Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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God Bless Mr.Singh!

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on August 19, 2009

They say that every person has at least one novel in him. I did not believe this till I met Mr. Singh. Mr.Singh stays in our neighbourhood with his son’s family – wife, husband and two children. My interaction with him was on the way to my sons’ school where he too came to drop his grandchildren. He always greeted me with the same one liner “Helloo, you a’right?” It was a typical English greeting shorn of adding a “mate” at the end. Not only the construct but the pronounciation was also typical english. My response was always limited to a nodding smile. I never ventured to extend my conversation with him beyond these routine courtesies. Tall, hefty, bald, pot bellied, mildly limping and with a toothless and kind smile, Mr.Singh was role model of a grandfather. He appeared to know all the parents who came to drop their kids at the school and indulged in small chat with many of them simultaneously even while keeping a watchful eye on his grandchildren. He lingered in front of the school beyond the in-bell, looked to see that his gandchildren were embedded well in the school and then walked back to his residence after having touched base with as many parents as possible. So I was surprised when on returning from a morning jog on a saturday that I found Mr.Singh sitting in our main hall and chatting away happily with my father and my wife

“Ki haal hai puttar?” he said a little loudly in punjabi and smiled at me when I walked in
“Fine, Thank you uncle” was my reply

Among Indians any elderly person is called an uncle till a formal relationship is established. Most of the times even after the relationship is established one continues to be called uncle. If you were a college going student and a child called you uncle before your classmates only God can stop you from being ragged by your friends. Similarly a lady who is referred to as aunty indicates that she is putting on years. Old people are automatic Grandpas or Grandmas. I smiled at the thought of the unique liberty Indians take with relationships – a harmless technique to achieve a quick inclusiveness
“Myself D. Singh. I staying in 44 wordsworth avenue. Ajay and Mani are my grandchilds. .. you see” was a quick introduction from Mr.Singh

“Oh I see. Isn’t it the house right in the middle of the T-junction? Have you been staying here for long uncle?” I asked  to keep the conversation going. I was also surprised at the quality of english he was speaking for my initial impressions were that he was a naturalised citizen of England and hence his spoken english would be flawless

“Long? No. Only phour years in Strafford but I stay in Leamington for long. Phoorty years!” was the reply of Mr.Singh as if extending the word forty would give me an accurate sense of the duration which I otherwise would have missed

“That’s a long period uncle” I smiled. “So you have seen England changing. That must have been very interesting. How was it uncle?” I asked with a genuine sense of curiosity in my tone.

Mr.Singh remained silent for a while looking at me. I had this brief gnawing sense that I touched a raw nerve somewhere and was beginning to regret asking the question when he started speaking again ” I no education. Came to England when I was just like you say eighteen year lad. My grandfather stay in Leamington so I come to Leamington. Leamington a nice town those days. Lot of our Punjabis staying in Leamington “. I was a bit surprised that he mentioned his Grandfather and not his father and since Mr.Singh was comfortably animated I thought I will find out a bit more
“Uncle did I hear you say Grandfather?” I asked

“Yes Grandfather. My grandfather soldier ..world war 1. He was on ship. Singapore, HongKong, China, Malaysia, Indonesia. He see world and come to England nineteen phorty phive. He go back only for visiting relatives and friends you see. My grandmom die when my grandfather was sailing Indonesia. My father not come to England. He liked Punjab and stay back. My grandfather marry a chinese woman in Leamington. They have two child. My uncles half chinese. My chinese grandmother learn punjabi. She speak fluent punjabi. You see all my relatives punjabi and no one speak chinese. So grandmother learn punjabi” I was amazed at this slice of history that had a mixing of unlikely races – a sturdy punjabi with chinese. Now the conversation started to acquire a free flow feeling and I kept my questioning on.

“So Uncle where are your step uncles? Do you meet them now?” I asked
“Yes, yes, yes, I meet regularly on Indian and Chinese festivals… we drink beer together… sometime lot of beer we drink, three pint – phour pint… I like chinese food. My chinese grandmother died two years ago. She like my grandfather lot”.

My father and my wife remained silent through the conversation. They were listening to what was getting poured with polite smiles on their faces

“Uncle how about a cup of tea or coffee?” I asked
“No coffee. No english tea. Chai I like. English tea very weak.. like hot water. I not like it” replied Mr.Singh.My wife walked into the kitchen quite relieved at this diversion
While we waited for the chai to come I asked “So what did you do here Uncle? In England……….. I mean”

