Kamal bhena: My brother-in-law–brother–father-figure and a Good Samaritan to countless

Massachusetts, USA

Started: December 8, 2020, 11:47pm

Kamal bhena: My brother-in-law–brother–father-figure and a Good Samaritan to countless

Kamal bhena and Anita didi during their daugher Shalu’s wedding in Siliguri in 2017

I wanted to write this for the past 2-3 days, but was too grief-stricken – my own, and that of people I dearly love – to get myself to write. Kamal bhena was a man so strong and so tall that you didn’t realize he was the foundation pillar until he is gone.

“Nares, tyo Facebook ko profile picture kina haaleko? Hami eti bela barah din ko mourning ma chaun.” [Naresh, why did you update your Facebook profile picture? We are in a twelve day mourning period], he had said when I put up the picture of my shaven head on Facebook after my father’s passing on September 10. I told him that I was getting surprised expressions from different  people when they saw me with a shaved head and didn’t want to keep explaining, and thus decided to share the picture. There aren’t very many people in a person’s life who will pick up the phone and scold you. We are lucky when we do. These are the people who are there for us, who watch out for us. On Diwali, he personally came with sweets for my mother and brothers’ families to ensure that they were not left without sweets, being the first major festival after my father’s passing.

Kamal bhena watched out not just for me, but for countless other people. He would ask questions to make sure you’re alright, offer spontaneous help – be it financially “paisa chahiyo bhane bhani haalnu” [let me know right away if you need money], physically, or logistically.

Whenever there were major family events where planning was required – weddings, other events, or any crisis situations of any sort – deaths, property issues, etc., I could bank on him for wise, sound, compassionate, and unbiased advice. I believe there are two types of people in the world – those who like doing “us versus them” and those who believe in taking everyone along. He was among those who looked out for all. Generosity and largeness of heart came naturally to him. 

We would call him ‘Kattu bhaiji’, as everyone else did. His name was Kamal Agarwal. A fair-skinned man with a smiling, round face, and a moustache, and a husky voice owing to a vocal-cord issue, he used to be around next door in the neighboring ‘R.K. Agarwal’, the shop-house of my grandfather’s youngest brother.  With three brothers and three sisters, he had grown up in Singtam, a small town by the Teesta river, about 30 kilometres from Gangtok. Sitting by the fire or heater in cold Gangtok evenings, he would tell us stories of the myriad experiences he had had, even as a young, self-made man. His own father had died in his 50s in Arunachal Pradesh, and he and his mother had traveled the hours-long journey in a car with his dead father seated between them. There were stories of handling various situations, and of people. 

My sister Anita didi is six years older to me, and is smart, kind, and loving. We got along extremely well growing up, and she shared everything with me. She soon realized that ‘Kamal’ was the person she wanted to marry and have as her life partner. Once, she and I went and bought a maroon, half-sweater for him – I was thinking for ninety rupees, but she says, sixty. She gifted it to him. Anita didi was very happy to see him wear it, and equally upset when she saw his elder brother wear it one day. Kattu bhaiji had to do a lot of explaining. 

My mother was initially against their getting married for multiple reasons – financial, educational, his voice, and also for the fact that the both his family and ours had the same Garg ‘gotra’ or lineage. One was expected to marry within the community, but not within the absolute same gotra. Finally, when my mother’s father in Kalimpong told her, “Jab ladka-ladki raazi, to kya karega kaazi” [When the boy and girl are ready, then what can the judge do], she relented and agreed.  They found a workaround for the gotra issue, with my mother’s sister from Jalpaiguri doing the kanyadaan – the giving of the bride, and my sister getting our aunt’s gotra for the wedding. My cousin got to do the ceremonies meant for the brother of the bride that I had looked forward to. The wedding took place in the winter after my Class X in Tashi Namgyal Academy – on January 28, 1993 in Gangtok’s beautiful Hotel Tibet in Paljor Stadium road. We had to switch from calling Kattu Bhaiji to Kamal bhena, which seemed odd at first, but we soon got used to it. My school friends were there for the wedding. It was attended by hundreds of Kamal bhena’s friends and people from his large network. People kept pouring in. I had to rush home in a car to ask for more pooris to be made and missed their ‘varmala’ or the garland ceremony – something I regretted for a long time. I remember heaps of wedding gifts and khatas, the white, silken traditional Tibetan and Buddhist scarf used in Gangtok for various ceremonies. Kamal bhena contributed to the reception cost – something unheard of in a patriarchal society where the girl’s family was expected to bear all the wedding costs.  He also refused to take ‘Tika’ or ‘Tilak’ money, where cash was often demanded by the groom’s side. That single act perhaps elevated him greatly in my eyes, and I started looking up to him, and in doing so, joined many other people and families whose lives he’s touched and made a difference to.

