A lawyer and a gentleman

By This above all -Khushwant Singh
  • Published 19.08.06

Some years ago, when some Sikh temples started giving devotees saplings of trees as prasad instead of the traditional halwa, I got very excited. At long last the priestly class, not famous for innovative ideas, had woken up to the reality that planting trees was a better way of paying homage to the Creator than swallowing a concoction of flour, ghee and sugar. I hoped other religious institutions would follow the example and the greenery of India would become a people’s movement backed by faith. Alas! As with similar brave gestures, our enthusiasm for tree planting as a religious ritual did not last very long. The movement of saplings as pershad soon fizzled out.

A revival of sorts has been initiated by D.S. Jaspal, a senior IAS official, in charge of the Punjab government’s publicity department. While travelling round the state, he discovered that a large number of historic gurdwaras bore names of indigenous trees which grew there. As is the charming Sikh practice of adding the word sahib to objects they revere, there are 17 varieties of Sahib trees alongside these shrines. For example, Bohr (barh) Sahib, Pipli (Peepal) Sahib, Jand (Prosopis spicigera) Garna (Capparis horrida) Sahib, Kareer (Capparis aphylla) Sahib, Ber (Zisyphus jujuba) Sahib in the Harimandar Sahib, Phalahi (Acacia modesta) Sahib, Luhura (Cordia latifolia) sahib, Reru (Mimosa leucophioea) Sahib, Imli (tamarind) Sahib, Tahli (shisham) sahib, Nim or Neem (margossa) Sahib, Amb (mongol) Sahib and others. He held an exhibition of colour photographs in Delhi and persuaded his chief minister, Amarinder Singh to inaugurate it. I don’t know if it will give an impetus to greening India but it is certainly worth trying.

A lawyer and a gentleman

One day I thought of recalling the names of the most unusual people I had met in my long life. The one that kept going round and round in my head was M. Sleem. I am sure his real name was Mohammed Salim, but he preferred to use only M for Mohammed and Sleem for Salim. He was Punjabi and spoke Urdu but was most at ease speaking English. Being a lawyer, he had to read court documents which were in Urdu, and cross-examine witnesses who only spoke Punjabi. I could assume he was fluent in both but preferred to speak in English. By the time I got to know him through his nephew Manzur Qadir, he was advocate-general of the Punjab high court. He was a bachelor and lived alone in his office-cum-bungalow facing the main entrance of the high court. He did not welcome visitors or attend social functions.

It was common knowledge that he had turned down the offer of being elevated to the Bench and had refused to accept a Knighthood. He did not talk about them. He never talked about himself. His only pre-occupations were law, tennis and gourmet food. After spending his mornings and afternoons at the court, he drove to the Gymkhana Club and played tennis for a couple of hours. He had been India’s number one player longer than anyone else and captained the Indian Davis Cup team for many years.

After tennis, he joined his friends and their wives for tea: usually they were Justice Dalip Singh and his Bengali wife Reba, S.M. Sikri who was his junior and his wife Leela. On his way back he stopped at Stiffles restaurant on the mall and discussed the menu for his dinner. He examined birds he was to be served — pheasant, grouse, partridge, quails or duck. He chose the appropriate French wine to go with his food. He proceeded homewards, had a bath and got into his dinner jacket. He ate his dinners alone, savouring his food and wine. After a cup of black coffee and cognac, he smoked a Havana cigar and went back for the night.

Though born Muslim, Sleem was never known to offer namaaz, go to a mosque, fast during Ramadan or observe Islam’s culinary code. Nevertheless, he was as close to being mard-e-Momin — man of faith — as anyone I have known. He never lied or said anything hurtful about anyone. He had no love affairs with women nor was he gay. He had no interest in politics, nor was he bothered with national or world events. He read no books besides law books. He had more fulfilment in life then anyone else I can think of.

With the partition of the country in 1947, I thought I’d never see Sleem again. Amongst his regular schedules was to spend a couple of months in Europe, during the high court vacations. Paris and London were a must in his itinerary. One day, when I was working with Unesco in Paris, Sleem showed up in my office: he had learnt of my whereabouts from his nephew. I explained what Unesco stood for and what it did. He had not heard of it. Needless to say, he invited my wife and I to dine with him in a restaurant known for being an epicurean’s delight. I could not afford its price.

Years later, I ran into him in London. We found ourselves standing next to each other in Piccadilly Circus tube station’s urinals, emptying our bladders. We were in no position to shake each other’s hands but blurted out, “Well I never! Fancy running into you here of all places!” But for his greying hair, he had not aged. The same aquiline features — hawk-nosed, grey-eyed, athletic slim. We walked out together. I invited him to my home. We talked of our days in Lahore. I discovered he kept up his old schedule minus the law: he played tennis and enjoyed his special dinners. “Aren’t you too old to play tennis?” I asked him. “I play only doubles, two sets. But I think I can take you on for a singles match.” He was in his 80s and I still in my 40s. “Dinner’s on the winner,” he said. We shook hands to confirm the bet. He was a member of the Queen’s Club, which had covered courts with wooden floors. He had no difficulty in beating me 6-1, 6-3. He had chosen a gourmet eatery in Soho. He ordered dinner for three with vintage French wine. It was a memorable feast.

That was the last time I met him. A couple of years later, I read his obituary in The Times (London). When I went to Lahore, I made it a point to visit the grave of my closest friend, Manzur Qadir. There, among thousands of graves in the sprawling, dusty, Muslim cemetery, lay Manzur, his parents — Sir Abdul and Lady Qadir — and close to them, M. Sleem. Does anyone remember him? I do, and will to the last of my days.