P.L. Dhir - 23.9.1923 - 17.8.1975
Remembering the best father one could ask for. A Daughter remembers!
Two important events have decidedly shaped my life. Foremost is the first nine years of my life that I got to spend with my father from my birth to the time in mid-August 1975 when I lost him to God.
The second is the period soon after and running up till my formative years when I moulded my personality to face the storm gushing within and the waves of turbulence the world threw at me. Ask anyone who has been in shoes similar to mine and they will tell you that it is a hugely different life and world as a fatherless child. And not just emotionally! In a patriarchal society, your relevance and social standing is linked to your father's.
It is true that when the Almighty strikes you with a severe blow, he enables you with the coping mechanism and equips you with aids and aides that help you keep your ship afloat and sail through. In my case, I was blessed with a very loving, devoted, supportive mother who allowed my wings to spread and fly and created such an environment in which I could attempt to dream, thrive and grow to my optimal level. She was a strict parent when it was necessary; on other times she was a friend, confidante and a pillar that I could always fall back on.
On 14th September 1966, at around 6 pm, Daddy received orders for his promotion and the same day in the afternoon I was born. So, it comes as no surprise that he considered me his lucky mascot (in fact he wanted to name me Laxmi after the Goddess). And given the special bond I shared with him, he will always remain a Godly figure to me.
Some images get blown up in my mind’s eye every time I think of my father. His roaring laughter, the booming baritone that brought any party to life, his abysmal attempt to render a Saigal song every time he was coaxed to sing, his resigning for the day in his favourite sofa with a book, our Sunday mid-morning ritual of doing our version of Waltz as he played the LP on his Gramophone (Have feet, will dance. One of the earliest memories of my inclination towards dance was my Sunday mid-morning ballroom session with Dad. I would put on my mother's beautiful black, bowed stiletto crafted for her by a Calcutta based Chinese shoemaker. I would liberally sprinkle some powder on our makeshift dance floor just as Daddy would set the LP to play on the Gramophone. Small arms would go around with tiny hands clutching my Dad's sides, I would toe-up to reach waist-high to still hold onto a Ballroom dancing pose. The positions taken, I would sway to the music thinking of myself as a very fine dancer! ), our game time – with Badminton or Carrom Board or Chinese Checkers, his bedtime stories told to me with passion and conviction, his good-natured teasing of my mother, our mouth-stuffed breakfast time revisions before each test or exam in a muffled language that only he and I could understand, his late evening coaching to me in studies followed by the delightful omelette that he would whip up for me as I would get hungry by that hour every night, his decision to start making the bed tea as he wished to give my mother another hour of rest in the morning.
I guess for having lived only nine years of my life with him, I have a rich bag of memories that are a treasure for my lifetime.
That Dad was special was evident from his persona, his habits, the way he dealt with people and how people reacted to him. The facets of his unique personality have been, further, corroborated by the fantastic stories I have been regaled with of him by my mother and his family.
He was exceptionally good in academics and he passed his Civil Engineering exam not only with distinction but at an age younger than the norm at that time. He started working earlier than his contemporaries and helped his father raise a large family of siblings.
He glided across different social classes and categories of people with so much ease and with respect and affection reserved for all. He happily went off to the wedding of our Housekeeper's son with so much excitement, sat amidst them, partook of the feast with as much bonhomie leaving both the fellow officers (who were not given to such acts of openheartedness) and the Housekeeper's family (who were very conscious of their position in the Indian class / caste system) shocked and surprised.
This was not the only instance when my father followed his heart and treated every shade of man and animal with the same courtesy and appreciation that they deserved.
Daddy always treated everyone with respect – whether it was his own father or a paid servant. In Babina Cantonment, near Jhansi, my father’s last posting, we had a somewhat elderly Housekeeper who went by the name of RajRani. Dad, out of respect for her age, christened her as RajMata and we all called her by that name.
I recall a time when we had gone to Chandigarh – where my grandfather lived – for a little vacation. We were just entering the driveway and Dad was puffing on a cigarette. At that time, the front door opened and my Grandfather walked into the portico to greet his son. Upon noticing his father, my Dad took his errant hand behind him and snuffed the cigarette out with his fingers, not wanting to get caught smoking in front of his father. Both men were grown-ups at that time but Dad had his principles to live by. As a young, half-impressionable upstart of a little girl I found the incident amusing at the time, only to discover its relevance years later.
In the late 40s, on a posting to Jaisalmer, he became friends with the Raja of Jaisalmer, an association that carried on beyond his two-year stay in the "Golden City" of Rajasthan.
