whom friends and relatives called Bapu, went to live with Gopalrao and his wife. Bapu had started working as the representative of Cipla for Bihar. He had to contact doctors and introduce Cipla products to them. He had to travel frequently all over Bihar. At that time, there were only four or five Marathi families in Patna and at a nearby place called Phulwari Sharif. Besides the Marathi connection, there was also a Karnataka connection between Gopalrao and Bapu. Bapu was raised in Dharwad where his father was teaching physics at the Karnatak College (a government college) and he spoke Kannada fluently. Gopalrao came from Belgaum and he too knew Kannada. The bonding, therefore, was immediate and it was inevitable that Bapu would stay with them.
Now that he had a firm job, Bapu wanted to get married but he did not want his parents to arrange the match. Gopalrao and Indutai suggested placing an advertisement for 'a bride wanted' in the Stree magazine, published in Maharashtra. They pointed out that Gopalrao had also found a bride through such an ad, and their marriage was a happy one.
Duly an advertisement was placed specifying that the bride would have to live away from Maharashtra; some replies came. One such reply was from my widowed mother, Saraswatibai Ranade, known to one and all as Mai. In that letter, she stated that her daughter would be considered very fair even amongst Chitpavan Brahmins; she seemed to be quite good in her studies as she had stood first or second in class over the years, scoring marks even higher than the boys in her class. She mentioned that I had light coloured eyes but had a nakta naak (flat nose). Despite that I was not bad looking. She also mentioned that she would not give any dowry.
Indutai, who looked through all this marriage mail, started laughing at this letter. She then told Bapu that this was the girl for him and that he should go to Mumbai to meet her and her family. Bapu came to see me in Thane without telling his family, who would have disapproved of such a match. We met and went out in the evening a couple of times. This included a trip to the cinema. We saw Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Bapu was a gentle and pleasant soul and he was handsome. Our modest wedding took place in Mumbai and I went to Patna to join Bapu soon after. This was my very first trip outside Maharashtra. It was exposure to a different language and a different culture. Women were not visible outside the home in Patna of the 1940's. Being welcomed by the Gokhales was very reassuring and comforting.
We had a large room and an enclosed verandah in the Gokhale house on Exhibition Road. And little Shanta, the young daughter of Indutai and Gopalrao was a bundle of joy for all of us. We ate together and Indutai and I took turns at cooking on alternate weeks. So I had lots of free time to indulge in my favourite past-time, namely, reading. Gopalrao had a large collection of books. And I, who was addicted to reading, enjoyed reading his collection. On his advice I became a member of the Sinha library.
The forties was a turbulent time; the Second World War was on. The popular governments that had been elected under the 1937 India Act were abolished with a single stroke of the viceroy's pen. Overnight popular leaders like Nehru, Patel and many others were put in jail. The British were retreating from the Eastern front quite rapidly. The Government tried to assure Indians that India would be protected from the Japanese onslaught but nobody believed it. A popular limerick of that time made fun of the news that was dished out at 9.30 p.m. on BBC every night. It went something like this
They cook the news at G.H.Q. (General Headquarters)
And add a few things to it
Then they keep it high, at M.O.I. (Ministry of Information)
And serve it through the B.B.C. (British Broadcasting Corporation).
Working at a newspaper office, getting daily dispatches on what was happening in the country, gave Gopalrao access to far more information than ordinary mortals like us. We did not have access in respect of the war and the underground movement for swaraj that was gathering strength in India. While the Congress cadres were put in jail, the underground, mostly consisting of socialists, planned some actions. We got to hear about these inside stories from Gopalrao. Every night over dinner we would listen to him spellbound, asking questions about political developments. Living with the Gokhales opened our eyes to a whole different world.
What amazed me most about Gopalrao was the brilliance of his memory. At one point of time, I was asked to participate in the dramatised reading of the 4th act of Kalidas's Shakuntalam at the Patna All India Radio (AIR) station. When I returned home, Gopalrao, who was drinking his tea on the verandah, called out "And how was the dhobighat?"
I was puzzled. "What dhobighat?" I asked. "I had gone to AIR to participate in the enactment of Shakuntalam." "I know, I know; Indu told me. But when a Bihari reads sage Kanva's lines, I also know that he is going to say them in his own way. So Kanva's advice to Shakuntala's friends, Priyamvada and Anasuya to calm down an emotional Shakuntala (stree-kartavya) is going to come out as 'eestri-kartavya'. That is ironing clothes, which is what a dhobi does." Gopalrao had done Sanskrit only up to the high school stage but he knew the exact dialogue of the sage Kanva. I found that absolutely extraordinary that he remembered the verses from Shakuntalam.
Gopalrao was a fun loving person and so was my husband. The stretch of several acres, on which our house was situated, was part of the old estate of the Maharaja of Dumrao, called 'The Retreat'. It had been acquired later by a Bengali gentleman by the name of Sudhababu Bhattacharya. There was an open place in front of our house; the Maharaja had installed a statue of a cavalier there. We used to play a modest game of tenniquoit there. After the game was over, one of Gopalrao's and Bapu's pastimes was to throw the ring and ensure that it landed on the upright hand of the statue. It used to be fun to watch these two grown-up men, playing like two young boys, thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Gopalrao was not very happy working for Searchlight. So when he was offered a job at The Times of India in Mumbai, the family moved there and we were very sad to see them go. We had spent barely eight months in their company but they had opened their home to us. Our interactions with them widened my horizons and made my life as a new bride in Patna a pleasant one. I am very grateful for what was shared with us by this wonderful couple.
In November 1941 Father was appointed "Journalist" in the Bombay Government's Directorate of Information. His move to Bombay as it was called then and for 54 years later, must have been pretty significant. A letter dated November 24, 1941, from a friend of his in Reuters, Patna, suggests so. The letter writer has signed off with such a flourish that combined with the faded ink, his identity has become indecipherable. Addressing Father as "Dear Swollen Head", he writes, "Congratulations with a big capital C and a kick in the pants for condescending to accept the Bombay Government's offer. I hope they realise the great honour you have conferred on them. I gave a round of rings on the telephone and by evening the news has become the talk of the town." The rest of the letter is about some bottle of whisky that Father seemed to have promised him. Father himself was a teetotaller but had no problem with friends who tippled. It was not only strange, but outrageous for a good, middle-class Brahmin, not to curl up his lip in disdain at such a flagrantly practised vice. After all, drinking alcohol was the worst of the five deadly sins that could morally ruin a man, the other four being eating paan, supari, tobacco and drinking tea. Indeed, the alcohol habit was held to be so decadent, that respectable Marathi people would not even soil their tongues by pronouncing its name. They referred to it instead by raising an upturned thumb to the mouth. In the same way as Father's mother referred to eggs euphemistically but rather irrationally, as pandhra batata (white potato).
After the whisky interlude, the Reuters friend has this blessing to offer Father, "Now that you have got a good job, you are sure to succeed in producing a son." It is a bit of a non-sequitur but well-meant I suppose, since it was and continues to be the duty of all good men and women in India to produce sons. However, I was already a year and three months old at the time of the move to Bombay, and Nirmal was scheduled to put in her appearance in March the following year. After that there was going to be no breeding in the Gokhale home. There was no question of "trying for a son". Two of Father's college friends had tried for sons. One had succeeded after eight daughters; the other had stopped trying after five. My parents, like other progressive couples of the time, believed in limiting their family to two children, regardless of sex. Bharat Ratna Dhondo Keshav Karve's eldest son Raghunath, a professor of mathematics at Wilson College, Mumbai, had started lecturing publicly on the benefits of family planning, population control, and women's right to experience sexual pleasure. This was unacceptable to the conservative Christian administrators of the college, who asked him to resign. He did so immediately, and set up the first birth control clinic in India. In the same year, 1921, London too saw the opening of its first birth control clinic. It was under the influence of Karve's ideas that my parents stopped producing children after they had had Nirmal and me. Did Father long for a son? Only on the very rare occasions when he missed having somebody to pass on his colourful (okay, abusive) vocabulary to. He cussed with gusto when he lost his temper with the conviction that, in so doing, he was aligning himself culturally with the common man. Other than these times, he swore that two daughters were the best combination anybody could have, followed by a daughter and son, and then two sons.
At the time when Father was appointed "Journalist" in the Bombay Government's Directorate of Information, Bombay Presidency was under Governor's rule. It had become a regular province in 1935, acquiring greater autonomy vis a vis the central government. The Indian National Congress had won the 1937 elections in Bombay and B. G. Kher had been appointed Prime Minister (as Chief Ministers were called then). However, when World War II broke out, all Congress ministries in the British Indian provinces resigned en masse and Bombay Presidency came under the governor's rule.
In 1943, when rationing was introduced, Father was seconded to the Food and Civil Supplies Department as Public Relations Officer. His work in the department came in for high praise in the Press. A "Current Topic" in The Times of India of August 11, 1945 said, "Readers will probably have noticed that any letter of complaint which we publish is inevitably followed by another letter from Mr Gokhale, either explaining the position or offering to investigate if further details are provided. That is how a Public Relations Officer should work and the Bombay rationing authorities are indeed fortunate in possessing so energetic an individual. Indeed many of the letters addressed to The Times of India might be much more suitably sent direct to his mailbag."
When the war ended, the Congress re-entered politics, won the 1946 election and Kher was re-elected Prime Minister. An eminent lawyer, a Sanskrit scholar, and an accomplished orator, Kher was often described as sajjan -- the perfect gentleman.
In April 1946, with Kher's return to Prime Ministership, Father was appointed Director of Information in the Bombay Presidency. It turned out to be an unhappy time for both. Kher repeatedly complained of not being fully satisfied with Father's work, without saying precisely why. Father, never one to keep unpleasantness hanging in the air unaddressed, finally wrote a six-page explanatory note to Kher of which TGP has kept a copy. In this note written on July 4, 1946, barely three months after his appointment as Director, Father took on board and answered complaints about him that the Home Minister, Morarji Desai, appeared to have been making to Kher. In the note, he detailed the work he had done and the communication strategies he had planned which he would implement as soon as the government gave him the minimal infrastructure and manpower that he had asked for, both of which were, at that moment, lacking. The note also made it clear that certain ministries were wanting in acknowledgment and support of the work he was doing, which made it difficult for him to function. "The Director of Publicity is a publicity expert and should be treated with such confidence, trust and consideration as is given to any other expert in his field of work." The note also made a reference to the nature of work to be expected of him. He stated that, while the Director of Publicity was to be held responsible if he failed to clear public misunderstanding about government schemes and actions, he "should be expected to confine his publicity to facts and measures actually taken." What he left unsaid was that the Director of Publicity should not be expected to create the impression that measures that were still only at the planning stage, had already been implemented.
Referring to a suggestion Kher had made in a meeting on July 1, that Father should travel around the country to see how the Publicity departments of other provinces functioned in order to build a model department in Bombay, the note says, with some acerbity, "May I in this connection point out with legitimate pride that the Public Relations Office (Rationing) organised by me, has been a model to other provinces whose representatives have come down to Bombay to see what we do and how we do it?"
The conflict between unreal governmental goals and Father's refusal to submit to expectations of unethical professional practices from him, could only lead to one conclusion. In August 1946, a month after he had submitted his note, Father resigned from his post. The Marathi Press stood up as one to express shock at the turn of events and to demand an explanation from the Government. A long article questioned how two sajjans had not found a way to work together when the efficiency, honesty and integrity of one of them, Mr Gokhale, was beyond doubt. The writer of the article went on to ask if the Congress government intended to follow in the footsteps of the erstwhile Governor in expecting its publicity department to send out press notes about official tea parties.
One of the responses to this article virtually dripped acid. Questioning the article writer's naïve assumption that the Congress government's expectations from the publicity department were or should be different from the British governor's, the letter writer said, "The writer of the article demands an explanation from Shri Balasaheb Kher. But what need is there for explanations when everything is as clear as the sun. There can be no two opinions about Shri Gokhale's appropriateness for the post of Director of Information. However, it is wrong to assume that the present government would not expect him to organise press publicity for the tea party that the Governor gave to Shri Balasaheb Kher and his cabinet colleagues in Pune. Who will claim that Shri Gokhale has the ability to do this kind of work? Similarly, who will claim that Shri Gokhale is dishonest or shameless enough to refute stories about, or justify government's action in compelling the clerks in the Secretariat to turn blacklegs in the postal strike? Is Shri Gokhale's pen powerful enough to issue a press note asserting that the lockout of Mazgaon Docks by the owners, that has forced 8,000 workers to sit at home and their families to starve, is either untrue or fully justified? If Shri Gokhale is not capable of doing this, how can he be deemed worthy of the post of the Director of Information in the Congress government?"
At 35, Father was already six jobs down (four in Patna, two in Bombay) with two daughters to bring up and educate. But was that a problem? Hardly. By October 1946, he had joined The Times of India. I am not sure what his designation was; but various pointers indicate that his position was on the wrong side of the famous corridor that divided the reporters', sub-editors' and news editors' desks from the editors' cabins. He soon crossed over to the other side, but we will come to that later. Meanwhile, there was much elation about his new job amongst his friends back in Patna. There was a general feeling he was now where he truly belonged.
There appear to have been some misgivings on his side about his place in The Times of India hierarchy. In her congratulatory letter to him dated November 19, written from Dahanu, Mother provides a clue to his reservations, probably expressed when he gave her the news. She writes, "It is no mean matter that you've managed to get a toe into the door of The Times. You are in Bombay. If you wish to try for something better, you will surely succeed, given the large number of friends in important positions that you have made." This was a significant point, for in those days jobs came largely through letters of introduction and recommendation. Along with the congratulations that Mother conveys from friends in Patna, she also passes on some gossip. She mentions that she had received a letter from Akka Mulay in which she said there was gossip about how people who were not Father's friends had been affected by the news of his resignation from his government job. "Akka says certain people have been waiting to gloat over your discomfiture when you return to Patna empty-handed. They fully expect you to fail in finding another job. She had asked me to send her a telegram as soon as you did find one. I have only written her a letter. But please do send her a telegram if you wish to."
