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My mother’s reaction was not unexpected when the letter from the British Council came. Part of her was in panic, part of her felt proud, and both feelings battled each other. On the one hand she was pleased that I had won such a prestigious scholarship to go to Oxford University, one of the highest ranked universities in the world – and yet on the other hand, given our family’s past encounter with that famed university, she was understandably apprehensive.
‘Your grandmother,’ she said, wiping a tear with her chunni. ‘If she had been here….’
I knew that if Nani had been there, there would have been fierce opposition to my departure. I actually think I wouldn’t have had the heart to overrule her wishes in this regard. But she was not there anymore, having passed away in her sleep, only the previous year, the best way to die as the song goes.
Nani loved me a great deal, sometimes, I think, even more than her daughter, my mother. It was partly because I reminded her of Grandfather to whom she had been devoted. When I was younger and went to her bed to hear stories, sometimes she would stroke my face and say with a soulful sigh:
‘You know, you look just like your grandfather. You have his eyes, his nose…’
‘Are you sure?’ I said, for I knew I was not nearly as handsome as he had been in the prime of his youth.
‘Your habits and your character also remind me of him,’ she said.
‘What about my habits and character?’
‘I’m sure I’ve taken something from you as well,’ I would reply.
‘Of course you have,’ she would laugh, ‘and I’m sure your parents have made their individual contributions as well.’
Nani claimed that I resembled Grandad, but I wasn’t so sure. She was paying me a huge compliment by the way for despite the way things turned out he had been an exceptional man in every which way.
* * *
As a child I had heard stories that Grandad was so good looking that the girls in the village he grew up in the Punjab in Pakistan couldn’t help gossiping about him, the way young girls today go on about Bollywood heroes. He had movie star good looks or even beyond for in those days, the acting profession was looked down. The films were black and white, without any sound and releases were few and far between; it would still be years before Bollywood would come into its own.
My grandfather came from Bhon, a small village in District Jhelum, which has gained prominence in recent years because India’s only Sikh prime minister was born there. The closest village in those pre-Partition times was Chakwal. Times have changed and post-independence Chakwal has grown exponentially. It is no longer a village, it is now a biggish town and there is even a train, the Chakwal Express that runs from it all the way to Islamabad, Pakistan’s shining new capital.
Anyhow, as Nanima tells the tale, verified and embellished by dozens of other relatives, Grandad was possessed of such remarkable good looks that on occasions when he went from Small Village Bhon to visit a Muslim Pathan friend in Big Village Chakwal, the girls there would line up on the balconies of double storey houses, clutching at each other with suppressed giggles, just to see him pass.
* * *
Despite Grandma’s fond imaginings that I resembled Grandad the reality was in quite in reverse as far as my own life was concerned when I became a young man and entered college. It was I who would be on the balcony of Hindu College hostel brushing my teeth as I surveyed with a glad eye the bevy of young girls the college lawns with their feminine presence, sipping tea or coffee brought to them by white uniformed waiters emerging from a nearby cafeteria.
As far as I know no girl ever looked up at me on the balcony.
Anyhow, I’m not too fussed about not being the best looking man on the planet. I’m reasonably good looking and that’s good enough for me. At six feet three I towered over most of my class fellows. Additionally I have a solid physique. I’ve also had the odd girl interested in me during the college years, no pun intended, and I attribute that more to my charm and intellect than anything as superficial as good looks. To be fair though, my physique and height may have contributed to that limited success that I enjoyed – women do like to look up to a man – and those too are superficial attributes aren’t they?
