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  Lahore to Chennai  
  A Journey Called Life  
  ONE of the rules of thumb in journalism is that one should not use the first person singular. Another is that one should not write about one's own relatives. I cannot claim to have followed these lofty principles in my writings, as the pronoun in this very sentence suggests. Alas, the model I have been following is the highly personalised "Sahitya Vaarabhalam" (Weekly Literary Forecast), a column by the late Prof M. Krishnan Nair, that I grew up reading.

Once I even translated some portions of Nair's column to give my non-Malayali readers a taste of his purple prose. It can verily be said that he spent a lifetime reading books in Sanskrit, Malayalam and English. If there was any book which he had not read, I considered it unworthy of reading. It was through his writing that I first heard about writers like Albert Camus, Pablo Neruda, Chinua Achebe and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Nair had mentioned in a column the popular belief that there is a book in everyone. In fact, burnt-out journalists and English teachers, glamour-impoverished fantasists and a million other drudges want to transcend their lives of quiet desperation by writing a novel or an autobiography. They don't realise that they have to compete with six billion potential writers. The unwritten books are either buried or cremated along with their authors.

I did not know much about Visharda Hoon except that she was an octogenarian and grandmother of our daughter-in-law Ruchira when my wife and I stayed with her in Chennai for a couple of days. She hosted a reception to introduce the newly-married couple to her friends at a century-old club. I had no clue that Chennai had a vibrant, prosperous Punjabi community. All those who graced the function from a prince, who lost his privy purse but came in a Mercedes, to a commoner like her driver were most deferential to her.

The next day I sat with Hoon to hear her story as she guided her daughter-in-law in preparing a non-vegetarian dish for us, though she is herself a vegetarian. For once I realised that she was the Master Chef at whose feet Ruchira acquired her culinary expertise that helped her become one of the 20 'finalists' in the Master Chef contest. She spoke excellent English and her story was fascinating. I suggested that it was time she wrote her autobiography.

She said the thought of writing a book was indeed daunting. I told her that she should not attempt writing a book. Instead, she should write short chapters about her childhood in Lahore, schools and colleges she attended, love affair, if any, the Partition, migration, life in Delhi, Calcutta, Kathmandu, Chennai and together these would make a book. I knew it was easy to advice than to practice.

The idea seemed to appeal to her. When I published the interview headlined 'Lahore to Chennai' at it got a good response. That solidified her decision to write. Though she was a staunch believer in Arya Samaj, she also believed in the Biblical saying, "No woman, having put her hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God".

She had enough reason to hate me because I could not edit her manuscript. Yet, this week she sent me a copy of her book titled "Lahore to Chennai: A Journey Called Life" (Caress, 436 pages, Rs 600) with a handwritten note, "To AJ who inspired me to write this book". In her Preface also she narrated how I persuaded her to write. I showed the book to Prof Omchery N.N. Pillai, scholar, public speaker and playwright, and he told me that it would be a great inspiration for him to write his autobiography.

To describe her as a feisty lady is an understatement. Who else could have dodged school for a few years on the plea that every school she was admitted to was bad? She grew up in Model Town in Lahore, the seat of Maharaja Ranjit Singh's empire that jutted into what is China now and included much of Afghanistan, not to mention Pakistan and the Indian states of Haryana, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. She was amused to see actor Kabir Bedi riding in the bucket of his father's bicycle.

Her father was an engineer, who also dabbled as an architect. It must have been tough for him to bring her up, as she had a Leftist disposition. It would not have been a pleasant experience for him to bring her home from the jail in Lahore where she and her friends were detained for breaking the law.

She had a pro-British teacher who would often say, "we English". One day she stood up in the class and said, "Miss Sarcar, you are not English, but an Indian like us". That deflated her and she never uttered "we English" again. No, the principal did not nurse a grade against her. She provides a pen portrait of Lahore those days where Hindus believed that the city would remain with India.

The family which Hoon describes as "upper middle class" owned a hosiery factory but when they reached Delhi, they were in penurious conditions. The accommodation they managed to get was in the GB Road area where, as anyone familiar with Delhi knows only too well, prostitution thrived. The flat they occupied was comparatively large as it, perhaps, belonged to a prosperous prostitute, who migrated to Pakistan, "the land of the pure".

It was difficult to live there as it was not uncommon for inebriated men to knock on the door to ask what the going rate was. The Hoons had a servant who enjoyed handling such customers, though he himself turned out to be no better than those whom he shooed away when he was caught with his pants down and an angry woman accusing him of not paying up.

Hoon was an Ahluwalia, which means a kshatriya, and a Manglik (those born with Mangal (Mars) dosha) to boot. I learnt about the problems of a Manglik when I read Manju Kapoor's novel "Home". A Manglik could marry only a Manglik, otherwise the spouse would die. It so happened that the person she chose as her partner was also a Manglik.

