Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Life and Times of the Cheshire Cat

(This piece was written for the Golden Jubilee of IIT Kanpur - and is about the student magazine called 'The Cheshire Cat', that we used to run when we were students. Some old issues of the Cat, created almost a generation ago, are preserved somewhere in the IIT K Alumni websites. A Google-search might get you there)

We are talking about a generation ago. When IIT Kanpur was littler and fitted in your pocket. Well, almost. Those were the times when the campus was just a sum total of a few Lecture Halls and even fewer hostels and no auditorium to speak of. When ‘computer’ used to be that big fat thing that needed an entire room for itself and worked on a deck of weirdly punched cards. The Computer Center was a citadel guarded by a battalion of sleepy security men, well past their retirement age. The SAC building and the swimming pool were just blue-prints and Cultural Festivals did not have a name and took place in a crude, apologetic ‘pandal’ which used to collapse every once in a while. Ominous looking tempos ferried us back and forth on our occasional visits to the city to lap up the greasy Chinese food dished out by some filthy, but wildly popular eateries. We led deceptively simple lives punctuated only by lectures, quizzes, sleepovers in the library and an eventual exit out of the institute with a fresh degree. And the elite among the students got either a US offer or a thousand rupees a month job. Yes, a thousand mega bucks. There was a pattern, an algorithm and predictability to our lives. And we lived on.

Until one day when some of us decided to get together over cups of chai and reflect on our young student lives. None of us in that group were poster boys of IIT Kanpur - our JEE ranks had more digits than our PIN codes and if you took the reciprocal of our JEE rank, you pretty much got our GPAs – and we barely managed to swim with the sharks and the ten pointers. We figured that we were gross misfits who could never meet the merciless expectations of the faculty or our parents. (Although the key difference was that our parents were usually in the dark about how the IIT K relative grading worked whereas the professors knew much more than they need to on the grading system) After the seventh or eighth cup of tea, it dawned on us that instead of bemoaning our marginal existence as IIT K students, we might as well ‘grin and bear’ it. And for more grins, take an inside-out, upside-down look at the whole IIT K student life – discover humor in everything IIT K-ish - all the holy cows and stuff talked about in hushed tones. We resolved that we start a student magazine just for this purpose and douse the campus with self-deprecatory humor. Call it audacity, call it sour grapes rationalization, call it escapism – or even call it overdosing on Nair’s double-density tea – the Cheshire Cat was unleashed on IIT Kanpur and it roamed the campus for quite a while. .

We were lazy and disorganized. Other than coming up with a few jokes which we found funny, we had no clue about running a campus magazine. Nobody wanted to be the editor and it turned out that we never had one for the entire period the Cat was published. (In fact, ‘Published by a few guys’ became our tag-line.) And many Cat-writers preferred to be anonymous, fearing reprisals. The Student Gymkhana refused to fund us, claiming that there were already too many student rags (which was true) and we had to cough up our own money. Since our finances were so dismal, we could afford to print only a handful of copies and thus we were forced to launch the Cat as a ‘wall paper’ that was pasted on hostel notice boards. We would secretly hang around by the notice boards to gauge the readers’ reaction – and sometimes even explain the jokes to a few un-hip students who dared to read it with a grim face. Our ranks would swell around the time of Cultural Festivals, but it got pretty lonesome in the Cat quarters after the Festival girls went home.

The production of a Cat issue itself was an interesting process. We lived in pre-historic times when photocopying technology had just been invented and Xeroxing anything cost an arm and a leg and needed the signature of every single Dean on campus. So, we had to resort to what was called ‘Cyclostyling’ where you literally sculpted a plastic-backed paper with your typewriter and made copies – where anything after the fourth copy was just a rumor. We discovered that a certain Guptaji, dwelling in a nondescript office in the Faculty Building would do this in his after-hours – for a fee, of course. So, after gathering our stories and articles, we tracked down Guptaji and spent long hours with him and his precious IBM typewriter. On days when he was in a particularly pleasant mood, he could even be coaxed into changing the ‘wheel’ of the typewriter and give us more fonts. Since everything was manually typed, typos and mistakes got etched in stone and we had to live with them. In fact, many of our best jokes died at Guptaji’s typewriter, falling victim to his brutally minimal typewriting skills. Somebody among us enrolled in a class on lino-cut lithography and made a die to stamp out our logo, which we proudly flashed on the front page. Eventually, the Gymkhana embraced us and we even got some office space in the SAC - until one day when one of the guys painted a huge picture of a frog on the walls and got us thrown out.

