Uncle – my father's favorite younger brother
I was only eight years old when I arrived in Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir. My father was too fond of me, I being the youngest amongst his six sons and two daughters, to leave me behind in Lahore when he was to travel to Kashmir on a business trip. As the Chief Representative of the Oxford University Press, London for Northern India, he traveled quite often to promote their new publications in the schools and colleges in the area he represented. It was not that he always took me along whenever and wherever he went on tour. In fact, this was the first time he did me the favor, firstly because timing of the tour coincided with closing of my school for summer vacations, and secondly because there was something special about Srinagar. This was the city that my uncle, father's favorite younger brother had selected to settle in life, after receiving his master's degree from Punjab University, Lahore.
As a student of the prestigious Government College, Uncle had excelled in sports, especially in gymnastics, and had won many medals and trophies in inter-college and national tournaments. The heavy silver mug that he won as the Punjab Province champion in gymnastics was the star attraction of our living in Lahore. With such a passion for sports, he was naturally drawn toward sports oriented business to earn his bread and butter. Starting with a modest store of sports goods in the main shopping bazar of Srinagar, he had made steady progress to eventually set up a factory of his own to produce sports goods. My father, of course, helped him financially, whenever he needed such help to expand his business. Uncle's address in Srinagar showed that he was very successful in business. The Bund, where he lived, was the most expensive and exclusive residential area on the riverfront. River Jhelum that flowed in front of the houses was so calm, as if making a conscientious effort not to disturb the peace of the neighborhood that must have paid so dearly to live along its beautiful bank. The scenic splendor of the Jhelum was as beautiful during the day as it was at night. Shikaras, with their colorful canopies and expensive interior decorations, provided joyful ride to tourists and the locals on the river right on to the lake nearby. Hundreds of lanterns hanging on the Shikaras at night looked like another set of stars with blue waters of the river as their horizon. Each year tourists came in thousands from all over the world to lodge in ornately decorated houseboats. Originally the ingenious idea of the Britishers, who were not allowed to own land in Kashmir under the Maharaja, the houseboats had ever since become the symbol of luxurious living on water. Waterway vendors brought to the doorsteps of the houseboats, Kashmir's finest crafts and choicest fruits. Much of Srinagar's life seemed to be on the river that flowed through the city, dividing it into the old and the new inhabitations, connected by the boats and the seven bridges on the Jhelum.
Since father and uncle were to remain busy the whole day in their respective business, I was left in the house under the care of Lal Singh, uncle's trusted servant. Lal Singh, in his twenties, was a very handsome and energetic young man. Elegantly dressed most of the time, no one could imagine he was just a domestic help like other servants in almost every household in the area. With all the authority he enjoyed in running the house, he was virtually master of the house in uncle's absence. From deciding the menu for every meal of the day to all that matters to run the house, he had full freedom and authority. He did not even have to ask for money from uncle for making day-to-day purchases for groceries etc., for he was well provided with enough funds in advance. Uncle had full faith in Lal Singh, and he responded by doing his best to see that his master enjoyefd the most luxurious lifestyle that was envied by his friends.
Uncle's instructions to take good care of me were literally taken by Lal Singh. Even when cooking or cleaning the house, he did not leave me alone for a minute, keeping me engaged in interesting conversation. He asked me questions on our family and my friends in school, but most of the time he would tell me stories and anecdotes from his experience while working with uncle.
“Your uncle is a great man, very polite, pleasant, kind and compassionate. Too trusting, he believes everyone to be as nice, honest and sincere as he himself is. But the world is not like that. It has too many wicked and mean people who are always on the lookout for their chance to cheat good people like your uncle.”
It looked that Lal Singh had something in his mind which he wanted to share with me. I encouraged him to talk it out.
“Is there anyone you know who is trying to cheat uncle?” I asked.
“Yes, there are so many of them from amongst his friends, but worst of all his girl friend.”
As he said it, Lal Singh looked straight into my eyes, probably expecting another probing query from me.
“Uncle has a girlfriend?” I instantly asked.