When I went to study in Singapore in 1995, he was one of the two sureties who signed my scholarship bond. When I bought my first computer while at Nanyang Technological University, I had borrowed money from him. ‘At every step, whenever I needed someone, he was there’. This line could not just be mine – but that of hundreds of other people – whose lives he would have similarly touched. As his daughter Shalu told me, “Unhone kitni families ko apne upar dependent kar rakha tha.” [There are so many families that he had made dependent on himself.] When Anita didi, Kamal bhena and my nephew Neel finally visited me in Singapore in 2007, I had to move houses immediately after their stay. For a person who had his staff to help him while at home, he had asked as he physically helped me move, “Coolie paundaina?” [Don’t you get porters?] I had told him, “Hoina bhena, paundaina.” [No, we don’t here]. The memories with Kamal bhena are too many to write in a short essay. His face flashes right before my eyes. His voice speaks to me in Nepali, the language we conversed in.

My sister, Anita didi, and Kamal bhena were totally co-dependent. Their’s was a love that had developed into deep care for each other. If I spoke to Anita didi on the phone for ten minutes, she would say, “Tero bhena, tero bhena…” ten times. As her childhood friend, Leena didi also told me, “Jaile ta Kamal, Kamal, Kamal bhani bascha.” [She’s always saying Kamal, Kamal, Kamal…] Whether concern or worry or being upset over something – it was all about him. When Kamal bhena would fail to convince my sister over his point of view on something, he would ask me to speak to her. Once, there was a wedding in Surat (of my cousin who had conducted the brother’s ceremonies at her wedding) that she really wanted to attend, but the city was gripped by plague at that time. Kamal bhena was worried about her safety and wanted her not to go. 

Kamal bhena had multiple health issues ranging from ulcerative colitis to diabetes. His uncontrolled sugar levels took a toll on his kidneys, until he required dialysis. Small wounds, like a infection in the big toe, took long to heal. Once he had to be airlifted in a helicopter from Gangtok in order to get better medical care. His goodwill ensured that he always had a stream of people standing up for him. They managed to find a kidney donor for him, and he got a new lease of life, supported by immunosuppressant drugs, medicines that reduce the body’s immune system.

Anita didi took it upon herself to take care of his strict diet, along with the care of her first son, Sahil, who was born premature in 1994. The lack of an incubator in Gangtok’s STNM hospital, and an oxygen overdose during delivery led to his permanent brain and eye damage. He is now a 26-year old, 6-month old baby. Anita didi has always seen Sahil both as blessing and her purpose.

Kamal bhena and Neel in 2017

Their second son Neel was born in 1998, and has been an ideal child, excellent in studies, and devoted to his parents.

In March this year, as the coronavirus pandemic raged across the world, and I saw people taking it lightly, I recorded a video in Hindi to sensitize people of its dangers, and how to maintain social distancing and wash hands often. Along with public concern, I was also scared for my 83-year old father who had survived a stroke, and for Kamal bhena, who had had a kidney transplant. I had long conversations with various people over the phone, and also with Kamal bhena telling him the do’s and don’t’s.

When my father died earlier this fall season in September and was tested as COVID positive upon death, hard as it was, I ensured that Anita didi, Kamal bhena, or Neel wouldn’t come to my house. Kamal bhena himself was mostly careful, and was following guidelines. 

