My father loved Poona. So much that he insisted that after he died, his ashes be immersed not at Hardwar, not even at the nearby Alandi, but in the waters of Poona’s Mula-Mutha! His logic was simple. Whatever he had received in life, Poona had given to him (Jo kuch bhi mila,Poona se mila).
That is not to say he never yearned for the soil of his roots. He had left behind no family to speak of in Shahkot. His mother had passed away a few weeks before his first son (my elder brother Satish) was born. Later, he had brought his ailing father to Poona, where he too had breathed his last. He was an only child, and so had no blood links left with the village he had left behind.
But he did have a close friend, a Mr Jagannath Agarwal, who was elder to him by 3-4 years. They had been close, and continued to exchange letters (post cards, mostly) in Urdu. These were mainly reminisces of the days gone by, and spoke of a yearning to meet again – some day, somehow. My passion for Urdu poetry had driven me to learn the intricate Urdu script, and I followed this mail exchange with a great deal of bemusement. The closing line in the letters would invariably be `Bhagwan ne chaha toh zaroor milenge’ (God willing, we shall definitely meet..).
An aside here. My interest in poetry had always been a source of considerable anguish for my father. He considered it an utter waste of time - time that could be more fruitfully utilised in the pursuit of less esoteric subjects like differential calculus and organic chemistry! But one Ghalib couplet he did share with me once. The greatest gift God had bestowed upon him, he would say, was his ability to fall asleep the moment his head hit the pillow. He could sleep like a baby! Things, however began to change in his later years when he developed primary hypertension. Maybe it was the drugs themselves, or just the idea that he now had to take medicines (something he had a terrible aversion to) for life, but sleep began to elude him. That’s when, in a moment of despair, he let slip Ghalib “Maut ka ek din moyeen hai, neend kyon raat bhar nahin aati?”
Throughout his life, he had been the epitome of good health. Over six feet tall, he was a towering personality in more ways than one. So when he fell ill on his 84th birthday (7th July, 1996), he - and all of us - dismissed the congestion he was feeling as nothing more than a seasonal bout of `sardi-zukhaam’. As was the custom, we all called to wish him on his birthday, and were worried that he didn’t sound too well. Typically, he brushed aside all our concerns with a “I’m fine, it’s just a cold!” He hated being fussed over, and had always stubbornly refused to come and live with either of his sons.
By sheer providence, Satish (his favourite son) happened to be in Poona. He was actually scheduled to fly out the same morning, but somebody called to tell him that the flight had been cancelled, so he decided to stay on and spend Dad’s birthday with him. (It later transpired that the flight had never been cancelled, so who made that fateful call, we will never know. Maybe it was just an extraordinary stroke of luck, or maybe it was my father’s karma, but for me, it remains a miracle I will always believe in). By the evening, my father began to sink, and around 5 pm, he passed away peacefully in his son’s arms – the son my mother had trekked all the way to Puran Bhagat’s well to conceive. It was a death so beautiful, he could not have dreamt of it himself.
The man we all thought was immortal had slipped away quietly and peacefully. An era had truly come to an end.
Going through my father’s effects after his death, we came across an old diary, where he had studiously noted the dates and timings of birth of all his grandchildren. On the first page, in his stylised Urdu were Iqbal’s immortal lines
Rehmat pe teri mere gunahon ko naaz hai
Banda hun, jaanta hun tu Bandanawaz hai..
Fast forward to 1998. I was posted at Chandimandir, and I decided to make a trip to Shahkot. As we were driving down from Jullundur, I fervently prayed that Mr Jagannath Agarwal was still alive – he ought to be touching 90, if anything! As we drove by, I almost missed Shahkot – from a sleepy, dusty village, it had metamorphosed into a tar and concrete township, and was now bustling with activity. But in all other respects, it was much the same. When I introduced myself to a shopkeeper as a Puri from Poona, the immediate response was `Oh, Banarsilal da put? Kee haal hai Bhai saab da?’ It was sad to inform them he was no more, and their regret was genuine. A son of the soil had passed away.
But thankfully, Jagannath Agarwal saab was still around. Well into his nineties, bent double with age, fading eyesight, and almost no hearing. His sons, much older than me, took me to him, and were about to introduce me when he just raised his hand to silence them. He peered at me through thick glasses, and I saw an instant recognition light up in his eyes. I happen to bear a striking resemblance to my father, and he had immediately made the connection. He broke down completely, and was inconsolable. For the next half hour or so, it was a strange sight - two grown men, one ninety, one fifty just holding hands and sobbing away.
To me, that trip was nothing short of a pilgrimage. Roots will always be roots. My sister and I stood in wonder outside the house where our father had been born and raised. The door had been painted a garish blue, and the structure had surely seen better days. But at one time it had surely been `home'. This was where it had all begun. How far we had come from that sleepy hamlet, and who knows what lay in store for the generations that follow us..
I looked up to the skies, and could see him smiling. Agar Bhagwan ne chaha toh zaroor milenge - CHECK!