Then one day we decided to come up with our magnum opus – a bumper Cat issue (actually only about twenty pages thick) that was truly offset-printed and that we later sold for fifty paise a copy. We had sufficient articles to warrant it, but the economics was not working out. Even after the few hundred rupees the student Gymkhana was willing to throw in and a hefty amount we extracted from two advertising sponsors, we were still in a hole for a few thousand rupees. After a few chais, we came up with the idea to sell T-shirts with IIT K logo in the next cultural festival and funnel in the profits (or what would be left after the customary ‘treats’) into the ‘printed’ issue. We settled on a design featuring Rodin’s ‘Thinker’ sculpture, right under an ‘in your face’ emblazonment of the letters ‘IIT Kanpur’. We intimidated other potential T shirt sellers into believing that we had the best design and the Cat artist indeed did a great job of faking the original. (I should know, because years later, I did see the original ‘Thinker’ sculpture in the Rodin museum in Paris).

We scrounged around some money and two of us went over to Mumbai to buy blank T shirts. We roamed through the bowels of the city, procured our precious cargo in a seedy mill (my pocket got picked at 6.00 AM in a local train, but then, I am digressing) and somehow managed to lug them to the campus, despite grilling from our suspicious parents. A few weeks before the Cultural Festival, we got the printing done and box after box of ‘IITK Thinker’ T shirts showed up in our rooms, ready to go on sale. We signed on the Mr. Hall III as our brand ambassador, who at sixty five kilos, was a relative hulk compared to the rest of the students. We had our shirts displayed in all the food stalls around the Festival pandal – till one day when we discovered a kebab stall owner using one of our shirts to wipe his hands. All in all, we didn’t do too badly – with guys and girls clamoring for our T shirts left and right - and the ‘printed’ Cat issue eventually became a reality.

The Cat was not the only one to bring out a ‘printed issue’. Our rival magazine The Spark also did it every year. They collected old newspapers around the hostels and raised money for producing it. The Counterpoint – the semi-official student rag, with its Gymkhana funding had it slightly better and didn’t have to invent a scam to fund their special issue. Although our competition, these magazines really had some gifted writers, who had very creative minds and a way with the language. But, unfortunately, these serious literary efforts got lost in the hustle of quiz-today, exam-tomorrow kind of student lifestyle and were confined pretty much to an elite fringe of the community. I wish some of these special issues were archived for posterity. We at Cat were so low-brow that we promptly parodied these issues.

Cheshire Cat covered various subject matters and most often we would dedicate an entire issue for a single topic. But mostly, our protagonist was the hapless IIT K student and we would lampoon his misadventures. For, he lived a life of contradictions – at once being a shy, geeky top-ranker who humiliated the computer in chess, but also wanting to be a swashbuckling hero in front of the girls. We found humor in the highly un-romantic, male-heavy student demographics. We quipped at the faculty, the director and the myriad official bodies. We mocked the student elections, the student senate, the campus ‘lefties’ and just about anyone who took themselves seriously. We didn’t even spare the large packs of dogs that used to migrate to the campus from the city – apparently n search of better food. (Better food? In the IIT mess?!?!!) We were very affected by the irreverent style of the MAD magazine of the USA and by the wry, off-beat wit of Woody Allen. And yes, we made fun of the Cheshire Cat too.

After three years of run, with reality hitting us in the form of graduation, we decided to cease publication and get out. Even after we left, the Cat apparently had several new lives and showed up from time to time in the campus.

It was a generation ago, alright. Like most IIT K alumni, I too consider the years spent as an IIT Kanpur student as the most memorable slice of my life. The Cheshire Cat experience added to it. I don’t know if it honed my sense of humor any, but it certainly added a measure of introspection to my life and perhaps even a shred of humility – especially when people were trying to put us on a pedestal. Gazing into the mirror has never been the same since then.

Pass the tea, please!!

A Swansong in Raag Mishra Mand


The Intensive Care Unit of C. S. Hospital is a very quiet place, if you are willing to ignore the rat-a-tat of life support equipment and the occasional buzz of an alarm sounding off. Tangled in a cobweb of wires and tubes lay Panditji – the great classical singer, Padma Bhushan Dr. Ram Lal Dhanvantari or Dhana-sahib, as he is popularly known. He was alternating between consciousness and oblivion – almost exactly like how he would glide between high notes and low notes in his concerts. The stroke he suffered two days ago has really reduced him to little more than a vegetable.