When I read this letter preserved by TGP, I had assumed Akka Mulay was Viju Mami's mother-in-law. But Viju Mami disabused me of that notion in an email written in response to my query. "This Akka was Umabai Mulay from Amravati who was widowed at the age of eight and continued schooling with her parents' encouragement. Unfortunately, they died before she could take her matriculation examination. She must have been in the eighth class when this happened. She was very good at needlework. So when an advertisement came in the papers for the position of a sewing mistress in Patna Girls School, a missionary woman brought it to her notice. Umabai had no desire to be dependent on her husband's family where she would be treated as a burden. So she decided to apply for the post and was chosen as there were hardly any women teachers willing to go to Bihar in those days. Umabai was called Akka and any Marathi woman who came to Patna was treated by her as a daughter. An exception were the wives of the three I.C.S. officers Godbole, Gokhale and Sohoni. Being married to a Mulay, I could not be her daughter; so she decided to make me her daughter-in-law. Akka was an amazing woman with tremendous courage and a curious combination of generosity and thrift. I think your mother wrote an article about her in Stree. I have read the article. But don't ask me which year or month it appeared, but it was probably sometime in 1955 or '56."
Mother's letter of congratulations is addressed to "Dear Gopal". This was against the general practice of wives never addressing their husbands by their names except when relatives and giggling friends urged them to do so as a wedding lunch ritual. Even then, loath to break the rules of feminine modesty, the young brides would couch their husbands' names in sentimental couplets called ukhanas. One of the popular ones which sounds worse than it is in translation goes, "The perfume of attar pervades the air / May XXX's fame spread everywhere." XXX is of course the venerated and therefore unnameable husband, whose name cannot be taken in vain. Mother had no qualms about breaking conventions that she thought were silly. In fact I would not put it past her to have dealt with demands by relatives to take Father's name during the wedding lunch by looking him straight in the eye and saying "Gopal". Later in life, perhaps out of consideration for the sensibilities of her friends in Bombay, she began calling Father Gopalrao. But she never ever referred to him with the customary third person plural pronoun, hey. Hey is not to be translated as the distant "they" but as the more intimate "these ones". The plurality signifies respect. The stand-alone hey, when not used as a qualifier for a noun, has only one meaning. My husband.
The Times of India was originally British-owned and controlled. When Father joined, Sir Francis Lowe was the editor. After him, his deputy Ivor S. Jehu took over. He was the last British editor of TOI. I was old enough then to catch straws of information flying in the air. Jehu's name figured often in Father's conversation as a great editor. He quit in 1950 when the ownership of the paper passed into the hands of the Dalmiyas. That comprised the first four years of Father's first stint with The Times. Frank Moraes succeeded Jehu as the first Indian editor and again straws flew. Father seems to have had problems with Moraes's editorship. It could not have been an out-and-out conflict, but there was definitely discomfort on Father's side. Whether Moraes felt the same way about Father, we do not know; but the message he sent to be read at Father's condolence meeting held in the Durbar Hall of the Asiatic Society of Bombay expressed a generous appreciation of his abilities. One line in the message strikes me as particularly significant. It says, "He was a loyal colleague with clear if not always popular ideas, and he never lacked the courage to express them."
To be a courageous purveyor of "unpopular ideas" is not the best way to develop a cordial rapport with bosses. But in this case it would appear that Father was not the only one who had a lukewarm attitude towards Moraes. In Part 3 of a series of articles entitled "My Years With The Times of India" that its ex-editor N J N Nanporia wrote for The Indian Post in 1988, he devoted long paragraphs to describing his colleagues and their work, but mentioned Moraes only incidentally in a throwaway line in the course of a long and not too complementary assessment of S. Mulgaokar's contribution to The Times. The relevant line reads, "S. Mulgaokar, although junior to Shamlal and me, was a candidate for The Times editorship after Moraes was eased out, and in this bid he had the support of J. C. Jain with whom, I believe, he had a crony relationship that dated back to when they knew each other in Lahore." The operative phrase here, of course, is "eased out".
In this article, Nanporia speaks of the corridor that divided the select from the rest as the concrete symbol of the spatio-hierarchical structure of The Times. On one side of the corridor sat reporters and sub-editors in a vast sprawl. On the other sat the editor and assistant editors in tidy cabins, each with an alert peon in attendance. It is possible that Father had applied for an assistant editor's post but was given a job on the other side of the divide, probably the Chief Reporter's or News Editor's, leading to his misgivings, which Mother tactfully addressed in her letter of congratulations to him. Perhaps the fact that he did not have a degree from a British university, while everybody on the other side did, might have contributed to his being given a lower designation. But this is mere speculation and by no means the end of the story. Says Nanporia in the article dated December 18, "Occasionally there is someone who, by temperament, an inherent bias of mind, and an inborn instinct, gains recognition as a natural assistant editor. Such a one was G. G. Gokhale, one of the very few who crossed the "corridor" and vindicated his success in doing so with his vigorously earthy and original commentaries. Given a political issue or situation, he could be relied upon unerringly, to identify the essential point around which a useful comment or analysis could be constructed. This meant that even the most innocuous seeming item of news would instantly yield for him a ignificance not immediately apparent to his colleagues; and the stimulation this provided enabled him to give off a multiplicity of related ideas, provoking the sort of debate and contention on which editorial offices thrive. His weakness was that his power of expression could not always support the wealth and complexity of his thinking. But, as Ivor Jehu declared just before he left The Times and as we all agreed, the ideas alone were rewarding enough."
During his years with The Times, Father wrote, besides special assignments, editorials on subjects like the Constitution, politics, education, health, food, agriculture, land tenure, development projects and industrial relations. The first cutting of an edit in TGP's stash is dated May 29, 1947. This makes Father's sojourn on the 'wrong' side of the corridor of at most six months' duration. This edit welcomes the Bombay government's ten-year plan for compulsory primary education, to be inaugurated on June 1 of that year. However, says the edit, the idea that the running of the programme should be left to local bodies "bodes ill for its success. Apart from their ineptitude, local authorities are reluctant to apply compulsion for fear that parents' votes will be lost."
Many of the battles we are still fighting, regarding primary education and health care, the national language and spiraling prices, the rights of tenants in urban buildings and on agricultural land, figure in Father's edits, besides problems that belonged to post-war shortages and the building of a new nation for which skilled manpower was not available. "Child marriage is still the norm in some of our States despite the Sarda Act of 1929 having stipulated the right age of marriage as 14 for girls and 18 for boys," says another editorial. "Twenty years on, Pandit Thakurdas Bhargava proposed an amendment to the Act whereby the ages for both were raised to respectively 15 and 20. This was a necessary advance because what needs to be considered is not the age of consummation but the age at which maternity should begin."
An edit dated December 4, 1954 on rail finances, arguing that "a judicious negotiation between receiving a regular dividend on the capital invested in the railways and expenditure on the development has failed on both counts," is the last in the file. In the following year, Father's ever-vigilant principles were challenged once again, as they had been under Balasaheb Kher, in a contract that he and his colleagues had been called upon to sign. This contract, from what we gathered during dinner table conversations between Father and his trade union leader friend K K Khadilkar (K Kaka to us), a bachelor who was often a casual visitor with us at dinner time, was the work of J C Jain, the General Manager of The Times, the man responsible for starting Filmfare and the Filmfare awards. He was known to be star-struck. His high, thin voice caused a malicious anecdote about him, not necessarily true, to make the rounds. Jain was supposed to have been sitting next to Lauren Bacall at a Hollywood dinner. Wishing to make polite conversation with the husky-voiced star, he said, 'Miss Bacall, have you ever been taken for a man on the telephone?' Turning to him with a sweet smile, Bacall drawled, 'No. Have you?' "
To sign or not to sign Jain's contract was the question Father had to settle with himself. I suspect he already knew what he was going to do, but he decided I was old enough at 16 to be asked my opinion, particularly since his plan of sending me to England hinged on his having a job. He sat me down on the large double-bed that he shared with Mother and said, "The Times has come up with a contract for us that includes what I consider to be, a humiliating clause. Should I sign it? Because if I don't I will have to quit the job and that might ruin my plans for sending you to England after your Senior Cambridge." I did not even bother to ask him what the humiliating clause was, knowing it would be quite irrelevant to the answer I was ready with. "Don't sign," I said. "And there's no need to send me to England." This was not a gesture of noble self-sacrifice on my part. I simply was not ambitious. Father did not sign and quit The Times since there was no other ethical option open to him.
This meant he was unemployed when Mother, Nirmal and I set sail for England on June 5, 1956. He had stuck to his plan of sending me to England because he was confident of getting by on his savings. But we realised that, before he got his next job at TELCO, he was borrowing money from Dr Gharpure, a close relative of Madhavrao Ganpule's.
Father's job with TELCO, that took him frequently to Jamshedpur, had to be something in communications. Six thousand miles away from him, we were not too clear about its nature and he not too forthcoming. One thing we knew for sure was that it was not his kind of work, and a corporate organisation not his kind of world. However, with two daughters and a wife in London, about which later, he could ill-afford to look twice at the offer. Fortunately, the stint was short, lasting under three years. Meanwhile he made many good friends like Mr Bhandarkar and Mr Nagpurkar. As soon as J C Jain departed from the Times to take over Eve's Weekly and its siblings in the Somani group, Father returned to the Times as Special Correspondent. This was an appointment right up his street. It involved travelling all over the country and writing a series of in-depth articles on developmental issues, plans and problems. He wrote a three-part series titled "In Kerala Today", a seven-part series on "The Co-operative Sector", a three-part series on "Prospects in Maharashtra" and a three-part series on "Saurashtra Today". His three-part series titled "National Disintegration?" starts this way: "It would be best to summarise at the very start the main points made in this series of articles: the nation is not disintegrating and will remain united; the blame for such aberrations as we see, lies mainly at the door of the Congress. The aberrations should not be exaggerated through hysterical fear into some evils inherent in the people which are threatening to grow. The nation will ultimately triumph over those who are trying to sap it of all self-respect and pride in itself and to sow the seeds of disunion."
By the time Father had started his new job with the Times, both Mother and Nirmal were back home. Mother went at the end of a year, worried that Father was neglecting himself. Nirmal went the following year having had enough of cold, grey London where evenings were spent cooped up in a one-room flat instead of out on the Vijay Club ground in Shivaji Park, playing Kho-Kho. On my own now, I was warmed by weekly letters from Mother, some from Father on tour and occasionally, cuttings of his writings. In a letter from Kerala, Father complained of not having seen a single attractive woman. The same went for Coorg which was surprising since Coorgi women were famed for their good looks. Father had a keen eye for female beauty which, for him, did not have to begin with a light skin. He often quoted the famous verse from Kalidas's Meghadootam which describes the beauty of the poet's beloved to whom he wishes the cloud messenger of the title to deliver his message of love:
"tanvi shyamā shikhari dashanā pakwabimbādharóshthi।
madhye kshāmā chakitahariniprekshanā nimnanābhi।
shronibhārāt alasagamanā stoknamrā stanābhyām।
yā tatrasyatdyŭvati vishaye srushtirādyev dhatooh॥"
(A young woman of dusky complexion, small teeth and lips like the ripe bimba fruit/ Slender waisted, with the eyes of a frightened deer and a deep-set navel / A walk slowed down by heavy hips and a torso bent forward with the weight of the breasts.)
I recall being summoned once by Father to the bedroom door. "Look at the Old Woman's figure," he said. Mother was sitting on her haunches, looking through something stored in a low cupboard. Her shapely waist and flaring hips indeed made a picture of sturdy, handsome womanhood. She could not have been more than 35 at the time, but it tickled Father to call her Old Woman, shortened for convenience to OW.
Father had taught Nirmal and me several Sanskrit slokas from different texts when we were girls of six and seven. The ancient language was supposed to put an edge on the tongue that made enunciation in any language sharp as a crystal shard. The routine was to say our slokas after our morning glasses of milk and then pay our obeissance before the large framed photographs of Father's parents that hung in the living room, serving as substitutes for the real Baba and Ajji who lived with Dadasaheb in Nashik. So we did a fast singsong "Lokabhiramam ranarangdhiram rajivanetram ranghuvanshnatham / karunyarupam karunakaramtam shriramachandram sharanam prapadye", followed by a mechanical "Namaste Baba, namaste Ajji" and ran off, duty done, to get ready for school.
During Father's second stint with the Times, the editor was N J Nanporia, and his editorial colleagues were the legendary Sham Lal (Adib), B. G. Verghese, Mahendra Desai and M V Mathew. The latter was both friend and sparring partner. There's a long letter from Mathew in TGP's file addressed to Father at his Talegaon retirement home (about which later) dated 19 August 1966, a year after my parents had moved. "My dear GGG," he writes. "As I was saying, it won't work. Parliam democ and your present set-up are a waste and a luxury. Justice, the rule of law, consent of the governed, self-discipline, rising spontaneously – all these are okay for an educated people; they are no more than vague, empty ideals of impotent dreamers for a nation of illiterate bigots." After two pages of contentious argument, the letter ends with, "How are the onions growing? Love, Mathew."
Mathew wrote drama reviews for the Times, not as a professional duty, but out of a love for theatre. Dolly Thakore of Theatre Group often recalls nostalgically how they would rush to the Times building on the morning after a first show, to grab copies of the paper hot off the press. Mathew's reviews were unfailingly there, opening their eyes to the merits and demerits of their work. Matthew was also the man who got me started on writing long pieces for the Sunday edition of the Times describing events of my life abroad like Bristol University's Rag Day and my summer travels in Scandinavia, Italy and Edinburgh for the festival. Still under the good old colonial hangover, it was assumed that the Times readers would find light-weight stories from "back home" charming. Britain was still the proverbial tigress of whose milk we were continuing to drink. Soon, however, the USA became the chosen destination for bright Indian youth. Father's friend, M V Rajadhyaksha, professor of English at Elphinstone College, once observed with a Wildean epigram, "Students now have to struggle hard not to go to America."