In mid-November, there was another death in town. The man who died was close to Kamal bhena, and he went to the condolence meet. Kamal bhena soon took ill, had fever, and his oxygen level started dropping in the coming days. When it fell below 90, his son consulted with his nephrologist and decided to immediately take him to Siliguri, four hours away. He was hospitalized there at Neotia hospital on November 25.  He was tested for COVID, came out as positive the next day, and was in ICU, with family not allowed to visit. He was allowed a daily short video call with a family. His doctor called during the day with updates. He had breathing difficulty but was stable, and was given 10 liters of supplemental oxygen. 

On the 27th, he was given 15 liters of oxygen to help maintain his oxygen level around 95-96, his immunosuppresent drugs were highly reduced to help improve his immunity, and he was given remdesivir and a steroid. We were told that his lung infection is high. By the next day, he had severe lung infection, and was not stable with 80% external oxygen being given to him. His oxygen levels were around 80 despite supplemental oxygen. In the video call on the 29th, he told his son that he had some breathing difficulty (after 15-20 seconds of talking), “par theek hoon” [but I am okay]. He was still being given 80% oxygen. His oxygen level improved to 94-95 with external oxygen. The ICU in-charge said that he would take time to recover.  By the next day, his oxygen requirement had been reduced from 80% to 70%, but he was still critical. 

In the video call on December 1, Kamal bhena was panting a little, but looked better than the previous day. He said he wanted fruits. He asked his son to come visit him. When Neel said he wouldn’t be allowed, he said he can persuade the liftman. By afternoon, the external oxygen required had been reduced further to 60%, and his oxygen levels were 94-95 with support. 

Anita didi had been getting anxious to speak to him, so on December 2, the morning video call was with her. However, he couldn’t speak without his oxygen mask. He was asking to meet. After the call, she got more anxious seeing him unable to speak normally. In the afternoon update, we learnt about his severe pneumonia. The external oxygen support was increased back to 80% from the earlier improvement to 60%. The doctor said that the patient is serious and at risk. In a later video call with Neel, he had his oxygen mask on, was communicating by waving his hands, and asked for skin balm. Neel told him, “Aap bilkul theek ho jaoge.” [You will get totally fine], and that he was not allowed to visit. 

As I was able to get normal work done, I wrote this note to myself, “The ability to feel an emotion, compartmentalize it, postpone it, and to transform it is an important ability.” Meanwhile, Neel had been getting more than 60 phone calls each day inquiring about his father’s health. I told him it was the goodwill earned by this father which was eliciting concern from a lot of people. 

On December 3, Kamal bhena said, “Mujhe theek nahin lag raha hai.” [I don’t feel good]. He was pleading that at least one person from his family should come visit him at the hospital. His creatinine was fine and below 1, which indicated that his kidneys were okay. His sugar levels, which were earlier high, were now in control. His oxygen saturation level, which were being maintained around 95-96, was immediately dropping to 75 when his mask was removed to give him food. The 80 percent external oxygen indicated that he was still critical. In the video call on December 4, Kamal bhena said he was not feeling good, was adamant saying he didn’t want to stay in the hospital, and asked for a skin balm. In the daytime update, the doctor asked to wait and watch, and that his status was critical. Oxygen level was being maintained at 80 with 100 percent external supply. He was adamant not to allow food tube through his nose (which would have helped maintain the oxygen level), so was still being fed orally.  His lungs were infected, but he was not in a condition for a chest scan. 

On December 5, I got a message from Neel, “He has been put on the ventilator. Doctor said highly critical. I’m going to the hospital right now.” The doctors said that he would need ECMO therapy. I found out that ECMO or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation is a technique of providing prolonged cardiac and respiratory support to persons whose heart and lungs are unable to provide an adequate amount of gas exchange or perfusion to sustain life. However, Siliguri hospitals didn’t have the ECMO facility, and he was not in a position to be shifted to Delhi or elsewhere. In the daytime update, we learnt that his blood pressure had fallen to 70/40, and his oxygen was between 60 and 80. The doctor said, “Aap log prepared ho jaiye.” [You all get prepared]. On December 6, his vital parameters were fluctuating. 