At Hindu College, Delhi University, I played basketball, but in school I had played football and was the boxing champ three years in a row. The only one who could stand up against me and give me a fight was a tall Anglo-Indian boy called Banon. It was a foregone conclusion that we would meet in the finals, and when we did meet, the event was so popular that kids and teachers from several nearby schools also showed up to see the match. I believe people would have paid money and bought tickets to watch us fight. It was discussed three months before the event and six months after. Banon was an inch taller than me, and perhaps just a few seconds faster on his feet, but to offset those two advantages, I could take a lot of punishment, and when I hit, I hit really hard. In the end I always had the edge over him but to his credit, although there were many knock outs on the way to the finals, Banon never got knocked out and always lasted the full nine rounds. I loved the grace with which he danced in the ring, but the crowd loved the way I took punishment and came back to hit a whammer.
I was a bit of a hero in school, and would have been the Head Boy if I had ever stood for an election, but I never wanted to. I don’t think anyone was scared of me, because I was known not to pick a fight unnecessarily. I did however fight and did beat up a couple of kids in my time, but that was whenever I saw someone weaker being bullied.
* * *
To return to the subject of the handsome man, as a matter of fact good looks can often be a curse, as they eventually turned out to be in the case of Granddad. It was also the case with one of my friends in the hostel, a shaven Sikh called Gurinder, whom we all called Guri for short. Yes, many of the girls at Hindu swooned when they saw Guri. Did the girls at St Stephens, the college across the road line up on their college balconies – aka the village belles of Chakwal –to see Gurinder when he went over? I doubt they did, but I do know that Gurinder was possessed of such stunning good looks that when he went to the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, which lay on the other side of town, to meet friends there, many of the socialist-minded girls of that left-wing university, even the so-called Maoists, left all their Karl Marx readings, Communist Manifesto and other left leaning literature aside and hopped it to greet Guri at the University lawns.
I saw this astonishing spectacle myself, I kid you not. On one occasion when I had gone to JNU to meet a friend, I saw Guri sipping a glass of tea near one of the tea stalls seated on the grass and there were at least a dozen girls sitting next to him, just wishing to be there in the presence of a man so enormously good-looking.
Guri had devastatingly good looks but unlike Grandad he was not good in studies. We were both doing Philo Honours together and I had to help him a fair bit for him to pass the exams. Additionally we were both in the college basketball team. I was Vice Captain, so that leant me a bit of authority. Although I had a small fan following of my own, it was clear that it was Guri, not me who was the star attraction as far as our Hindu College girls were concerned – and even for some of the hotties from the college across the road. Love and lust know no barriers, and there will be girls from Pakistan who will secretly lust after Virat Kohli, just as some years ago, there were Indian college going girls who put up posters of former Pakistani cricket captain Imran Khan in their rooms.
One day, after a strenuous basketball match with the team from the college across the road, after the group party, we carried forward the celebration into Guri’s hostel room and were swigging a couple of beers when he confessed something, the true meaning of which I did not fully comprehend at the time.
‘You know, Raj,’ he said. ‘Lots of girls have interest in me, but you know what really turns me on?’
‘I have no idea,’ I said. ‘Big tits? Shaved pussy?’
‘You…. fucker,’ he laughed. ‘No, what really turns me on is a simple, beautiful school girl.’
I was taken aback by this confession. Clearly, the Don Juan of our college was not kidding.
So, I said, half in jest, ‘You fucking paedophile, you…’
‘No,’ he said, shaking his head with some seriousness. ‘You don’t understand what I’m saying….’
As a matter of fact, I did not understand what he had really meant to say at the time. It would be a few years later when I finally figured out what he had been trying to say that drunken evening.
* * *
Gurinder somehow managed to pass his exams, and after that instead of following a traditional career like most of us commoners, he became a model. The story goes that the Creative Director of Ogilvy and Mather, one of the top advertising agencies in the country was in the back seat of a black Mercedes –one of the small perks for a man in his position – with the driver circling the Inner Circle of New Delhi’s Connaught Place, the city’s Oxford Circus equivalent, when all of a sudden, the director beheld an Adonis – our own Guri – buying a packet of cigarettes from a vendor opposite the Jain Book Depot, a law-book seller. He ordered the driver to make a circle quickly, praying all the while that Guri would not disappear. Guri was just in the process of lighting his cigarette, when he beheld a short portly gentleman in front of him, out of breath from jumping out of his car and running towards him. ‘Young man,’ said this man to him. ‘What is it that you do?’ The rest as they say is history, for Guri had only just graduated and in terms of a career was doing nothing; in fact he was wondering what to do with his life.
