Volume: 10, No: 03 ; March-2016
Some readers might find this article quite jumbled and not so well written in terms of incident occurrences and flow of writing, that may not match the timing of incidents narrated here, but then this has been written with a heart full of sorrow and grief and should be excused on that count.
I am sure Ram Advani needs no introduction after about 95 years of his well lived inspiring life, out of this only a quarter was away from Lucknow while the rest was here.
My childhood memories go back to when I was about 6 or 7 years of age and as an evening ritual my father used to take me to Hazratganj almost daily. While on a walk through the corridors towards the Mayfair he stopped by to exchange pleasantries in his mother tongue, Sindhi and while both of them spoke, at that point of time as a child, I went into the shop looking at some very nice book-covers, a wonderful rubber stamp and a very rare telephone instrument on his classic wooden table. With the corner of their eyes both looked at me, to ensure that I as a child, did not disturb the arrangements of the book or fiddled with some office table essentials as at that age my curiosity was developing with leaps and bounds. A staircase led up to a ‘Reading or Discussion room’ (If I may call it so) that was my favourite, not that I was fond of reading, but because it looked to me as a hidden den, a great personal space for children of that age. I recall my love for lofts, basements, box-rooms et al., that somehow gave me a high at that age and I often wanted to sit, sleep, read and hide in these.
As I grew, my eyes wanted to peep through the covers and open the books that till now meant only covers to me, it was here that Uncle Ram came into picture and, beyond how I saw him earlier as, another Sindhi relative who was fancied by my Sindhi parents. He had a personality like water that transformed and reshaped according to the age and the liking of the person standing opposite to him, and this very personality trait actually made him so popular and wanted all his life. He at that point could observe me opening books and at that stage he stepped in to help me read and conversed with me directly leaving my father alone to see his likes in the shop or to engage is Sindhi pep-talks, enjoy a cup of tea etc. (probably he knew that he had to nurture interest in me and my father’s interest had firmly been there, so it was futile to spend much of his time on him now at that stage). I somehow became a regular stopper to that area, though at times dodging the bookshop, I entered the Mayfair verandah to enjoy seeing the film posters of Superman, Spiderman, Return of the Dragon and some other Hollywood classics (Mayfair ran morning shows of some great English films and with my cousins, who were from the family we got free entry along with some pastries from a very popular restaurant named, Kwality served inside the hall. If my memory serves right, there was this gentleman by the name of ‘Mr.Kumar’ who managed the theater, so we just went to him and the rest of it was arranged by him) My parents were quite dotting and wanted to develop me and my younger brother as a keen reader of books rather than film buffs, so they were not happy with the idea of letting me mingle with my cousins who were a part of Mayfair cinema, in spite of the fact that my father was himself a keen film buff and collected about 100 autographs of film stars such as Dilip Kumar, Prithviraj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, Om Prakash (Om Prakash had signed making a face of a cartoon in the alphabet, ‘O’) and more, but these are the ones I remember and can connect to ( by the way, the autograph-book was stolen from my school bag, when I took it to show my friends) during his short stay in Bombay after the partition brought him from Hyderabad (Sindh-Pakistan).
Ram Uncle was always a man who was talked about in my house almost every day for some reason or another. The books that my father and mother read were from his shop, the family and friends who attended the Sunday luncheons in turns at each other’s place (Surnames: Shivdasani, Punvani, Gulrajani, Thadani, Vaswani, Advani and more) fancied him so much so, that as children we could hear his name being uttered many a times during their conversations. Now I realize how important he must have been to all of them. Often the discussions involved a book that was bought from his shop, read for a week and became a topic of discussion. I remember one of my aunts once saying, she read a few pages of a book and found the book quite boring, to this my mother said, “you can return it to him and he will be happy to refund, if you have not liked it” (was he not a businessman ? yes of course he was but he did business another way).
I grew up and my tastes too changed with times (in about 1978-79 Television came to our home and suddenly children had yet another mode of entertainment, though in today’s context it was quite boring, but then for those times it was indeed very exciting). My love for books ebbed and so Ram Uncles shop went down on my concurrent list (could have been that books at school increased so much that somehow I wanted to free myself of books). I was busy with my studies, so my meetings with him had become rare, I was also not regular to Hazratganj with my father and mother, so probably the trips to the shop were much fewer than before. My father though kept a steady contact and was quite regular, also that his office was now in Hazratganj, after his transfer to Divisional Railway Manager, it was just a minute’s walk to his shop and Ram Uncle often asked about me and my younger brother. But somehow I drifted (may be, it is natural for children of that age) and almost lost touch, I travelled for studies and then, set up my tour company 1994. It was then that I met Dr. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones to tell her that I was her admirer and a great fan of her works on La Martiniere. It was at this juncture that the life had come a full circle. She was a great friend of Ram Uncle and after almost 8 years, I re-introduced myself to Uncle Ram, who could clearly remember me as a child in his shop and to my astonishment, he knew whatever I studied, where all I went and what I did during the years of my aloofness (he kept a track of me through my father and mother) – it was his sheer interest in people, who were known to him and who visited his shop.