For the first time, I discussed with Neel about what would happen if he didn’t make it. Also informed my younger sister and aunt for the first time that Kamal bhena has gotten COVID and is hospitalized. Anita didi was in Gangtok with Sahil. I assured her, and spoke to her normally. Neel and I discussed getting her to come to Siliguri early morning. 

At 1:46 am US Eastern time on Sunday, I got a message from Neel, “Papa is no more.” He had passed away at 11:45am India time on December 6. Later, Neel told me that when Anita didi had just reached Siliguri and was with Neel, he had gotten a call from the hospital. The person said, “Unka heart band ho gaya hai. Unko revive karne ki bahut koshish ki par nahin hua.” [His heart has stopped. We tried a lot to revive but couldn’t.] Neel asked, “Uska kya matlab hai?” [What does that mean?]. “Uska matlab hai ki [it means] he is no more.”

Between busy phone lines, I could only get to speak to Anita didi after a few hours when she was waiting outside the hospital to get one last glimpse of his face (which she did), as, following the hospital COVID protocol, he was to be cremated the same day in Siliguri itself, with two family members – his son and his brother, allowed to perform the last rites. 

While I had anticipated this eventuality for the last few days, facing the reality of it was not easy. A pillar and guardian of the family was gone. Kamal bhena was a mentor to me. A lot of the people skills that I have learned are imbibed from him. I told Neel, “Until now, I was your Maama [maternal uncle]. Now, I am your father too. Never think that you don’t have a father.”  

I was on the phone with crying family members. Ma was saying, “Tera Bapu gaya to mein bardasht kar li. Ab kyaan karoon?” [I tolerated when your father left. How do I do it now.] I heard my aunt in Vrindavan cry for the first time in years, “Meri choti si chori ko ke howgo?” [What will happen of my little girl?” My sister in Nepal said, “Abui na bhan na!” [Don’t say like that] when I informed her of his passing. Leena didi was saying, “Yo ke gareko bhagwan le! Kati dukkha dine mero saathi lai! Pahila euta chora lai esto banayo, pachi Bhaiji lai etro health problem, aafno health, pheri bau lai, aba bhaiji lai laane! Kasto gareko ulle!” [What is this that God is doing! How much suffering will He give my friend! First, he made a son like that, then health problems to [Kattu] bhaiji, her own health, then took her father, and now bhaiji. What is He doing!]

Kamal bhena at the Baan ceremony of my wedding in 2003 in Gangtok

In 2009, I had created a Facebook album of beautiful people in my life. Including a picture of Kamal bhena with me at a ceremony during my wedding in 2003, I had written, “Kamal bhena: For showing how a son-in-law can be more than a son; for touching and making a difference to countless lives; for saying, ‘Aru ta malai thaha china, tara mero malaami ma chaiyn tumpro manche aauncha hai.’ [I don’t know anything else, but lots of people will come to my funeral.] For being a person with faith in his ‘duita haath duita khutta.’ [two hands and two feet].” He, of course, did not know then that he would die during the Coronavirus panedemic, where funerals would have limited people, and which would also take his life. 

In 2011, when my father’s elder brother passed away at 76, Kamal bhena had told me. “Heri haalnu. Bau aba dui barsa bhanda besi banchdaina.” [Mark my words. Your father won’t survive for more than two years now.]. My father lived for nine more years after that. But little did I know that Kamal bhena himself would not complete three months since my father’s passing. 

Facebook walls have gotten filled with messages like, “We have lost the best person from our community.” “A person with a very big heart that I have come across.” There are many condolence messages, and a beautiful bouquet of flowers from my colleagues at Simmons University, Boston. 