In the time I had finished my Masters at Hindu and started to do an MPhil, Gurinder was already earning big bucks, so to speak. At the time one of the popular cigarettes going around among the low budget student community was Charminar, named after the famous minaret in Hyderabad. It was simple, raw, unfiltered, and really strong. In those years there was no prohibition to advertise cigarettes; graphic warnings against cigarette smoking with images of throat and other cancers had also yet to appear on the packets. With nothing to stop the cigarette companies, Gurinder’s face was soon on hoardings all across the country. He became known as the Charminar man. We were all proud in college that one of our buddies had gained such pan–Indian eminence. Surely the movies were just a step away. Perhaps he had already received offers.
The Charminar cigarette brand eventually folded up, a possible result of increased health awareness. Gurinder’s career in modelling however took off and he was soon much sought after by other brands from VIP underwear to premium men’s suiting. He was at the top of his career or very near the top at any rate, but it all proved to be short lived, for despite his success, the man was ill equipped for the pressures of a model’s life.
* * *
A mere four years after he had left college and entered the modelling profession, to my utter disbelief and shock I read a report in The Times of India one day which stated that Gurinder, the famous model who was sometimes called the Charminar man had committed suicide.
I called up a couple of college buddies who were closer to Guri than I had been to find out what had happened. Chez La Femme, as the expression goes; the woman is the cause. It turned out that Guri had got involved with Archana P, a curvaceous, vivacious, tall Rajput beauty from a prominent and extremely affluent family. Archana was planning on making it big in Bollywood and her love for Gurinder was one thing, red hot ambition another thing, and the former paled before the latter.
Gurinder wanted to marry her, and wished for her to be a ‘proper’ wife who would sit at home and raise the kids, but then he gave in to her when she explained that she too had a career. When he suspected that she had started sleeping with a producer to land a role in Bollywood, he confronted her and they had a big fight. Archana P was internally much tougher than Guri was and he couldn’t take her repeated infidelities. Gurinder couldn't bear to be with her but he couldn’t get over her either; she had got into his system. He took to drink, started missing important shootings, and fell into a depression. Eventually he got one of his friends in the Punjab to find a country gun for him cooking up some excuse. The friend found one for him that worked as good, so he said, as the real thing. The weapon’s accuracy didn’t matter for Guri as long as it fired. One drunken evening, he placed the gun against his head and shot himself.
All this information came to me through secondary sources so it was perhaps unfair of me to judge Archana’s behaviour based on pure hearsay, especially since I never knew her. There were many of Guri’s friends, including girls, who didn’t stop to consider if they were being fair. Tall, dark and handsome Guri, the friendly Cut Surd, was no more.
I didn’t know Archana, but when I thought back to that school-girl comment of Gurinder’s, during a drinking session in college all those years ago, I realised finally that that day he had been trying to tell me in not so many words that he actually felt overwhelmed with some of the extra-sophisticated girls who hung around him even at college. If university had been difficult enough for him sometimes, the real, fake and often brutal world of modelling and show biz would have been far more difficult for him to navigate. There is a famous Bollywood actress who had a short-lived marriage with a wealthy businessman, who also committed suicide. The star had been trying to get him to diet, so the papers said. Nothing more was revealed. Our portly businessman did not realise perhaps that he was entering by virtue of his marriage a filmy culture and world of glamour that nothing in his life of hard business negotiations had prepared him from.
Guri had wanted to be with a woman, he was trying to tell me that day, who was in her heart and mind (though not necessarily her body) as simple and transparent as a schoolgirl.