A close friend of Father's, G R Kamat (Kamat Kaka to us) who started his career in the illustrious literary journals Mouj and Satyakatha, and went on to write screenplays for successful films like Bambai ka Babu, Kala Pani, Do Raaste and Do Chor for Raj Khosla, said to Nirmal and me when we visited him once, "Let me tell you. Even now I think your father was a fool to send you to England." I was around 60 then, Nirmal eighteen months younger, and Father had been gone thirty-three years. Coincidentally, his younger brother Dr Sudhakar Kamat, a well-known chest surgeon who was in London for two years when I was there, held the same views and debated them vociferously with me during a long, contentious evening. Another family friend, Nimkar Kaka, who worked for Air India and was visiting London, demanded to know what good an English Literature degree was going to do for me or for anybody else. Weighed against the finances Father was investing in me, what I would bring in return would be chicken feed. It amazed me how much anger people could feel about an action that did not involve them directly or even indirectly. I argued long and hard with Nimkar Kaka, but the more I defended Father's ideas, the angrier he got. In the end I gave up and changed the subject. Writing home that week, I warned my parents against engaging with him on the subject when he called. Predictably Nimkar Kaka launched into his diatribe as soon as he set foot in the house on his return. Father laughed off his opinions with an easy, "You're absolutely right. I'm totally mad." But Mother would not let go so easily. She argued heatedly till finally even she admitted defeat, learning in the process what hitting your head against a stone wall meant.
Other friends of Father's also felt he had wronged his daughters by sending them abroad. Daughters were meant for marriage and marriage meant expenses for which fathers were duty-bound to save. None of these well-meaning friends were privy to a little conversation Father had had with me on the eve of our departure to England. "Don't expect us to go searching for a husband for you," he had said. "You are free to choose your own mate of whatever caste, creed or religion he may be. But when you do, don't expect us to give you a lavish wedding. I am putting all my money into your education. You will find that of greater value than an extravagant social ceremony and gold ornaments."
When Mother saw Father was serious about sending me to England, she demanded to know if he expected her to let a 16-year-old girl go 6,000 miles away all by herself. Without a second's hesitation he replied, "If you can't let her go alone, you go with her." A little shaken, Mother said, "And do you think I'm going to go away leaving a 14-year-old girl to your care?" That, she was sure, would stump him. She should have known better. Father said, "Take Nirmal with you." Mother could only gawp. She had no further cards to play. It wasn't as though she did not want us to have an education in England. She was only worried, and justifiably so, about how her soon to be jobless husband was going to support us in a country where the standard of living was many times higher than in Bombay. If Father had any doubts on this score, he was not letting on. If there was one thing he refused ever to admit, it was the impossibility of realising the dreams he cherished. Ways could always be found to circumvent practical difficulties. His plan was final. He had already been in correspondence with various schools in London and had received a positive response from Miss Osborne, the High Mistress of St Paul's Girls' School, Hammersmith. The school had seats for Nirmal and me. What need was there to think twice?
It was June 1956. We were to sail on the 5th of the month by the P & O liner, S. S. Arcadia. Our trunks were out, ready to be packed. Clothes were being made. Wear handlooms Father said. Handloom material had just begun to appear in shops in select quarters of the city. Our shop was Khurshid and Co at Dadar TT. Mother made our skirts and blouses from colourful material printed with dancing girls, elephants and paisley patterns. As packing proceeded, Father looked into our trunks and pulled out all the pickles and papads. "Travel light," he said, although we were not flying. "Eat whatever you get there. London is not a desert. What you don't get you needn't have for a few years." Mother allowed the pickles and papads to go but insisted on carrying bottles of Tata's Tomco shampoo and hair oil. Her belief in the virtues of these products was unshakeable.
The S S Arcadia was a huge, awe-inspiring white hulk. Up on the deck we lost all sense of reality. Down below stood Father, a small, lonely figure, a devoted family man, sending his wife and daughters off to a country he had never visited himself, but for whose education system he had the deepest admiration. Mother was concentrating on swallowing her tears. As she looked down at Father, she said, "He used to be reluctant to let me go even to Dahanu for a few days. And now see where he's sending us." The ship moved away. Father grew smaller and smaller till we could see him no more. It was the most painful separation of our lives. "Here we are the tourist mob / Off to England for a job / Far removed from uncle Bob / On the RMS Arcadia" sang the Aussies on the ship. They knew what lay ahead. But we, looking out at the water around us with not a speck of land in sight, felt our anchor had broken loose and we were speeding away to an uncertain port.
The port turned out to be even more uncertain than we had feared. As we docked at Tilbury on June 26, the mailman came around distributing letters. There was one for Mother from Mrs Godbole, the friend who had generously offered us her flat in Clapham as a stopgap till we found our own. The flat was going to be empty for a month while she and her family holidayed in India. How nice to have a letter of welcome from her on the first day of our arrival we thought. Mother opened the letter eagerly and her face fell. Mrs Godbole was cheerily informing us that they had cancelled their holiday in India and so their flat would not be available to us. That left us pretty much high and dry on that grey and drizzly London day. Fortunately for us, Mother's sister Sindhu's husband, More Kaka was at the dock to receive us although we had not expected him to come all the way from Harpenden in Hertfordshire where he worked and lived. He took our disastrous news in his stride and transported us to Golders Green to a lodging and boarding house run by a family from Akola whom he knew. The ample bosomed Kaku Gulhane took us right in. After four hours of knowing what homelessness was, we suddenly had a home.
Although Mother carried on gamely in London, putting her time to productive use by taking in sewing from More Kaka's friend Mrs Morris, who sold girls' frocks to a departmental store, her heart was with Father who was now living in one small room of Lalit Estate, our Shivaji Park flat, while Mother's sister Nalini (Naloo maushi), who had agreed to move in with her family to look after Father's needs, occupied the rest. Father's letters were always cheerful and reassuring; but Mother could read his misery between the lines.
Towards the beginning of 1957, when we had settled down well at school, made friends and knew our way around London, Mother decided, and Father did not object, to return to Bombay as soon as she could. Meanwhile a good friend of hers, who also happened to be the biggest and jolliest gossip in Shivaji Park, had written to say that people had reported seeing Father sitting on the parapet of Shivaji Park with a very good-looking woman. Mother and even we girls knew who the woman was and why she was sitting on the parapet with Father. She was sitting there because he had only one room in the flat to himself and there was no privacy even there with Naloo maushi's young children running around all over the place. The woman was the wife of a very good friend of Father's, an illustrious artist and scholar. They had two lovely children, boy and girl. But somewhere along the line their relationship had soured and the artist had reconnected with his ex-girlfriend whom he said he still loved. The desperate wife had been seeking my parents' advice in the vain hope that Father, as a good friend, would be willing and able to knock some sense into her errant husband's head. With Mother away in London, trying to resolve this tricky problem had fallen to Father's lot alone. There was not even a speck of doubt in Mother's mind about Father's fidelity; but she could not bear the thought of her straightforward, devoted and loyal husband attracting the kind of attention her friend's letter suggested. I agreed wholeheartedly with her decision to return and things began to move quite rapidly in that direction.
The plan was to quit our flat in 31, Coningham Road, Shepherd's Bush as soon as we found decent digs that would not strain Father's pockets. While we settled into our new home, Mother would stay at 94, Holland Road, in a bed-and-breakfast place run by a Frenchwoman named Madame Moureaux where Kulkarni Kaka who was to be my guardian later, lived. Our hunt for digs ended with a lovely family home at 22, Bromyard Avenue, Acton. The owners, Mr and Mrs Dean, were not a bit put off as many others before them had been, at our being Indian. They offered us a spare bedroom on the first floor of their semi-detached. We moved into it while Mother moved to Madame Moureaux's. A month later, in July 1957, satisfied with the arrangements she had made for us, she flew back to Bombay.
Summer holidays meant travel. Pune was a favourite destination where we stayed at a modest place called Modern Guest House on the road to Parvati hill. The place was basic and, in Mother's opinion, bug-ridden. So the first day of her holiday was regularly devoted to putting the mattresses in our room out to sun. Our Pune holidays were always planned with a purpose. One holiday was devoted to teaching us swimming at the Law College swimming pool. Nirmal took to the water like a fish and was soon swimming expertly. I spent most of the time standing on the edge of the swimming pool saying one-two-three-go to myself and never jumping in. One day, a friend of Father's, finding my timidity too painful to watch, picked me up and threw me in. Once in, I did learn to swim. But I never spoke to the man again.
Another Pune holiday was spent walking around the old and new town, its peths, its gymkhanas, its mandis and hills, to catch the spirit and flavour of the city. A third was dedicated to reading. We had carried a trunkful of books with us. Our daily routine was to get up, have breakfast, read. Have lunch, read. Have tea, read. Then visit friends. During this holiday I discovered J B Priestley's time plays and John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga. I also devoured Brothers Karamazov though at that age, 12 I think, Dostoevsky depressed me. I read O'Henry's and Guy de Maupassant's short stories and possibly As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice. Reading was not an unalloyed pleasure. There was work to be done afterwards. Before we slept Father would ask me to tell him about the book I had read, but briefly. When I noticed him stroking his nose thoughtfully, I knew what was coming. "Tell me in two short sentences...." The idea was to train me to think clearly and express myself precisely.
Evenings with friends released me from this exercise. Of the many teas and dinners we had during that holiday, the most memorable was with the Kamats. This was the year when two successive hit films in Marathi were released back-to-back-- Pedgaonche Shahane and Lakhachi Goshta. Kamat Kaka had co-scripted the first and written the dialogue for the second. Lakhachi Goshta had introduced two new stars to the screen, Kumud Sukhtankar (screen name Rekha) and her sister Kusum (screen name Chitra). Kamat Kaka had married Kumud and the couple were then living in Pune. For dinner that evening, Kumudtai had made a delicious egg curry, of which we ate such obscene amounts that we could barely raise ourselves from our seats on the floor. The egg curry instantly became part of Mother's repertoire and continues to be part of mine. Although Mother was a vegetarian, she happily cooked eggs, fish, meat and chicken for Father, collecting recipes from his friends' wives. Her Maratha style mutton and chicken curries came from Mrs Asayekar whose husband was famous amongst friends for making rude personal remarks about passersby even before they were out of earshot. It took a lot to embarrass Father but it happened on the day Asayekar Kaka said to him excitedly as they stood on the road talking, "Did you notice the hair in that fellow's ears? Whole bushes of it", and the man turned out to be someone Father knew. Mrs Asayekar was her husband's opposite, tall, dignified and soft-spoken, her head always covered with her pallu. But her curries, like all self-respecting Kolhapuri curries, were fire and had to be eaten with large handkerchieves at hand to mop up the streams that ran from eyes and nose.
Pune in those pre-Expressway days, was a four-hour drive away from Bombay. We generally drove down in the light blue second-hand Fiat that Father had acquired. A photograph of him standing beside this car was the source of some awkwardness when a friend who had never seen Father, asked Mother if the man next to the car was the driver. Mother took a few seconds to gather her wits and think up an answer that would not embarrass her friend. "Yes, in a way," she said. "He does drive the car." There was a reason for her friend's assumption that Father might be the family driver. In those days, he had taken to wearing what he called "three-fourths". They were pajamas cut just below the knees to keep them from flapping around the ankles, topped by a thin, mull, short-sleeved kurta. Taken together, the outfit did not suggest that the man inside it could be an assistant editor with an English language national mainline daily.
Father returned to the Times in 1959, but moved once again in 1962. This time the reason was not offended principles, but supposedly better prospects. His friend G M Laud had been appointed editor of the Financial Express. Inaugurated in March 1961, it was the first business newspaper in India. With no model to turn to or learn from, the responsibility of setting up, designing and running the paper lay heavy on Laud's shoulders. Father had made himself available to his friend as a sounding board and supplier of ideas. Laud was keen that Father should join as Deputy Editor to relieve him of some of his editorial burden. His inducement to persuade Father to make the move from the Times was that he, Laud, was expecting to retire soon, after which Father would be appointed editor. The offer was difficult to resist. Father moved in 1962.
When I came back from England in July 1962, with a B A degree in English Language and Literature, I realised how much Father must have dreamt of heading a newspaper one day. Although he had never given voice to the dream, one could see, as events unfolded, how important the incentive of editorship had been for his switch from the Times, where otherwise he had been perfectly happy. It was not long before he realised he had been naïve to believe things would turn out the way they had been presented to him. People in high posts do not quit so easily. Soon it became abundantly clear that Laud was not going to retire for a long time to come. Bitterly disappointed, Father quit the Financial Express in March 1964. Before leaving, he had made sure of his next job -- Secretary (Economic), the Indian Cotton Mills' Federation. He joined the Federation on March 16, 1964, only to quit within a year. His career seemed to have gone nowhere and although he made a mark wherever he went, it did not add up to much. He was now eager to retire and live in the countryside. He still had a year left before the official age of retirement which in those days was 55. But he was in a hurry to turn his back on the imperfect world of political and economic journalism in which he had had to deal every day with the ethical shortcomings of the men at the top. He now wanted to take a shot at making a life for himself that approximated more closely to his ideals.
Father was a Marxist, but not a card-carrying Communist. This lent a certain edge to his writing whether it was about the country's economy, agriculture, the food situation, health or education. Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni, his colleague at the Financial Express, who was later to become the city's most respected freelance critic of art and theatre, must have read him very closely. For in his tribute written after Father's death, he noted the widening rupture between the India that Father had idealistically dreamed of and the reality that he had been forced to face. Knowing his political opinions, Nadkarni also marvelled at the fact that his writings were so objectively analytical. For instance, although Father had fallen out with B. G. Kher during his time as Director of Information in the Bombay government, it did not affect his assessment of Kher's contribution to the progress of the country. In an editorial that we can relate to closely even today, he wrote, "Falsification of history is one of the weapons used by dictators to cast the nation's mind in the ideological mould they desire. The pleas for sanity in historical outlook made by Mr B. G. Kher at the Indian Historical Congress in Bombay, is thus both opportune and commendable. A comprehensive history of India from ancient times is being written, and it is very necessary that, in compiling it, parochial, communal and national bias is avoided. What the student needs is an unvarnished account which does not gloss over unpleasant aspects and events, thus helping him to understand the national ills that he must try to eradicate and the good points which he must reinforce."
