Section officer YD (Yasho Dhar) Pant tied the red tape on the last file of the day and put it in the “Out” tray. He lit his seventh cigarette (from the ration of “ten a day” in his pack) and looked around the office. Aware that all the others had to stay in as long as he was working, he decided to crack a joke to lighten the slightly sullen atmosphere. This was a tip given to him long ago by Shri Krishna Nand (affectionately known as Kishanda) Pande.
“Looks like the office clock has slowed down to keep pace with you all,” he tried.
As usual, Chaddha, a cocky youngster recently inducted straight into the Assistant Grade, shot back, “And what does your old tick-tock say, bare ba’u?”
Yasho Dhar has never been entirely happy about this upstart entrant into his office, whose flared trousers and elevator heels appeared “somehow improper” to him. Chaddha came over and held up Yasho Dhar babu’s wrist. Yasho Dhar decided to overlook this over-familiar gesture, but he recalled a time when Kishanda was deferentially addressed as “Sahib” and given the respect that went with that title.
“Your wrist needs a newer watch, bare ba’u,” Chaddha sniggered. “You should get a Japanese one now to keep up with this digital age. The smuggled ones are quite cheap, you know.”
Pantji was gifted this wristwatch when he got married. “I am old-fashioned and so is my watch,” he replied amiably. “It’s a wonder we are both still working! Whaddyu say?” This last phrase was the cue for his hand to be extended, slapped and finally shaken by the other, as they shared the repartee. This is how cordial conversations were traditionally conducted ever since his school days in Almora’s Ramsay School. The tradition was maintained in Kishanda’s quarters, a sort of chummery, where the rule was to pool your earnings and live together until you could afford your own establishment.
When Yasho Dhar came to Delhi, he was not yet old enough to get a government job. So Kishanda appointed him cook of the community mess and loaned him some money to go and buy himself a few clothes and send a money-order to his family in the village. Later, Kishanda wangled him a job in his office and became his mentor in all matters, private or professional.
“Oye, where have you drifted off to, bare ba’u?” Chaddha’s crude voice jolted him out of his reverie. “Menon here just asked you something. When did you get married?”
Yasho Dhar babu sheepishly withdrew his extended hand and turned to face Menon. “Now let me see… I was married on 6th February, 1947.”
Menon ran this in his head and said excitedly, “Many happy returns of the day, sir! Today is your silver wedding anniversary: you have completed full 25 years of married life.”
Yasho Dhar looked pleased and embarrassed by turn, not quite sure whether to be happy or shy, another habit he had picked up from Kishanda.
Chaddha immediately rang the bell to summon the office peon. “Listen buddy, take a big note from the boss and get some tea and snacks organised for the whole section.”
“Look, this wedding anniversary business and all is something the gora sahibs may celebrate, we don’t do all this.” Yasho Dhar babu started to excuse himself but it was no use.
“Ah-ha, don’t try and slime off, bare ba’u,” the irrepressible Chaddha went on. “Tea-laddoo-mathhi, that’s all we are asking for. You can’t say this is going to make a hole in your pocket!”
Yasho Dhar babu took out his wallet and pulled out a 10 rupee note. “You all are welcome to have tea on me but I find it somehow improper to participate in a celebration that is not our custom, if you don’t mind.”
Most people would have backed off at this rebuff but not the shameless Chaddha, who asked him to put in another 20 rupees. Now everyone who worked in his office knew that Yasho Dhar babu always carried 150 rupees in his wallet, even though he hardly ever spent a rupee. In fact, he never even took a bus home. Earlier, he used to cycle from his Gole Market quarters to the Secretariat, but of late he had started walking to and fro. One reason for this was that his children felt embarrassed to admit that their father rode a bicycle to work. They told him that only peons cycled to work now and begged him to at least buy a scooter but Yasho Dhar considered a scooter “somehow improper”. Since he could not afford a car, he preferred to walk.
