in our grandparents' generation didn't share our obsession with
recording the time of events. Probably they were more concerned with
using it well, apart from the logistical difficulties of
documentation or challenges like illiteracy. Approximations were good
enough for them, as it was for Bela Rani Haldar who had told her
daughter, Kavita, now forty, that she had got married to Abhiram
Haldar around the age of seven. Kavita works in the city as house
help but her mother's 'job' was in the village. Bela's spouse had a
government job but the childhood playmates enjoyed working on the
fields together, after he would come back from work in the evening,
or around 3 or 4 in the morning, before he left for office.
job wasn't restricted to working in the house and the fields. Today
women in villages manage the house, the fields and the cattle but the
decision-making power usually remains with the man. Bela was the
business manager who assigned duties to all the other members of the
household and they, in turn, had to report to her. For as long as
Abhiram lived, they took the decisions together and after his death
it was Bela alone. Her daughter-in-law had the primary responsibility
of cooking but as there was a lot of work to do Bela did help with
milking the cows, giving them fodder and sweeping the courtyard.
After the work in the fields was done, she would weigh and give
vegetables to her son to sell. In the village, word got around if
someone wanted to sell or buy something and you just went to the
person's house and completed the transaction. Or they would come to
you if they got to know you were looking to sell something.
from the produce of the fields, she would sell milk, cows and also
bamboo, selling this last item every year around Dussehra, so new
clothes could be bought for the family. People would buy them to do
collective fishing, by putting all the poles in water and then cast
nets to catch the fish. There was also a big boat in the Haldar house
which was let out all the year round. Bela would keep the money
earned from it for the Mansa Devi pooja. It would be a big occasion
and a feast would be thrown by the Haldars for the entire village.
Bela Rani was in charge of all the money earned by the household.
she got time from work, she would invite neighbours home and have tea
with them. If she got to know of someone doing a pooja in their
house, she would go and attend. If there was news of a death in the
neighbourhood, she would spend a few hours there. She would also
spend part of her time at home doing pooja.
her daughter got married, her sons continued to live with her. But
when her spouse died and as Bela entered old age, things changed. She
could no longer work in the fields for too long. Still she was the
one managing them. For what she could not do alone she would hire
labourers and supervise them. Then she came back late at night and
cooked for everyone. No amount of scolding from her would induce the
sons to take charge. At times she would get so frustrated that she
would leave without informing them and reach her daughter Kavita's
house in Delhi. Kavita was allowed to tell her sister about this but
not her brothers. In about ten days, the brothers would come looking
for her. With much reluctance, Bela would return because she did not
want her sons to create a scene or abuse the son-in-law who had
always treated her well.
daughter and Bela's nineteen-year-old granddaughter Deepika, adds,
"Not because they had been missing her but because they were
afraid that if Dida [maternal grandmother] stayed here we would get
all her property." Deepika spent her childhood with her
grandmother and was her pet. "My grandparents had toiled hard
and left so much behind. If my uncles had any sense, they could have
made much of it."
years ago, on the twelfth death anniversary of her spouse, Bela said
that she was not feeling well. She had fasted for two days before
that to perform some rites for her decesaed partner. In a while she
passed away quietly, when she was a little over seventy.
it happened, her sons' concerns over the property going to their
sister had been in vain because Bela did not leave it to anyone.
Kavita remembers that Bela, who never discriminated against her
daughters, used to say it would have been better if instead of five
sons and two daughters, she had had seven daughters, for with them
you can have peace.
In February 2010, sitting
next to me during tea time in Tilonia village, Rajasthan, where he
lived and worked as a member of the Social Work Research Centre, Vasu
smirked, "Most people here are scared of me, you know." As
a hobbyist who challenges smugness, I was quick in dismissing his
claim,"Oh, please. That's not going to work on me." With
his towering frame, longish, grey hair and gruff exterior, 'Vasu
Baba' did seem capable of swallowing some pestering woodpecker alive
when he knitted his brows. But we also resort to issuing disclaimers
about ourselves as part of our vulnerability. His warning probably
meant that he couldn't be bothered with, as Wodehouse put it,
'ordering his behaviour according to the accepted rules of civilised
intercourse'. But that didn't change the fact that he was a
captivating conversationalist. I could listen to him at
length and not get bored. After this first tea-table talk we
had, I was flattered that he decided I was a 'match' and could be
allowed entry into the friend zone.