Anita didi has been inconsolable during the past few days. “Mo theek chuina Naresh” [I am not alright Naresh]. Ma was saying, “Chori bhot himmat karke chale thi. Ba toot taat gi. Kyan dheer bandhawa chori ne!” [The girl had been very brave all this while. That strength is shattered. How do we console her!]. Composing herself, Anita didi says, “Mein himmat karoongi – Neel ke vaaste, Shalu ke vaaste, Sahil ke vaaste, aapke vaaste, sabke vaaste. Mane himmat karni padegi.” [I will be strong – for Neel, for Shalu, for Sahil, for myself, for everyone. I will need to be strong.] 

Completed: December 12, 2020, 1:20am

Deepchand Agarwal (Rampuria) – one who treaded the high passes of the old trade route between Sikkim and Tibet

A deep voice and a man of authority – those were perhaps my first impressions of दीपचंद अग्रवाल Deepchand Agarwal.

‘Agarwal’, is, but a generic name used to classify a large number of people from a migrant, trader community who were called (and now call themselves) Marwaris (in parts of Sikkim, Darjeeling and Nepal, sometimes, one might hear the more derogatory variant – कईयां ‘kaiyan’). The Bengal Code of Census Procedure for 1901 defined Marwari as “a trader from Rajputana” – “includes Agarwalas, Mahesris, Oswals, Seraogis, etc. The true caste should in all cases be entered.”

The more specific name for Deepchand Agarwal was दीपचंद रामपुरिया Deepchand Rampuria – the word ‘Rampuria’ implying hailing from Rampur – a village in Rajasthan (though I found a village/town with the name Rampur in a few states in India, and also in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal). The Rampurias, pronounced ‘रामपरिया Ramparia’ (with an ‘a’ following ‘Ramp’) by the Marwaris (who are adept at mutilating any given name) were supposed to have been given a boon whereby they, with their mere touch, can heal a skin eruption called ‘करांत karaant’. I’ve seen my Rampuria cousins (much older in age than me) being called upon to touch and heal those in Gangtok who suddenly had an eruption of ‘karaant’ on their bodies.

The other name of Deepchand Rampuria was ‘Deepla’. A Nov 7, 2002 article titled, ‘The truth about Sikkim’ by Major General (retired) Ashok K Mehta in rediff.com mentions how in 1911, the British Captain Francis Younghusband pioneered the invasion of Lhasa through the Chumbi valley fighting battles at Yatung and Gyantse. He writes, “Till the late 1950s, Indian Army detachments were posted at Lhasa and Yatung, protecting the trademarks. Until [the year 2000], the owner of Gangtok’s Hotel Tashi Delek, Mr. Hira Lal Lakhotia [the owner actually is Moti Lal Lakhotia. Hari Lakhotia was his younger brother who passed away a couple of years ago — as per a clarification by Tenzing Chukie and Rajni Sarda Khemani], whose parents came to Sikkim much before Younghusband, had a bank account in Yatung. Along with fellow Marwaris, they still own much of the businesses in Sikkim.” Motilal and Deepchand, better known as Motia and Deepla, were close buddies. Both partnered in trade with Tibet (I often heard Yatung mentioned). I would assume it must either have been through the Nathula pass above Gangtok or the Jalepla pass near Kalimpong (a small hill station 2 1/2 hours by road from Gangtok, but part of West Bengal – currently fighting, along with Darjeeling, Kurseong and surrounding areas to form a new state with a distinct identity called Gorkhaland ). The stories I heard included Deepla often driving in the roads in Gangtok in old classic cars and his dining with the Chogyal (the King of Sikkim). I wonder whether it was Chogyal Sir Tashi Namgyal, the founder of my school – Tashi Namgyal Academy, who ruled till 1963, or Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal, the last king of the independent kingdom of Sikkim, who was forced to abdicate in 1975. It is fascinating I’m writing this on the day a cover story on Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal hits the stands in ‘Talk Sikkim’. Yesterday, 4th April, was the 45th anniversary of the coronation of the late Chogyal (as per a status update on Facebook by Tenzing Chukie, who wrote the cover story).Other stories included his returning with Tibetan stones and jewels and his wife throwing them away as they were touched by the ‘Bhotias’ (the ‘we’ versus ‘them’ happened on all sides, and continue across the world today, at various levels). My child’s mind (along with those of my siblings) would feel sorry for the loss and wonder how rich she’d have been had she kept them. There was another tale of Deepla being put behind bars once (was it in Tibet?) and his wife taking money to him (100 rupee note inside a ‘फुल्का phulka’ or ‘फलका phalka’ – chapatee). I imagined the process of the rupee note making it safely inside the phulka without getting burnt. Was the note rolled or put flat? Or, was it inserted once the phulka was made? I’m not sure the extent to which these stories were true, but they helped build the mystic of the man who these were attributed to. In 2003, after then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to China and the talks on the resumption of trade between Sikkim and Tibet, now India and China respectively, through the Nathula pass close to Gangtok, Deepla was very excited and full of energy. Despite his age in the 70s, he wanted to seek permission to resume trade again (and demanding priority treatment owing to his status as an old trader along the route).