So he shelled out two more 10 rupee notes but, despite the entire section office begging him to join them, did not stay back for the treat. According to Kishanda’s Code of Proper Office Behaviour, it was all right to give in gracefully to occasional demands made by silly colleagues, but to waste one’s time in tea and gossip with them was a strict no-no. Of late, Yasho Dhar babu had started going to Birla Mandir after work to listen to a religious discourse, or to meditate in the temple garden. His wife and children were most annoyed with this new habit. “Babba, you aren’t some old fogey yet that you must go to the temple every day and keep all these fasts,” they said. But Yasho Dhar babu remained deaf to this criticism because Kishanda used to say that doing what you think is right is the hallmark of a man of principle. After the temple, Yasho Dhar babu went to Paharganj to buy vegetables for the house. If he had to visit someone, this was the time he had set for it. So, even though the office gave over at 5pm, he seldom reached home before 8pm.
Today, on his way to the temple, his eyes are drawn to the area where once stood Kishanda’s three-bedroom quarters. Most have been pulled down now, ugly six-storeyed apartment complexes built in their place. This used to be the old DIZ area, he remembers, Delhi’s Imperial Zone, and its defacement saddens him. In fact, the entire low-rise area of Gole Market is now the site of furious makeovers where all the old quarters are being razed to make way for new cement blocks. He does not know whether this is good or bad but he believes that some of them must stay on in the old quarters if only to mark an earlier way of life. In fact, he had been offered alternative D-II type accommodation in the newer government colonies such as Andrew’s Ganj, Laxmibai Nagar and Pandara Road, but he refused to move. When his wife asked him what would happen if they pulled down this quarter as well, he said he would see then, smiling just like Kishanda.
For some time now, Yasho Dhar babu is often in disagreement with his wife and children, another reason why he avoids going home straight after work. As long as the children were young, he could help with their homework and studies. But now, his elder son has got himself a job with a well-known advertising company—although why his ordinary son is given such an extraordinary salary is something that he cannot “somehow” fathom. He himself started drawing Rs 1,500 when close to retirement, so any company that starts off a person with that salary is “somehow” suspect. His second son is preparing to sit for the IAS exam for the second time, although his father finds it impossible to understand why, when he cleared the Allied Services (although with a low rank), he refused to join them. His third son has gone to the US on a scholarship and his only daughter refuses every proposal for her and is threatening to go abroad to study medicine. So, while Yasho Dhar babu is pleased with the success of his children, he is “somehow” unable to reconcile the fact of this success (and happiness) with the distance it has brought into their lives. He is also not “somehow” happy with the children’s sneering attitude towards their poorer relatives. Anyway, he sighs, this is what everyone calls a generation gap, and consoles himself with this fact.
Yasho Dhar babu’s wife still follows her old way of life and her fundamental principles are largely the same, yet in supporting the children’s new-fangled ideas she is also becoming “somehow mod”. There is another reason for this change in her. When she joined him in Delhi, Yasho Dhar babu’s old uncle and his two married sons from the village were already living here. Yasho Dhar’s wife still hasn’t forgiven him for not standing up for her and for letting the two sisters-in-law run the house their way. “I was made to live like an old woman,” she tells her children now, “not like the young bride I was then. All the rituals and taboos the old aunt followed were foisted on me as well.” The children naturally sympathise with their mother and she has started telling her husband that “if the children don’t follow your old-fashioned rules I don’t blame them. We’ve all had enough of this tradition-ritual business. Even I will only follow those rules that are reasonable. So there!”
He sighs deeply as he passes the area where Kishanda’s quarters once stood. Yasho Dhar asks himself if it would not have been better to have chosen bachelorhood instead and, like Kishanda, dedicated his life to serving the community. And then he remembers Kishanda’s last days. All the young men he had helped to start life in the city had later managed to buy plots in nice colonies like Hauz Khas, Greater Kailash and Green Park or elsewhere. Kishanda opted to stay on in the old Gole Market quarters for six months after he retired. When it came to the time for moving out, not one of those young men— Yasho Dhar shakes his head in remembered shame—came forward to offer Kishanda a place in their homes. Even he, Yasho Dhar, could not reciprocate Kishanda’s generosity because he was married by then, and three families lived in his two-roomed quarters.