It is, no doubt, only the great men of confidence, secure in the knowledge of their own position and stature, who can treat everybody with respect. Their own greatness sits lightly on their shoulder, they are comfortable in their own skin and therefore do not wish to snatch affected elevation either by associating superficially with those above them or undermining the ones who are below them in the social pecking order.
Dad could not stand injustice of any kind and always jumped to the rescue of the underdog in any situation. Even in the early part of his career, as a young officer, he took on an abusive, hot-headed British Superior at the cost of being temporarily suspended.
His calibre and work was so superlative that he was called back and he continued to enjoy a rewarding career. Daddy was sent to Chittagong (which now falls in Bangladesh) to help construct key landmarks in the City. In the mid-40s, Dad was attached to the Unit of American forces in Dibrugarh, Assam. He was very popular with both the Americans and the locals. His civil work, favourably, impacted the lives of the locals. He helped CALTEC - the Oil Company based there - to build a temple. Years later, he helped in the construction of a Kali Temple in Calcutta. Acts such as these made him a sort of a local hero amongst the religiously inclined local population.
In the early to mid 50s, while posted in Delhi first and then later at Fort William in Calcutta, he came into close proximity to Harendra Coomar Mookerjee, who was not only the Vice President of the Constituent Assembly of India but also the first Governor of West Bengal from 1951-56 after India became a Republic. Perhaps the two important qualities that brought the two men together were that Mr. Mookerjee was heralded as a great educationist and philanthropist, areas that Daddy was also keenly inclined towards.
Mr. Mookerjee had no child and he became very fond of Daddy, taking him formally as his God son. History tells us that Mr. Mookerjee was a prominent Christian Leader of Bengal in his time. We still have the portrait of Our Lady of Fátima, hanging in the Place of worship at our Farmhouse, that he had gifted to Daddy.
Daddy’s association with Mr. Mookerjee developed a deep regard in Dad in the faith of Christianity along with his reverence for all other religions. I remember seeing Daddy reading all religious scriptures during his half hour morning tête-à-tête with God, alternating them day after day. He would read the Holy Quran on one morning, the Gutka Sahib – the Sikh prayer book on another, followed by the Old and New Testaments, the Bhagvad Gita; and the cycle would carry on.
In fact, the bed time stories my Dad told me were stories from the recorded lives of Gods and saints – one day it would be Christ, the second Lord Krishna, another time it would be Guru Nanak Sahib, yet another day Saint Kabir and so on. I think that was a remarkable example of marvellous moral education imparted informally and in a fun way.
Daddy ji had eclectic interests and always craved for intellectual stimulation. His group of friends stood testimony to this characteristic. On one hand there were Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and highly decorated Army Generals Messrs Bakshi and Menezes of the 1971 War.
On the other hand, Dad counted amongst his very good friends actors and artists and poets and musicians such as K. L Saigal, I S Johar, Ustad Vilayat Khan. In fact, Khan Sahab, who gave the moniker of Bhabhi Jaan to my mother, would have Daddy and us (along with a clutch of other friends) over for his famous informal musical soirees in his peaceful bungalow in Clement Town, Dehradun.
Dad, I am told, was an extremely popular person. He was very gentle. And he was a very good conversationalist!
Daddy was very fond of reading – news, literature, poetry, lyrical prose and sher-o-shairi filled his free hours. He could recite several from memory. And he was as fond of reading in English as he was in Urdu.
In spite of his profession (very nuts and bolts Civil Engineering), Daddy Ji was very literary, with very good command over English, Urdu and Pashto, had great expression and he wrote very well.
He liked games too. He was very good at Lawn Tennis and won some local / organizational championships. He nudged me towards Badminton and Swimming, sadly, I never took to the latter.
Daddy lived well and enjoyed every moment that life bestowed on him; perhaps because he was not going to live to be an old man. He enjoyed his drink (but never got drunk in spite of his army background and zillions of official cocktails he had to attend), loved music and films, enjoyed spending time on books, was the heart of the party, was jovial, loved western and Indian cuisine.
My Father had a superb khansama (cook) in Ferozepur by the name of Gafoor who cooked choicest continental dishes for him. Gafoor is known to have taught a lot about western cuisine to my mother who would churn out the most delectable dishes for my father, for us, for home parties at which people wondered where the amazing food had been catered from.
