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On important numbers

The desire to appear more important than one is universal. The Dilliwala hawker who sold chholey-bhatoorey made a killing by means yet to be established, writes Khushwant Singh.

india Updated: Aug 18, 2007 02:31 IST

The desire to appear more important than one is universal. The Dilliwala hawker who sold chholey-bhatoorey made a killing by means yet to be established. His trade could not possibly have earned him enough to buy and maintain a fleet of 17 limousines. He must have known he could ride on only one at a time. So he had to devise means to tell the world that he was a VIP.

I have no doubt he would have liked to fly the tri-colour in front of his car or have a red or a blue light flashing on the bonnet. Since neither option was available to him, he went for the third one: a distinguished number plate like 0001 or 2 or 3. He managed to wangle them for his cars. Now the envious world has turned against him; they are calling him an upstart and baying for his blood.

My father also loved new cars and fancy number plates. It took him many years to make enough money to have three or four cars. Since he was also an honorary magistrate, and at the time there were few cars on Delhi roads, his munshi was able to get changa numbers for them. The head clerk decided to have fun at my poor father’s expense. For one car he allotted the number DLH 10, and for the other DLH 420. It took my father some days to realise what the two numbers stood for.

I also know about two members of the heaven-born Indian Civil Service posted successively as Deputy Commissioners of Ambala (then a part of Punjab). One allotted his car number PBA 1. When he was transferred to Chandigarh, his successor wrote to him to surrender the number so that he could have it for himself. The man refused to do so. Regardless of the refusal, the successor allotted the same number to himself.

So at a conference of senior civil servants in Chandigarh, the two cars with exactly the same number plates were seen parked alongside. Believe it or not, but it is absolutely true, God himself tried to have fun at the expense of these two arrogant officers.

Over the weekend they went off for breaks: one to Shimla, the other to Kasauli. On their way back, the cars collided near the gate of a police station at Dharampur. There was exchange of hot words, but neither was in a position to lodge a complaint against the other.

The Smiths of Agra and Delhi

No one will dispute that when it comes to writing on monuments of Delhi — known, like known or unknown — no one does a better job than RV Smith.

He not only tells you their history but also the legends attached to them. So do Akhilesh Mittal and Rakhshanda Jalil.
RV Smith is more prolific; his articles appear in just about every English paper in the country. I often wondered where he collects all this information and inspiration. Now I know the answer: its all in his blood; he inherited it from his father Thomas Smith (1910-1995) of Agra.

The Smiths were soldiers of fortune serving in armies of warlords willing to pay them well. Thomas Smith’s father Colonel Salvador Smith (1784-1871) was a commander in the army of Daulat Rao Scindia. Thomas also started life as a soldier but was persuaded by a family friend Nawab Faiyaz Khan Sherwani to take over as the local correspondent for The Statesman of Calcutta. Thomas readily agreed to replace his musket for the pen. Among the celebrated cases he reported was that of his English predecessor Fred Ellis, who was involved in a brawl with one BD Gupta at a meeting of the Agra Cantonment Board. Gupta lost his temper and hit the Englishman three times with his chappal. A subordinate magistrate, popularly known as Ghanta Babu, heard the case. He used to have a gong struck whenever a case was called before him. Ghanta Babu convicted Gupta for the offence of hitting a man of the ruling race. Gupta went and appealed to the Allahabad High Court. The judge passed strictures on Ghanta Babu saying he was not fit to be a magistrate but the syce of a British officer.

Thomas Smith was a versatile man. Besides his mother tongue English, (he was an Anglo-Indian) he knew Urdu, Persian and Hindi. During his leisure hours, he cycled around the Agra ruins in his short-sleeved shirt, khaki shorts and solar topee on his head, picking up information on monuments he visited.

In the evening he would dress in kurta-pyjama to attend mushairas and kavi sammelans. He often visited Delhi. During World War II, he interviewed Pandit Nehru, MA Jinnah and the Mufti of Jerusalem.

In 60 years of journalism, besides representing The Statesman, Thomas Smith edited Globe magazine, The Agra Citizen and Agra Times, as well as reported for Reuters. He also worked for The Times of India, The Pioneer and The Hindustan Times. His son RVS published his Rambles and Recollections of Thomas Smith.

Thomas Smith married an Armenian lady Ruby Irene who gave him seven children — four sons and three daughters. She died in 1989; her husband followed her six years later. Both are buried in Agra.

Natwar Speak
Who says I am a discredited leader?
Who says Oil-for-Food deal was sinister?
I am admired here and abroad
What thought, I am no longer a Foreign Minister!
No doubt Congress had disowned me
But I know the diplomatic art
Though I am a Maharaja’s son-in-law
I claim to have a socialist heart.
I hobnobbed with Mulayam Singh Yadav
And helped him at polling juncture
It is a different matter on the way to victory
His cycle sustained a grievous puncture!
To tease and taunt the Congress Party
For President’s post I proposed Bhairon Singh’s name
Why should you blame me if he suffered
A severe defeat in this prestigious game?
(Courtesy GC Bhandari, Meerut)