So Kishanda rented a small place in Rajinder Nagar for a few years and then de- cided to return to his village, where he died a year later. Poor Kishanda never even enjoyed the benefits of his hard-earned pension for long. The strange thing is that he never died of any specific illness: he just vanished one day. Later, when Yasho Dhar ran into one of his relatives and asked what Kishanda had died off, he shrugged as if to say “no idea”; no one really knew.
Those who do not have families and children, Yasho Dhar concludes, often die as Kishanda did: of a disease called “no one really knows”. So perhaps it is essential that one should have children. Even though his children now do whatever they feel like and their behaviour is an alarming indication of what lies in store for him when he is old and dependent on them, Yasho Dhar also remembers that Kishanda used to say that most men sober down as they grow older and start to shoulder the responsibility age places on them. When my children are burdened with responsibility, Yasho Dhar repeats to himself now, they will sober up.
Yasho Dhar privately accepts that in most matters, his wife and children are far more practical and worldly-wise. Kishanda’s aphorism that fools build houses for wise men to live in is “somehow” closer to his own way of thinking. He can live in these government quarters as long as he is in service. After that, there is always a village home to go back to. The truth, however, is that the village house is divided among so many cousins that it is a nightmare to even consider it as a credible retirement home. Moreover, a huge investment is needed to repair and renovate it. When his children point out this harsh reality, he has no real answer.
To deal with the insecurity and doubts that this world has started to breed in him, he has turned to preparing himself for the other world. But the truth is that Yasho Dhar is not really very religious. But, since Kishanda adopted this path as he grew older, he too has started visiting the temple every evening, doing the sandhya puja and reading religious texts published by Gorakhpur’s Gita Press. If his mind complains that it cannot concentrate on the words there, he tells it to try harder. As his retirement draws closer, he must start withdrawing from the web of family and worldly attachments and concentrate on higher truths. He will give away his responsibilities to the younger generation and head towards the mountains. Let them decide how they want to live this life.
“I want to live another life beyond this one and prepare myself for that stage now. If the children seek my advice and value my experience I am happy to share it with them. If they don’t, then they don’t need me any longer.” At this point, Yasho Dhar babu scolds his wandering mind for distracting him: listen to the Gita discourse, he tells it sternly.
“Janardan” appeared somewhere in today’s discourse. His mind dangled before him the face of his brother-in-law, Janardan. Just two days ago, Yasho Dhar had received a letter saying Janardan was unwell. I will have to go to Ahmedabad to look him up, he thought. Immediately, his mind flashed him an image of the displeasure his wife and children would express at this proposed trip. The old joint family was scattered now. His family felt Yasho Dhar was downright foolish to think it was his duty alone to keep it together and shell out money all the time.
Yasho Dhar’s wife was fed up with his constant refrain: “This is what we saw and this is what was done in our time.” “What rubbish! What did you see, may I ask? You were sent off after your mother died to live with a widowed aunt in Almora and she had no family apart from you, so what family responsibilities were you taught to take on, tell me? In any case, you were just a little boythen. After school, you came here to live with Kishanda, a bachelor who had no family except for the young men who shared his house. So what joint family conventions did you learn in that bachelor establishment? You just parrot what you heard Kishanda say, so don’t give us this lecture now about what you saw and all. Kishanda lived by an outdated village code in a metropolis.”
Yasho Dhar’s dialogue with himself was conducted in the voice of Kishanda. He had started not only speaking and behaving like a man born old, but had even adopted the half-shy, self-deprecating air that he has seen in Kishanda.
As long as Kishanda lived in Delhi, Yasho Dhar visited him every alternate evening to register his attendance. Kishanda, on his part, came each morning while on his morning constitutional to visit his favourite protégé, calling out, “Are you being healthy, wealthy and wise, bhau?”