If the modelling world represented a tough world for Gurinder, the strange world of the English had also thrown up a similar challenge for my grandfather eighty years previously. And now I was to follow in his footsteps, visiting the same country and by an extra-ordinary coincidence going to study at the very same university.
‘Over my dead body!’ Grandma would have said.
* * *
Jaspal Singh, or Jaspie as we called him, was a tall Sikh, who kept a Frenchie instead of a full beard (that was the way his hair grew naturally). Jaspie was one of Guri’s closest friends and also the captain of the college basketball team. After college he had joined the Delhi Police as a Sub Inspector with the idea that he could play the game for the police and try for the national team; basketball was still not a popular sport in India and there were few private clubs.
Shortly after Guri’s death we met at the condolence meeting that had been arranged at Hindu in the main auditorium. It was attended by the rest of the basketball team during the years Gurinder had played for college and the current team and by scores of Guri’s other friends. A sizeable chunk among Guri’s female fan following turned up, though very many more, I suspect, preferred to mourn privately at home. Many faculty members too turned up, including the lecturers and professors from Philo. Everyone had liked Guri, for he had remained humble and had not allowed the adulation to get to his head.
After the function, Jaspie and I went to his house in Police Lines, Kingsway Camp nearby. He opened a bottle of Old Monk rum, something the two of us had shared with Guri on many an occasion in the hostel to celebrate a victory or alternatively mourn a defeat. Today, our third partner was missing.
Jaspal put on some old Bollywood music from the 80’s as we drank our drinks and toasted the memory of our friend.
‘At least he should have shared his troubles with me,’ said Jaspal bitterly and he downed another glass. ‘That fucking bitch!
Lata started to sing something sad.
Jaspal was a great fan of Lata Mangeshkar. We were both a bit out of sync with the popular music within our own generation and in terms of our preferences were throwbacks to an earlier golden age of Hindi film music, Jaspal more than me. I still enjoyed Honey Singh and a fair amount of modern Hip Hop and even in Western music my tastes veered more towards the more melodious tunes of the eighties and ninetees.
‘You know why I love Lata so much?’ asked Jaspal.
‘Her golden voice,’ I said, ‘and the lyrics of that age? You wouldn’t like her quite so much if she were singing some of the modern stuff they churn out.’
‘That’s true,’ he accepted, ‘but there is another reason.’
‘She represents through her voice,’ he said, finishing the last of his drink, ‘my ideal notion of Indian womanhood.’
I was startled at his observation, and how precisely it matched my own feelings. I haven’t ever thought of myself as an overly romantic type, but despite the kidding and back and forth about women that guys often indulge in, I have enormous respect for the female species. It has I’m sure something to do with the women in my family. There is a grace and a beauty that is intrinsic to my notion of what makes a woman. It represents for me the heart of womanhood.
With men I don’t care how crude they are. We are after all a crude and rude species. With women it’s different. I don’t much care to spend time with a woman who acts in a way that is an affront to my idea of what a woman is. I realise this is unfair to women in general in some way, and there may be some patriarchy lurking somewhere in a corner, but we all have our preferences and biases, don’t we? Anyhow, that’s the way it is for me.
I raised my glass to Jaspal Singh’s observation, and downed what remained of the drink, for I couldn’t have agreed more.
We had reached near the end of the bottle. I was in no condition to drive back but Jaspie, blind drunk himself, assured me that he would arrange for a police jeep to drop me back to my accommodation in the University which was not that far away.
‘It’s often a decision that’s taken in the moment,’ I said.
‘That’s true,’ he said mournfully.
Ma hugged me close, but she didn’t cry when it was time for me to leave. She didn’t come to the airport either to see me off, and that was upon my insistence. Times had changed. The world had become more practical, which was not always necessarily a bad thing.
