Random Recollection

Saying Goodbye to the Motherland

Yatindra Bhatnagar

My wife Sadhana spent the last 30 years in the United States, away from India, Bharat Mata, our Motherland. She loved both the countries – one being her Janmabhoomi (country of birth), the other her Karmabhoomi (the land of her work). Last year she said her final goodbye to both; she passed away on May 15 at the age of 75 years and seven months. A part of her ashes were immersed in the Pacific Ocean (Redondo Beach) on August 15 and the remaining consigned to river Yamuna in Delhi on November 21. That was the final farewell from her to India and also the final good-bye to the remains of her physical being from us.

Both the occasions were full of tears for us that were hard to contain. They keep on coming and keep on reminding us of our great loss I, and we all, have to bear all our lives. The void is big, the loss is immense and the memories are endless; we have to cling on to the memories that are our only treasure.

For immersion of the ashes in Yamuna, older daughter Sujata and I went to India. Right from the airport we, and the closest group of relatives who came to the airport, went straight to Nigambodh Ghat along Yamuna and did the last act. The once holy and beautiful Yamuna River is far from its glorious past; it is reduced to a dirty and polluted stretch of water that is made to accept all the filth homes and factories pour into it. We tried to do our best by going on a boat and consigning the ashes midstream, and pray.

Among those dear ones who were at the airport and the Ghat were my younger daughter Seema’s mother-in-law and Randeep’s mother, Usha Ji, her older son Dr. Pradeep, his wife Dr. Amita, my wife’s brother Dr. Indrajit Kumar, his son Vineet, and my nephew Virender, (the older one Jitender had also come but had to leave early to attend to some urgent business). We had specifically asked relatives to not take the trouble of being there but the close ones couldn’t stop themselves. They are all very dear to us.   

The visit to India was two-fold: to immerse Sadhana’s ashes and to meet with some close relatives that have either crossed 80 or are very near that threshold. I will be 88 in three months and not sure if I will be able to see them again. For health reasons they cannot (or don’t want to) come; who knows about me either.

Delhi-New Delhi has been my home, our home, for more than half a century. I lived in that part of the Indian capital in 1939-41 and again 1947-83. Sadhana visited Delhi a couple times but settled there from 1961 (our marriage) till 1983 when we moved to Indore, in central India.

Both our daughters, Sujata and Seema were born in Delhi and Sadhana’s older brother Indrajit and his family (Usha Bhabhi, Vineet beta, Sushma bahu and grandson Archit) and rakhibhai Brij and his family (Hem Bhabhi, daughter Madhu and granddaughters Medha and Aadya) are also living in Delhi. We stayed with Indrajit but were able to meet with Brij and his family, despite our ill health.  

We have many, many memories with Indrajit and his family - my friendship and close relations with him and also heated discussions about current affairs etc, family picnics and the kids growing up together, our annual vacation to Dehradun where my mother-in-law (Mataji) and a part of the family lived. Those are sweet memories embedded in our hearts forever.

Brij and Sadhana share the same birthday. Our close relationship is now more than 50 years old, and Brij has been there for our family anytime we needed him. He was there for Sadhana and the little kids in 1965 when I was away in the United States for more than four months. A qualified Pharmacist, Brij had his chemist store almost next door from our home in Ramesh Nagar and he was always available to take care of  Sujata and Seema and help Sadhana whenever she needed him. Even when we moved to far away Chanakyapuri he was at our beck and call. Sujata-Seema would fondly recall those times when Brij Mama (uncle) would ‘babysit’ them for hours Sadhana and I were out attending parties or running errands.

Sadhana chose the names, Madhu and Ritu, for the two daughters of Brij and Hem. Sadhana also made the final selection for the names of Madhu’s daughters, Medha and Aadya, both the kids are very sweet, loving, caring and intelligent. Sadly, we could not spend more time with them. Hem Bhabhi is not well and it was a consolation that she is being cared by the family, especially by the three girls, that’s doing everything for her fast recovery, including speech therapy.

Their younger daughter Ritu is in London with her husband Gunish. Both are family-oriented, good and caring. Ritu had called Sadhana in May - when she was in the hospital and not interacting. I am sure she certainly was listening to Ritu.

We wish to get a chance to see Ritu and Gunish also someday.

My late rakhibahan Vimlaji’s sons and daughter are also in Delhi and we were able to see some of them. They had gathered at the home of Virender Arya, the second son. We were happy to see his wife Kusum, his older brother Jitender and his wife, Krishna. They are very dear and close to us all. My relationship with Vimla bahan dates back to 1940. And I am the only elder for that family from both the father’s and mother’s side, as I was very close to both my sister and her husband Kundan Lal Ji, who was a freedom fighter like my father. They both loved me since I was about 11 (I will be 88 in less than three months).

I cannot forget the day I was about 13 or 14 and was badly injured at our school sports and quietly came home and fell asleep, tired and hurt. After some time I woke up to see my sister taking care of my wounds, putting coconut oil on them and softly massaging them, as kind of first aid, to take away pain and help in quick recovery. It was soothing touch, love and care for me that continued for years till she got married and went away.       

