Harbaksh Singh Bhalla, Advocate, Punjab and Haryana High Court—Baksh to his parents and siblings, Bhallasaab to colleagues and others. At five feet-ten, ninety kilos, with a forty-five-inch waist, Mr Bhalla was heavy-set. His younger daughter Noor measured his ample girth every time they met by ringing her arms around his belly. Of course, they never closed in a loop. Even when her father sucked in his stomach and insisted questioningly: ‘Some weight I must have lost?’
Mr Bhalla’s fondness for sweets and his evening tipple contributed to the flab. To rectify matters, he ate raw garlic flakes in the morning, only egg whites at breakfast—to the delight of the dog who got the ball of yolk—and rukha roti, thin and puffed like a poori but minus the oil, at mealtimes. He religiously underlined health-related articles in his morning newspaper, The Tribune, and scrupulously followed the prescription—‘a glass of warm lime water first thing in the morning helps break down fatty deposits’—until such time that he decided to favour a new one.
On those ‘health drive’ days he wore his slimming belt—the one that promised weight loss without exercise; it just needed to be worn, for three hours in the morning—consulted Webster’s Dictionary for the meanings of words he had jotted down on the paper’s margin as he read, and had the general cheer of one embarking on a new and wholesome venture.
The ‘health drive’ days, however, were erratic. What was regular was the morning walk—exercise, though, was only an ancillary benefit.
He woke up early because he slept early because his tippling started early. In the initial days, walking was a way to while away time. But as alcohol strengthened its hold on him, the morning air became essential to clear his mind. At some point of time, the walk became a friend. In a world of broken dreams, lost chances and corroded love, walking became a reassuring fixture that didn’t cost anything, didn’t change loyalties, and always listened.
A diabetic and a heart patient, he got his blood pressure checked frequently. He took the prescribed tablets of Disprin and Sorbitrate daily. He also took his drink daily: Bagpiper Whisky of Mohan Breweries, on the rocks, at times with water, accompanied by salty fried chana, or chicken tikka on the days he stopped by at the Green Hotel on the way home.
Husband of one, brother to two, father of three, he succumbed to a much-prognosticated heart attack—having suffered two prior angina attacks—witnessed by one brother, one servant and a rickshaw puller. He died in the same town he was born, just short of his seventy-first birthday.
One could say that Harbaksh Singh Bhalla hadn’t travelled far in life, literally and figuratively. A lifetime in one place can imply many things: a lack of wanderlust, an inordinate attachment to one’s roots, risk-aversion. Or inferences more practical can be made: lack of opportunity, ancestral property, family matters. Then there exist tenuous notions like the air of a place and how the spirit resonates to it, the smell of the earth and its connection with something deep and primitive within us, the songs of home and their dance in our veins.
It could well be a concoction of all the above—a heady mix of conflicting elements that gives rise to an equation at once complex and elementary. But equations, however tortuous, can never sum up a person. The best way to know a man may still be the only way: to walk in his shoes and live his life.
© Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
Friday, 10 April 2009
The Long Walk Home - an excerpt
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, author of Earning the Laundry Stripes, The Long Walk Home, the bestselling The Taj Conspiracy, and the upcoming thriller The Hunt for Kohinoor