* * *
The good byes to Grandad had been said with a different intensity, but then he was taking a slow boat to the land of our conquerors. It would take him a month for his ship to dock at Dover and from there he would have to take other means of transport to the University. Upon his departure there had been a virtual outpouring of grief – but then that was my family, from my mother’s side. Extremely sentimental, crazily so, by today’s more prosaic standards.
Forget England, even when Grandad caught the train from Chakwal to Lahore, where he studied at Forman Christian College, or FC College as it was called then, the entire family had come to the railway station to give him a send-off. There was much sobbing and wringing of hands even though Lahore was only a few hours away, and Grandad would be back in a couple of months for the summer break. No matter, the entire family stood there grieving and consoling each other as if someone had passed away. Great-grandmother Kunti hugged her eighteen year old first born a dozen times, before the train bleated out a sharp whistle and she let him board. It was as if he was heading off to fight a great war in the manner of her husband who had fought for the British during the Great War (indeed the village had contributed a great many able-bodied youth to fight for that dubious cause).
* * *
I had a sense that Heathrow airport was huge and complicated, but found it simple enough to collect my luggage and board a tube headed towards Victoria Station. It was half past two by the time I reached Victoria Coach Station and once there I was soon seated on a red painted coach headed for City of Spires.
I flipped through the University hand-out. ‘Students will be accommodated and take their meals at New College, Oxford. Founded by William of Weckham in 1379 it is one of the largest and best known of the Oxford colleges and one of the most beautiful.’
Two hours later I had alighted at my destination. The college was not far from where the bus terminated, I learnt, and as I brushed past my co-passengers - most of whom were tourists on a day trip to Oxford - and made my way past the ancient buildings that stared at me from all sides, I was suddenly filled with excitement, joy but also some apprehension about how I would survive the next few months in a strange city and country.
‘I’m afraid you’re much too early.’ The elderly bespectacled lady at the College’s administration unit spoke sympathetically.
‘How can I be early?’ I said, pushing a piece of paper towards her. ‘Don’t classes start this Monday?’
‘Oh, but they’ve been postponed by a week, haven’t you heard? Of course you haven’t, I’m so sorry. You see we are not really used to conducting these short term courses at Oxford, and there are all these American students from Washington University who are scheduled to arrive next week attending the same classes.’
‘Can’t I shift into student accommodation anyhow?’ I said
‘Oh, no, I’m afraid the rooms are being renovated.’ She turned her face away from me. ‘That young lady’s been told the same thing by me just now. I’m so sorry about this. I wish there was something I could do to help.’
I turned and saw a young, attractive brunette reading the notice board. Of medium height and small build, she had shoulder length hair and was dressed, casually yet conspicuously in a blue velvetish shirt and matching pyjamas. Overhearing the reference to her, she turned, and seeing me, gave me a smile.
‘We’re both early birds, it seems,’ she said, holding out her hand. ‘My name’s Janis. What’s yours?’
‘Raj,’ I answered, taking her small, soft hand in mine. In a disappointed tone he added, ‘Looks like we don’t get worms to eat, though.’
‘Why, did you want some?’ she re-joined. ‘On the other hand, perhaps we only get worms to eat, because we are early birds.’
I said, ‘Actually, I’ve never understood that phrase.’
‘You don’t? What is there to understand in it?’
‘The early bird gets the worm.’ I repeated the phrase. ‘The implication is that if one is early, one will get something.’
‘It overlooks the fact that it’s the early worm that gets caught, which has of course the reverse implication, that if one is early one might lose something, even one’s life.’
‘Oh, I see what you mean,’ she laughed, showing small white teeth, ‘but surely the late worm will not escape his fate.’
‘He will be caught by the late bird.’
‘The late bird will get the late worm. In that case why be early?’
‘There is a risk of course that the late bird may get nothing. Worms will get caught, late or early, makes no difference.’ She smiled. ‘You are funny! Where are you from?’
‘From India, New Delhi,’ I said. ‘So what are you going to do about this accommodation problem?’
‘Oh, I’ll go back home to Liverpool. And you? Do you have a place to stay?’
