Conventionally, human beings are divided into three categories.
The first group consists of a small number who do important things and leave their footprints far beyond their immediate circle. In this group you find a wide variety, from captains of industries to scientists to sportspersons, from politicians to practitioners of performing arts.
To the second group belong “successful” people: surgeons who earn lakhs before their breakfast, always-busy men and women who run governments and big companies, or lawyers who can turn a saint into sinner if they choose, but mostly earn their millions by turning sinners into saints. You can easily identify these people by the size of their cars and other trappings of success, as we commonly understand the term.
In the third group are we, the common people, variously called the masses, the hoi polloi, the aam aadmi, and so on. This morning, I am going to write about one of them. And as I begin to write, the question that agitates my mind is: Was he really ordinary?
An uncle of mine, Jappu Mama passed away last month; he was in his mid-seventies. Fortunately, his condition, cancer in the brain, was detected rather late, and his suffering didn’t stretch too long. I happened to be in Kolkata the day before he died. For the half-hour I sat by his bed, I found it difficult to watch him suffering. As I left their home, I secretly bowed to the calm fortitude of my mamima, who had been taking care of her husband for months with infinite patience and tenderness. That perhaps is not very unusual, but what is unusual was the serenity with which my aunt accepted her pain. She didn’t utter a word of complaint, didn’t say what could have happened if …, didn’t give the hint of a sigh. She was, in fact, teaching a student at home when I visited them.
As I left their home, I also wished that my uncle’s suffering end soon. It did, as I have said earlier.
My relationship with Jappu Mama began early when he was in college and I was a child. He was – I believe – just under six feet, at which height a Bengali male is considered tall. He was slim and didn’t have an extra ounce of fat in his body. And like all sensible young men of his age, Jappu Mama paid careful attention to his clothes. I was graduating from shorts to trousers at that time, (in our language, from half-pant to full-pant,) and Jappu Mama was my first fashion icon. I can close my eyes and think back to the day when I saw him in a maroon full-sleeve shirt, milk-white drainpipe trousers, which had just arrived on the sartorial scene, and black leather shoes with pointed toes. He was always smiling and cheerful. I never saw him otherwise. But he had the dreadful stamp of “ordinariness” on him, he studied B Sc, not engineering or medicine, and that too, not at a fancy college!
But as we both grew older, I learned that Jappu Mama was special. One of the several things that set him apart was his complete lack of interest in criticising people. In the sixty years I knew him intimately, I didn’t hear him say ONE negative word about anyone. In general, he never complained about anything. And as a complementary strength, he got on with people exceedingly well. He had a large circle of friends, some of whom he had acquired when he was posted near Delhi and maintained his friendship with.
His immediate family was a model of happiness. That he was extremely considerate and supportive towards his wife, we could be make out. Also, anyone would be affectionate towards their only son and grandson, but Jappu Mama seemed to be equally fond of his daughter-in-law. In the extended family, there was no one who didn’t love him. He was perhaps the youngest of his generation, and most amiably disposed. Consequently, his older cousins constantly placed demands on him, to which he never said “No”. He was ever ready to help.
After B Sc, he worked in the department of defence production. I am absolutely certain that he was a good worker and was admired in his workplace too, but on the whole, he was firmly rooted in the third category of people I have described above, like most of us. But here again, he was special. People from similar stations in life often try to prove that their greatness. Many of them, particularly Bengalis, have intellectual pretentions. Or at least, they try to prove they are special by recalling their true or imaginary exploits. But Jappu Mama shunned the first-person-singular throughout. I have never heard him talk about himself, nor seen a more modest man in my life.
For a very long time until the end, he volunteered for Nehru Children’s Museum in Kolkata, an organisation that does genuinely good work for children and young adults. After retirement, he used to go to their office regularly.
Over the years, he shed his youthful love for fancy clothes and was always seen in a grey or brown khadi kurta, white pyjamas, and leather slippers. Once, we both had to attend a dinner at a fancy club run by brown-sahibs, which didn’t let in people wearing slippers. Jappu Mama was in trouble. He had just one pair of shoes, which he had acquired for the purpose of meeting the President of India, no less, at a function in Rashtrapati Bhavan on behalf of Nehru Children’s Museum months ago. He hadn’t put it on ever since.
In the middle of the dinner, Jappu Mama, who sat next to me, surreptitiously showed me something which he was holding under the table. It was one of the heels of his old new shoes. Perhaps protesting against disuse, it had decided to come off. Mama quietly said, “Shalader dhorte hobe”, that is, “I must catch hold of the rascals”, the rascals under reference being Bata Shoe Company. But he took the mishap in his stride. By the time the dinner was over, he had managed to pull out the other heel too and walked away as if nothing had happened.
The other side of humility and friendliness is warmth. It was always a pleasure to meet him. Whenever I could, I used to drop in at his place. It was one home in Kolkata where I could drop in unannounced, without a prior appointment, and be received with all the warmth in the world.
Christianity and Judaism specify certain first names which people of different linguistic communities can use. Islam prescribes the same set of names throughout the world, which Bangladeshi Muslims have been changing of late. But no community in the world is possibly as inventive as Hindu Bengalis when it comes to names of boys and girls. We have a plethora of formal and informal first names. Yet, “Jappu” is a name perhaps no one else in the wold has had. And as a human being, Jappu Mama was almost equally unique.
I was wrong at the beginning of this note. People should be divided into just two groups, a minority that make the world a better place to live in, and a majority that don’t. I was fortunate to have a close relative and friend who belonged to the first group.
Wednesday, 28 March 2018