The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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On my birthdays a few friends ring up, write or send telegrams wishing me many happy returns of the day. Two of them are concerned about my continued disbelief in the existence of god and what its consequences will be when I come face to face with my maker. One is Jaya Thadani, who asked me whether I had read Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven”. I replied I had. She said, “Read it again more carefully.” The other is Nirmala Mathan. She said, “Do me a favour. Read Psalm 139 this morning.” That was all she had to say as a birthday greeting.

The pertinent part of Psalm 139 reads: “Where can I go from Your Spirit' Or where can I flee from Your *presence' If I ascend into heaven, You are there. If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall fall on me’, even the night shall be light about me; indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, but the night shines as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to You.”

There can be little doubt that Francis Thompson (1859-1907) was inspired by the words of Psalm 139 when composing “The Hound of Heaven”. This will be evident from the opening lines:

“I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;/ I fled Him, down the arches of the years;/ I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways/ Of my own mind; and the mist of Tears/ I hid from Him, and under running laughter.”

These lines are about people like me who refuse to believe in the existence of a divinity and find any means of escape they can from its all-embracing presence. But it pursues them relentlessly. The next verse explains their plight:

“But with unhurrying chase,/ And unperturbed pace,/ Deliberate speed, majestic instance,/ The best — and a Voice beat/ More instant than the Feet —/ ‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’”

I can say in my defence that I have never “fled Him”; on the contrary, I have sought him, but not found him. I wish those who have will tell me what he looks like and why he is so elusive.

Hired to wound and kill

Jagjit Singh, who was a couple of years senior to me in Government College, Lahore, was the most outstanding student of mathematics in the university. He sat for the Indian Civil Service examination, scored full marks in the mathematics papers but was let down in the other subjects. He settled for the railways and steadily rose to getting close to the top position which was usually held by those who had political clout, were corrupt, or both. Jagjit was a scrupulously honest officer not given to chaaploosee of railway ministers. His interests lay elsewhere: popularizing mathematics and science. He wrote a book on mathematics and sent his manuscript to Penguin in England. He sent me a copy of the manuscript: I was then living in London. He treated me like a guinea pig: “If you can understand what I have written, everyone will understand it,” he wrote to me. He had no great opinion of my intelligence. His book was accepted and went into many editions. I believe he was the first Indian author to be published in England on the subject of mathematics.

Jagjit was also foolhardy. Once on a stroll somewhere in Bihar he was accosted by two thugs who demanded his wallet. He refused. He was roughed up and lost his money as well. Another time he was elected president of some housing society in Delhi and refused to agree to an unfair allotment of plots demanded by members who had money and muscle power. They wanted to give him a warning. On a visit to Bombay, as he was about to get into his car, three men he had never seen before pounced on him, punched him on the face and fled away. He came to see me in my office with blood all over his tie and shirt. I advised him not to report to the police or go to court. “Don’t waste your time and lose peace of mind. Get out of the housing society hassles and get back to writing.” He did precisely that. He went on to write books on popular science and won the Kalinga Award. His last book was on Dr Salam, the only Pakistani to win the Nobel Prize for physics.

The assault on Jagjit Singh was carried out by hired hoodlums who bore no grudge against him. The rich and the powerful who do not want to soil their hands or run the risk of being caught get other people to do dirty jobs for them. The fee demanded varies from place to place and the importance of the intended victim. Also, how much punishment you want to inflict: a punch on the nose for a couple of hundred rupees, murder for a lakh or two. Why and when this kind of hired violence got the name supari (arecanut) I have not been able to find out. Does anyone know'

The Pune school of Urdu poetry

People who mourn the decline of Urdu in India will be heartened to know that there are places where it is being kept alive by people you would not believe had any interest in it. I know of a Marathi scholar in Nagpur who had published a selection of Urdu poetry in Devnagri script along with a lexicon of difficult words. I was unaware of conclaves of Urdu poets who meet regularly in different parts of Pune. I know that Anees Jung’s brother, the poet Bilgrami, lives there for reasons of health but was unaware of the mini-mushairas till I heard of Sanjay Godbole’s compilation of 40 Pune-based Urdu poets and the recent publication of the works of Balbir Singh Verma who died there on February 25,1998. Names like Hakim Razi, Hanif Sagar, Malik Tase and Yusuf Peerzada Kadri, who were all Pune poets, were unknown to me till recently.

By all accounts Sanjay Godbole is a most unusual person. He has three MA degrees, has the largest collection of old coins in the world (Limca Book of Records) is a fellow of the Royal Numismatic Society of London and the Royal Asiatic Society. And has passion for Urdu poetry. Not many people would have heard of Balbir Singh Verma (born 1915) of Kaithal, Punjab. He topped the list in MA in Persian and won a gold medal. He taught Persian, Arabic and Urdu in different colleges till he turned to writing poetry under the guidance of Arsh Malsiani. Sanjay Godbole has published an anthology of the best of his works under the title, Professor Balbir Verma’s Sher-o-Shairee. To say the least, it is a very odd thing for a Maharashtrian Brahmin to do. In the words of Manchandra Bani:

Chali dagar par nahin hoon chalnewala main/ Roze anokhee raah badalney wala main (I am not the one to tread the path others trod;/ Everyday I take a new route, a new destination.)

Success through the ages

At age 4 success is …… not peeing in your pants.

At age 12 success is….. having friends.

At age 16 success is ….having a driver’s licence

At age 20 success is ….having sex.

At age 35 success is…..having money

At age 50 success is…..having money

At age 60 success is…..having sex

At age 70 success is….having a driver’s license

At age 75 success is….having friends.

At age 80 success is…not peeing in your pants.

(Contributed by Amir C. Tuteja, Washington)

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