Her life has truly been a life of journey. It was said about the late V.K. Madhavankutty, who was the Delhi Bureau chief of the Mathrubhoomi, that nobody asked him whether he visited any particular country. The question he enjoyed answering was: "How many times did you visit that country?" I had a colleague who was asked whether she visited the US because of the vivid description she gave about that country. She answered without batting her eyelid: "No, my mother visited the US once".

A chapter in the book is headlined "Around the world a third time". From Aden to Athens and Minnesota to Mangalore, she has visited all the important places in India and abroad. She describes Vancouver in Canada as the most beautiful. Visiting countries is no big deal these days; in Kerala it is common for senior citizens to speak about the countries they visited. My own neighbour's son who works for Qatar Airways has in three-four years visited most of the countries.

What makes Hoon's visit special is that she had travelled in her own right as an educationist, not to look after her daughter or daughter-in-law during her pregnancy. The first time she went to the US was to do a course at Harvard as a Fulbright scholar. She spent eight months travelling all over the country and distinguishing herself as the unofficial ambassador of Indian culture and aesthetics.

A great quality that Hoon has and which her granddaughters maintain is the ability to strike friendships and retain them for years, nay decades. She was a Leftist and knew all the Leftist leaders of the time like Ramesh Chandra, who was the driving force behind the Indo-Soviet friendship organisation that thrived in the seventies. She had the amazing ability to befriend people like H.V. Kamath, a distinguished parliamentarian whose election from Hoshangabad I reported for The Hitavada, and celebrated poet Firaq Gorakhpuri.

What struck me the most about her visit to Santiniketan was her meeting with K.M. Sen, Sanskrit scholar, Rabindranath Tagore's contemporary and father of Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen. Anyone who wants to know the essence of Hinduism without having to read the philosophical treatises of S. Radhakrishnan just has to read Sen's book on Hinduism translated into English by his son, who is, by the way, an atheist. But, then, atheism is also an accepted form of belief in Hinduism.

It was her attraction to politics that took her to Birla House to meet Mahatma Gandhi. Among those she knew, she seemed to have the greatest admiration for Jayaprakash Narayan. Not many know that he was a great scholar. Once on a visit to the A.N. Sinha Institute in Patna I saw a whole section of books donated by JP. The books bore annotations by JP. She even called on him in Patna a few months before he died. Yes, Hoon's core competence was not befriending politicians but managing schools.

The Punjabi Association in Chennai was just a cultural group. As founder principal of its school, she earned a name that stood her and the Association in good stead. She brought people like JP to the school to narrate how he escaped from the jail at Hazaribagh, which I had the fortune of visiting. Another such visitor was soon-to-be President Zail Singh, whose speech in Punjabi she translated into English. She believed in brevity like the author of the Bible who narrates the whole creation in just one paragraph. She summarised Singh's long-winded speech in short, pithy sentences.

I have great respect for people who set up institutions. It is easy to criticise them but not easy to emulate them. Today the Punjabi Association has several schools in Chennai but Hoon is still remembered as the founder principal who built it up from a scratch. She was as much a careerist as a philanthropist.

She moved on to the Kendriya Vidyalaya organisation where she was principal of several schools, including the one at Kathmandu, where she had a tiff with the Indian Ambassador N.C. Jain's wife. She knew Nepal's former Prime Minister BP Koirala through their common friends. It was really cute Koirala mentioning to her that he was those days known more as the relative of actor Manisha Koirala.

Hoon is candid in her observations, though too many of her relatives occupy a lot of space in the book. I can't complain as I could have edited the manuscript, though I must confess that book-editing is truly not my cup of tea. At the personal level, I am happy that I learnt a lot about my daughter-in-law, her parents' marriage, attended among others by Prime Minister Morarji Desai, Indian Express proprietor R.N. Goenka, Sanjay Gandhi and Kamal Nath, who were classmates of her father. Incidentally, her mother is the daughter of the late Radhakrishna, who set up the Gandhi Peace Foundation and was arrested during the Emergency.

Hoon had a great memory to rely on while writing this book. She also had a bunch diaries, as is clear from her ability to mention the names of students like Navin, Girish and Murli, who regularly stole books from the school library at Kathmandu till stocktaking revealed a huge loss and librarian Ramakrishna was asked to compensate the loss.

"Lahore to Chennai" is inspiring in the sense that it shows how a determined person can make a success of everything that she does, despite such a trauma as the Partition. She concludes, "As I sit in the verandah and listen to the bhajans that my grandson Aditya has loaded into my i-Pod, gifted to me on my 85th birthday, I think life has been good and I could not ask for more". Given her appetite for life, it will not be too much to expect a second volume of her "Journey Called Life".

The writer can be reached at

Courtesy: Indian Currents
  By  A.J. Philip  
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