Mr.Singh laughed a little loudly and replied ” You see I no education. Grandfather told “puttar there is lot work. Work hard and make money”. I work. In factory… car factory… in foundry at Coventry… you see life very tough… lot of dust and smoke in foundry.. dust go into eyes, ears… I do many things… work in car paint booths… too much dust…everyday I drink two pint or three pint… all dust go away in toilet… some white workers call me boy.. boy get this… boy get that… I do get… they like me and I drink with them beer…. they drank lot… phor pint or five pint in one sitting…. pub just in front of factory…. meeting take place in pub. Beer cheap. Now beer expensive. Too much tax now. Grandfather get me a car… I was boy but I have car… I drop all white men in Coventry, Leamington, Redditch. I pick them in morning…. I charge them for car ride… I make good money you see…. Grandfather do business… he does this house buy and house sell business.. real estate… I learn business in the evening… very fun… I start side business… house buy and house sell…. in 1960 lot of factory in Coventry… lot of worker looking for house… I buy and sell house… make money… I get in trouble with a white girl… grandfather send me Wales. Nice place but less money… no good life… I work in pharmacy in morning and in evening I buy and sell house… I make money there too. Grandfather say I am good at properties… I have the trick for houses. White girl go away from Coventry and I return after five years. I marry a punjabi girl. I’ve two boys and lot houses in Wales, Leamington and Coventry. My wife die long ago. I go Punjab once a while… My father still alive…. old man..he still walking…. my mother die before my wife die… I stay with my second son… grandchilds like me a lot… daughter-in-law like me too…. You see I no education… but my son study well… go to Birmingham university… he now work as manager… Marks & Spencer you see….speak good english… he is busy… I too busy you see… all property here…there… and I busy with repair and collect rent you see…”

My wife returned with steaming cups of chai. Mr.Singh asked for a tumbler and poured his tea into it and held the tumbler in between his palms and started rolling it gently as if to cool it. He sipped his tea with a mild slurp and asked for more sugar. Once he mixed sugar he started drinking his tea quite lustily.
Now that we had all warmed up to one another, I asked him another question “Uncle did you see the British motorways getting built? What was it like?”.
Mr. Singh was focused on his tea. He quickly quaffed the remnant in his cup, cleared his throat and said “You see..all motorway come in 1960 and 1970… lot of work and no workers..shortage.. they get worker from Ireland you see… Irish… they are good people and drink more…lot….. one small room and large family you see.. seven.. eight.. nine child you see….British say “Irish man good to build road but no good to drive car on the road”…..I make good friend with Irish… I sell them rooms you see… I trust them more than punjabis you see.. after motorway there were lot of car on road. Mostly big car… strong car… everybody have a car… people go all place in England in car you see… lot of tourism… people go, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Lake District and all places in car…”

Interrupting Mr.Singh in between I asked ” Uncle, this kind of drinking that we see in pubs and the pub cluture was it there always or is it a new thing?”
Mr.Singh did not get the question and I had to ask him again. He laughed, paused and said ” British drink a lot from the beginning. Beer very cheap initially… now very expensive.. when I a boy.. 2 pence you get pint you see… lot of work… lot of money.. work very hard and people drink a lot. All worker go play football or go football club.. sport very important… less and less church on sunday…. more sport, drink in place…”

As if he remembered something Mr.Singh suddenly called out for his grandson”Mani! Mani! u ready? We need go home. Mum waiting” Mani came rightaway. He looked bored playing with my sons and Mr.Singh got up to go away. He gave me a bear hug and blessed me with a warm “Bhagwan da kirpa tere sar pe”. He reached out to my father and shook his hands and left to go. It looked as if he knew my father was leaving for India and he said without an iota of poignancy

” You come England again… maybe I am no live… old you see… but you come England….. it is a nice place… may be I am live… we talk more again… I take you Leamington in my car..show my first house and my chinese uncles… may be we drink bitter ” He hugged my father too, shook his hands lingeringly and started walking towards his car with his grandson in tow

As I was waving my goodbye, I could not help thinking about Mr.Singh and his funny way of speaking, swallowing his verbs, prepositions and conjunctions where it suited him. Yet what a life story it was and continues to be !! He is one of the innumerable stories of the great Indian diaspora but in its own way his story was a story of courage, belief, a noble demonstration of life’s urge for living and above all worthy of documenting. In comparison, I felt my life lacked that vigour, it was too predictable, too sheltered and too bland. I couldn’t help say inwardly “God bless you Mr.Singh! May you live long!!”  I don’t know why but as I shut the door, I felt sad for him and this snippet from A.E.Housman’s poem floated into my mind:

To think that two and two are four
And never five nor three
The heart of man has long been sore
And long ’tis like to be

I could not help saying to myself once again “God bless you Mr.Singh!”

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3 Responses to “God Bless Mr.Singh!”

  1. Good one Vish. Was engrossing as I read. You might have read “Half a Life” by V.S Naipaul. To me it was a slightly disturbing but interesting read nonetheless.

  2. MRK said

    good afternoon. u c i read your article about Mr. Singh. I liked it lot, its very niceu,how’z u’r life. long time no talk 🙂

    Lets convers in Mr. Singh’s english speaking style, really superb.

  3. anupam tandon said

    Very beautiful article. Couldnot stop till i reached the end..Keep writing Sir.

    With due Respect and Love:
    Anupam

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