By Kulbhushan Kain
We were sitting on the lawns of our residence on Circular Road. It was a beautiful early March day –with the birds chirping and the flowers blooming. The harsh winter had passed and we were welcoming spring. I had invited Mr Raj Kanwar for breakfast and as he alighted from the car (with some effort), he remarked, “KB, I have fought and won yet another battle with winter. Winters can be cruel to old people like me.”
“Sir, forget the winters,” I remarked. “They are like thieves, they don’t come to stay! Remember Percy Bysshe Shelley writing, ‘If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind’?”
He grinned, and said, “Yes, I am writing a book and won’t go anywhere before I finish it.”
We sat down. I asked him about the book he was writing. He was 92 years old and for someone at that age to be writing a book was something I hadn’t heard or read about.
“Have you thought about the title of the book?” I asked.
He had replied without a thought “Yes, ‘A Writer of Obituaries’.”
“But why such a strange and morose title?” I had asked.
His reply, as always, was loaded.
“KB, the longer we live – the more we lose. I have lost many friends. I have written many obituaries. We read obituaries daily in the newspapers. They are a part of our lives.”
Suddenly, he stopped biting into the piece of “dhokla” (his favourite snack), looked at me and said, “I wonder who, if any, will write my obituary?”
I don’t know about him, but my mood dipped like a plane would in a free fall from sky. Obituary is not a pleasant word. Somehow, it scares me. I looked at him –I did not know what to say. At 92 years of age, his face still had a magnificent glow and those eyes could still arrest your thoughts.
Suddenly he asked, “Will you write my obituary?”
As I write his obituary, I have got goosebumps. I will come back to my reply later.
I met Raj Kanwarji rather late in my life. By that time he was a household name in Dehradun. His style of writing was sharp and precise. His analytical mind got to the bone of the meat, after shredding the muscle and fat. He wasn’t a story teller. He was more of a chronicler, a historian with many anecdotes which always regaled an audience. It was expected of a man with his observation skills and experience. In his life he had been a student leader, a businessman and an ace journalist. He was very particular about certain things. He never ever forgot to wish me on my birthday or on any festival. He never came empty handed when he visited us. He always replied to any mail or message sent to him. He was always punctual.
He was brutally honest. At a party, recently, he introduced me to a prominent Dehradun citizen, and she gushed, “Of course I know about you. I read your articles every day.” Raj Kanwarji was quick to latch on to the lie, “But he doesn’t write every day. He writes twice a month!”
I don’t know about the honourable lady, but I did not know which way to look!
He was humorous. He told me he was hard of hearing and promptly quoted Michel de Montaigne, “A good marriage would be between a blind wife and a deaf husband.”
He could not understand why people in India call the middle aged “uncle” or “aunty”.
“The other day, I went to the bank for some work and the lady at the counter addressed me as “Uncleji,” he recounted.
“Kaunsa Uncleji? Am I your uncle? Call me by my name or Sir,” he narrated with a smile and added that it is only in India where people use the term ‘uncle’, or ‘aunty’, without even being remotely related to them.
He was a foodie and loved his single malt, wine, butter chicken, lemon tarts and pineapple pastries. To his last days – he ended his lunch with a scoop of ice cream! Of late, he had given up all ‘vices’, he told me, since his body refused to allow him to indulge in them – but not the ice cream!
He lived amongst books. He gave me two on the condition that I must return them after having read them. I read but never returned them. He never reminded me to do so.
Above all, he was a true nationalist and proudly showed off his left hand on which was tattooed “Jai Hind” which he got written as a 12 year old boy in Lahore during the Quit India Movement Days.
I always found him positive and young at heart. However, the last time I met him on his 92nd birthday, I found him looking frail. But his wit was intact. When I complimented him that even at 92 he looked like Dev Anand, he was quick to reply “I hope you mean Dev Anand when he was young. He looked quite ugly when he was old!”
But his last exchange with me on WhatsApp on the 26th (3 days before he was admitted to the hospital), got me worried. I had wished him a long life and his reply was atypical of him. He had replied, “KB, many thanks for wishing me a long life but you could have also added “happy and healthy”. A long life must per se be healthy and happy; otherwise it becomes a burden…”
Coming back to what I told him when he asked me whether I would write his obituary, I had replied very decisively, “No”.
“But why not?” he had asked.
“Because I can’t promise something I can’t imagine – you dying.”
He thought for some time, looked at me and hummed “Chhoro bekaar kee baton ko, kaheen beet naa jaye rainaa.” It was his way of contemptuously dismissing my argument!
“Ok, let’s strike a deal,” I had said, “I will write your obituary, if you promise to write mine. You are a writer of obituaries.”
His eyes and mine welled up. He smiled and said, “Dhokla acchhaa hai!”
Raj Kanwar Sir, I have honoured my part of the “deal”. I will wait for you to come back and honour your part of the deal.
Besides, I have to return the two books you lent me.
Till then rest in peace, Sir.