Virender is an internationally known expert and teacher in Telecom and related skills. He retired as Dy. DG in the government department of telecommunications and is now providing training and consultancy through his company, AVK Global Trainers.

Virender showed us his well-equipped office and insisted that I sit in his chair. That’s love and respect these dear children have for me.      

In Delhi, the Indian capital city, it was severe pollution and unending chaotic traffic that made it extremely difficult for us to see more relatives and friends. This city, which is now over populated and more disorganized, is still a memorable part of my life first as single, then a husband and father, as well as for my career as a journalist from 1947 to 1983.  So many memories and so many friends and acquaintances from all walks of life. Sadly, I and Sujata both got sick and had to cancel almost all the other plans.

[On the positive side, we were impressed by the state of the art Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi which claims to have won the Best Airport award for a number of years now.  Also, unlike the long lines of immigration and customs that we were once used to, it was amazing to see that now it was a breeze.  They did not waste time, were very organized and orderly.  There were clear signs everywhere that made it easier to find your way at the huge airport which surprisingly was extremely neat and clean.] 

At the home of Indrajit we re-lived old times, talking about Sadhana, her achievements and memories and the time we all used to spend together. We also missed Rewa, the dear and talented daughter of this family who tragically had a jogging accident and passed away several years back. The kids of our families also were very close and grew up together. Vineet had also so many stories to recall while all the kids were a close group of siblings.

Sushma (Sweety) joined the group to share the love and laughter after her marriage to Vineet in 1999. She took care of us, as she does for both her in-laws; she considers them as her parents. Vineet and the other boy in the family, grandchild Archit, are the joy of the family. We were seeing Archit for the first time. He is very sweet like his mother. The third grade schoolboy does Mathematics of a ninth grade student, thanks to his grandpa who is a top mathematician, physicist and noted defense scientist, now retired.     

While in Delhi we visited the farmhouse of Indrajit and planted a sapling in Sadhana’s memory. Sadhana was a dear member of this big family and has a special place in every heart. Indrajit and Usha Bhabhi were not too well but their love and hospitality knew no bounds.

Two other families very close to our hearts are the Bhagats and the Dhingras. They are like my children. Neelu Bhagat’s relation with me is four generation-old. His grandfather and grandmother, his father and uncle were our neighbors when we went to live in Ramesh Nagar in 1961 after our marriage.

We were a very close-knit neighborhood and our ties have continued with the fourth generation through Neelu and his wife Santosh. Now their son Sonu, his wife and daughter are a part of our big family. Incidentally, the youngest member of this family is Sonu’s daughter also named Rewa, in memory of Vineet’s sister Rewa who was also close to the Bhagats.

We had a sweet re-union with the Bhagat family who was also our ‘friend in need’ when things turned out to be terrible for us in Indore. Old memories were re-kindled and new plans were crossing our minds.

One of the last programs was with the Dhingras. The Lady of the House, is also Seema, the same name as my younger daughter. Both the Seemas were schoolmates and continue to be very good friends just like a family. Seema’s husband, another Sonu, and their two daughters, Arshia and Nimisha, are adorable. Sonu is a very successful businessman, and a soft-spoken and loving-caring-respectful individual.

Arshia, a charmingly cute young lady like her mother, is a very busy corporate lawyer. Seems unbelievable, but true. She was so overworked that her mother forced her to take some time off, relax and go and meet with her friends and have some fun. She dutifully agreed and we also got some time to spend with her.

I can’t hold myself back from narrating an incident. I was sick and was coughing often, even at night that was also disturbing my sleep, and of course Sujata’s. Arshia’s bedroom was next to ours and one morning I, sort of apologetically, asked her if my coughing frequently at night disturbed her. She gave me a kind of stern look and said: How could you even think of asking me this Uncle? I am so upset. And I immediately changed my tune and came back with: Oh, I was only asking so I can cough louder tonight and she broke out in laughter. 

Can’t forget that love and respect for me.

Younger Nimisha is studying in England at a prestigious culinary institute and with her creativity and diligence has made her mark topping the Dean’s list. Initially, the parents were reluctant to send the young girl far away to England but Nimisha’s passion for her subject won. Now everyone is proud of her achievement.

The mother-daughters had visited Houston when Sadhana and I were living there, a short distance from daughter Seema. We had fun visiting places, including NASA.

We all are like a family.

Sujata and I stayed at Seema’s place for the last few days and were able to visit one of the most memorable places in Delhi, the Akshardham Temple. It’s a piece of exquisite art and architecture, a splendid  exposition of India’s ancient culture and one of the finest temples in the world. Inspired and actively encouraged by the religious-cultural-social organization, BAPS, under the leadership of Pramukh Swami Maharaj, I regard this temple as a must for every visitor to Delhi.

Pramukh Swami Ji passed away in August last year at the age of 94. I had the privilege of meeting and talking to him several years back when he was visiting northern California and I had interviewed him. He had graciously signed the newsmagazine India Post of which I was the Chief Editor then. I re-visited that experience with my second visit to Delhi’s Akshardham. Sujata and our host Seema were also with me and were fascinated by what they saw.