Next chapter of story began from here. Now I became regular once again to his shop, often browsing books on Lucknow and Awadh that now invoked interest in me. He was quick to gauge this and said to me, “Beta, you can come anytime, sit and read, there is no need to buy these”. This one sentence gave the much required confidence to read. At that time for a start-up business without money, as mine it was much needed. The association now sort of changed, from book-covers to pages inside, drift from books to books again. More than books his stories were so interesting and then his memory of Sindh that were so sharp that he knew more of my relatives than anyone in my immediate family. He introduced me to whoever he could, with an aim that I somehow benefit from them in my business, he gave my telephone number to many, who asked for travel help. We started coming close, meeting over dinners at home, lunches and evening drinks. He ate less, drank less but enjoyed each moment. All the way we had company of Aunty Darshi, who often said lets go home for lunch, while I insisted we go to a restaurant and I won because, I was now becoming dominant with times and this was primarily the kind of openness we enjoyed. Each lunch, dinner or just a drink was followed by a ‘thank you’ card next day. (I admire two persons for this, Uncle Gopal (G.D. Shivdasani) and Uncle Ram (Ram Advani) – they never ever missed to send a thank you letter/postcard or more recently he came on e-mail, a small gesture, but it left a mark on me and taught me to do the same).
Many people believed that he was not a proud Sindhi, but I can vouch for this that he was. He often compared our way of life with that of others. I remember being invited for lunch by a lady bureaucrat and I picked him up in my car to go together. Here, we were not offered any drinks, the food was great and so was the hospitality, but on our way back Uncle Ram did say that it was rude not to have been offered drink to the invited guests, to which I defended our host, saying that she is a single lady and it is not a custom to offer drink at lunch in India. He categorically mentioned that she drinks and is not a teetotaler herself and that the customs demand that guests are offered at least beer over lunch. I remember he spoke at length, to tell me about the Sindhi customs that were followed for throwing parties, that had mandatory afternoon drink in them.
His father founded a place called ‘Naari Shaala’ exclusively for uncared Sindhi women to support themselves and he was quite proud about this fact. He shared a lot of knowledge about Sindhi customs, cuisine and in fact helped an American research on Sindhis, he mentioned that he wanted me to meet this scholar to give my comments as a young Amil Sindhi. From the first generation born in free India, but somehow, could not connect me to her – he always said, “you are an Amil Sindhi and you should feel proud of your being”. He had a liking for Amils and it was evident by the facts that often discussed.
Of course he had a liking to the British and he was not at shame to admit it, but then all Amil Sindhis had that inclination in their lifestyle, dressing and improvised customs etc. I once had a debate with him about us being called pro-British, to which the simple answer he gave was that Sindhis were smart businessmen and knew whom to rub their shoulders with and when. I was convinced and realized what he meant.
There was an abrupt long gap and I did not meet him for almost a month. He enquired about me from my colleagues whom he spotted in my company uniform walking through Hazratganj and from them he learnt about my mother’s illness. He was quick to call me and wanted to come over to see her, but I promised to bring both uncle and aunty home the following week. Just then Aunty Darshi passed away, leaving uncle alone and both of them could not make it to our place. In an unfortunate meeting we then met at the funeral and again at the Gurudwara for the third day ceremony and I could see he was sad at the loss, but wore his trade-mark smile to greet guests. After a few days, Uncle Ram was back in his shop and called me to check about my mothers’ welfare and sent across a book as gift for my mother. This was based on Sindhis and my mother really enjoyed reading this.
Can one imagine that a bookshop owner got involved in my tourism project, the Victorian Walk that Dr. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones designed for my company. Both he and Dr. Jones did a video for me detailing the walking tour and then after the shoot we went out for lunch at Falaknuma, enjoying the view of Gomti river from the roof-top restaurant. The view of K.D. Singh Babu stadium from the restaurant gave Uncle Ram the right opportunity to tell us about a round of golf that he had with K.D. Singh Babu (the great hockey player), how he got to umpire a cricket match with Douglus Jardine (Cricketer, Bodyline fame) and Donald Bradman in Shimla. He also narrated an interesting incident of how left enjoying his pre-lunch afternoon peg of scotch, when the then Chief Minster Dr. Sampoornanad walked into his bookshop and Uncle Ram felt guilty that the Chief Minister (he was a saintly man and a real teetotaler) will feel offended if he gets the whiff of alcohol, days had changed in India, customs were changing and it was at that time he was coming to terms with the change post 1950s. His eyes gleamed with joy whenever he spoke of all this and he did find a great listener in me, or so I believe.
