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Of old friends and Ghalib's poetry

columns Updated: Mar 14, 2011 12:13 IST

When I heard of the death of Amteshwar Anand, mother of Maneka Gandhi, I felt as if someone had plunged a dagger in my heart. At one time we had been very close to each other. Then we had a bitter parting and never saw each other again. A few journalists wanted to interview me on the subject but I refused to see them. However, I thought it would do no harm if I wrote about our families' connections in the past.

After the First World War, Amteshwar's father and my grandfather Sujan Singh were granted agricultural lands in what was known as Montgomery district. Her father Datar Singh went into cattle breeding. My grandfather Sujan Singh tried to introduce modern techniques of farming like tractors and harvesters. He was a pioneer of exploiting the soils. A railway station between Mian Channu and Khanewal still bears his name Kot Sujan Singh.

He also raised a cotton factory, which was named after his father Inder Cotton Factory. Both families prospered. For his successful attempts to improve cattle breeding the British Government conferred Knighthood on Datar Singh. My grandfather was fobbed off with a Sardar Sahib. I feel my uncle Ujjal Singh and his father Sujan Singh must have got peeved and composed a Punjabi doggerel on this occasion. It ran as follows:

Ban Gaya Sir Datar/ Mjhan Chaar Kay/ Moh Layee Sarkar/ Guppan maar maar kay

(He has become a Sir Datar
For taking buffaloes out to graze
He has won over the government
By sweet talk and bullshit)

After Partition Montgomery became Sahiwal and all that remains of its past is a railway station where few trains stop

Ghalib's best
One evening I was in a show-off mood reciting Ghalib's lines to my guests. A young lady asked "which is your favourite Ghalib's couplet ?" without a pause I recited it: Ishq say tabeeat nay zeest ka mazaa paaya/ Dard kee dawaa payee, dard be-dava paaya

(Love gave me the joy of living
I found an antidote for pain
And also found it was in vain.)

I was not satisfied with my translation and was struggling to improve it when my servant Bahadur brought a book in Urdu and Hindi with selections of Ghalib's poems. Though I do not meet anyone without prior appointment, I felt there was a hidden hand behind this coincidence and asked Bahadur to let him in. So I met Nasruddeen Amarjit; publisher, illustrator, and calligrapher. I asked him if he had my favourite couplet in it. He regretted he did not include it. I turned over its pages. Beautiful calligraphy but the illustrations, though apt, were no great shakes. He told me something about himself. He was born in a Daoodi Bohra family. His mother-tongue is Gujarati. He learnt Urdu and English in school and college and was in government service for 29 years.

He now lives a retired life in Kolkata. I asked him if he had put his book in the market. "I will do so now," replied he. "This is the first copy." "How much will you price it?" I asked. "Rs 1200. But this is my gift to you." "It will not be a gift. It will be your first sale," I said firmly. I borrowed Rs 1200 from my servant Bahadur and thrust the notes in his hands."