This was Father's brand of nationalism. When Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni called him "a symbol of the nationalist generation", he was distinguishing this earlier generation from his own. "His generation today occupies high posts in several newspapers," wrote Nadkarni. "They have an almost missionary approach to their profession. They have been deeply touched by the ideologies they believe in. We of the next generation have observed this at close quarters. But we have not personally experienced the nationalist passion that has driven this generation of journalists."
Before the Fiat, Father had driven a used Standard 8 and after it, a used Landmaster. His last car was a used two-door Fiat Topolino or Little Mouse, so called for its size and shape. For the same reason, it was also called the Bug. It had three seats, two in front and one at the back. The front seat fell forward to let the passenger squeeze into the back. I was teaching at Elphinstone College then and often got a lift in the car. I was accorded the back seat because, somewhere along the way, Father used to pick up a rather large Parsi gentleman who just about managed to stuff himself into the front seat, sitting hunched up through the journey. The car drew amused stares wherever we went, particularly from children who looked upon us as a circus act. But the Fiat Topolino was a car with character. And a history.
In June 1953, Swiss traveller, writer, icon painter and photographer, Nicolas Bouvier, had driven a Topolino from Switzerland through Yugoslavia, Turkey and Iran to Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka on an eighteen-month journey described in his travelogue, L'Usage du Monde, published in English as The Way of the World.
Our own Topolino was to find a place in Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni's obituary. Commenting on what he saw as Father's self-contradictory nationalism, he wrote, "As cost cutting measures following Morarji Desai's 1963 budget, he sold off his spacious car and bought a tiny froglike car in its place. He also gave up smoking-- for a while only--and took to snuff. But he continued to patronise Strand Bookstall, buying piles of books every month. What kind of austerity measure was that?"
The Little Mouse had uses besides transportation. I once nonplussed a snooty friend with it after she had airily apologised for picking me up in an ordinary sedan and not her father's Jag. I said I understood her father completely. My father too would never dream of loaning me his three-seater Bug.
"Bug?" she asked. "Bug" I said.
There was yet more yarn to be spun out of the car. I wrote a middle about it for the Times titled Roadmouse. It was one of those funnies which I cringe to read today. But a quote from it will serve to underline what buying a car third- or fourth-hand as an austerity measure meant. On the very first day of the car's residence with us, it had taken all of Father's patience to get her started. Describing the end of this mutual disagreement between man and car I wrote, "Suddenly she lurched forward, then again and again till at last she was running joyfully, notwithstanding the wobble in one of her wheels, which made her look rather like a tipsy Pygmy queen. Father returned from his spin without her, but stuffed with all sorts of useful knowledge … The brake wasn't working, the horn was non-existent, the gears weren't all that they should be, the tyres, the battery, delco, wiring … In short she stayed with the mechanic for a month before she became roadworthy."
Father had always been an enthusiastic traveller and Mother a perfect travelling companion. In an old album crowded with black-and-white (now tinted sepia) photographs taken during their Patna years, there are pictures of Ranchi, Hrishikesh, Benaras, Sarnath, Agra. An inveterate photographer, Father recorded all the sights they saw with his Rollieflex box camera, housed in a tan leather case with a steel clasp and a long strap. It travelled from Patna to Bombay and into our childhood and adolescence before it gave up the ghost. You slung it round the neck, sprung open the flap at the top, peered down at the picture, focused and shot. I took my first photographs on this camera on our trek to Pindari Glacier.
While Father recorded their travels on film, Mother did so in words. Among several articles she wrote for general interest magazines, there is one published in a magazine called Savitri, describing their visit to the Sonpur yatra. Mother had been warned that the yatra was no place for respectable women. Commercial sex workers thronged there to do business. Consequently, Mother was not surprised to be the only married woman at the yatra and thus the cynosure of all eyes. Besides her presence itself, her nine-yard sari, a garment unknown in the north, caused much confusion and consternation among the male pilgrims. In her article, she reports overhearing one man saying to another, "Yeh aadmi hai ya aurat? (Is this a man or a woman?)
As we grew older and reached an age when we could be expected to appreciate the natural and manmade wonders of this country, we went on long journeys to the south and north. Our holiday in Ootacamund was simpler than the ones that followed. It was just there and back. One of the great things about travelling with Father was the amount of walking we did. Walking was the only way to get to know a place. The other great thing was his (and Mother's) love of people. Within a day or two of arriving anywhere, we would be nodding to an assortment of new acquaintances from craftsmen and tradesmen to old residents and fellow holiday-makers. The most memorable person we met in Ootacamund was the elderly Miss Chambers, a lanky English resident with an obsessive love for mangoes. Her uninhibited indulgence in them was always evident in the little flecks of glowing orange that dotted the golden down on her upper lip. Back in Bombay, Mother would remember Miss Chambers every mango season. For some reason her memory made us laugh uproariously. The more distant the memory became the more extravagant was our laughter.
Our second trip south was longer. It began in Kodaikanal where we stayed in the friendly Holiday Home resort. Our cottage was on the banks of a stream that ran through its expansive grounds. Looking down at the gushing water, I wrote my first poem. At 13, I imagined myself the rightful heir to Wordsworth's legacy and wrote rhyming verses about poor girls drowning in gurgling brooks and young boys playing the pipe while minding sheep. Four poems down, I had bored myself thoroughly and decided playing table tennis in the resort's recreation room was, although less noble, infinitely more enjoyable than writing verse. We made many friends over the table tennis table. Chief amongst them was Gopi Menon and his sister Janaki, and the Iyer family whose nephew A V Bharath re-entered our lives years later as a young sub-lieutenant in the Indian Navy when his ship was docked in Bombay. Just over ten years after that, Bharath was posted to I N S Hamla in Bombay's far-flung suburb, Malad, along with his friend Lieutenant-Commander Vijay Kumar Shahane, Viju to friends. I married Viju within a year of meeting him at a Hamla dance during which he had disgusted me by claiming not to be able to speak Marathi. Later I discovered he could but would not speak it. Father was greatly disappointed with me for this choice of mate. Although he had often jokingly pointed out inappropriate men for me to marry, saying, "What's wrong with him? He has two legs, a couple of eyes and possibly a brain in the head", he had secretly hoped I would marry an academic, a writer or someone like the clean-looking young man we had met at a classical music concert who told us he was doing research at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Unfortunately, having given his daughters freedom to choose their mates, there was precious little he could do about their choices. Mother said Viju was from a good family and had a permanent job, so why was he unsuitable? Father stubbornly kept his counsel and Viju and I got married in August 1965.
Kodaikanal broadened our minds in many ways. Most importantly it destroyed the little pigeon holes of language, culture and territory into which we had been used to stuffing people. In Kodaikanal we met a family whose ancestors had left their native Saurashtra, travelled south and settled in Madurai as weavers of the brightly coloured, dotted, tie-and-dye sungudi sari that soon became native to the region. The Chitnises, originally from Maharashtra, had settled in Madras generations ago. They were now, to all intents and purposes, Tamilians. Their teenage daughter, Vasantha, wore the pavada-davani or long skirt and half-sari that Tamilian girls wore between puberty and marriage. The Chitnises were descendents of the families that had migrated from Maharashtra to Thanjavur during the reign of the Maratha kings between the 17th and 19th centuries. It was a fascinating lesson in intra-national migration where people moved from one part of the country to another and gradually and happily lost their original cultural contours. I remember having been similarly intrigued when the Sindhis poured into Bombay after Partition bringing with them a new language, a new way of dressing and a new way of life. It was unimaginable to me at eight years old that these people had lost their homes forever and were now to live permanently in our country as nirvasits, people without homes.
It was during this holiday that Nirmal fell into the Kodai Lake, created in 1863 under instructions from the Collector of Madurai, Sir Vere Henry Levinge. We had spent the afternoon rowing and would have returned home safe and dry had Nirmal not decided to jump out of the boat before it was properly secured at the jetty. As we watched in horror she fell into the gap between boat and jetty and all but disappeared from view. With great presence of mind, Gopi Menon, who was with us, grabbed a boat hook and fished her out.
From Kodaikanal we travelled to Madurai to see the great Meenakshi temple. To try catching a full view of the very top of the gopuram was to risk falling backwards. As for seeing and absorbing all the sculptures that crowded its tapering sides tier upon tier, it was so impossible a task that I gave up at the very first tier. What was easier to do was count the carved pillars in the temple's Thousand Pillar Hall. Were there really a thousand pillars I wondered, not willing to swallow stories. I began counting but once again I gave up on this matter of boring detail to enjoy the space itself, which was breathtakingly unique. Our next and final halt was Rameswaram where we saw the Ramanathaswamy temple which too had several corridors of carved pillars, one of which was supposed to be the longest in the country.
It was an exciting but tiring trip and must have drained Father's resources, although in those early days, we travelled thriftily by Intermediate Class. This grade of compartments was soon to become history; but while it lasted, it stood between the second and the third in the rail travel hierarchy. Kipling had the following to say about it in a passage from The Man Who Would be King, "There had been a Deficit in the Budget, which necessitated travelling, not Second class, which is only half as dear as First Class, but by Intermediate, which is very awful indeed. There are no cushions in the Intermediate class, and the population are either Intermediate, which is Eurasian, or native, which for a long night journey is nasty, or Loafer, which is amusing though intoxicated. Intermediates do not buy from refreshment rooms. They carry their food in bundles and pots, and buy sweets from the native sweetmeat-sellers, and drink the roadside water. This is why in hot weather Intermediates are taken out of the carriages dead, and in all weathers are most properly looked down upon."
That was bad English and Kipling was a nasty man. I don't remember any of our travelling companions ever being taken out dead, possibly largely because we carried nutritious, home-cooked food in dabbas and multi-tiered tiffin-carriers, and clean water in tambyas, pot-bellied brass water containers with screwtop lids and beautifully moulded handles. As a result, we always came out alive and kicking and ready to go. Soon after the British (and therefore Kipling) left the country, the Intermediate class was scrapped. Meanwhile Father's salary had increased enough for us to travel Second anyway.
We made yet another trip south, to Bangalore, Mysore and Girsappa Falls, which produced many magical moments for us. In Bangalore we visited the Ogale Glass Factory which was managed by a college friend of Father's, Kashyapi Kaka. Here we saw glass blown and shaped into round paperweights with flowers inside. To our wonder-filled eyes this was nothing short of miraculous. In Mysore, we saw the magnificent Vrindavan Gardens, with its high spurting fountains and multi-coloured lights playing on the water. Somewhere during our stay in Mysore, Nirmal fell off a Nandi bull.
What gave us goose flesh and continued to thrill us as a memory for years afterwards, were the Girsappa Falls, also known as Jog Falls. There were four distinct waterfalls that came crashing down side-by-side over a cliff that interrupted the flow of the Sharavathi river, and dropped into a chasm 960 ft deep. After this leap, the Sharavathi rushed off to meet the sea at Honnaver. What thrilled us most were the names given to the falls. There was Raja, the mightiest of them, that fell in a single broad cascade into the chasm. Raja's neighbour, Roarer leaped into a hollow ledge, got deflected to the right and joined Raja. Next to Roarer was Rocket which shot down in a series of powerful jets. And finally, at the other end was Rani a quiet stream of gushing foam.
The six years between June 1956 and July 1962 which I spent, first at school in London and then at university in Bristol, were filled with weekly letters both ways. I have never forgiven myself for junking Father's and Mother's joint letters before returning to Bombay. I was travelling back by air, and could carry only 44 kg of luggage. There was much stuff, accumulated over the years, that I needed to discard. I held on to the enormous bag of letters till the very end; but as I hooked up my bags on my spring balance and watched the arrow zip down to the bottom, there was no alternative but to let the letters go. What I lost were precious samples of Father's terse style. His letters were always in English and characteristically concise. Mother's were in Marathi and, equally characteristically, descriptive and chatty. Mine would be in English to him and Marathi to her. Once in a while she would write a secret letter in English. Secret because Father was always dismissive of her attempts to master the language. As far as he was concerned, she spoke well enough to get along, and that was as good as it needed to be. The letters Mother wrote in English were exercises. I was expected to correct them and return them to her. But since this was a secret transaction between us, I was not to send them to Lalit Estate but address them to Antu Mama who lived right behind our house and was the most discreet of Mother's ten siblings. Unlike me, TGP kept every letter I had written home, organising them yearwise in neat packets. So now I have a bulging bag of a one-way correspondence, a detailed if sometimes pedestrian documentation of my six years away.
Although Father wrote largely in English, he was deeply interested in Marathi literature and poetry and often wrote caustic letters to the editors of the prestigious literary magazines Abhiruchi and Satyakatha. Referring to them, Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni writes in his obituary, "His letters had a unique sparkle. He was born and brought up in Belgaum. I often wondered whether the punch in his prose had something to do with his early exposure to Kannada. I still remember a phrase he used in one such debate, perhaps about P S Rege's poetry. It was shwanik lallpadupana [canine salivation]."
I have not been able to track down this particular letter, but there are others which provide a taste of Father's literary opinions. In a letter to Abhiruchi, he reminds the editor that he need not feel obliged to publish every poem that is sent to him. Poems should not be used as space fillers. If space needs filling, the editor would do well to publish the poetry of the saint poets Dnyaneshwar and Tukaram rather than tripe. This would hugely benefit readers who might not have read all their work.
The most famous debate that he engaged in centred around B. S. Mardhekar's poem, "Pipat mele olya undir". I translate the poem to give the reader an idea of the parameters of the debate that shook the literary world:
Mice lie dead in wet barrels
Their necks drooping, unwrung.
Lip rests on lip without desire
They lived in holes, poor wretches,
And died in a barrel with a hiccup.
At the grey-eyed end of day
When life has drained from limbs
They are still obliged to live.
They are still obliged to die.