When Yasho Dhar first came to Delhi, he was in the habit of getting up late. Kishanda soon put this right by shaking him awake every morning to take him along on his morning walk. His mantra was: “Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” As long as Kishanda stayed in Delhi, Yasho Dhar remained his most obedient and devoted follower. After Kishanda left, he tried to keep that way of life alive by following it as he remembered. He soon got into a tangle with his wife and children over the rituals that he had seen Kishanda perform—but the truth was that no one in the pahari com- munity really cared very much for all that anymore.
Yasho Dhar wanted his community to look upon him as a respected elder, but when there was virtually no community left, where was the question of his status in it? He also wanted his children to respect him and seek his advice on all matters, just as he did with Kishanda. However, he also considered himself a democrat and did not wish to impose his will. Even so, he couldn’t accept that they never thought it necessary to ask him for advice at all, and did exactly as they wanted. “Granted, you think you know more. But after all, my experience should count for something in your scheme of things,” he said to them. “So even if you don’t follow my advice and even if it is just a formality, at least ask me once before you do something.” “This is the limit, Babba,” was their answer. “When you know nothing of these matters, why should we ask you for any advice?”
The day’s discourse over, Yasho Dhar babu heads, as usual, to the vegetable market. He would have liked it if one of his sons had offered to take on this duty by now, along with the trips to the ration shop, the milk booth, the CGHS Dispensary and those exhausting trudges to Sadar Bazar for the monthly groceries, saying, “Leave this to us, Babba. You’ve done it for long enough.” But no such offer was forthcoming. In fact, when Yasho Dhar babu once asked one of them, he looked at the other siblings saying, “Why can’t they do it?” There was such a violent argument between the brothers, such unpleasant words exchanged, that he gave up. When the older one got himself his fancy advertising job, the children began saying, “We can’t understand why you still persist in doing all this yourself, Babba. Why don’t you keep a servant to run these errands now?” And the advertising son sprinkled salt over his wounds by declaring loudly that he would pay the salary for the servant.
Yasho Dhar babu also feels it is “somehow improper” that his son does not hand over his salary to his father. He knows that the son does not receive it in hand, that it goes directly to his bank account from the office, but what about opening a joint account with his father? Can’t he at least offer to do that? Instead, he often tells the father, “I am paying for this out of my own money, not yours. So please keep out of this.” He has even extended this to doing whatever he feels like with Yasho Dhar’s quarters. One day there is a carpet being laid, another day he finds new curtains. A new sofa arrives, new mattresses, a TV, a fridge. What is all this? He does not even say, this is for you, Babba. On the other hand, he goes around declaring, “This is my TV, understand? No one is to touch it, or else!” So this house has become his as well now, has it?
It is possible that a servant he pays for will also arrive and, doubtless, he will be his, not theirs. This is what Yasho Dhar babu explains to his wife when she forwards their requests. In any case, Yasho Dhar babu firmly believes that one should do one’s own work. Hand over your work to a servant and invite ruination, he goes on. His wife listens to his lecture and does not even bother to argue any more, as she once did.
So, vegetable bag in hand, stepping gingerly over broken roads and rubble, Yasho Dhar babu arrives at the corner of this square where just three quarters still stand. Of the three, only one is still occupied. The name of this cussed person is inscribed on a faded name plate: YD Pant.
hen he arrives, for a moment he thinks he has come to the wrong place. A car is parked outside along with a few motorcycles. Several people are exchanging hellos and goodbyes. The outer veranda is festooned with gay paper buntings and fairy lights twinkle merrily. One of the people he spots is his son, Bhushan, shaking hands with a sahib-like person sitting in the car. He hears the sahib say, “Give my warm regards to your father,” and stops in his tracks. He asks himself what on earth could be happening here today, then concludes it must be something the boys have decided to celebrate.