“Yes, your uncle has a girlfriend whom he loves from his heart. But alas, her love is hypocritical. She cheats him all the time, fleecing him financially while flirting with his fast friend.” Lal Singh lost his composure for a second when he said this.
“How do you know all this?” I asked out of curiosity to know more about uncle's life in Srinagar, which had remained hidden from the family because of uncle's silence on personal matters. He had not visited us ever since he left Lahore.
“I keep my eyes and ears open and come to know of all that is going on against my master. His friend's servant keeps me informed of the conspiracies that his master and your uncle's girl friend hatch in his house.”
“What about uncle, doesn't he see or suspect any wrong doings on their part?”
“No, he is totally blinded by his love for that bitch.”
It was very obvious that Lal Singh was full of hate for her.
“If that is the case, why don't you caution him on what is going on behind his back, or inform him what his friend's servant informs you?”
“It's not that easy. He will not believe a single word spoken against her, and instead he will accuse me of making up stories to malign her. I did try to tell him the first time I learnt about his girl friend flirting with his friend, and he responded by reprimanding and warning me not to listen to any such rubbish in future. That was the only time he had lost temper on me. I know if I uttered a word on the subject again, he would sack me instantly.”
Lal Singh was visibly moved imagining what might happen to his master when one day he discovered that his beloved had disappeared with his best friend after deceiving him of his love and money. With his eyes wet, he added, “I hope before something bad happens, someone whom your uncle would listen to, lets him know what he is heading for in his life.”
I immediately knew whom he was hinting at and why he had talked to me about uncle's love life. He knew that my father was the only person uncle would listen to, and I would convey to him all about our conversation on the topic.
“Don't you worry, I will speak to father and I am sure he will do whatever is best for uncle.”
Lal Singh looked much relieved. He tried to change the topic by talking in general about the beautiful valley of Kashmir.
Before going to bed that night, I told my father all that Lal Singh had been talking to me about uncle's girlfriend. Contrary to my expectations, father's response was rather cold and casual.
“Many servants are in the habit of talking loosely about their master's private life, especially about any love affair they may be having. Lal Singh seems to be one of them. Your uncle is quite mature and intelligent to take good care of his life. Servants start feeling insecure when their master finds a good match for himself, because they think they would lose the freedom to run the house as they like, after their master brings his bride home. So they start making up stories in the hope that it might create some misunderstanding between their master and his beloved, leading to breakup in their relationship. Since we are not sure about the truth in what Lal Singh told you, the best thing is not to give any importance to it, and better still, forget about it.”
My father's sermonizing, first ever to me, went straight into my head, while what Lal Singh said had touched my heart. My head and heart remained irreconcilable on the issue.
The week we stayed in Srinagar was well spent and most enjoyable. While Lal Singh would take me during the day to show me various interesting places in the city, including the main bazaar where uncle's store of sports goods was situated, on the weekend uncle took us all to Mughal Gardens, the pride of Srinagar. It was the most enjoyable sightseeing trip of the scenic Valley in my whole life.
The next day we left for Lahore by bus as per the plan. Lal Singh did not seem to be in his usual high spirits that morning. There was some sort of fear showing on his face. He seemed scared of the possibility of being reprimanded or even sacked after our departure, for speaking against his master's girlfriend to me. I had informed him that I had told my father all that he had talked to me on the subject, and he was sure my father must have spoken to uncle about it. Although this was what he wanted in the first place when he talked to me, but now, perhaps, he was nervous of uncle's possible adverse reaction.
The next time I saw uncle was after a couple of years when he came to attend my sister's wedding. He came with a contingent of the famous Kashmir cooks, to supplement the cooks hired locally, so that a wide variety of Mughal and Kashmir cuisines could be served at the wedding dinner. I felt sad to see Lal Singh missing from uncle's party that came with him from Srinagar.
“Lal Singh is no longer working for me.”
Uncle explained his absence casually and curtly, which looked very unusual of uncle. He appeared uncomfortable answering any more questions on him or even mention of his name by me. Otherwise too, uncle was conspicuous by his quietness throughout the wedding when all others were thoroughly enjoying the event. Whatever the reason, it saddened us all, especially me, after I had seen him in ever happy mood and enjoyed every moment my stay with him in Srinagar.
