I CANNOT remember another year when we have lost so many dear ones, nor one where we have been unable to console the bereaved family personally. Whether these were beloved family members or close friends, each death has robbed us of a very vital part of ourselves. Death will come to all of us, this is an immutable truth; yet, few of us are prepared to confront its magnitude when it takes away a child, a spouse or a dear friend.
The only human beings who fully understood the inevitability of death and even celebrated it are the Sufis and saints. This is why as one grows older, verses mugged up as tiresome assignments in school suddenly make sense. Among the poets I consider the most profound in this regard is Kabir, whose verses have been lent a mesmeric depth by the singers who have sung him. ‘Ur jayega hans akela’ (Alone, will the swan fly away) is often sung at memorials as a profoundly moving description of the solitary journey of the soul to its final destination. No one has sung Kabir with greater understanding than the legendary Kumar Gandharva, who created a signature style for these metaphysical creations, now popularly known as nirguna bhajans.
Many years ago, the India International Centre, where I worked then, organised a magnificent festival dedicated to various aspects of Kabir: his philosophy, his poetry and the musical tradition across the subcontinent that has carried his glorious poetic legacy in a variety of tongues, ranging from the folk dialect of Malwa in central India to the bards of Rajasthan who straddle both Islam and Hinduism, through Kutch to Sindh and beyond. In Varanasi, where he lived and died, there is still a community of sadhus known as the Kabirpanthis, who are steeped in his poetry. Kabir can also be heard in the verses of the Gurbani and many Sikh readers may be familiar with these as ‘shabads’ embedded in Guru Granth Sahib.
All this came flooding back to me as I remembered our encounters with Kumar Gandharva when he sometimes came for the annual Sangeet Sammelan in Chandigarh, organised by the redoubtable Khosla Saab, who has kept this annual tradition alive through decades. Held then in the peaceful surroundings of the Leisure Valley in those innocent times when terrorism and security threats were unknown, Kumarji always stayed with his old friend, Mr Marathe, and gave one or two private concerts to smaller audiences. I remember a joyous evening we spent in Dr BN Goswamy’s home in Chandigarh when Kumarji agreed to come there for a dinner hosted by them. The taste of those stuffed tomatoes with paneer we had there is still a lingering memory. They had been prepared lovingly by Karuna, Dr Goswamy’s beautiful wife, whose home-made chocolate ice cream was also famous amongst her friends. Karuna’s beauty, charm, elegance and warmth — there is so much to remember her for. When I saw her smiling from the obituary page, I was immediately reminded of her lovely smile when she greeted friends. I cannot imagine the Goswamy home without her bustling presence and dazzling smile.
As I recall Karuna, I am reminded of another life that came alive when I read Isher Ahluwalia’s memoir, written just before she lost her battle with brain cancer last month. By now, much has been written about her academic brilliance and how she overcame immense odds to reach the very pinnacle of her career as an economist and policymaker. However, what drew me to her life is the quiet dedication with which she fulfilled her role as a wife and mother while handling her demanding professional work. There was no conflict, it seems, in her mind about where her priorities lay: first and always with her family. And yet, look at what she was able to achieve. I am more than ever convinced that Nature has made women capable to shouldering those responsibilities and roles that men are simply unable to. I often joke that there is a manufacturing defect in men that makes them incapable of multi-tasking, but I have never taken the truth of this lightly. When it comes to nurturing their families, supporting their husbands and handling a busy and demanding career, women far outstrip men. I have seen this in my own close family, in my mother and my sister’s lives, both of whom have retained their own place in the world they have created and nurtured. Never did I hear such women complain how they do not get support or that they were overworked; they simply tucked their pallus round their waists and got down to cooking and cleaning as efficiently as they met deadlines at work. Such women are the first to rise in the mornings and the last to sleep. They collect the milk and newspapers in the mornings and lock up the house when the family goes to bed at night. Name me one man who does all this and still manages to smile, and I will eat my words.
So, to all such wonderful women it has been my privilege to know, a salute for a life lived to the hilt with grace and courage.