Then his glance falls upon his wife and daughter who are also saying goodbye to some memsahib-like ladies in the veranda. His daughter is wearing a pair of jeans and a sleeveless top. Yasho Dhar babu has told her several times that her jeans and sleeveless vests appear “somehow improper” for a well-brought-up girl, but his obstinate child just will not listen to him. And her mother takes her side, declaring, “I will not allow my daughter to cover her head and all that rubbish, understand? It’s enough that I listened to your old-fashioned views on womanly modesty. She will do exactly what other girls her age are doing.” It was not just her defence of their daughter’s defiance that bothered him, but the fact that his wife had now started to paint her lips and dye her hair to emphasise her support of this defiance. All this is “somehow improper”, he feels.
Yasho Dhar babu lurks in the shadows to avoid confronting this modern-looking crowd. This is why his children complain that their father only feels comfortable with the LMC—lower middle class—types. It is only after the car-borne guests depart that he musters up the courage to step into his home. The party has not ended and his children’s friends and some relatives are still around. His elder son greets him irritably. “This is the limit, Babba! How can you come home at 7.30 on your silver wedding? My boss has just left after waiting for over an hour for you.”
“Since when have we started to celebrate a silver wedding,” he asks diffidently.
“Ever since your son started earning a good salary,” is the rejoinder. This remark comes from Chandra Dutt Tiwari, a distant nephew who just recently cleared his SAS exam.
Although he has several reservations about his children’s behaviour, Yasho Dhar babu cannot help liking the fact that other people now envy him his successful progeny. He may not have quite figured out why his son prefers a non-government job, but even he knows that it is no joke to start off with a four-figure salary, in addition to a transport allowance and another one for “other works etc”. He is also secretly proud that he is now considered a “big man”, even if by the markers of the kind of success he finds distasteful.
Yasho Dhar babu finds this silver wedding party affair “somehow improper” and can’t help remembering that, as a poor orphan, no one had even so much as given him a laddoo on his birthdays. His wedding was an extremely modest affair, made possible after a loan from an employees’ cooperative fund. This is why he wonders at the lavish spread to celebrate it 25 years later. The table is set out with four kinds of sweets, an equal number of savouries, cold drinks, fruit and—no one knows how to hide it—a bottle of whisky. Yasho Dhar points a finger at the almost empty bottle and asks his son sternly, “Bhushan, what is this?”
“A bottle of whisky, what else? I had invited my boss and colleagues, so what was I to offer them? Lemonade?”
“Is lemonade poison that it cannot be offered? When there is no tradition of serving alcohol in our home, who can force us to break it? What was the need to do all this, may I ask? Did I ask you? As far as I can remember, there was no mention of a party when I left for office this morning.”
Nursing a glass of whisky disguised as a cola, his brother-in-law Girish pipes up. “I am the culprit, jijaji. This morning I suddenly remembered that you were married exactly 25 years ago. I tried calling your office but I think the number is out of order. That’s when I called Bhushan who said, ‘Why don’t you drop by this evening? We’ll organise a party. I’ll call my boss over as well, something I’ve wanted to do for a while.’”
Girish is his wife’s cousin and a marketing manager in some big firm. It was he who helped Bhushan get that job in advertising. “Somehow” Yasho Dhar babu finds him a bit of an upstart, convinced his influence is behind his son’s new-fangled ideas. Of course, when he said as much to his wife, she turned on him angrily. “Instead of thanking my cousin for getting your second-class son such a decent job, you accuse him of spoiling him. Really!”
Bhushan starts to introduce his friends and colleagues to his father. Yasho Dhar says a polite thank you in return to each greeting he receives and dutifully shakes hands, intro- ducing himself as YD Pant, Home Ministry, Bhushan’s father. He does this to convey that he isn’t the boorish yokel they may think him to be, but a civilised elder. Kishanda used to say, you should learn western etiquette but never give up your own traditions. So go ahead and wear a tie and suit but never forget that your true dress is a dhoti-kurta.