Toxic despair, glassy-eyed,
Honeyed lips, bakelite
Mouths open, mouths shut
Drenched in a barrel
The dead mice float.
The poem was first published in Abhiruchi in 1946 and later appeared in Mardhekar's collection Kahin Kavita (A Few Poems). In a letter to Abhiruchi in which Father refers to Mardhekar as Mushakkavi (Rodent Poet), he argues against an article that that had appeared in an earlier issue of the magazine where the writer had superciliously assumed that those who had criticised Mardhekar's poem had probably not understood its import. The writer had then proceeded to explicate the governing mouse metaphor of the poem in order to elucidate its meaning. Disabusing the writer of this assumption, Father asserted in his letter that like himself, many other readers had understood exactly what the governing metaphor of the poem symbolised. Mice stood for human beings in the modern age. That was not difficult to figure out. The question however was, whether the poem could be called a poem at all.
In a useful publication entitled Vangmayin Patravyavahar (Literary Correspondence) published by SNDT University in July 1993, one of the five editors, Anant Deshmukh, (this was the critic who called me suggesting I should write about Father), presents a meticulous analysis of letters to the editor of Mouj, a prestigious weekly of the 1940s and '50s. He states here that the first significant debate in the magazine set off by Gopal Gundo Gokhale had centred around "Pipat mele olya undir". Commenting on the general consternation that the collection Kahin Kavita had caused among the poetry-reading public, Deshmukh points to the probable cause. The poems in Mardhekar's earlier 1939 collection, Shishiragam (The Coming of Winter), had shown the influence on his poetry of the saint poets Ramdas, Tukaram, Dnyaneshwar; and of modern lyrical poets like Keshavsut, Balkavi and Madhav Julian. The poems in Kahin Kavita, while still retaining those links through prosodic rules and rhyme schemes, had deployed new imagery supported by a new language in response to the modern world of machines and mechanised urban living. The poems were modernistic. They overturned earlier notions, largely romantic, of what poetry was or should be. It was no surprise then that readers found them obscure and, on that account, unpalatable.
The debate in Mouj had begun in response to two articles that had appeared in consecutive issues of the weekly applauding the new collection. In response, Father wrote:
"I and other ordinary men like me, have derived much joy from the Rodent Poet's Kahin Kavita. I feel equal joy in noting here that I find the title of the collection quite appropriate to its contents. There are indeed only a few poems here. But some others have managed to severely puncture the collection as a whole, much like the poet's punctured 'black night'."
The last remark refers to a line in one of Mardhekar's poems in which he has used the English word "puncture" as an intransitive verb: Kalokhi ratra puncturetay. (Black night punctures). The reverse occurs today when Indian language words are given an English language suffix as in "ullu banawing", which means making a fool of someone.
Deshmukh reproduces the whole of Mardhekar's response to Father's letter of which I quote only the relevant part, the opening lines: "I loved the title Rodent Poet bestowed on me by "ordinary man" G. G. Gokhale (age 35, residing at Shivaji Park, profession assistant editor, the Times of India, salary Rs 200 per month). There used to be a story called "The Lion and the Mouse" in children's books which I invoke here to ask God for one thing only, that the nibbling of my mouse poems will release from the net at least half if not the whole paw of this 'ordinary' lion."
I must note here that "Pipat mele olya undir" still continues to fascinate critics for its mouse metaphor, its unusual syntax and its consequently ambiguous meaning. In a privately circulated translation of the poem, the modernist poet-writer-translator, Vilas Sarang irons out all ambiguity by rendering the first line as "Inside the waterlogged drum, the mice are dead." Prof-critic M. V. Dhond differs with this interpretation. Revisiting the poem in his collection of critical essays, Jalyatil Chandra (Moon in the Net), he dismisses his earlier critique published in Satyakatha in 1967 as clever but lacking in insight. He now suggests the barrels are not wet with water but with wine; and the mice, along with the human race they represent are not mindless creatures but victims of circumstance. He takes his cue for this interpretation from Robert Burns's sympathetic view of them in his poem "To a Mouse" and John Steinbeck's similar view in his novel Of Mice and Men. Mardhekar's mice are therefore to be seen as creatures forced into a ratrace by mechanised urban living, drowning themselves at the "grey-eyed end of day" in a barrel of wine to lose all sense of their stupefying lives.
It was not only on the letters pages of magazines that such literary debates happened. They happened regularly on our verandah too where Father's literary and academic friends gathered on Saturday evenings. The arguments raged long and loud, injected with much banter and laughter, the conviviality growing ever more expansive with Mother's delicious snacks. Only once did an argument turn into an exchange so angry that one litterateur threatened to throw another off the verandah. However, since the anger was not fuelled by alcohol, which Father never served, things soon simmered down and the warring friends took their hands off each other's collars.
In 1953, Father took us on a 14-day trek to the Pindari Glacier in the Kumaon Hills. In our imagination this was going to be an adventure fraught with enough danger for us to tell hair-raising stories at school. Preparations for the trek included contributions from Father's tailor, Satwajirao on Ranade Road. He would normally come home to measure Father for the khaki shorts and checked handloom shirts that he wore on his walks, and the sober-coloured trousers and bush shirts that he wore to work. But this time Satwajirao was summoned to measure us for woollen coats. Khurshid of Dadar T T made our slacks. A local cobbler from British times made our spiked shoes. The trek was planned and exhaustively discussed at the dinner table every evening and it came out exactly as planned. At the time, I was 14, Nirmal 12, Father 42 and Mother 39 with the beginnings of rheumatic knees, although you would not have guessed it to see her taking the steep inclines of the trek in her stride, wearing her flappy, six-yard, cotton saris. Father had drawn a map to show us the route we would take to the glacier. Nirmal and I had learnt the names of each day's halt by heart and would chant them to a rhythmic beat every day: "Kathgodam, Almora, Bageshwar, Loharkhet / Dhakuri, Khati, Dwali, Phurkia /And then, PINDARI!"
We travelled by train from Bombay to Kathgodam, then by bus to Almora and car to Bageshwar. At Bageshwar we hired our guide, cook and coolies and for the very first time, felt like real mountain trekkers. Our guide, Pratap Singh was probably younger than his wrinkle-meshed face suggested; or perhaps he was as old as the hills; but he had the agility of ageless youth. He was a quiet man, his serenity undisturbed by our impatient questions: When will we reach Dhakuri / Khati / Dwali? Each time he would smile, his eyes disappearing into his wrinkles, and mutter his standard reassurance, "Ghum gham ke holey holey aa hi jayega" which meant a bit of a stroll, a few bends more, and we'll be there; which again meant that we were just about halfway up. Pratap Singh had decided my name was Kanta. It irritated me no end. At 14 one is prickly about identity. But as time passed, and the pure mountain air made questions of identity laughable, I grew to love the name, because it was the name he had given me and always uttered with great fondness.
Pratap Singh's nephew Manohar Singh was our cook. Probably 18, tall, with cheeks that glowed like Kullu apples, he made alu sabji for us every day, morning and evening. The flour we had bought in Bageshwar was full of grit from the milling, so that the rotis crackled between our teeth. But their aroma as he roasted them was so divine, and the appetite we had worked up walking up steep slopes for four or five hours was so compelling, and the chilli pickle Mother had brought along from Bombay so zippy, that altogether every meal tasted like a feast. At night, when dinner was eaten, Pratap Singh, Manohar Singh and the two coolies would sit around a fire and sing Kumaoni songs, accompanying themselves on the backs of empty tin canisters. All the songs had the same jaunty tune which has remained as a permanent part of our musical memories. Even today, as I write this, I can hear it in my head and would sing it if my voice did what it was bidden to do.
Our days on the trek fell into a fixed routine. We would get up at five in the morning and leave the rest-house by six. It took us five or six hours to climb to the next rest-house, generally 9 or 10 km away. We were there by noon which was often just in time before the hail started coming down. It came down thick and fast, clattering on the rest-house roof and piling up on the ground all around. Father had seen hail in his native Belgaum, though never so much of it. For Mother and the two of us, it was a wondrous sight. At one of the stops, Nirmal, always adventurous, decided to go exploring. She climbed up a little knoll at the back of the rest house, slipped on the hail and came crashing down, catching her elbow on a jagged rock. The wound was deep and pretty gory. Mother snapped into action, first pressing hail on it, then plastering it with an antiseptic ointment from her first aid box. She sat up all night, watching over Nirmal to make sure she was not developing a temperature, a sign of the onset of tetanus. Fortunately Nirmal got up bright and chirpy the next morning, and we returned to our routine. The hail and the cold air healed her wound rapidly, but she was debarred from undertaking solitary adventures for the rest of the trek.
Our path often lay through dense forests of conifers and deodars, the air filled with birdsong of the most astonishing tonal and melodic variety. At one point, we had to negotiate a narrow path that gave onto a deep gorge down which the Pindar river crashed over boulders as she rushed to meet the Alaknanda at Karnaprayag. There was something primeval about the roar of the river. It sent a thrill down my spine to think that quite soon, we would be in the presence of its source. Before that, on the final lap of the trek, we encountered a frozen expanse of slithery ground, more hazardous than anything we had tackled before. Our spiked boots and canes suddenly made complete sense. But even with their help, our hearts were in our mouths till we had crossed over to the other side. When that happened, Pratap Singh's face wrinkled up in the most delighted smile. Poor man. His heart too must have been in his mouth. After this, everything else was surely going to be a cake walk we thought. But we thought wrong. At Phurkia we had reached an altitude of something like 3300 metres above sea level. That was our last overnight stop before the final, comparatively short but steep climb to the glacier itself. The snout of the glacier was at an altitude of over 3500 metres, so we were looking at climbing some 350 metres over a five km stretch. We set off early in the morning as usual, but half way up, Nirmal became breathless. The air had grown too rare for her and she had to return to Phurkia. Naturally Mother too went back with her. So it was only Father and I who walked laboriously up and up, eyes on the sloping ground, the surroundings bare of vegetation, the incline hard and unforgiving.
Then suddenly we were there. We were looking down at the snout of the glacier, the end of a river of ice that moved so slowly, you would miss seeing the movement even if you spent a lifetime staring at it. This was the source of the Pindar river. As an idea it was thrilling. But what we saw was not the dazzling white ice river of my imagination but a disappointing expanse of grey, flecked with brown. And the mighty Pindar? It was not even a stream; just a trickle. But when I lifted my eyes and looked around, my breath stopped with wonder. On either flank of the glacier rose the magnificent snow-covered peaks of Nanda Devi and Nanda Kot. We were in the very midst of the great Himalayan mountain range, surrounded by a dense, profound silence, such as I had never experienced before.
I took a picture of Father sitting comfortably cross-legged on the rim of the gorge, wearing a monkey cap and the moss green pullover Mother had knitted for him. Father took two pictures of me. In one I sat in the same place as him, but petrified that I would fall backwards into the gorge. In the second I looked braver, standing at a safe distance from the edge, my Satwajirao coat and Khurshid slacks showing to full advantage, glares on the eyes, scarf round the head, looking up at the surrounding mountains in a pose which I must have believed conquerors of mountain peaks were required to assume. We also took pictures of the glacier, such as it was, had a snack and headed back to Phurkia. We hoped it would console Nirmal and Mother to hear that the Pindari Glacier was not the dazzling thing we had imagined, but just an expanse of grey ice. Tactfully, we kept the glory of Nanda Devi and Nanda Kot to ourselves. They would see it anyway when our photographs were developed and printed.
Down from the mountains, we stopped at Delhi to see the Qutb Minar; then went to Agra to see the Taj and Fatehpur Sikri. These monuments were to stir me profoundly later in life. But right then, after the magnificent splendour of the Himalayas, nothing man-made was going to awe me. Also, on the return trek, I had had to brake constantly to stop myself from slithering and tumbling down the steep slopes. Each time I did that, my toes would get crushed against the inner front of my shoes till, by the end of the descent, all my toe-nails had fallen off. It was not the most perfect condition for marvelling at monuments.
Our holidays were always special. But life with Father even ordinarily was rich, intellectually stimulating and full of fun. He had a robust sense of humour. His own wit was made up of unexpected turns of phrase, a unique way of seeing things and quick-shot repartee. Some of his humour was scatological. A passage that he chuckled over heartily and that he urged me to read, came from Samuel Beckett's Malloy. He enjoyed it as much for the author's idea of how a prestigious newspaper could be put to use as for its main purport:
And in winter, under my greatcoat, I wrapped myself in swathes of newspaper, and did not shed them until the earth awoke, for good, in April. The Times Literary Supplement was admirably adapted to this purpose, of a never failing toughness and impermeability. Even farts made no impression on it. I can't help it, gas escapes from my fundament on the least pretext, it's hard not to mention it now and then, however great my distaste. One day I counted them. Three hundred and fifteen farts in nineteen hours, or an average of over sixteen farts an hour. After all it's not excessive. Four farts every fifteen minutes. It's nothing. Not even one fart every four minutes. It's unbelievable. Damn it, I hardly fart at all, I should never have mentioned it."
Father was no competition for Beckett's protagonist. But when gas did escape from his fundament, he found it as funny as we did. He even had a name for each sound. His repertoire covered the duck quack, the bullet shot and the thunder clap. While we split our sides laughing at these involuntary performances, Mother, who thought the whole thing was thoroughly bad form, found in the explosions another instance of Father's uncontrolled impulses. Since she could not rein them in, she contented herself with hitting her forehead with her palm and remonstrating mildly, "Really Gopalrao!"
There was a resident clown in Father who surfaced occasionally. "Come and see my watermelon grow" he would call out to us. Lying in bed, he would exhale air in such a way that it pushed out his paunch making it large and impressively rotund. "Please again" we would cry, and again the watermelon grew. Stroking it he would say that that was where he stored his sorrows. Occasionally, the clown prompted Father to dance. Dance was his word for what he did, not ours. Judge for yourselves. He would walk towards the large lion-footed double tier cupboard that Mr Brown had given him when he left the Times and the country after Independence, holding the key. "Look," he would say. "The key dance." We looked and what we saw was a walk that was a cross between the Chhau step and a goose-step. This was a man getting ready to go to the Times to write thundering editorials. It was the same ridiculous walk whatever the dance. In the pajama dance for example, he would pick his pair of pajamas off the clothes horse, hold them delicately before him between forefinger and thumb, arms fully stretched, and do his walk across the room. "All right, show over," he would say and send us out of the room while he changed.