But one thing that Dad could never do well was try his hand at serious cooking. Still, he would make morning tea for my mother and that smashingly delicious late-night omelette he flipped for me. When my mother travelled, the best he could do was poach an egg for his breakfast. And yes, as a yearly ritual he would two things – fill and cut Gujiyas with a Gujiya cutter during our Holi preparations and make a very cheerfully colourful Dry fruit Rice for my Birthday party.
In 1949, my Uncle recalls, Daddy took him to Mussoorie – the Queen of Hills, for a week. They stayed in style at the Hackman Hotel, a French Hotel that only the connoisseurs visited.
Yet, he was the most simple man, who shunned any kind of ostentation and despised pretence in behaviour. He believed in being a ‘karamyogi’ and relied on his ability, intellect and work for whatever the fate would have in store for him. He never liked to curry favours for himself or his family, but would spring up if he was in a position to help.
It was a ground rule at home that we could never enjoy any free service that was Dad’s privilege on account of his official position. We were never allowed to use the Staff car for our personal matters. The only time my mother would sit in the Staff car was when she accompanied Dad to formal functions. Similarly, my mother could not ask for free staff to be sent to the residence – whether it was for gardening or making pieces of furniture or as help during the elaborate parties Ma had to throw for Dad’s colleagues. Dad had told her categorically, ‘We will make do with what we can pay for. I will not bend rules and get the office staff to come and work at home.’ Dad was mighty proud of how Ma towed the line. With just one full-time Housekeeper and some part-time help she would jig up the fanciest of parties that were talked about for a long time. With just a one hour notice she would lay out the perfect multi-course lunch for Dad and his visiting superior. Dad’s chest would swell with pride when the high profile guest would ask who put it all together or was there a lot of help and Dad got to tell him, “It is just the Missus, Sir.”
In spite of Dad’s strict rules, my mother out did herself when she won the First prize in Front and Kitchen gardens with a running trophy and shield for two consecutive years in the entire Jhansi district and not just Babina Cantt., where our official bungalow was. The only help she had were her two hands and Hardas – her bright full-time Gardener.
Daddy was one of the most accommodating people I may ever come across. And he always thought of the other person first. Because my mother wanted to serve hot rotis off the stove to every diner, we had a sort of hierarchy when being served. It was my unwell Uncle first, then Dad and then the rest of us one by one, the last being Ma herself. Two occasions come to mind, on both of which Ma had cooked her house specialty. When Dad was eating his supper, Ma asked him how the preparations were. And he said they were fabulous and he was enjoying it. When my mother sat down to dinner, to her horror, she found that in the first instance she had forgotten to add salt to the otherwise swell dish and the second time the dish had got slightly burnt and one could taste the overriding taste of charred ingredients. She quizzed my father as to why had he eaten in silence and this is what he had to say, “You have obviously laboured over food, like you always do and when you always work hard towards serving us delicious food, why should I make fuss over a little slip here and there.” Without any exaggeration I must tell you that on evenings such as this all of us would finish the meal with our eyes moist and in profound gratitude.
With all his domineering disposition (only in terms of his physical appearance, for he looked like a Pathan - the erstwhile brave hearts of Pashtun in the pre-partition Bharat) and towering presence he had the softest heart, if there was one. I caught him crying copiously when his White Alsatian Son passed away. He became hugely depressed when Sheru, our Bhutia (the indigenous Himalayan Mastiff) fur child was stolen by nomadic labourers working in the vicinity.
Dad would regularly talk to Raju, our Pet parrot who was brought up as my elder brother. Raju would often eat his breakfast and dinner with Dad. His small brass platter was laid out and placed next to Dad’s plate and Dad would give the first morsel to him before he would proceed to eat himself. On one occasion he forgot to put the bite into Raju’s plate. Raju waited for Daddy to finish his food and then in his singsong voice chirped “Daddyji give me food” (Yes Raju, like many domesticated parrots, could talk coherently). All hell broke loose on Dad, who was seen to be visibly embarrassed and upset at the faux pas. He apologized profusely to Raju and shifted around trying to pacify him with his favourite bites of food. The sight was both hilarious and touching at the same time.
Even his manner of teaching me values or life’s lessons or etiquette was unique. He would often resort to using idiomatic phrase to impart a lesson, so many of which remain entrenched in my mind to this day. When I would cheat with him in a game and then argue and blame the skies so as to score an unjustified win over him, he would laugh and say, “Nach na jane, Aangan tedha” (Doesn’t know the skill to dance but claims that the stage is tilted).