The other, more respectful, name for Deepchand Agarwal or Deepchand Rampuria or Deepla was दीपचंद जी Deepchand ji. This was how he was referred to in my immediate and extended family, and one that I heard all the time. All the stories about him I heard were told using this name. The ‘ji’ is added as a mark of respect, in this case, for being the जंवाई janwai or son-in-law of the family (a similar measure unheard of for daughter-in-laws). The deference in pronouncing the ‘ji’, I suppose, came from being the husband of the elder (only) sister of my father and his two brothers. There was something more to it, though. The man himself demanded respect, commanded it, and got it – respect not by following the norms of society, but by being himself; by living life in his own terms.

Deepchandji had one daughter and three sons with my aunt (father’s elder sister) – all of them doing well, with grown-up children, and grandchildren, in some cases (one son had once gone to Bombay wanting to be an actor – I was intrigued to see old photographs of Devanand, Vaijyantimala, etc. on a film shoot during a visit to the Kalimpong home of my aunt). Deepchandji continued to live life on his own terms. The not-so-nice mentions included his visiting the casino in Kathmandu (much before casinos became a ‘hip’ term, with even Singapore bowing down to having its own), drinking, eating ‘अडंगो adango’ [stuff i.e. meat] (not sure how true – a complete ‘No, No’ in Marwari families), etc.

The name I used to address Deepchandji was फुम्फोजी phumphoji. फुम्फा phumpha is the Marwari term for father’s sister’s husband. My father would call him जीजोजी jeejoji (brother-in-law). His kids (at least from the first family) called him बापू bapu (father). Phumphoji attended the weddings of all my siblings (my four sisters and two brothers), including my own in 2003. He would visit otherwise as well. What impressed me was his forthrightness. Even when I was 10-year old, he gave me the kind of respect people would give the grown-ups, and had no compunctions referring to his virtues or his vices. The only other place where I’ve seen such forthrightness is in Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography ‘My experiments with truth’. He talked about how he had studied only till Class IV (fourth grade), but managed well, during all his experiences. He greatly respected my mother. I remember him once mention his age as 74. He would surprise the youngsters with his energy and the elders would be forced to listen to him, as he talked sense. Once the room he was staying in had a faulty (fluorescent) tube light, and had been faulty for years. He immediately got that fixed. In the days leading up to my sister’s wedding in 1990, there was a shortage of water. He got a pump installed and personally made sure there was adequate water during all the days of the wedding. I really respected him when I saw his stature during a particular incident. There was an undue demand from the groom’s family, and he (the main person), and other elders from the family took the lead to go and give a stern warning to the family that we would withdraw from the wedding (even at that stage – and considering we being the bride’s family) if they did not behave. Everyone quickly fell in line. He would be there wherever he could make any difference. He took the responsibility to see his granddaughters married and oversaw the entire process. These are, but surfaces of his life I know about. His success reflects in the success of his kids today.