The children now begin to pester him to cut a cake along with their mother. His wife is initially shy but when her daughter drags her by the hand to stand behind the cake, she goes without demur, even calling out to her husband to join her.
Yasho Dhar babu is completely non-plussed. So his daughter comes over to drag him across as well. Mumbling “somehow I don’t like all this”, he does cut the cake “anyway”. His satisfied, shy look is captured by Girish’s camera. But when they are asked to feed each other a slice, he refuses to play along any more. His explanation is that he does not eat cake because it has egg in it. When reminded that he was a meat-eater until the other day (so what is the harm in having a crumb now?), he shakes his head firmly. All right then, at least have a laddoo, they request. A friend of Bhushan’s even tries stuffing one into his mouth but he still refuses. He hasn’t said his evening prayers yet. “So go and do your puja, Babba,” his son retorts irritably. “How long do you think these people are going to wait for you?”
“No, no, please carry on, go ahead, no formality,” Yasho Dhar tells the guests as he leaves to say his prayers.
He took much longer over his puja, hoping the guests would leave without wait- ing for him to join them. His wife and children came several times to peep in, saying hurry up, the guests were leaving. Yet, no matter how long he spun out his prayers, he could still hear sounds of the party from the sitting room. So he sat in the lotus mudra and tried to meditate, willing his mind to concentrate on the blue spot, but it kept flashing the face of Kishanda instead.
Yasho Dhar babu asked Kishanda, “What happened to you, how did you die?” Kishanda replied, “Bhau, every one—married, unmarried, rich or poor—dies of this disease. Each one of us is on a solitary journey in this world and you cannot call anyone your own. The only unchanging rule is iron self-control.” Yasho Dhar babu wanted to argue this with Kishanda, attired in his kurta-pajama, woollen dressing gown and wooden clogs, not to disprove his theory but to understand it better. He wanted to ask Kishanda whether his children were going down the right path and if not, what should he do about it? But Kishanda was on a different trip with his dis- course on man’s essential solitude.
“What children and wife are you asking me about, bhau,” he asked. “All human relationships are maya, and this son of yours, Bhushan, who is leaping around today, will one day be as lonely and helpless as you are now.”
Before Yasho Dhar could take this dialogue forward, his wife burst into the prayer room to ask whether he intended spending the night there. Yasho Dhar babu got up and asked softly whether the guests had gone. “Some have left, but there are still some around.” Who all? Just a few relatives, she shrugged. He decided to wear the gamchha he’d wrapped round
himself for the prayers and go to the sitting room once more. Wearing the flimsy gamchha was another Kishanda habit he had picked up. His children hated it.
“Everybody gone? Party over?” He smiled as he addressed his daughter, who was pointing an accusing finger at his strange party attire.
“So what if the guests have gone,” she retorted angrily. “Does this mean that you come into the sitting room dressed like that? Babba, you really are the limit!”
“My dear child, I will wear what I am comfortable wearing. Now I cannot wear jeans like you and feel comfortable, can I?”
His glance went to the table. Seeing a few packets, he asked who had forgotten them there.
“Presents for you,” replied Bhushan. “Go on, open them.”
“Why are you all giving me presents at this age,” he smiled shyly. “You take them.”
Bhushan picked up the largest packet. “At least accept this one. I bought this specially for you. It’s a woollen dressing gown. I hate it when you wear that torn pullover to fetch the milk. From now on, wear this.” His daughter handed him a kurta-pajama. “Wear this underneath.” After a few mild protests, he accepted and put on the dressing gown. “So this is what they call a dressing gown,” he said in wonder, tying the sash. And the corners of his eyes became just a little moist.
It is difficult to say whether it was at that moment that Yasho Dhar also wondered why the son who gave him the dressing gown did not add, “From now on, I will fetch the milk in the mornings, Babba.” Perhaps, as he tightened the sash around his waist, he became a man who ultimately dies of an illness that has no name.
Illustration by Tripat Kang