During the few illnesses that he suffered, nothing more than a bit of temperature now and again, he would lie in bed moaning, "I'm dying." Pretending to follow the adage "feed the cold and starve the fever", he would eat his usual meal, but served in a smaller plate. Once he had an attack of lumbago and once his feet sprang red eruptions. Till his heart attack, however, he had never seen the inside of a hospital. In fact he had a horror of hospitals. When Mother had to have a hysterectomy, she admitted herself in the next door hospital. He came out on our verandah and was told by the hospital nurse who came out on the hospital's, that all was well.
To balance the fun, Father occasionally exploded in ways other than gas escaping his fundament. He had a foul temper. My worst experience of it was when I had to go to the Alexandra Girls' School in town to play an inter-school table tennis match. I was 13. I went by bus but Father had offered to give me a lift back home. I was to follow his instructions and go straight to the Old Lady of Boribunder after my late afternoon match. My normal beat extended from Worli to Mahim. Names like Waudby Road threw me completely. But match done, I set off at a trot. I thought I was following Father's instructions to the letter, but I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere because suddenly I knew I was lost. This was the first time I realised I had an atrocious road sense which, in later years, was to take me around in circles in London and Bristol and Brussels. Too shy to ask passersby the simple question, "Which way to the Times of India", my mouth dry with fear, I walked for what seemed like eternity, till I spotted a familiar bus and, without thinking, jumped on.
When I got home, Father was already there, pacing the floor like a caged tiger. Mother was standing at the ready, waiting to intercede. Father's face was like a tornado. He did not hit me. He never hit us. But the torrent of abuse that flowed out of his mouth was perhaps the worst I had ever heard. I was a whole lot of unnameable things in addition to being an utter imbecile, a half-wit who was incapable of following simple road directions and did not deserve any of the facilities I was being given but had best stay home to cook and clean.
Another memorable flare-up was directed at Mother. I was at home. It was Sunday evening. Father was looking out for her, always anxious when she went too far away from home. He saw her taxi pull up. She stepped out carrying a largish paper parcel. She had been to Crawford Market with a friend and had returned with this thing. Father did not know what it was but when she happily displayed the contents, he flew right off the handle. What he saw was a pale green fluted lampshade for the naked bulb of the table lamp that stood on the desk in the verandah. It could not have cost more than the price of a couple of his books put together. But, red in the face, he was demanding to know what she thought she was doing? Here he was skinning his arse for the important things in life, and there she was, buying frippery fropperies. "We want light in this house, not shades," he thundered. Mother said nothing though her eyes smarted with tears at the injustice of the attack. She was a thrifty woman and managed the household money well enough to be able to spend on things like a lampshade once in a blue moon. But she held her peace. Nights were when she sorted things out with Father. The next morning she quietly and confidently fitted the lampshade on the lamp and stepped back to look at the effect with simple pleasure. The lampshade stayed on the lamp for many years till its apple-green colour faded to an indeterminate shade of cream and the trimming that traced its fluted edge became bedraggled. Years later, I sent Mother a lampshade frame and covering material from England with printed instructions for how to make it up. I don't remember if she made it; and if she did, what it looked like. But I still remember the apple-green fluted lampshade that had given rise to a storm in our house.
Mother managed Father's temper in her own skilfull way, sometimes arguing, sometimes placating. But she could only do this when she was physically with him, not when she was 6000 miles away in London.. There was an occasion soon after we had arrived, when his regular weekly letter did not come. We were sure he was angry and Mother felt totally helpless. Father had given us strict instructions not to spend time with Indians in London. There were enough of them back home. We were to use our precious time doing things that we could not do in Bombay -- seeing good films and plays, visiting museums and art galleries, travelling around the country and the continent. Disregarding this, Mother had agreed to let me act in the local Maharashtra Mandal's Ganeshotsav play, P K Atre's Sashtang Namaskar.
In those days, for any amateur Marathi group attempting to put together a play anywhere in the world including Bombay, the biggest hurdle was to find girls to act in it. Girls were not only hard to find, but, when found, their parents were almost impossible to convince to let them go. In London, word had got around through the Marathi grapevine that a family had landed in London with a daughter of just the right age to play Meera in Sashtang Namaskar. So, a couple of months after we had installed ourselves in our flat at 31, Coningham Road, a six-penny bus ride away from our school, St Paul's, two young men dropped in to see Mother with a request to let me act in the play. She gave them tea and a hot snack and said no. They came back, then again till Mother's resistance broke down. They looked like good, decent young men who were only trying to keep up home traditions in an alien and often hostile environment. She had reported their first visit to Father. Then she reported giving me permission to act in the play. It was precisely after that letter that Father had gone silent on us. We were agonised.
During that fear-filled week of waiting, Mother wrote to Father justifying her decision. "You know that I agree with you in principle about not spending time with Indians here. And in one sense, it would do us no harm to follow your wishes. But think. There's just the three of us here. Being together day and night, week after week does get very oppressive. The girls have been used to an outdoor life in the evenings. But here it's constantly drizzling outside and the cold makes life miserable. People around us are busy with their own lives. At such times, one longs for the phone to ring at least occasionally, whoever it may be at the other end. Think of these circumstances when you judge me."
The letter was her attempt to do at long distance what she would have done face-to-face. She felt sure he would understand. As it turned out, there was no reason for us to have panicked. Father had understood perfectly well why Mother had permitted me to act in the play. When he received her letter of explanation and self-justification, he immediately wired us, telling us not to worry. He said he had written and would write again. The letter we had expected had simply gone missing at a time when we were at our most vulnerable. It reached us after the telegram and the sun shone on us again!
Mother and Father were friends and companions in every sense of the word. They sat together every month to work out the household budget. As we grew older, we were included in the exercise, so we would understand and appreciate the value of money and why we could not have some of the things we wanted. The priorities for spending were clear. Right at the top was good food. Then came books, plays, films, sports and travel. The word beriberi haunted the dining table. Eating too much rice was supposed to give us this disease. Wheat and jowar were good for us. The food on the plate had to contain a balance of proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins. Mother saw to it that the colours on the plate were also balanced, to make the food look appetising. We ate fresh seasonal fruit before and dry fruit after meals. Fried food was not encouraged except over weekends when we unashamedly walloped Mother's mouth-watering bhajias, batata wadas, sabudana wadas and matar karanjis.
We dressed simply. Father spent next to nothing on his own clothes. Mother wore only cottons, mostly whites and off-whites. She was an excellent seamstress and made all our clothes, saving on tailors' charges. We were expected to wear shorts when we played table tennis and badminton. This shocked our conservative neighbours in Shivaji Park. But for some reason which we could never fathom, Father disapproved of sleeveless tops and dresses. Even before the gold control order was promulgated nationally in the sixties, gold had been a prohibited metal at home. Mother, who believed that girls should have at least some light gold jewellery to wear to weddings and similar occasions, saved from her household expenses and got Hari Mahadev Vaidya, the jewellers, to make bangles and earrings for us on credit. To Father, gold ornaments were the equivalent of baubles, a sign of primitivism. Face powder was prohibited. It clogged the pores of the skin, preventing sweat from flowing freely. In adolescence when I became conscious of my looks and spent more time than Father thought necessary before the dressing table mirror, he draped it with a sheet. When my school friend Rohini Patkar came over, she asked in loud surprise, "Gosh, why do you cover your mirror with a sheet?" Father's voice roared back from the verandah, "Because we are half-wits." Actually he used the Marathi word "gadhav"; but neither ass nor donkey, the English equivalents, deliver the same punch. So "half-wit" will have to do.
What also shocked our school friends was that we were expected to go out and play in the evenings even during examinations when they were sitting at home mugging. Father's contention was that if we paid sufficient attention in class and did our homework regularly, there was no need for last minute mugging. Also, a fresh mind was better for clear thinking than one clogged with undigested stuff. Occasionally, Father allowed us to take critical ethical decisions without interfering. I remember one occasion during my SSC exams which some of us took to fill in the time before our Senior Cambridge results were announced. Father was going to drop me off at the examination centre on his way to work. Just as he was unlocking the car door, an uncle came racing down the road calling out my name and urgently waving a sheet of paper. A neighbour of his had managed to get that morning's question paper for his son through some hanky-panky, and had offered my uncle a copy for me. Uncle had rushed halfway across the city to catch me in time; but I stood frozen, hands stubbornly held back, muttering, "No no. I've studied." Once Father was sure I was not tempted, he took the paper from uncle's hand, thanked him and said kindly that we would keep it and check later to see if it was a genuine or a fake leak.
Father enriched our young lives enormously with cultural outings. I can't have been more than nine or ten when he took us to see a Russian film called The Stone Flower. It was a fantasy. I still remember one shot from the film vividly. It showed a multi-hued expanse of what looked like huge, painted stone flowers with the hero, a beautiful young boy named Daniel, looking at them in wonder. A couple of years later, Father showed us Bicycle Thieves, a spare, realistic film, exactly the opposite of The Stone Flower. We loved it, particularly the little boy, Bruno whom the father suddenly loses. When he turns around to look for him, he finds him peeing by the roadside. I was mildly shocked at such a scene being included in a film, but immensely amused as well. We loved the simplicity with which the story was told and its closeness to real life. Years later I discovered that Bicycle Thieves figured in the British Film Institute's list of ten films one had to see by the age of 14. I had just made it.
Viva Zapata was an experience of a totally different kind. It starred Marlon Brando as the Mexican rebel, Zapata. For some reason I do not remember him at all. The actor I do remember vividly even today, is Anthony Quinn who played Zapata's brother. It was his craggy, sweaty face as he clawed his way up a hill calling out, "Zapata" that stayed with us for years. We also saw the Prabhat classics, Sant Tukaram, Ramshastri, Manoos and Kunku. I was highly amused to hear Shanta Apte, the heroine of Kunku and incidentally our landlady, sing Longfellow's A Psalm of Life which I knew by heart from school.
There were no dedicated indoor auditoriums for theatre in those days. Amateur groups, who were trying to do meaningful, non-commercial plays, hired school and club halls for their productions. Father took us to see the Marathi translation of Clifford Odets' Waiting for Lefty at Balmohan Vidya Mandir next door; and Aai, an adaptation of Gorky's Mother, at another such venue. He also took us to see a British production of The Merchant of Venice at one of the cinema halls in town. For days afterwards, Nirmal and I entertained ourselves mimicking the way Shylock had said "Three thousand ducats" in the play. Father also took us to see ice-skating at Excelsior cinema where an ice-rink had been created.
One of the most stunning experiences for me was to see Shantha Rao dance. Bharata Natyam was hardly known to rasikas in Bombay at the time. We had seen Uday Shankar's film Kalpana and S S Vasan's Chandralekha in which the heroine and her companions danced on outsize nagara drums. That had been dance for us until Shantha Rao and later Indrani Rehman showed us what it could be. Music too was part of our cultural life with Father. I attended my first Bhimsen Joshi concert with him in a huge school hall. My first Ustad Ali Akbar Khan recital was a totally different experience. It was a private recital in Mafatlal Park at the home of a friend of Father's. Listening to the sarod in this intimate setting, without technologically assisted amplification and in the company of a select number of connoisseurs, was exotic. But I remember not enjoying the concert as much as I enjoyed the public concerts of vocalists which we attended.
There were some concerts to which only our parents went; but it was very interesting to hear them discuss why they had or had not liked what they had heard. Their discussions introduced us to names like Mallikarjun Mansur, Kesarbai Kerkar, Sharadchandra Arolkar, all of whom we then went on to hear independently. One singer whose performances Nirmal and I immensely enjoyed was Shahir Amar Sheikh who sang rousing revolutionary songs. He was an impressive figure of a man –tall, well-built with unruly hair and a powerful voice that resounded through the neighbourhood. We sang his songs at home and felt big and brave. Jaati ghadi punha yenara nahi ra uthun chala pudha jau ra (This moment will not come again, let us rise and advance.") Another kind of music that we loved but were not encouraged to hear or sing was Hindi film songs. Father had a strictly conservative view of them and of Hindi films in general. Consequently, our tryst with Binaca Geetmala had to be surreptitious. But school picnics with no disapproving father around, were when we belted out our favourites with abandon--man dole mera tan dole, hawa me udtaa jaaye, uthaye ja unke sitam-- songs filled with aching love and the agonies of separation, some flirtatious, some tragic.
Father's books were his only valuable acquisitions until he bought the plot of land in Talegaon and built his retirement home. Of the hundreds of books he had collected during a lifetime of bibliophilia, Mother donated over a hundred on subjects like Economics, Politics, Philosophy and Religion to Indrayani College at Talegaon after his death. Of the rest, Babanbhau took a large number, Nirmal took a few and I a major bulk. Looking through the collection I have inherited, I see how Father's Marxism was tempered by his reading of world literature and drama. Sartre and Camus are here, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Salinger and Francoise Sagan. There is Evelyn Waugh and C P Snow, Hemingway and Thomas Mann, Conrad and Balzac, Arthur Miller and Tenessee Williams, Arnold Wesker and John Osborne, all of Ibsen and Eugene O'Neill, Ionesco and Beckett. There's Hannah Arendt's On Revolution, Plato's The Trial and Death of Socrates, Jungk's Children of the Ashes, Robert Tucker's Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx, Erich Fromm's Marx's Concept of Man and…yes, even Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey.