Seema and her family took very good care of us and we were able to relax and do whatever was left to be done such as going to the bank (three times) and run a couple of errands; Seema’s driver Pappu was at our disposal all the time.

The three other places we could just have a glimpse of were Constitution Club where we had a pre-marriage reception for Sujata in 1982 – attended by some half a dozen top federal ministers of the Indian government and nearly six hundred other friends and relatives. This is where Sadhana and I had thrown a grand party to celebrate the first birthday of our first born, Sujata.

The other one is the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society’s building where Sadhana had the first public exhibition of her paintings in 1973. It was inaugurated by the Information and Broadcasting Minister Inder Kumar Gujral who signed his name with paint and brush on canvas.

We passed by one of my favorite places, the Press Club, which had several memories for several of our family members.  The place looked deserted now and we really didn’t have time to stop and explore. 

Opposite Seema-Sonu’s beautiful home in Friend’s Colony is another large home of the late Lala Durga Das Ji, a former Chief Editor of The Hindustan Times. I had the privilege of knowing Durga Das Ji, reputed to be India’s News-getter Number One in pre and post independent India. He had access to the British Viceroy and also to Mahatma Gandhi. He was much, much senior when I joined Hindi Hindustan, of the Hindustan Times group, in 1952.

Lala Ji treated us, the juniors, with kindness and was always there to give us guidance and advice. Durga Das Ji is no more, his son Inderjit (born 1929 - the same year as I) whom we would meet quite frequently was also a journalist. He too has passed away. When I saw the name plate, Durga Das House, I asked Sonu about that family. He quickly arranged a meeting with Vikramjit Ji, another son of Durga Das Ji, next day. I had an interesting hour-long visit with him reminiscing old times and discussing the present.

Sujata was able to gather a small group of her old classmates who spent some three hours at Seema’s home. This was a group of talented and pro-active bunch that did not stop after higher education. Some became social activists, others took to teaching and research. Many of them knew and remembered me from those days when I would pick up Sujata and Seema from school, and sometimes give lift to other kids also.

I had many stories to tell them and they gave me a patient hearing. I now feel guilty of taking more of their time telling my stories and depriving them of talking about their own days at school, and being rowdy, as they had anticipated. Sorry girls, this happens with me quite often, thinking people are really interested in my stories. I was.

All the while Seema and her efficient cooking and caring staff of Harish, Mukti and Veena kept serving the choicest dishes, as they had been doing for us all the five days we were with them. 

That was our last night at Seema-Sonu’s home, The next day we were back at Indrajit’s and the following day we left for Mumbai en route to Los Angeles with memories both sad and happy. Though we were sick most of the time – it continued for a long time after we were back – but the visit to India was worthwhile. Two missions – the ashes and meeting some close relatives and dear friends – were accomplished.   

My younger sister Priyalata (we are the only two siblings out of six alive), and her husband RK Prabhu live in Bombay (Mumbai). We visited them virtually for one and a half days on our trip back home in California. The only consolation was that we could see them and spend a few hours with them re-living a part of the years gone by.

Prabhu, was a very senior bank official in India and later in Mauritius where also he made a memorable mark. Priyalata, an accomplished Bharatanatyam dancer and a singer worked for the Railways but left her job to be a full time homemaker. They raised two sons who are now in California with their families and have successful careers.  

We had lived in New Delhi most of our life and so our meetings with the Prabhu family have been few and far between. They have been in Bombay (Mumbai), Madras (Chennai) and Mauritius. Now they are in Mumbai and we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to make it even for a couple days. The airlines muddle took a good six hours from our little time with Prabhu and Priya. However, what we got we would not miss for anything.

Incidentally, Sadhana and I did the Kanyadaan for Prabhu and Priyalata  just a few months after our own marriage. This is an important and memorable marriage ritual that is traditionally performed by the parents of the bride, or the closest ones. That’s one more reason that Prabhu and Priya continue to remain important part of our lives. The only regret is we did not have more time to spend with them; one was health reason.

I have numerous personal memories of Bombay where I lived for nearly 8 years, passed my High School and the first year in college. It’s the city where I had my initiation in freedom struggle and participated in it in my own way as a school boy. In Bombay I became more aware of the fight against the British government and saw more top leaders of the freedom struggle in pre-independent India.

Sadly, I had no time to look for old friends or visit familiar places connected with my early life and freedom struggle.    

Remember, whatever you want does not always go according to your planning; there is someone more powerful that overrules you.

That’s how our two-week trip ended leaving much to do. Health and scare about outside eating prevented Sujata from tasting some of her favorite street foods like gol gappas, jalebi and visiting Parathe Wali Gali in Chandni Chowk. We could not even go and see our old homes from 1961 to 1983 – from Ramesh Nagar to Chanakyapuri and in between. And no visits to Sujata’s birth-hospital, school and college. 

But that’s life, after all.