I have been driving cars from the age of 12. New Delhi had very wide roads with hardly any vehicular traffic or pedestrians. Although I was not old enough to get a driving licence, there was no one to question me about it. I recall once I ran over a stray dog which was foolish enough to come in my way. I felt very bad about it.
Thereafter I have driven all over Europe, Canada and the United States. Till two years ago I drove myself to wherever I had to go in India. Then I felt I was too old and perhaps too slow in my reflexes and could endanger other people’s limbs and lives. I sold my two cars and now depend on others to take me to different places, or take a taxi. I can boast that in 80 years of driving, I never hit another car or human being. Although I am a drinking man, I have never been drunk or got behind a steering wheel in a state of inebriation. I am appalled at young men in states of drunkenness, killing poor people on pavements by reckless driving. They deserve exemplary punishment. Besides serving time in jail, their cars should be sold, the cash distributed among victims’ relatives. In addition, heavy fines should be imposed on them and given as compensation to the kin of victims. Their driving licences should be confiscated for life.
The closest I came to getting into trouble for drunken driving was in London. I was at a reception at the Soviet Embassy. Vodka flowed like the waters of the Volga. I had not tasted the fiery stuff and was gingerly sipping it from a tiny wine glass when three mountain-sized Russian officers confronted me and indicated that vodka was not sipped but tossed in the mouth and gulped in one go. I was foolish enough to accept their challenge. We tossed three vodkas in our mouths in quick succession. Nothing happened to them — they wandered off to look after the other guests. I felt the room going in a whirl and my knees wobbling. I managed to make my escape and get into my car. I drove a little distance and realised I wasn’t fit to drive. I pulled up alongside a pavement to sleep it off. After an hour or so, I was woken by a sharp knock on the window pane. I let down the glass. It was a Bobby (London policeman). “What may you be doing, sleeping in your car?” he asked. I replied, “Not feeling well enough to drive.” He came closer. “I can smell liquor in your breath. May I see your driving licence?” I pulled it out of the dashboard and gave it to him. He noted it in his diary and then went to look at the car number plate. “I see you have a CD (Corps Diplomatique) on your number plate. I would have arrested you for drunken driving, but you are exempt. We will report your case to your embassy.” He halted a taxi and helped me get in. “Take this gentleman home. He is drunk,” he ordered the cab driver. Then turned to me, “You are lucky. Next time you do this, your licence will be confiscated and you will spend some time in the cooler (jail).” That admonishment lasted my lifetime.
Mahboob alias Preetam
He is the most unusual character I have met in my life. He is a Pakistani in his mid-fifties. His parents named him Mahboob Ghani. Twenty years ago he changed his name to a distinctly non-Muslim one: From Mahboob to Preetam and Ghani to Giani and made no secret of his adoration of Hindi deities, notably Saraswati.
He was educated at Aitchison Chief’s College and Government College, Lahore. He went to Selwyn College, Cambridge. Before he could get his tripos, he was expelled from the university for openly espousing the rights of homosexuals. Back in Pakistan, he tried to make a living running an arts atelier and teaching English in Islamabad. He didn’t get many clients or students. He moved to Abbotabad to look after his sick, ageing mother, the retired principal of a women’s college. He always referred to her as Mata Hari. She died three years ago. Preetam gave up tutoring students in English and now counsels men with homosexual tendencies. He also translates Urdu poetry into English and publishes his heterodox views. Needless to say he is often in trouble with the authorities and powerful people.
He started corresponding with me some 10 years ago and sent me his translations of Ghalib. Five years ago he came to Delhi accompanied by a male companion. I took an afternoon off to show them Delhi’s monuments. He turned out to be a tall, beanpole-thin man with aquiline features. He was also dour and unsmiling. He had no interest in monuments. He wanted to see Ghalib’s tomb in Nizamuddin. While his friend recited the fateha at the poet’s grave, Preetam took a couple of snapshots. He neither wanted to go to Hazrat Nizamuddin’s dargah nor see Amir Khusrau’s grave. However, he did visit the Ghalib Academy next door and presented his translations to a very uncaring, half-asleep secretary.
Like many gays, Preetam is highly sensitive and beauty-oriented. He is also a man of courage. How he survives in the mullah fouled atmosphere of bigotry that pervades in Pakistan, openly questioning Islamic beliefs is a minor miracle. Yet from what I have read of his writings, he is man of faith — a faith of his own. He left me a collection of his poems entitled Realisations. Among others it has one on goddess Saraswati and a few on homosexual themes. I quote one, Right or Wrong to give you an idea:
They are bothering me too much,
Take stock of them I must as such
What are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’?
Only a game of ping-pong
Which the mind plays with itself.
This right and wrong morality
Despoils all my jollity,
Clogs my spontaneity,
Veritably entrances me:
A bloody nuisance is it. ‘Right’ and ‘wrong’ must be replaced
From my being forever displaced.
What, then, to have in their place?
Ah! Something that shines on the face;
Or, if it does not shine, is known for lessness.
Of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, let’s ring the knell:
Let it sound like a joyful bell.
Let’s welcome glamour and mystery,
Strength and sensitivity,
And all the gods that behind them be.
After a long night in the maternity ward, the local doctor emerged exhausted. “Why is it that babies always arrive at nights?” a sympathetic nurse asked.
“What begins at night ends at night,” the doctor mused. A short time later he became a father. The hospital staff has never let him forget that his baby arrived in the morning.
(Contributed by Reetan Ganguly, Tezpur)