I thoroughly enjoyed all instances from his past life and like a time-machine, he took me back into an unseen world. Though he never went back to Pakistan after India’s partition, but I am sure he had some of the greatest memories of Lahore, Karachi and Hyderabad (Sindh, now Pakistan). At one point of time I questioned him about this reservation of not going back to visit Lahore or Sindh, to this he was quite clear to say that he had some lovely memories of Lahore and Karachi and somehow by going back he did not want to dilute those (was he not happy about how Pakistan developed or would it bring tears to his eyes if he went back ?).
In 2007 (150 years of Indian Mutiny) a group of British came to Lucknow and I along with Ram Uncle made some elaborate arrangements at the Residency for a memorial service (this was actually for both sides that gave their lives in the revolt). Just then, it sort of went wrong, with the political parties jumping into it, to oppose the theme with selfish political agenda. District Magistrate of Lucknow and then Superintendent of Police asked me to take the group back due to security reasons, obviously I denied, and was put under a house arrest of sort at the District Magistrate’s home, (they said my life was under threat) not being allowed to meet anybody. Sir Havelock-Allan was on this group and knew Uncle Ram well, he called him and next morning while the entire group had no permission to venture out Uncle Ram took all the risk and took Sir Havelock-Allan with him to visit the Havelock’s Tomb early in the morning, avoiding all the policemen and armed guards who were pressed in security at the hotel. News Papers caught this act and a vernacular newspaper reported, “Chupke-Chupke Dada Sey Mill Liye” (Secretly the grand-son has met his great-grand-father). This was the kind of helpful nature, that often went beyond his profession of bookselling and running a bookshop.
I think he was closest to Dr. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones and never to my memory there was any of her visits to Lucknow, when Uncle Ram did not accompany me to the train station to receive her (leaving the last one of course, when he was unwell and could not walk due to an injury, while Dr. Jones visited Lucknow only to see him and be with him for about 4 days). There were instances when he was not that well, yet he insisted to come along to the railway station. I would make him sit at the Uttar Pradesh Tourism Booth at the station, whenever we went to pickup Dr. Jones, but like a child he was restless to come inside the platform and wait with his eyes looking for Shatabdi to arrive. This respect and love was reciprocated well by Dr. Jones, who was equally eager to see him on arrival. This was his unconditional love for friends and acquaintances.
Once I was planning a party for my company and sitting at his book-shop I mentioned about this. He just then told me if I ever planned a programme of qawali, he and aunty would be interested in attending it. I could gauge their interest and just then decided to have this. Both he and Aunty enjoyed it very much. I remember both of them sitting all through and enjoying each bit of the singing and even giving some currency notes to the singers as tips to appreciate the singing (this is a custom in qawali singing, and they very well know this).
The association was now also professional, my company library was buying books from him and our guests on Victorian Walk stopped at his shop to meet him and to enjoy afternoon tea with him at his shop. Yet after each visit he never forgot to thank me for sending my guests, as each visit was followed by a card or an e-mail from him. This support was from a man who loved to see people grow and flourish so selflessly.
I also remember Violett Graff on her last visit to Lucknow, and this was another high, as Violett on a wheel-chair just came to meet Uncle. She did not visit any place other than the bookshop (she was really not well when she last came) and one could imagine the charisma that Uncle Ram had to make people come to visit him. I remember, him telling me about how V. S. Naipaul, how he visited his shop without an appointment and introduced himself to Uncle Ram (that was a period when Naipaul was not conferred a Nobel prize but very well know, due to the Booker that he had already got). Naipaul visited his shop and requested him to arrange for someone to show around, at the point Nasir Abid would work with him at his shop and he in turn requested him to take him around the city. Nasir actually wore this as his medal and told me stories of how Naipaul insisted on seeing Mujra (nautch-girls performing to entertain) in post mujra-ban era. But Nasir, did arrange one for him. Naipaul also visited Nasir’s house and found him to be an interesting man, or so I read Naipaul as saying. I knew Nasir as an Old Martinian and he worked for me for quite some time, but then age took toll on him too. Nasir Abid had to leave the job at the bookshop or rather he was asked to leave due to another friend of Uncle Ram (name of this friend deliberately not disclosed), who did not have any liking for Nasir Abid. Another reason most obvious to me was that Nasir was a bit over-enthusiastic in his drinking habits and this surely would not have gone down well with anyone, so it did not with this another friend of Uncle Ram.
He lived well, did well and was a successful man (if at all there is anything as success, it was this). He was firmly tied to his roots and culture, yet appreciated all as a true gentleman. If someone’s death leaves a void, it surely means he meant a lot to everybody around him. At least he did to me. He is no more now, but has imbibed great ideas in our minds. I am sure many like me would believe, that there would be two generations, one that met Ram Advani and one that could only read about him or learn about him in stories that will be narrated to the coming generations.
RIP Uncle Ram (RIP Ram Advani : Born 12th October 1920; Died 9th March 2016).
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