Father was able to work, read, travel, visit, see films and plays, listen to music and spend time with us because he led a disciplined life. He did not waste a moment of his time, nor did he encourage us to do so. Years after his death, Vijay Kulkarni, who had been a statistician in the Financial Express when Father was there, wrote a moving tribute to him in a Marathi weekly, in which he said that Father had expected a similar level of discipline and efficiency from his staff. "Gopal Gundo Gokhale would arrive in the office on the dot of 10.30 every morning. By 4.30 in the afternoon, his table was clear of all work. Being disciplined himself, he insisted that the staff under him be equally so. I cannot give a better example of this than my own experience. Before he joined the Financial Express, I would be in the office from 11 in the morning till 11 at night. Logically, I could then boast of how much work I had done. But when Mr Gokhale came, I was told that the many hours I spent at work were only a sign of my inefficiency and I would have to change that. He expected me to work from 10.30 to 5.30 by which time I should have done all that I needed to do for the day. What he found most difficult to bear was the sight of a staffer sitting idle. He would stroll over to the individual's desk and say casually, 'If you have no work, go home. It'll please your wife and children.' Although he was the most outspoken man in the office, nobody ever took offence at what he said, because his remarks were always made good-humouredly. They were never meant to hurt or humiliate."
By the time Father was ready to leave the Financial Express he had already started making plans for retirement. Although he was joining the Cotton Mills Federation, it was clearly not a prospect that enthused him. Perhaps the idea of retiring had taken such a strong hold of his mind and imagination that even the most attractive job would not have kept him back for much longer. His plans were two-pronged. There was going to be a house in the vicinity of Pune and he was going to start a poultry farm. He looked forward to making himself a brand new life, away from it all.
First there was the plot. It had to be large enough to hold the house, the garden and the poultry shed comfortably while still fitting into his budget. The campaign to hunt for it had started while he was still with the Financial Express. He made the home of our family friend Rambhau Pusalkar in Pune's Modi Baug his base. Father would arrive at the Pusalkar home for the weekend and trudge around the city and surroundings all day, following up on tips and advertisements. When he returned he would be tired, tanned and unhappy because nothing remotely suitable had presented itself. But come next weekend, he was back in Pune, full of hope and spirit. Such tenacity had to be rewarded some day. And it was. He found exactly what he was looking for in Kadolkarwadi, Talegaon Dabhade --a 15,000 sq ft plot that just about fitted his pocket. Plot bought, he got down to designing the house. This soon became an obsession. He paced the floor, his forefinger stroking his nose, seeing visions of the house he was going to build. At dinnertime, he would excitedly draw plans on any scrap of paper that came to hand. Plans changed every day. Every day a detail was added here or there. There was a general feeling in the family and amongst friends that he should get a qualified architect to design the house based on his ideas. But it took him a long time to accept the idea.
A young architect was finally found. The poor man was raring to show what he could do. He set to work and came up triumphantly with a design in which the house was painted in pastel shades, fronted by a porch under which a fancy car was parked and on each side of which rose elegant palm trees. Father blew his top. "I'm not going to live in a house like that," he fumed. "The man's an idiot. Doesn't he know Talegaon doesn't have palm trees? And what makes this young man think we will have a car under that silly porch?"
"It's only a drawing," Mother said placatingly. "Make what changes you like. Forget the palm trees and forget the porch. But what do you mean there will be no car? Aren't we taking the mouse?"
"And how do you propose to sell your eggs? How will you take them to the market?"
"I won't. The middleman will do that."
"And how will you make your profit if the middleman swallows it as middlemen do?"
"I'll figure that out."
Nicolas Bouvier's Topolino may have made it halfway round the world; but Father's Bug was not going to make it from Bombay to Talegaon. So that was the end of that conversation. There were to be many more such in which Father and Mother would be ranged on opposite sides – his side impulsive, hers practical. But there was always a middle ground open on which they would eventually meet and resolve their differences.
The ideas that dominated Father's vision of a house were as follows: It had to have a sit-out at the entrance with benches where the local farmers and tradesmen could relax when they dropped in for a chat about village politics over hot cups of tea. There was to be one large bedroom with wide open windows that would let in a view of the Bhandara hill on which Tukaram had sat in contemplation of his god, Vitthal and composed many of his abhangs which later went out amongst the people -- the rich and the poor, the illiterate and the erudite -- to become powerful expressions of personal faith while enriching the Marathi language in the process. The bathroom, not attached to the bedroom but free for all to use, was also to be spacious. The living-cum-dining room could be more moderate in dimensions, if there was a constraint on space; but the kitchen, where Mother would spend much of her time, would be roomy and airy.
The thorny question was how best to accommodate Father's collection of books to which he hoped to continue to add if his poultry business prospered. After days of feverish thought, he found the solution-- a humongous floor to ceiling wall of shelves that would form an entire side of the bedroom. That question settled, he then wanted the design to incorporate two independent rooms for his daughters. He envisaged them as a tail to the body of the house, linked to it by a door, but also having a separate approach from the back garden. The tail would have a little common kitchenette, bathroom and toilet. These rooms would also be open for friends to write, compose and sketch in peace, or simply sit and stare. Finally, and most importantly, the house was to be built of local stone and topped by a roof of Mangalore tiles.
A new architect was found and instructed to confine himself to using his expert skills not to imagine the house but to create a design from Father's ideas, none of which were to be changed or even modified for fanciful reasons. Mother peered down at the new architect's design and said, "Where's my terrace?
"Terrace? What do you want a terrace for?" Father demanded. "We want to forget the city don't we?"
"You do. I don't. I've spent enough years in the countryside among chikoo orchards and lowing buffalo. I'm coming to Talegaon to be with you. And I need a terrace."
"Tell me one good reason why you need a terrace."
"To dry things on."
"Papads, rice, turmeric, that sort of thing."
"And you would destroy the aesthetics of this house of rugged grey stone with a flat terrace for your papads?"
"If they were just my papads, I'd forget about them. But they are your papads too."
It looked like a stalemate. At this point, Father put his foot out gingerly to feel the middle ground. Then he said non-commitally, "How big must this terrace be?"
"In square feet?"
"No. just generally."
"In square feet I'd say about 100."
"And we have a plot measuring 15000 square feet of which at most 5000 will go under the house and the poultry shed. Throw in another 500 for the cowshed…"
"Of course. Aren't we going to keep a buffalo for milk? Lots of guests will come and why buy milk when we can have our own?"
"First I'm hearing about a buffalo."
"Oh? I thought we'd spoken about it. But never mind. First your papads."
"Ok. Our papads. So with house, poultry shed and cowshed there's still a good 9,500 sq ft left for you to dry papads on. Surely that would suffice?"
"No. Because you mean to plant every inch of those square feet with fruit trees, flowering trees, Singapore coconuts and a kitchen garden, remember?"
She was throwing Father's plans back at him. He stroked his nose, not enjoying being pushed to retract something he had set his mind on. But gradually, the redness that had been growing on his face, signal of a storm brewing, receded. "Done," he said. "You shall have your terrace and I shall have my tiled roof. The main house will be covered with my tiles. The tail at the back with your terrace."
A few days later, Father said, "What shall we call it?" It was a Sunday. Mother was rolling chapattis. Father stood by the cooking platform in excited anticipation. The foundation of the house was still to be dug, but a name had to be found. That very moment. I was in and out of the kitchen doing my own thing. But soon I was summoned to participate in the discussion. Nirmla was married by then and in her own home. Else she would have been summoned too.
"What shall we call the house?"
Neither Mother nor I dared suggest a name. A perfect name for a perfect house was a dangerous thing to venture into at this delicate point of time. "Let's think. There's still time," Mother prevaricated. "There's no time," he said. By which we understood that he was determined to have a name for the house even before the first stroke of the pickaxe fell on the ground. We made a tentative round of suggestions. Predictably, all were knocked down as inane or ridiculous and by no stretch measuring up to the sublimity of the house. Then, seemingly out of thin air, a name materialised whose authorship remained contested for a long time to come. Was it Father who pronounced it or Mother? Both thought they had. I was appealed to as the referee. Naturally I said, "Both of you thought alike and said it together." Whereupon both turned on me, accusing me of falsehood and hypocritical diplomacy. However, even while that conflict was on, the name itself was celebrated as a stroke of genius. "Abhang". The word meant two things simultaneously. It referred to Tukaram's devotional songs which were called abhangs, and it also meant something that would not break—'a' being the negative of 'bhang' which meant break. "Like us," Mother said in a rare show of sentiment. Father grunted and did his pleased-but-not-wanting-to-admit-it half smile.
Sentiment wasn't encouraged in our house. If we did well at school or sports, Mother would smile broadly but Father would only say, "Crazy nut." The words "Love you" never crossed our lips. Hugging and kissing? Out of the question. It was only on her death-bed that Mother said, "Hug me." Touch was the only thing that spoke to her in the loneliness of those last days.
Father was a convivial, gregarious man with several circles of friends. Dattaram Palekar held a special place amongst them. He was not part of a circle. He was unique, a friend from Sardar High School, Belgaum. By a happy coincidence, he lived a couple of streets away from us. As a civil engineer in the road constructions department of the Bombay Municipal Corporation -- he supervised the construction of the Western Express Highway-- he had to bear the brunt of Father's rage over the road in front of our house not being metalled. Palekar Kaka heard him out patiently, his gentle, indulgent smile never leaving his face. The two friends made a study in contrast as they took their walk around Shivaji Park every evening. Dressed in khaki shorts (categorically not of the flared variety), one was quiet, the other perpetually animated. I wonder if Palekar Kaka ever mentioned his interest in palmistry to my diehard rationalist father. I heard about it very recently from his niece, the kirana gharana singer Sudha Divekar who said Palekar Kaka had noted down the probable dates of death of every member of his family including his own. Sudha reports that his death of bile duct cancer in 1980 happened on the very date that he had predicted.
Father's Sunday mornings were reserved for visits to friends living further away. Nirmal and I sometimes accompanied him on his rounds and either played with his friends' children if they were our age, or sat and watched the adults talk. Rajaram Arur who was with the Economic Times lived on Ambedkar Road, Matunga. I remember a Sunday morning when the friends seriously discussed Arur Kaka's decision to admit his son Narayan to a Marathi medium school rather than an English medium school although the Arurs were Chitrapur Saraswats who spoke Konkani at home. Language was a big nationalist issue which affected Nirmal's schooling too as we shall soon see. We visited the artist and scholar D. G. Godse with whom Father spent additional evenings reading Kalidas and Bhavabhuti's Uttararamacharita. Another destination was Aram a graceful art deco structure in Matunga, where Prof R. P. Kangle the soft-spoken Sanskrit scholar lived. Kangle was the author of the three-volume exposition- commentry -translation of Kautilya's Arthashastra which remains even today, the classic text on the subject. Occasionally we dropped in on R. G. Gokhale in Hindu Colony, a labour law man whose son Shashi followed us to London after his graduation. Ours had been the last ship to go through the Suez Canal. By the time Shashi sailed, Israel, followed by the United Kingdom and France had invaded Egypt with the aim of regaining control of the Suez Canal and removing the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser from power. As a result Shashi's ship had to go around the Cape of Good Hope, taking a month to arrive in England whereas ours had taken a mere 20 days.
When Father was not visiting friends, he was taking us on drives to the Vaitarna, Tansa and Powai reservoirs, the Parsik Hill and occasionally to Lonavala. The drives ended in picnic lunches which were very special because we ate sandwiches then made with Polson butter and Kraft cheese. Both were luxuries. At home we ate white butter churned from buttermilk; but that was with bhakris, chaklis, thalipeeth. If we were eating sandwiches, then Polson and Kraft were de rigeur. Amul arrived many years later and its butter and cheese simply never had the flavour of Polson and Kraft.
Building "Abhang" took longer than Father had expected. Every weekend either he or Mother or both would go down to Talegaon to supervise the work. They had hired a room in the TB sanatorium next to the railway track as their base. It was a make-do kind of room where they managed to make do. The building contractor of "Abhang" was a Gujarati. This made communication between him and Mother extra smooth. Coming from Dahanu, she spoke Gujarati like a native. She and Father spent the day on site under the blazing sun, and the night in the hired room. It was a hard life which I saw at first hand when I joined them one weekend. "Look at this soil," Father said, picking up a fistful from the pile growing round the foundation pit. "There's nothing that will not grow in it," he said.
"And the air. That's what I like best," Mother said. "You want to drink whole mouthfuls of it."
On Sunday morning, as we stood in the little back verandah of the hired room having our tea, Father looked at the clock on the wall (he never wore a wristwatch all his life but was unfailingly punctual) and said, "It's time. She'll be here soon." The "she" was the Deccan Queen for whose royal passage Father waited with childlike excitement every Sunday morning. "There she is," he said as we heard a distant rumble. "On the dot as always." Soon the blue train came thundering down the central tracks, while two lesser trains waited on either side like handmaidens, for her highness to pass. It was a sight that never failed to thrill Father.
A saying in Marathi goes, "Lagna pahave karun, ghar pahave bandhun." A translation can never be as pithy as the original, but what it means is that only when you actually build a house or get married do you know how costs escalate. So it was with "Abhang". The foundation had to be dug deeper than planned before it hit hard rock. Father gave the job of manufacturing window frames and angles to a young man who had just set up in business. He got the first batch all wrong. Nothing fitted. The next batch fitted, but it was still a little crude. Father lost a lot of money on this adventure, but a young entrepreneur had been given a leg up and that was important.
The house was completed in 1965. Father resigned from the Cotton Mills Federation. In the August of the following year, 1966, my parents moved bag and baggage to Talegaon to start their new life. But before that, there were things in the old life that needed winding up. A year before Father made his move out of Bombay the nation's politics had undergone an unprecedented upheaval. Two major events had taken place as an outfall of the Sino-Indian War of 1962. Jawaharlal Nehru had died and the Communist Party had split. Nearer home our landlady, Shanta Apte, the beautiful and immensely gifted film actor-singer, had died a tragic death. The fortunes of both the country and the house were up in the air. Although the persistent question that had become something of a chant in India in the late fifties, "After Nehru who?" had been solved with Lal Bahadur Shastri stepping in, who Lalit Estates would go to after Shanta Apte's death remained unclear. Although her brother had been ipso facto owner of her properties for some time, and that's a tragic tale bristling with gossip into which I will not go, we could still not be sure that there would not be rival claims to the property.