‘Not really,’ I said lightly. ‘I suppose I could sleep out in the open.’
‘Like a tramp?’
‘No, not like a tramp. Like a gypsy.’
‘A gypsy? Why? Are you one?’
‘In a way, yes. The gypsies in Europe came from India.’
‘Really?’ Her voice was full of wonder. ‘I didn’t know that. I’m actually supposed to be a gypsy. I still have some family who live in the old way.’
‘What I have heard,’ I said, ‘is that the gypsies actually came from India originally. Many of them went to Egypt and came to Europe from there. That’s where the name gypsy comes from. Gypsy meaning from Egypt.’
‘You know an awful lot about us,’ she said. ‘Well, if they were from India that makes us cousins, doesn’t it?’
‘If you don’t have a place to stay you could come with me to Liverpool. My brother lives there. There should be a spare room where you can camp for a week.’
‘No thanks,’ I said hurriedly. ‘Actually there is a place I can stay. I have an Uncle in London. I’ll probably go there.’
‘Oh, good,’ she said. ‘I’m glad you have some family in the UK. So will you be coming to Oxford from London next week?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘I have to be in London myself next week. We could meet up if you like if you have a number I can contact you at. I can call you and we can fix up later next week?’
‘Yes, I’d like that,’ I said.
I write of this now as if it were an ordinary encounter, but there was more to it than I’ve said and more to it than I realised. Although we had just met and promised to meet in London, nothing exceptional, in fact I had a sublimal feeling that something was happening to me.
‘Excuse me…’ The elderly lady at the counter was beckoning us.
‘The thing is,’ she said, peering over some paperwork, ‘we do have a flat empty, but that’s really it. It has just the one room, but there is a sofa in the dining room. Would either of you….’She paused.
‘Give it to him,’ said Janis. ‘I’ll manage…’
‘No problem,’ I added hastily.
* * *
No, it wasn’t love at first sight. I was teaching a class back home that was full of young girls many of whom were not much younger than I was, and it had not happened to me then, so it would have been extraordinary if I had fallen for the first girl that I had met at Oxford.
Something else had happened. She had somehow prised open the corridors to my heart, I later realised. Her presence, her dress, her perfume, her friendliness, her direct gaze all combined had forced a door open. She had without knowing gently prised open the door that led to my heart - which had till then been tightly shut.
I had opened myself for love but I hadn’t really fallen in love with Janis right away. I believe that the precise moment that I fell in love with her and the longing to have her besides me always arose when I unfurled the umbrella on top of the double-decker bus that was giving us a tour of the city. She shifted closer to me. I felt her face closer to mine, I could smell her perfume and there was the terrible temptation, which I resisted, to kiss her on the lips.
Love and longing entered under the shadow of an umbrella on top of a London double-decker bus. That was the moment when the famed Greek God’s arrow pierced
When Grandfather had journeyed to England he had done so with a friend. There were two persons from Bhon who had been awarded a scholarship to go and study at Oxford University. One of these was my grandfather Yudhisthar, who had clearly possessed an academic merit that my friend at University Gurinder had not possessed. The other person who had accompanied him had been an equally impressive personality, good friend of Grandfather, a Pathan by the name of Ayub Khan. The two were both excellent swimmers and I heard that on the occasions that they swam competitively in a lake near the village, Grandfather more often proved to be the better of the two.
These days there is much talk of the Hindu Muslim divide and rising intolerance. Prior to the bloody Partition of the country, there were even then some small disturbances and even riots between the two religious communities but there was also much amity between families. The Hindus were a minority in Bhon, and had taken up some of the Muslim ways. For instance my grandfather and great uncles all wore lungis and kurtas like the Muslims of the area, not the dhotis worn in India.
Ayub Khan’s family and my great grandfather’s family were friends, and religious differences apart, there was much relief in both the families that the boys were not travelling alone but that someone else from the village was accompanying the other.