THIS ABOVE ALL / TALK NINETEEN TO THE DOZEN 

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By BY KHUSHWANT SINGH
  • Published 8.06.02
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One thing I look forward to in these infernally hot and dusty days is to escape to the club bathing pool and stay in the water for one hour to cool off for the evening. One thing which often deters me from doing so is the presence of a retired colonel. No sooner I enter the changing room, he starts talking to me. I have to extricate myself to take a shower. He follows me into the pool and continues talking. One pause and I plunge into the water to do my prescribed quota of lengths. He awaits me in the changing room and resumes talking while I change into dry clothes. He continues his monologue till I leave the club to return home. What makes some people compulsive talkers? I try to find an appropriate word to describe them. Talkative, monologist, soliloquist, loquacious, garrulous, chatter-box - none of them quite fit the people I have in mind. In the end I opt for monologist as the closest to what I have experienced. I drew up a list of monologists I encountered. I found that without exception, though somewhat tedious, they were well-meaning and likeable. Also, men far outnumbered women. The only woman put on my list happens to be the most likeable of the lot, the writer Ajit Cour. Whenever she deigns to visit me, she becomes the life and soul of the party because when she sets off talking, there are no awkward moments of silence. She flies off in different directions to return to her main theme only to fly off again. The remaining on my list are men. They can be divided into communists and retired soldiers. At one time I could boast of being a close friend of the late Danial Latifi. He was an absolute gentleman but when he got talking, his monotonous voice had a soporific effect which could lull his audience to sleep. Comrade Jagjit Singh Anand is of a different mould. He assumes you know nothing about Marxism, the class struggle and the evils of capitalist imperialism. He sets about teaching you with the zeal of a Christian missionary sermonizing about the gospel. Retired soldiers have high place on my list, the topmost being the late general Nathu Singh. Everyone in my family loved him. But once he got going, we had to take turns to listen to him. Then there was Pratap Singh who became governor of Goa. I happened to be on the same flight from Goa to Delhi. He ordered his aide-de-camp to change places with me. And talked non-stop for the two hours that took us to get to Delhi. He was kind enough to give me a lift in his car to my flat which is close to Goa Bhavan. His sons have inherited some qualities from their father. Once general Himmat Singh Gill accosted me on the road in Kasauli. He asked me if he could drop on me for five minutes next morning. He came and launched on a long bit of advice in what I should be writing. Enough of boobs, bottoms and tits, he said, if you have nothing better to write about, leave it to people like me who write on serious matters. His five minutes stretched out to an hour and a half. His brother Manohar Singh Gill is also never short of words but it is a pleasure to hear him because he is about the most erudite of civil servants I know. Two retired diplomats on my list are Ranbir Singh and Jagat Mehta. Ranbir is Rajkumari Amrit Kaur's nephew. He used to visit Delhi every winter and without prior warning descend on me and regale me with stories of valour of his Sikh ancestors. I got tired of hearing them, year after year, and once asked my servant who had gone to answer the door bell to say he should make an appointment before he called. Jagat was among the brightest of men in our foreign service. He ended his distinguished career as foreign secretary. He would have been our ambassador to Germany if he had not fallen foul of Indira Gandhi. During his tenure as foreign secretary, he signed more treaties with foreign countries than all other foreign secretaries put together. He is very upset with the way our government has handled Afghanistan. He has written a book on the subject, The March of Folly in Afghanistan: 1978-2001. The last time he dropped in he told everyone about it. They were not interested. Most of the talkers are blissfully unaware of being long-winded. That reminds me of my fellow villager Nazar Hayat Tiwana, son of Khizr Hayat Tiwana, once the prime minister of Punjab. It was Nazar who first made me conscious of endless talkers. It was impossible to stop him. I began to make excuses to avoid him. One day he said to me, "My wife says I talk too much." And waited for me to contradict the statement. I kept mum. Long lost daughter Sometime in 1983 I happened to be in Calcutta staying at the Airport Hotel: I often chose to stay in airport hotels when in Bombay or Calcutta to avoid traffic jams and be in time to catch flights back to Delhi. Being a good distance from the city, it also saved me from compulsive callers. However, this time I was rung up and a very girlish voice asked me if she could see me for a few minutes: I invited her over for a cup of tea. An hour later she arrived with her father. Her name was Piyali, she was in the first year of college; her father was Pradip Sengupta who was an established scientist and an entrepreneur. I don't recall why she or her father came to see me, but thereafter the process of bonding began. Whenever Piyali or her father were in Delhi, they came to see me. Whenever I was in Calcutta, I invited them over to join me for a meal. Piyali began to address me as chacha; I was flattered and began to look upon her as my Bengali daughter. Piyali got her degree and a doctorate. She invited me to her wedding on March 1, 1994. I went to Calcutta. Her father was busy with the bandobast; the baraat had yet to arrive. I was escorted to the ladies chamber where Piyali was being decked up as a bride. She embraced me warmly; I waived my packet of kanyadaan over her head and gave it to her. I was overcome by emotion and left abruptly. I felt like any father would when giving away his daughter in marriage. Piyali's husband, Saurav Sengupta, was with Dupont posted in Willington Delaware. After a few weeks of their wedding they left for the United States of America. I assumed it would be the end of my close association with Piyali and her father. It was not so. Piyali made it a point to ring me up once a while to find out how I was doing. Once a year she came to visit her parents in Calcutta and made it a point to see me if she visited Delhi. She was there for a longer stay when her mother, Basanti, died on New Year's day of 2001. Meanwhile I got to know her father better and learnt something about his distinguished career. Pradip Sengupta was born in Silchar (Assam) in 1933. His father being an engineer in government service, the family moved from city to city. He graduated from St Xavier's College, Calcutta and went on to IIT, Kharagpur where he topped in his class. He became a polymer scientist and joined the Indian Cable Company at Tatanagar. He was there for 17 years. He was involved in research projects and inventions in optic fibre, glass, ceramics, radiation, isotopes and much else. One passion we had in common was tackling crossword puzzles. Last month Piyali was back in Calcutta. She rang me up to tell that her father was very ill and was in the intensive care of Suraksha hospital. She rang up everyday to tell me how he was doing. She did not call on May 21. She did the next morning and said in an anguished voice: "I lost baba yesterday". Pradip was only 69. In a few days Piyali returns to the US with her husband. It was my suggestion that in future she address me as baba and not chacha. She concurred because she is my Bengali daughter.