Often, when Dhanno ki Amma and I fight, I threaten her that I will leave her for the life of a yogi in the Himalayas. She threatens me right back, claiming that I would not last a day without chicken biryani and Scotch. Deep philosophical thoughts can only feed the soul -- and -- there is a lot of the corporeal material, still left in Desi Babu.
A few days ago, while flipping through random channels, I came across one of the best made serials in the history of Indian television, ever. Bharat - Ek Khoj created by Shyam Benegal, was based on Jawaharlal Nehru's famous book, The Discovery of India. Over the years, I have watched many episodes over and over again, and yet, they never seem to lose the appeal they had for me, when I watched them for the first time, years ago.
Every episode of this serial begins with a chant in Hindi, which goes like this:
Srishti se pehle sat nahin thaa, asat bhee nahin
Antariksh bhee nahin, aakaash bhee nahin thaa.
Chhipaa thaa kyaa, kahaan, kisne dhaka thaa?
Us pal to agam, atal jal bhee kahaan thaa.
There was no truth before creation, and no untruth
There was no space, and no ether.
What was hidden where? And who hid it there?
At that moment, even the bottomless, calm, water didn't exist.
This is Hindu philosophy at its original best, asking questions, and encouraging people to do the same, rather than giving out all the answers. This text, a translation of the first verse of the 129th hymn of the tenth book of the Rig Veda, is in a class of its own, representing that very mind set of our ancestors -- people, who were never afraid to ask. And that recollection, has forced me to ask a few questions of my own, in the last few days -- on life, death, and what comes first.
Last week, my personal hero, Sardar Khushwant Singh, passed away.
Like countless other Indians who are his fans, I had always wished that he lived to be a hundred. According to the books that he recently wrote, it was very clear that he did not want to. Ninety nine, seemed to be where he would end up drawing the line. And a line he did draw.
At first, I did not know what to write about Sardarji. While most of us grew up reading his books and weekly columns, over the last decade or so, we had learned to wean ourselves off from his repertoire. But one thing that had consistently struck a chord with me, was his stand on matters such as politics and religion. Sardarji was a lifelong admirer of the congress party, and an agnostic. Although I am neither, I always admired this trait of him -- knowing where he stood on things, and not being a vagabond of thoughts.
So, when I thought of writing an obituary for Sardarji, I ended up reproducing a poem by Kabir Das verbatim. This fifteenth century pearl of wisdom affirms that while everyone has to die, one should know where they stand on things. And Sardarji knew that quite well.
It must have been very strange for him in the final years. To see that people much younger than him, were dying out. An entire generation of actors, musicians and other people that Sardarji must have written about in his heydays, disappeared before his eyes. While it is not easy to die, it is not easy to live long either. However, when he could write, his work was spirited. Life seemed to appear out of nowhere his sentences, even if they were punctuated with stories of death. Often, reading what he wrote, I was reminded of one of the fundamental tenets of Shaivite philosophy, where Shiva says, "Death itself is the the fire, that begets life."
Based on the various interviews that came out, Sardarji did not lose his sense of humor in his sunset years. To him, the question of life and death must have been like the question of chicken and egg. And nothing beats a plate of fried Punjabi kukkad, smothered in butter, and topped with sliced boiled eggs.
A few weeks ago, I had gone to a restaurant for lunch, and ordered my favorite fare, a plate of chicken biryani. Since I am a regular, the waiters there know what I usually order, and sometimes, double check my food before bringing it out to me. That day, as they were bringing the food out, they kept whispering something to each other, and pointing to the plate. I wouldn't have been surprised if they had chanced upon a lizard in that gargantuan pile of fragrant rice and savory chicken. In a couple of bites, I discovered what they were worried about. Somehow, they had switched orders, and brought out a plate of egg biryani to me. As I pointed out the mistake, about three of the waiters swooped down on my plate, took it away, and brought out a steaming plate of my original order within a minute. If someone has told you that being a good tipper does nothing for you, please ignore them.
After I finished my meal, I remarked jokingly to the waiter that while the world was still unsure about what came first, the chicken or the egg -- I could say with certainty now, that the egg came first. He didn't catch my joke, and as ninety-nine percent of the waiters in India are trained to do, he mentioned rather nervously that he would ask his manager and let me know. In a few minutes, he did reappear to let me know, quite seriously, that no one really knew what came first -- the chicken biryani or the egg biryani. However, he could get me another plate of either, if I so desired.
Now that the great Sardar is gone, I wondered what he would have done in my situation. Unlike me, he was blessed with the pithy wisdom of the fertile land that spans five rivers. I am quite sure that he would have put on a big smile and said, "Dono ke ek ek plate le ao, main pata kar loonga kaun aya tha pehle! (Bring me a plate of each, I will find out what came first.)"
I am sure, that Sardar Khushwant Singh is now sitting in his personal heaven, shaped like a light bulb, surrounded by piles of books and bottles of single malt whiskey. And once in a while, he probably contemplates on deep philosophical questions. Like what came first, the chicken, or the egg.