In the last decade or so, he developed a skin condition called psoriasis. One would find his skin peeling off. He had told me about the disease and how it is non-infectious. During one of the weddings, where some people were perhaps avoiding his flaking fingers, somebody was taking a big ‘thaali’ of ladoos around. He expressed interest in them, touched almost each one of them, and returned them saying he didn’t want them. It was perhaps an indication to the crowd around not to make a big deal of his skin condition. He had once, perhaps similarly, taken my engagement ring, and tried it on his flaky-pink finger. He told me how he is getting old, and how, he must (or how he had already – I’m not sure), now, start praying and thinking of God.

During my last trip to Delhi in July 2009, I saw him in my cousin (his son’s) house. I forget the exact words, but he spoke in Marwari. “कद आया kad aaya – when did you come?”…and something else. Every 3-4 minutes, he would come back and repeat the same set of questions again. After about an hour or so, he suddenly recognized me and asked if I was still in Singapore and how was I doing. A few minutes after that, it was back to “कद आया kad aaya – when did you come?”…and something else. My भुआ bhua was lamenting how he refused to be shaved for days (he had a short white beard – in the preceding years, he would always be clean shaven). He had developed amnesia and didn’t remember things. I was sad to see him in that state. The person with so much of zeal to do things, and with his vast treasure trove of information on Tibet and Sikkim – and one who was a part of Sikkim’s history, had lost all he knew. I was told he had gotten lost in Delhi for a day or two. The police helped find him back. My भुआ bhua said she watches over him all day, fearing he doesn’t venture out. The next day, when I touched his feet to leave (he was sleeping; then got up and came outside). He asked me, “सारो काम हो ग्यो? saaro kaam ho gyo? Is all the work done?” I asked, “कुन सो काम? kun so kaam? Which work?”. He thought hard, then said, “बो पुजा हारो? Bo pooja haro? That work related to the worship?” Then he raised both his hands slightly, as if to bless, and asked again, “सारो काम हो ग्यो नी? saaro kaam ho gyo ni? I hope all the work is done.” “बो पुजा हारो? Bo pooja haro? That work related to the worship?” I said, “हाँ फुम्फोजी, हो ग्यो haan phumphoji, ho gyo. Yes, phumphoji. All’s done.”

That was the last time I met him. A month or two ago, I was further saddened to hear that he had fallen down and fractured his hips (and supposedly underwent two surgeries). He was bound to a wheelchair and was bed-ridden (with somebody taking care of changing and feeding him). Last night 4 April, after I’d reached Boston from New York, and sat at my desk around 11:30pm Eastern time (5 April, 9:00am in India) preparing Powerpoint slides for a lecture on ‘Observation Research and Usability Testing/Think Aloud Protocols’ to teach my class this morning, I got a call from home saying, “दीपचंदजी गुज़र ग्या Deepchandji guzar gyaa. Deepchandji has passed away.” He was supposedly alone at the Delhi home of his son with the caretaker (and maybe a grandson – not sure). His sons and their families had gone to Haridwar to attend the Kumbh mela and were rushing back. My भुआ bhua (even though she was in the same house, but too fat and frail to climb upstairs) had not yet been informed. My sadness on the news was coupled with a sense of relief for him for getting freed from his misery, especially after the fracture. My mother advised his son to take out a ‘बैकुंठी baikunthi’ – an elaborately-decorated funeral procession given to a person who had lived a long, fulfilling life and leaves behind children and grandchildren who are all doing well (I hear this was eventually not done due to lack of time or know-how). He supposedly was 85 years old.

I spoke to two of his sons who were on their way to Delhi. The elder of the two said, “फुम्फोजी तो गया भाई phumphoji to gaya bhai. [Your] phumphoji is gone, brother.”

Further telephone calls this morning told about the extended family coming to my house in Gangtok condoling his death.”को को आयो? ko ko aayo? Who all came? (in Nepali)”. Among the people who came, I’m told, was Moti Lal Lakhotia – the Motia to the Deepla, both of who traversed the high passes from Sikkim to Tibet (he said, in a matter of 2-3 days, he had lost his only 2 friends in the world; and that he was older than the two).