After the wedding was over and all the guests were gone, including the out-of-town relatives who had stayed on for some more days to enjoy my mother's hospitality, father took the first available opportunity to have a brother to brother talk on whatever was bothering uncle that had affected his health so badly. As if waiting for the opportune time to talk about his troubles to father, uncle responded to father's initiative with detailed narration of what really had happened to disturb him so much:
“I made the biggest mistake of my life in having relationship with Shakun. She had left me shaken, breaking my heart and leaving me broke by stealing all my money. All her love and devotion to me was a well-planned ploy to deceive me of my money. Like a fool I went on falling into her well knit trap and took long and frequent vacation from work to enjoy life with her at various resorts in the Valley. She even manipulated that I empower her brother to look after the business when we were away on vacation. He abused my trust by making many dubious deals during my absence, including raising money against mortgage of the factory and fraudulent transfer of funds to his personal accounts. I came to know of it only after they had disappeared, deceiving me of all that I owned except the shop. Lal Singh was the only person who could have prevented them to implement their evil designs, but I was stupid to sack him for speaking against Shakun. I'm now left with nothing except a small inventory at the shop and some furniture in the house.”
Father kept listening to him quietly, without interrupting him even once. He spoke only when he saw that uncle had said whatever he wanted to say.
“I appreciate your telling me all that you have gone through. The most important thing for you now is to stop worrying about it, and not to blame yourself for the crime committed by Shakun and her brother . Treat it as a bad patch in your life, which can be there in anyone's life. But that is not the end of the world. You must move on to make a fresh start. I would suggest that you start with the shop first, filling it with sufficient stocks to increase its sales, for which I will give you as much money as you may need to buy goods. After the shop is in full gear and starts giving enough profits, you can go for expansion of business by buying back your factory or by setting up a new unit. But before all this, you must get your health back by getting rid of your worries and trying to recoup in a very relaxed atmosphere. For this, you have to stay with us till you are absolutely fit, even if it takes weeks or months.”
Father stopped only when he found tears from uncle's eyes starting to fall on his hand with which he was holding uncle's hand throughout their conversation. Uncle was too overwhelmed to say even “Thank you” on hearing father's affectionate words, though he said it all through his body language, by bending to touch his brother's feet.
It was decided that uncle would spend at least one month with us, his first ever vacation with the family in Lahore ever since he had left for Srinagar. He soon started making remarkable progress in restoring his health and regaining his high spirits. And with this, by and by he began to take pleasure participating in dinner table talks of the family, when he would rejoice remembering old times in Lahore as a college student.
“I loved to be in the gym all the time while my brother was a bookworm and wanted me to be one too. Our interests and areas of activity were so far apart that we would not see each other for days together though staying under the same roof. He would know about me from your mother, as he knew I must be in regular touch with her to get money for all my financial needs. She was the one who spoiled me with her generous funding, at times forcibly putting money in my pocket when I would hesitate to take more than I needed.”
Uncle was persuaded to extend his stay for another two weeks, after the one month period originally planned passed too fast. But the time did not stop even during his extended stay, and the day had come when he was all packed to depart early next morning by bus for Srinagar. At dinner that evening, the last one with uncle before he was to leave the next day, he invited the whole family for a holiday with him in summer, and father readily accepted the invitation. He was still very concerned about uncle's business and was keen to see him resettled after the big set back he had.
It was still dark; no sign of the day break yet, when an unusual commotion and suppressed cries downstairs suddenly woke me up. Thinking that I had overslept and it was already the time uncle must be leaving. I rushed down from my room on the top floor, to grab my moment of bidding good-bye to uncle. Alas, I was too late. Uncle had already left, left us forever. He did not survive the massive heart attack he suffered in wee hours of the morning when it was time to get ready to leave. Uncle felt so relaxed living with the family that he really never wanted to leave us, and he never did. The fate had brought him back to the family, never to leave again. His soul lived in peace with us, and we felt his presence in the family for ever.