Up and close: Ashok, the idol of my youth - Hindustan Times
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Up and close: Ashok, the idol of my youth

Apr 06, 2024 08:12 PM IST

Last week my cousin, Ashok Thapar, suddenly died. He was 15 years older but, in my teens and early twenties, he was an icon I sought to emulate.

I guess it’s not uncommon that when someone you are close to dies you’re flooded with memories of the association with them. Incidents, long forgotten, return with an immediacy and clarity that is often astonishing. It’s as if they happened yesterday. But they are probably three or, even, four decades old. The littlest things — an awry smile, a unique gesture, the startling timbre of a voice – suddenly stand out. But a day earlier they would have seemed lost forever. Now, after a tragic death, you can’t forget them.

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Last week my cousin, Ashok Thapar, suddenly died. He was 15 years older but, in my teens and early twenties, he was an icon I sought to emulate. I admired his deliberate but careful sartorial style, his measured speech, his dry sense of humour and his, at times, acerbic comments. At that age, he was everything I wanted to be. But try as hard as I did, I could not copy him. My efforts were way off the mark.

In the summer of ’77, in the warm afterglow of the end of the Emergency, Ashok and I would spend evenings walking the drive of his Chhattarpur farm. We’d plot innocent mischief between our fellow cousins. What lifted it above childishness was the artfulness of his efforts. Together he’d spin yarns and carry tales but they were never trite nor silly. Hours would be spent crafting them. Ashok had a memorable phrase for the occasions we successfully tied our relatives in knots. “It’s such a hoot when we give fatty the flip!”

In December 1981, the evening I got engaged, Ashok was determined we should celebrate together. So we got drunk. In a jeep he’d borrowed earlier that day from our cousin Mala Singh, we ended up at her home at midnight demanding more booze. By the time we left, we were truly pickled. Swerving to avoid a rehri-wala we hit the divider and brought the jeep to a shuddering stop.

The police came to our rescue. Don’t they always! As the sun peeped through the dark winter night, Ashok dispatched me to Mala’s to collect money. “You’re a fine lot,” she snorted. “First you arrive tipsy, then bash up the jeep and now you want money to bail yourselves out!”

When it was all over, Ashok and I celebrated with a hearty breakfast at the Gymkhana Club. “Oh what a tangled web we weave,” he quoted, as he sipped the Club’s black coffee. At the time I had no idea it was Walter Scott. I accepted it as one of the myriad aphorisms Ashok had squirrelled away and would produce at the apposite moment.

I grew up in Ashok’s company. Of that, I have no doubt. There were even times when, perhaps, he literally pulled me up. But he taught me a lot. From the appreciation of a good carpet, the difference between Muslim and Hindu architectural art, the way bright colours can speak to you and the unseen and, often, the uncared-for predicament of Indian farmers.

In the years when it was unfashionable, Ashok was an agricultural expert. His columns in The Times of India explained the Green Revolution but also elucidated the problems it created. I can’t say I fully understood them but read them meticulously I did. The fact that 50 years later I remain in awe of the subject is entirely because of him.

What made him truly special was the fact he was so hard to define. He was no socialist but he had a profound social conscience. He was meticulous but never fussy. He was a raconteur but also knew when to keep stoically silent. He had a touch of class and a dash of flair but also an equal amount of control and restraint.

Now can you see why I admired Ashok? Writing about him is easy because I’m writing about what I once wanted to be. Farewell is difficult because I’m saying goodbye to a part of me.

Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story. The views expressed are personal

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