But having said all of the above, one of the most predominant qualities that Dhir Sahab, as we was commonly addressed by all who knew him or had heard of him, is remembered by is his extremely charitable and helpful nature. His own father called him “my pillar.”
From small acts to colossal ones, from things done for family to a larger set of people whose lives he touched so meaningfully; the raison d'être of my father’s life was to do something special for the other person. When he was a young man and was already doing well in his career he bought a huge mansion and a set of ten shops in Jalandhar, which he then gifted to his father. He would send packs of branded shirts to his younger brothers who were studying Law or preparing to be IAS officers. If a brother did not like the style or pattern, the lot would come back to him, which he would wear and send them a fresh pack again. When his youngest sister topped in her matriculation exam, he went about offering sweets to all his neighbours (even those he did not know) and the entire population of his native place in Punjab. In fact, my father’s brother shares when remembering him that “he looked after his family. The whole family was brought up by him.”
Both my mother and he would put others before their own needs, whether it was a domestic servant or a poor vendor or my Dad’s younger brother who stayed with us due to his peculiar medical condition (here too Ma and Dad decided to keep him at home with them instead of sending him to a medical facility) or my Mother’s sister’s children who my parents were bringing up. That Christmas story – O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi - in which SHE sells her treasured hair to buy Him a befitting watch chain and HE sells the heirloom gold watch to buy the tortoise shell combs for Her hair has always reminded me of my parents.
Daddy was posted in Allahabad, the Air Force base of Manauri to be precise, in the mid-60s. I don’t recall how and why but the family lore tells me that he had occasion to have an interface with a band of dacoits. There already must have been a seed of repentance and a desire to reform in the dacoits, hence they were positively tuned when my father met with them and counselled them to surrender. He promised to give them a job for the active years of their life if they gave up their arms and stopped to live on the other side of the law. It became a big illustrative matter for fellow officers and those who were to follow, that a bunch of notorious dacoits listened like lambs to my father’s counselling, paid heed to it and that Dhir Sahab, as promised, rehabilitated all of them by giving them jobs and respect. To set an example, he employed the Dacoit Group leader – Badku - as a “mate” (a Mate is the Head of Gardeners) and gave him a duty to work in his own bungalow, along with his henchman Ramdas, thereby dispelling any fear or wrong notions about the reformed men.
We have a picture of the gentleman in our family album. He is a very handsome, robust man with piercing light eyes, upturned moustache bars and an upright spine that seemed to be made of steel. I am in that picture as an infant and every time we took a look at that photo we spoke of Badku with a sense of awe and wonder. But the biggest chunk of pride and admiration was reserved for my father and his novel ways.
If we had to put up an Epitaph for him then these words would have to be engraved to bring justice to what my father did for people – ‘Here lies a man who brought hope, happiness, security and respect to people he did not personally know and who could never promise anything in return to him.’
Yes, he was that selfless. Dad gave jobs to a record breaking number of people. After Daddy Ji’s death, my Uncle once bumped into a man – an M.E.S. worker, who said that nobody had ever got so many people employed. From late 70s to late 90s when I still lived in Dehradun – the Valley town where my parents built the family home – this was a common tale we heard each time we met somebody whose life Daddy had transformed. And there were many. And every time, we were proud as hell.
Whether he commanded five cantonments – as during his Dehradun years – or just one like in Kanpur; his intent to help as many people remained top most in his mind. I think we all have been given the wherewithal, to differing extents, to be able to help others who are more in need of support than us. But how many of us actually think in those charitable terms or get out of our comfort zone to deny ourselves some pleasure in lieu of donating that amount to a more deserving person! And there lies the difference between an exalted, extraordinary human being and a common, self-centered one.
I would have, certainly, been a different person from how I have shaped out to be had he been there. And there is no doubt in my mind that I would have been a much better person.
Sadly, to my complete misfortune, Daddy did not take care of his health. He ignored it completely. He never got any tests or health check-up done. In Babina, his last posting, one of his Colonel friends forced dad to undergo a few tests when he complained of some pains and discomfort. The tests were conducted in Jhansi. When the reports came, the Doctors asked if the reports were of a living person or dead. The cholesterol, blood urine levels were very high. Even when Lucknow was a closer destination for emergency medical care, he insisted to be rushed to Chandigarh where his father lived. He knew the time had come and he wanted to spend his last moments with his father, his wife and I in tow.
It is often said that when a man is no more, you tend to see him through a magnifying glass and wish to eulogize about him in a more glorifying manner. In case of my father, there was so much he had done in his short life and there is so little we end up saying.