I was asked a question, to which I gave a simple answer without much thought. The question was, “चेतन के छोरो है की छोरी? Chetan ke choro hai ki chori? Does Chetan [his grandson from his second son] have a boy or a girl?” I had met all of them last year and had taken photos. I thought the question might be related to taking a gift for the baby when people from my family go to Delhi. I replied, “चेतन के शायद छोरी है, रशमी के छोरो है Chetan ke shaayad chori hai, Rashmi ke choro hai. Chetan, most likely, has a daughter. Rashmi (his sister) has a son.” The response was, “ओ, फेर तो सोना की सीडी कोनी चड O, pher to sona ki seedi koni chade. O, then a ladder made of gold can’t be made”. “अगर पड़पोतो होतो तो सोना की सीडी चड जाता agar padpoto hoto to sona ki seedi chad jaata. If he had a great grandson [instead of a great granddaughter; and not counting that his granddaughter has a son], then his body could have been accompanied by a golden ladder [and he could have climbed the golden steps to heaven]”. What followed was a brief argument on gender divide and whether such views are applicable anymore, with both sides too deep in their conviction to budge.

My phumphoji was the tallest person of his generation I knew. For good or for bad, he lived on his terms. If only for his sheer honesty and his ability to face up to and confront things squarely for the way they were, and for not distinguishing between कईयां kaiyan and पाड़ीया-भोटिया padiya-bhotiya, and seeing humans as humans – equally gifted and equally flawed, I hope, on the 45th anniversary of the day Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal of Sikkim ascended his throne, Deepchandji gets a golden ‘सीडी seedi’ to heaven!

P.S. When I shared the article with his son a couple of days later, he added a few more things I hadn’t known about, “A good footballer, photographer. Amiable and could mix up with people easily. Fond of playing Mhajong too and could be seen playing with the Chogyal of Sikkim and the Dorji,s of Bhutan. Would not give up easily once he made up his mind.”

Kesariya Baalam – A rich, colourful, Marwari wedding in a Sikkimese winter

“Kesariya Baalam the to aao ni padharo mahre des” (केसरिया बालम थे तो आओ नी पधारो माहरे देस) [O beloved with the saffron coloured turban, I heartily welcome you to my country], is a folk-tune from Rajasthan based on Raag Maand. Part of the Indo-Pak composite culture of Hindustaani music, it is a song of the Thar desert and has been sung through centuries. The tune has been used in movies (Dor, in Lekin by Lata Mangeshkar with lyrics changed, the Oscar-winning Little Terrorist, and recently in 99.9FM by Zila Khan), in Classical Music albums (Ustad Zakir Hussein in the album ‘Music of the Deserts’), in TV soaps (Balika Vadhu), reality-singing shows (Raja Hasan in Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, Aishwarya in Chote Ustad), and sung by Singers from both Pakistan (Mehdi Hasan, Ustad Naseer-ud-din Saami) and India (Allah Jilai Bai, Manganiyars 1, 2, 3). As Siddhartha puts it, the Manganiyars are “a great example of Hindu-Islamic synthesis – practicing muslims who sing praise songs to Hindu gods!  And that is besides their musicality!”

In 2005-06, I made a painting with the same title

Painting by Naresh 'Padharo Mahre Des'

After my wedding on 8 December 2003, I had 10-hours of video footage. I’d imagined that I’d edit the video into a 10-minute or 30-minute version (where this song would find a prominent place). I haven’t yet gotten around to doing that (as of 7 Jun 2009), but found some time today to create 4 shorts 30-second music videos from my wedding photos  (archa-na-resh wedding) using an online tool. These 4 versions are based on 4 versions of Kesariaya Baalam sung by different singers. The copyright for the music resides with the respective owners (I’ve used what was available freely on youtube). The photos are mine.

Let me know which version you like the best.

Manganiyar version

[youtube _2wKXiQgWqs 600]

Instrumental Folk version

[youtube 7iT0nFF1lGI 600]

Raja Hasan version

[youtube 9iwqAORj1RA 600]

Lata Mangeshar version from Lekin

[youtube FT3CRJhpun0 600]