It is only when writing this
now that I realise our mail exchanges were curiously in polite,
correct Hindi, though when we met we mostly talked in English. Maybe
it was the language of Tilonia that had percolated in our
correspondence, since that was where our friendship began and that is
where we would meet. We had met during the Lok Utsav, a festival of
traditional Rajasthani music, organised by the SWRC. And music
remained a constant motif between us. A guitarist in his
youth, he was into a variety of music. I would send him the
latest Hindi film songs that showed some innovation in music and
lyrics; he introduced me to Alexi Murdoch's 'Orange Sky'.
Whenever Rajasthan went
through dry spells, concerned for his Tilonia family in particular
and for the state in general, he used to ask me to send clouds. I
would go through a speedy, willing suspension of disbelief and
convenient resurrection of belief to fervently add my prayers to his
wish. A remarkable number of times, it worked. We would
share solidarity when we would be sick and working,
when I would be editing and he would be writing funding proposals for
the organisation, and make plans about when we would meet next.
Though he wasn't usually supposed to travel and exert himself, during
one of his better days he came to Delhi and stayed at my place.
Another friend had come over, but Vasu, naturally, was the life of
the party, revelling in the conversations and jubilant that he had
finally been able to visit the city after so long. Though he was the
one living in a village, he was aware of national and international
developments better than many of us were. He would draw for
us significant connections between these happenings. I was
once editing a dull, academic book on the Sri Lankan political
history. When he heard about it, he said he doesn't know much about
the issue but what he did think was . . . And thus he managed to make
me take a more active interest in the book. His pro-poor stand was
clear as he challenged Adam Smith:
it that bad?
well, Adam Smith thought
that all nations were wealthy
poor guy, he forgot to fly to Bangladesh
if he did
have got the Nobel Prize
turned to his consistent friendship during ups and downs in personal
relationships. I wouldn't share details and he wouldn't poke and
prod. But without saying anything he would reassure through his mere
presence. He had that kind of immaculate grace. Indignities disturbed
and saddened him. For a free spirit like him it was difficult to be
restricted to one place because of being unwell and he
would often grow irritable, and later guilty. Worried about
something he felt he shouldn't have said to a couple of people, on
World Forgiveness Day (until then I didn't know one existed), he
wrote to many of us asking for forgiveness for anything hurtful he
might have done or said. On days when I was struggling not to get
sucked into a quagmire of editorial work, he would patiently enquire
after me without feeling offended that I couldn't reply to his last
two mails. As we grow older, we all know how valuable someone like
that is, who would regularly check to see if all's fine with your
world. Yet he always
talked of being grateful for the people in his life: his Tilonia
family; his daughter, son-in-law and grandson; the friends he made
while working with SWRC and his JDs (judwaan
or twin friends, who, he said, were like his own extended self), of
which I was proud to be one. He would say that as JDs even when we
weren't talking we were connected by ESP (extra-sensory perception).
his friendship he was characterised by absolute generosity
of heart. Soon after our first meeting, I had joined a new workplace
and was still getting to know my colleagues. Vasu made the job smooth
for me by sending a packet of balushahis
to my office, distributing which I said my hello to all the staff
members and found my driving trainer, who was also to become a great
friend later. Since the person from Rajasthan who had come with the
sweets was wearing a turban, many in office assumed I was from that
state, and in a way I was too. Vasu had also remembered to send some
chai masala, because I was a fan of the tea I had at his place. He
was a special common bond between me and my partner, who shared with
Vasu his interest in music and cricket, and memories of an angsty
One of my teachers had
rightly talked about how it is easier to give solace to someone in
sorrow but tougher to share their happiness, to feel it for yourself.
Vasu had the knack and I sorely miss sharing my happy days with him.
When someone goes, there are always thoughts of how you could have
spent more time with them. But like Vasu I guess I should always
count my blessings and remember how fortunate I was in
having known him, as my Bollywood-ish mind imagines him
strumming under the orange sky. When I recently spoke to his daughter
Shruthi, she shared this feeling of being exceptionally lucky to have
been a part of his life, "He taught me how to be accepting of
all people and circumstances and this has been the most valuable
lesson I have ever been taught."
one of his birthdays, I made him a blog and he wrote over a hundred
existential, dark, lyrical, witty posts
These are some lines from his poem 'Snapscapes':
prints memories mutations . . .
of bubbles in the air
it your breath that you blew?
commotion, softly she comes
harbinger of all that you dreamt
beckons, starshine travels . . .
perfect reams of scenarios
When I type Vasu's name, auto-correct tells me to change it to 'vast'. For a change, auto-correct is not entirely off the mark.