Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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A Saviour In (a) Doha

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 14, 2009

The saviour I am referring to is not a human being nor the Doha I am referring to the glittering Arab city famous for trade talks. I am referring to the doha of Kabir that gave me an abiding life philosophy in an especially dark and crucial juncture of my life and has in the process become a saviour of sorts.  Here is how it all happened…..

A couple of years into the hectic world of investment banking, I realised that I was not enjoying my work. There was more money than I could ask for. With no major sustaining interests outside work, I felt trapped. Workdays started to become weightier and boring. Shopping and partying which acted as temporary antidotes started to exhibit a whiplash effect. I was dragged down by an unbearable sense of misery. I reached a stage where my listlessness began to slide into unhappiness. I started to enter an area of darkness from which I felt I had no escape… that is till I met Panditji back home on a vacation

Panditji was my Hindi teacher at school. Actually, he was more than a ordinary Hindi teacher. Armed with a double MA in Sanskrit and Hindi from Benares Hindu University (BHU) when BHU was at its height of academic fame, he left a career in teaching to join the Indian armed services. He had seen the three wars between India and Pakistan from close quarters and came to our town more owing to his son’s request and his own desire to be with his grandchildren. Besides his deep background and love for languages and literature, Panditji loved teaching. He stayed a stone’s throw away from school and without exception trudged to school carrying his thickset personality. Always in starched and ironed white khaddar kurta -pajama, a mustard or black coloured half-sleeved overcoat with large pockets replete with chalk marks at the edges, broad black spectacles and shining leather sandals, Panditji was an epitome of an elderly teacher. With bushy eye brows and a genial smile, he was a natural magnet to his students.  On his journey back from school, surrounded by a motley crowd of students, he resembled a mother hen with her brood of chicks. The conversations during these trips inevitably began with enquiries about the well being of the students and extended to cover their families. Only after that was done would he move to his topic of extempore and it was for this the students actually waited. He had a knack of initiating his views on the topic just about the time he reached the bougainvillea filled gates of his spacious house. This I suspected he did it on purpose which was to keep his wife informed of his return from school. Not once did Panditji’s wife disturb him from speaking to us. In front of the loving and respectful eyes of his wife, Panditji gave us wonderful insights on a variety of topics. He made it a point that the topic he chose was far removed from the daily school syllabus and this inevitably set us thirsty for more knowledge in different directions. He was so composed and concise in his dwelling on the subject that we were willing to spend an extra one hour standing in front of gates to listen to what he had to say. He gave room for everyone to ask questions, challenge him and yet managed to leave us with heads that hummed with ideas and a thirst to know more.

The topics Panditji chose invariably included personalities from world history, politics, eminent writers, poets, books and movies. However, his special affinity appeared to have rested with philosophy and literature. In literature he was like an ocean and when it came to Russian and English writers he took us into a world we could have never imagined to exist. We all returned home with minds aflame and hungry to devour the books that he spoke about. Yet if there was one topic where Panditji excelled it was the philosophy of Kabir. For every occasion, situation and topic Panditji had an appropriate Kabir’s doha to quote. He was spontaneous when he began but ended up rapturous by the time he concluded explaining the meaning of the doha. Panditji once told us that of all the philosphers Eastern and Western he read, he felt that two were really outstanding: Adi Sankara for his vision, grandness and daring and Kabir for his simplicity of words and profundity of thought. He said that the greatness of Kabir was his ability to deliver philosophical themes and criticism of inequities in society in utterly simple and much used colloquial language.

