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TO DEATH’S DOOR AND BACK

Odd things happen in the musical and literary world. In the musical world, the base is laid by the poet who composes the verse. If he is lucky, some music composer will find an appropriate tune for the words and some well-known singer, like Mohammed Rafi or one of the Mangeshkar sisters, will sing it. It may become a hit. Everyone will know who sang it, some will know who set the words to music, but hardly anyone will know who wrote the words.

In the literary world, it is somewhat different. There are only two partners in a venture here: the writer and his publisher. The writer writes, the publisher invests money in producing and marketing the work. If it is a success, the writer makes a name and earns royalties; few people bother about the name of the publisher. If it flops though, the writer does not make money and the publisher loses all he invested in the venture. The role of the publisher is vital, but is rarely appreciated.

This brings me to 88-year-old Pritam Singh, know in Punjabi circles as bhapaji (big brother). Recently, he had a close brush with death. All his long life, he believed that if there was anything wrong with your body, like a cold, cough or fever, you should punish it by abstaining from food. A few weeks ago when felt slightly unwell, he went on a fast. The next day he still felt unwell, so he ate nothing that day as well.

He felt no better the third day and resolved to continue with his hunger strike. He had a stroke and was taken to the hospital. He was partly paralysed and went into coma. When he came out of it, visitors asked him how he felt. Vadhia (fine), he muttered. On his return home, he had a relapse and was taken back to hospital. He survived and was cured of paralysis — he speaks audibly now and is able to walk without assistance.

The Punjabi literary world breathed a sigh of relief. All the best-known Punjabi novelists, poets and short-story writers owe their reputation to this indomitable old man. These include Gurbaksh Singh, Nanak Singh, Mohan Singh, K.S. Duggal, Amrita Pritam and Ajit Cour, among others. He founded Navyug Publishers in 1945, while still working for Gurbaksh Singh in Preetnagar, now on the Indo-Pak border.

He moved to Delhi in January 1948 and along with publishing books, started a monthly literary journal, Arsee, which soon became the most widely read Punjabi magazine. I have personal reasons to be grateful to the powers-that-be for sparing bhapaji’s life.

A year ago, he undertook to publish a Punjabi translation of my two volumes on Sikh religion and history, earlier serialized by the Punjabi Digest. If bhapaji had gone, my dreams of seeing the major work of my life published in my mother tongue would have gone with him.

Music is her life

One Sunday morning, I was so overcome by sloth that I did not read, write or try to shake off my lethargy by taking a walk. I simply sat slouched in my arm-chair, pressing the buttons of my remote control one after another hoping some programme would rouse my interest. Suddenly I saw a very garish scene of the Himalayas painted on a screen, with Shiva’s image hovering over it. There was an enormous crowd of what looked to me like a collection of Punjabi, pot-bellied, noveau riche in starched pink turbans, singing bhajans (only Punjabis are capable of making themselves so unattractive).

Suddenly, from behind the screen emerged a goddess-like figure chanting hymns in Sanskrit and Hindi. I was entranced. Such beauty! Such a lovely voice! And above all, animation such as I had not seen since I first saw Usha Uthup perform in Bombay 30 years ago. This one was in her twenties, with a lovely face and figure and a voice that matched the Mangeshkar sisters. Who was she' I watched her for an hour, hoping someone would mention her name so that I could find out more about her. All I got at the end was a portly Punjabi saying “Dhanyavad (thank you), Richaji”.

I rang up my friend Kishwar Ahluwalia, who was then working for television. “It must be Richa Sharma,” she replied. “We’ve had her on our programmes. She lives in Mumbai and only comes to Delhi if she has some business.” Kishwar sent a message to Richa. Perhaps she expected that I would arrange a show for her and rang me up. “All I want is to meet you and talk to you,” I told her. She agreed to call on me. A few days later, she dropped in with a handsome college lad as her escort.

Richa is the youngest of seven children of Pandit Daya Shankar Upadhaya, a priest in Faridabad (Haryana), and Manorama Devi, his wife. Singing bhajans, particularly on Mata Kay Jagran, was a part of the family ritual. By the time she was eight years old, Richa was singing before religious congregations in and around Delhi. She enrolled herself in the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, to get a proper training in classical and light music. She added ghazals, film-songs, Punjabi and Rajasthani folk-songs to her repertoire. Academic education had to be sacrificed at the altar of music.

In 1994, she went to Mumbai to try her luck in Bollywood as a playback singer. And was an instant hit. She went from success to success, singing in Subhash Ghai’s films, especially for A.R. Rahman in Taal. The Morani brothers arranged programmes for her abroad; she even compered Close-up Antakshari. Today this girl from a lowermiddle-class family, with less than modest means, has her own flat and car in Mumbai. She has been signed up for dozens of films. It has been a hard and arduous journey but Richa Sharma sacrificed a college education and matrimony to make it to the top. Amongst her millions of admirers, I am the latest.

Winds of change

On karva chauth, my wife would

observe a fast

Praying that long my life may last!

She would wear a bridal dress

To look like a newly-wed, I guess.

Perfumed hair, kajoled eyes and

painted face

Jewellery would lend her an added

grace!

Every year, from her savings,

she would buy

For me a pen, a shirt or a tie!

Times changed and so did she

This year she gave this note to

me.

“Excuse me, my darling, may I

say'”

“What is the sanctity of

Husband’s Day'”

“We are equal partners, aren’t

we, dear'

“Let us have a wive’s day, once a

year.”

(Contributed by G. C. Bhandari, Meerut)

Wisdom in small doses

On the back of a school-bus:

Mainu na chereen,

Main bachhian wali haan

(Don’t tease me, I have children)

On the back of a truck:

Ainwen na sarria kar,

Main kishtan te aaiyee hoi

haan.

(Don’t be envious of me, I have been bought on instalments)

(Courtesy: S. Chaudhary, Mohali)

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