Despite these circumstances, Father was all for returning the flat to the brother as the ethically right thing to do. Mother thought otherwise, for three reasons. One, the unclear ownership; two, Nirmal and her husband Mukund (Baloo) Limaye had half-separated from her in-laws and were living in a small flat at the top of the family owned building. Mother was certain they would not be averse to moving into the more spacious Lalit Estates flat; three, if Nirmal moved in, Father would have a pied-a-terre when he visited Bombay for work. He had agreed to review books for the Times and the Financial Express and needed to come up to the city a couple of days every month to pick them up and do his reference work. Father reluctantly acceded to Mother's plan. Nirmal readily agreed to move into Lalit Estate; so Father had a place to stay when he visited Bombay.
In the letter of condolence that novelist-playwright, Kiran Nagarkar wrote to me after Father's death, he said, "I had met him only twenty days back, quite unexpectedly. I was hurriedly climbing up the stairs of the Asiatic Library. Someone was standing to the right at the top. I passed him, there was a sharp, brisk, "Nagarkar" called out behind me. When I turned around, for a second I didn't recognise him. It was nearly a year ago since I had met him. He was working on the poultry shelters and you had called him over to introduce my friends and me. But I couldn't have forgotten that voice, a shade peremptory and sturdy. He wanted to see the Constitution of India and none of his other friends were around. I'm glad, especially today, that I was able to help him by turning up so early that day at the library." Why Father himself was not a member of the Asiatic Library we shall never know.
Talegaon is where Aligarh-born Ishwar Das Varshnei, the first Indian student to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, set up a glass factory in 1908. He had returned to India with a degree in Chemical Engineering and was fired by the desire to contribute to India's modernisation. With the support of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Antaji Damodar Kale, he raised one paisa per head from the public to fund his dream. The outcome was the Paisa Fund Glass Works that still stands on the Talegaon-Chakan road. If the glass factory was one small brick in the edifice of modern India, Bhandara hill and the Indrayani river which flowed past Talegaon, were part of the spiritual history of Maharashtra.
"Abhang" stood in a shallow dip of land, within walking distance of the old Bombay-Pune highway. The "tale" (lake) that gave the place its name, was also within walking distance from the house. When you drove down the highway you caught a glimpse of the red-tiled roof of "Abhang". It was all that showed above the rim of the dip, but it was enough to guide friends travelling to and from Pune to the house. Friends came, relatives came, some by car, some by train and tonga. It was open house at "Abhang" as it had been at Lalit Estate. Those who came got a taste of the kitchen garden produce. Bottle gourds grew in such abundance, you would think it was the only place on god's earth where they had full freedom to multiply. When home-grown bottle gourd, bhindi or tondli were served to lunch guests, Father would stand over them and say "Well?" At this point guests were meant to swear that his bottle gourd / bhindi / tondli were the finest and most succulent they had ever eaten. Indeed, they were nothing short of divine.
Friends who went around the house were astonished by the bookcase wall of the bedroom. How do you reach the topmost shelf they would ask sceptically. Father would be waiting for the question. With a flourish he would point to the ladder that stood in the corner, designed to slide along the railing at the top of the bookshelf. Although it was not in use at the time, it would come into full play once Father's books had reached the heights he had planned for them.
Friends were also fascinated by the hatch between the kitchen and the dining area through which Mother passed the food. The idea of the two rooms in the tail of the house was declared brilliant. At the end of the tail was a flight of iron stairs leading up to Mother's papad terrace. Beyond that, across a patch of grass, were the cowshed and the poultry shed.
Father had read deeply and widely about poultry farming. He had visited the best, most professionally run hatcheries in the neighbourhood, discussed the hazards and safeguards of the business, and installed troughs that would help his chickens feed in comfort and lights that would keep them warm. There was much discussion about the best breed of cockerel and hens to buy. The final decision, if I remember right, was Leghorns. Father was not interested in selling chickens, but eggs. A local man called Bajirao was appointed to look after the poultry and the milch cattle that Mother and I went to the weekly market in Chakan to buy. The first buffalo was named Ganga. The second, bought later, was Godavari, Goda for short.
Tree planting began feverishly. Father made several visits to nurseries around Pune to pick up seeds and plants. Within a year the place was alive with the fresh, earthy smells of vegetation, the clucking of egg-laying hens and the mooing of contented buffalo. Bajirao was assisted by John, a dour young Malayali cook who had come to work for us in Bombay. His brother Paul, who had worked for many years with a Swedish couple, had been looking out for a job for his younger brother. A couple of accidental meetings between Paul and me and John joined us. However, after a few months in Talegaon, he went suddenly haywire and had to be sent away. Mother's theory was that Bajirao had taken him out one night to see a tamasha and John had come back changed, with women dancing in his head. After John was packed off, Mother took over the kitchen, cooking large quantities of food because you never knew who would drop in from where.
Almost as soon as they had settled into "Abhang", my parents made friends with the neighbours and townsfolk. Gaekwad the electrician was a daily visitor. Janakibai, a tall erect woman who sold milk in the village, sat on the bench in the sitout for a brief rest and a warm chat. From her, Mother gathered stories about drunken husbands and women who slaved to feed them and their families. The son of the owner of the nearby chalk factory, Arun Bapat, dropped in frequently just to be around my parents. Bapu Mahajan, whose sons ran a small workshop manufacturing cartons, was Father's regular companion. Mother made friends with Go Ni Dandekar the novelist and expert on Shivaji's forts. She also discovered a bhajan class in the village where Manohar Sabnis, known respectfully as Dada, came from Pune to teach the abhangs of Tukaram, Dnyaneshwar and other saint poets.
Meanwhile the poultry, which had been flourishing, was suddenly struck by disease. Some form of bird flu felled several birds one after the other. The infection was expected to spread to the other birds. There was no choice but to get rid of the entire lot and shut down the poultry. It was a sad end to Father's cherished dream. But soon another grew in its place. He decided to start breeding pigs. For Father, the tantalising picture of what he wanted to do always took precedence over what he could or should do. Mother had given up arguing with him over his impractical plans. She reasoned to herself that there was enough place in and around "Abhang" for everybody's dreams to flower. If there were pink pigs squealing in the backyard, there were magnificent trees growing in the front. There was also Khandu the Alsatian who sat outside his dog kennel in the garden. Babanbhau, who was in the police and posted to Pune at the time, had got their trainer to train him as a watch dog for "Abhang". Khandu was a magnificent creature, deeply devoted to my parents. But there were irreconcilable ideological differences between man and dog. Despite the plebeian name Father had fondly given him, Khandu barked ferociously at every dhoti-clad man and nine-yard sari wearing woman who entered the premises. Trousers and shirts on the other hand, brought on a delighted wagging of the tail. When this happened, Father would rush towards him furiously with a raised newspaper roll. He never struck Khandu even lightly with it, but flung violent Marxist abuse at him, imperialist cur being the top favourite. Shattered by the shock of Father's death, Mother sent Khandu away to Babanbhau's place where he sat inconsolably in a corner, refusing to eat or drink. He died soon after.
Nirmal and I went down to Talegaon in the October of 1966, after our respective deliveries, she with her second son Vikram, born on September 22 and I with my first daughter Renuka, born on October 7. Those were joyous days for us all, and amusing too. Vikram, like Nirmal's first born, Bharat, was a large baby with a healthy appetite. He fed well and grew rapidly. Renuka was born small. She had a matching appetite and seemed perfectly content not to feed. The contrast showed most sharply when the two cousins lay side by side on the living room divan. Father would come in from pottering in the garden and stand looking at them proudly, calling them by his own special names. Vikram was Bhegde Patil, a name that belonged to solid local farmer stock. Renuka was Awali, named after Tukaram's wife. Renuka was a colicky baby, which meant that she spent all her evenings in dire discomfort. It upset Father terribly to hear her cry. "You don't know how to hold her. Give her to me," he would say. When he held her close to his chest, she felt immediately comforted. We wondered why, because we too held her similarly, close to our chests. "But," said Father smugly. "You don't have my touch." Renuka's naming ceremony, delayed on account of her colic, took place in January. Soon after that I was in Kaka Court, Churchgate, where the Navy had finally allotted a flat to Viju.
Father's pink pigs did not last long. There was much more to the business of pig farming than Father's research had led him to believe. The pigs had come a cropper between theory and practice. Mother said with a sigh in Gujarati, "Jenu kaam tenech thay, bijo karwa jai to goto khaye." (Each one to his work. If another tries, he messes up.) As against the pigs, the garden flourished. Mother herself was an expert gardener. Even in Bombay she had made a dinky garden in the space between our building and the one at the back. Besides flowering plants, she had planted a banana tree which had provided delicious and stunning looking banana flowers to our dining table. She knew instinctively how much water each plant needed, when it was to be trimmed and when and how much manure was to be mixed with the soil. As far as the garden went, Father accepted all her decisions without argument. But on that fateful day, March 18, 1967, when he should have waited for Bajirao to finish his chores and dig a pit for a new tree, he could not resist the urge to do the job himself. He picked up the shovel and started digging. That day was my parents' 29th wedding anniversary. Mother had cooked a special lunch with Father's favourite sweet dish, before going to the bhajan class in the village. When she returned, she found Bajirao in tears. Father had felt a searing pain in the chest while digging. Bajirao had supported him to the bedroom where he had thrown up violently. He lay there now writhing in pain. The wall near the bed was spattered with his projectile vomit. He had had a massive heart attack.
The neighbours rallied around. A vehicle was immediately found to rush him to Jehangir Nursing Home in Pune. One of the finest cardiac surgeons in the city, Dr Sardesai, attended on him immediately. Emergency treatment was begun. Arun Bapat was despatched to Bombay to fetch us. All he said was, "Gokhale Kaka is in hospital. Nothing to worry about. Just stress on the chest." We rushed to Pune with Bharat and the babies, straight to Babanbhau's place. In hospital we saw Father with tubes attached to his nose and arms, a condition we had never imagined we would ever see him in. Rambhau Pusalkar who visited, was so shocked, he stood stock still on the threshold of the room unable to enter. Jehangir Nursing Home was close to Pune station. Every time a bell clanged to signal the arrival of a train, Father would say, "That could be for me." He was concerned about Renuka. "Have you given Awali her polio shot," he wanted to know. I had not because she had a bad cold. "Don't forget," he said. "Do it as soon as the cold subsides." I have no idea what he said to Mother or to Nirmal. Each one of us was battling our own terrible fears. The news was bad. Father was not responding to treatment.
On the morning of March 20, Father suffered a second attack. He called out desperately for a bedpan. I rushed out to find the nurse, unaware of the fact that an uncontrollable urge to pass a stool meant that Father's sphincter muscles had given way and it was the beginning of the end. The nurse knew this. She looked expressionlessly at me when I told her Father needed a bedpan. I screamed at her, "My father needs a bedpan. Can't you come?" This time the nurse nodded and I rushed back to Father's room to tell him the bedpan was on its way. But he was already beyond bedpans. He was breathing stertorously. His face had collapsed and darkened. His lips were pushing in and out in a desperate attempt to breathe. He was battling for life. At 9.30, he became still. The doctor confirmed it. He was no more. It was a myocardial infarction. A whole big healthy man with an infinite lust for life, a man teeming with ideas and dreams, a man who had always made what was apparently impossible, possible, a man of immense moral courage, that man now lay before us, felled by a myocardial infarct.
We were sent out while he was washed and dressed. Practical arrangements had to be made. Sudhakar Mama who lived in Pune and worked with Ashok Leyland arranged for a vehicle. The Pune municipality stalled us with a rule that asked for innumerable documents before we could take Father out of city limits back to his home. While we were still in disbelief and denial, the nurse came in. "When are you removing the body? We need the bed." I couldn't contain myself. "He's not a body, he's my father," I shouted. But she had left the room already.
There were no religious rites for Father. His new friends in Talegaon tried hard to persuade us to conduct some. They had got used to Father's strangeness, which they thought of privately as eccentricity. But now that he was gone, surely his wife would want to ease his way to the other world with prayers. Mother was tearful but firm. "No religious rites," she said. "He lived as an atheist and he will go as an atheist." Those were days when women were still not supposed to go to the crematorium. Things changed later. But that day, March 20, 1967, Father was taken away without us, his closest and dearest, accompanying him. With him went the angry brooding over human folly, the excited discovery of books, the earthy obscenities against the corrupt and dishonest, the irreverence towards convention, the ever enthusiastic support for talent and enterprise. Gone was the brisk, preoccupied walk, the love of smutty jokes, the roaring voice, the swollen veins of rage, the hearty laugh, the absurd shorts, the splendid pride, the taking of life by the horns.
How had such a thing happened? We found out later that unaccustomed and excessive physical activity often triggered a heart attack. Father had been digging for a long time, impatient to plant his tree. That was one reason. But there was another. It was not merely excessive physical activity that had taken him. It was also a lifetime of stress, of battling self-made odds, of dreaming impossible dreams, of taking their failure to heart, and also, undoubtedly, smoking.
A few days later, Arun Bapat arranged for a raft to take us out to the middle of Father's beloved Indrayani where we set his ashes afloat. That was how Gopal Gundo Gokhale's life ended.
Father's last piece of writing had appeared in the Financial Express a mere three weeks before his death. It was a review of Harbans Singh Mann's 103-page book Analysis of Some Problems of Community Development in India, priced at Rs 5. The first paragraph was characteristically forthright. "The most charitable thing that can be said about this book is its cheap price. This is rather important in these days when publishers charge higher prices for vastly slimmer books."
Amongst the flood of letters that arrived following the news of Father's death, one was from his dear friend Advocate W. A. Limaye of Gondia. "I am shocked and stunned by the news of your daddy's untimely demise. I am reminded of the old college days when I met him. He was indeed a great gentleman, and lived by his words and convictions. I had written to him and our other college friends Ganpule and Gune about my eye operation. He was the only one who replied." Later Father had sent him a post-card with four words of inquiry and two pictures of information. "Your (picture of eye) how? My (picture of house) completed." Just that.