It was this beloved Panditji that I chanced upon once again during my vacation. I actually met him in our town’s vegetable market on a cold December morning. Can’t say why but I always found a well stocked vegetable market therapeutic. It was slightly over a decade since I last met Panditji and he took time to recognise me. As I touched his feet in reverence, recognition dawned on him and he caught hold of me by my shoulders and gave a warm bear hug. After the usual enquires about my progress in life, he invited me home for a cup of tea. I silently followed him to his house and on the way Panditji told me that he has a half developed cataract in the left eye and that it was quite frustrating as he could not read with the usual ease. He told me that he was waiting for it to grow further to be removed once for all. I enquired about his wife and he slowed in his walk to tell me that she was no more and that she passed away six months ago. It was then I realised the change that I saw in Panditji — he appeared to have shrunk quite a bit in the absence of his wife. There was a deep sense of grief when he told me of the loss of his better half. As we reached home and settled down, he casually mentioned that books and his son’s family were the two reasons that kept him motivated in his life and that he deeply desired to go back to Haridwar and spend the twilight years of his life there. He introduced me to his grandchildren who were now going to the same school where he once taught all of us. For a while the ensuing conversation was quite desultory and aimless. Panditji asked me many incisive questions and I kept answering him to the best of my ability. The alert mind of an instinctive teacher quickly sensed my being slightly withdrawn from the conversation and after a quick scrutiny said “Kyon bhai, kuch udaas lagte ho. Kya baat hai?”. I don’t know why but my eyes brimmed with tears and I could not help baring my heart to Panditji. I told him my sense of loneliness, the feeling of meaninglessness in work and the visceral and urgent need for a rejuvenation and happiness. Panditji listened to my rant patiently and when I calmed down said ” Be happy that you have hit this feeling when you are young and not old when you have no room to make a course correction. Bhai, you should learn to pray and have faith in the purpose and meaning of life even when you don’t understand it”. He paused for a while, looked at me and then said ” A way to uncomplicate life is by keeping your desires simple and relevant. Start doing this and you will see a lot of happiness unlocking for you.The answer to the inevitable question of what constitutes a simple and relevant desire is very intuitional and you will get answers for it if you start observing and questioning every desire of yours intensely. Begin that questioning today and over a period you will get answers to a lot of your personal dilemmas. Kabir did sense this and articulated it quite well“. He laughed out a little loudly as if he were mocking my situation, quickly recovered and in a voice that quivered a bit and carried a ripeness of old age sang a Kabir’s doha

Saaye itna deejiye jamay kutumb samay
mai bhi bhuka na rahu: sadhu na bhuka jaay

(O God give me enough that I may sustain my family
Don’t let me starve nor allow my guest to go away starving)

I asked him to write it on a piece of paper for me. In a wonderfully rounded deva nagiri script he wrote the doha that he recited on a clean sheet of paper and said ” Don’t ever confuse simplicity with not desiring for excellence in life. They are two separate things. Choose what you like and do a good job of it” he paused for a while and then said ” I would like to believe that I was a good teacher for all of you. I liked teaching and being with young minds. I had an opportunity and made the most of it. The world may or may not judge me in that manner but in my own eyes I have never let myself down on my expectations. The benefit of being my own conscience keeper was that I was always rejuvenated and found enormous happiness. You should learn to be your own diligent conscience keeper. That you should learn to do without fail. Always. Without exception“. After this Panditji abruptly stopped talking and we sat silent for an unusually long period of time. I felt Panditji was allowing me the time to absorb the gist of our conversation. I folded the paper neatly and shoved it carefully in a safe corner of my purse, stood up and gratefully took leave of him. He walked me to the gate of his house and said ” Apna khayal rakhna“. I nodded my head and walked away knowing well that Panditji will be at the gate, watching me with affection till I turn the street corner. I did not have the courage to turn back and wave my farewell to him

Many years later when I visited Panditji’s home on a break, I found the doors locked. Not to give up, I knocked at a neighbour’s door and enquired about Panditji’s whereabouts. In response I was told that Panditji had left for Haridwar and that his son’s family emigrated to Newzealand. They had informed that he has never left any forwarding address and a lot of mail keeps coming to the house. I felt quite disappointed. Unknowingly my hand went to my purse and I pulled the sheet of paper that Panditji had given me. Standing in front of the gate, I reread the doha silently. It was actually unnecessary for I had internalised the message reasonably well. My eyes moistened with tears of gratitude to think of Panditji who so lovingly granted me the protection of a saviour in (a) doha

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