Even last week he gave a soulful concert in Agra, against the backdrop of the Taj. It was well attended, with rows and rows of VIPs straining to listen to him. There was no hint that he would soon be cut in half and thrown to the dogs like this. He could even recall every word of the Chief Guest, in spite of the powerful sedatives fogging up his memory.

“The ancient Dhanvantari healed people with his medicine.” The Chief Guest spoke “And our modern Dhanvantari-ji heals people with his music….”

Loud applause.

“India has not seen a musician like Pandit Dhana-sahib in the last hundred years.” He continued “And we will not see another one like him even if we waited another hundred years. He is god’s gift to our country. He is Krishna’s flute…...”

Krishna’s flute? What an imaginative figure of speech!!

Panditji was immensely pleased. Although he has heard every single word of praise that there is in the dictionary, they still surprised him by coming up with something new like this. But then, he was no ordinary musician. He was a master performer and a legend. The magic man who held the entire concert hall in a hypnotic trance.


In fact, so powerful is the Dhana-sahib mystique it always produced maximum effect every time he unleashed it.

His image started with his get-up. His exotic, crisply ironed silk kurta became his trademark. The prominent dot on his forehead, his neatly dyed and well-groomed jet-black hair and the numerous rings on his fingers symbolized him. The seductive smell of attar added to the effect. He was a celebrity, an icon and a brand name. all rolled into one. Isn’t music all about showmanship?

He would even time his entry on the stage. It has to be dramatic. As he glided to the center of the stage with folded hands, the crowd would break into loud claps and cheers and he always took this to be an endorsement of his tremendous popularity. He would then carefully squat on the plush carpet and reach for the microphone. That would always silence the audience.

“Check, check” he would almost croon into the mike, his falsetto voice barely above a whisper. The audience would hush even more. He would continue in the same thin, faint voice – welcoming the crowd and thanking his sponsors and getting into details like the house lights being too bright. If he was in a mood for it, he would throw in a weak joke or an inane anecdote – or even some quasi-philosophical pronouncement.

“A musician cannot not be a musician” he told his Agra audience “Even the croaking of a frog is tuned to Komal Re (rishab). You climb a staircase to the beats of Teen tal and when you sing, you feel that even the chairs and sofas are actually listening to you. The musician always finds music in everything …..”

Another big round of applause.

And at one point in his speech he would always point his finger toward the sky.

“It is all His doing.” he would go on “I am doing nothing. He is manipulating me. He is controlling my pitch, my surs and my gamaks. I am just a lowly servant of His, on a mission to spread joy to humanity”.

More claps. More cheers.

His manipulation? Spreading joy? Hogwash!!! The Panditji felt a quiver deep down his guts.

Who are you kidding, Ramu? Isn’t it all about money, fame and ego? How many times have you given shoddy performances and half-baked concerts just because some little thing put you off? In the final analysis, aren’t you just a fake? A ruthless businessman who would even sell the raag Ahir Bhairav for an ounce of gold?

Whose is this little voice that is mocking him and make him doubt himself? Could it be the damned medications?

Panditji’s befuddled thought processes tried to fight back. Why should I not be a shrewd businessman? There is no way to survive in this world otherwise. I am doing what a computer engineer would do. There is nothing wrong in making sure that I don’t get short-changed. I can do that while having a divine experience….

Stop, Ramu. We are going to look at everything. Absolutely everything - on this day of your judgment.


When the Panditji woke up next, he was transported back to his Gurukul days in Acharya Gaumukhi’s little farmhouse by the river Jamuna. It seemed like it was only yesterday. The Acharya was a very serious man – and an extremely learned one - who lived and breathed music. Besides Ramu, there was only one other student, Chandra Mohan, a few years older to him. The two of them shared all the household duties – right from fetching water from the river, to washing clothes, to helping the Acharya’s wife in kitchen chores. With Acharya’s strict upbringing – on top of a grueling apprentice-ship - those years were definitely very intense – and somewhat traumatic for Ramu.

Chandra Mohan’s father came by the Gurukul several times a year, carrying all kinds of gifts and fruits for the Acharya, whereas his own father would come just once a year. Panditji’s memory wandered over to the few times his father came to the Gurukul. Those were truly horrible days!! Each time it was the same thing. The Acharya would complain at length about him to his father. And his father would walk up to him and slap him a few times, to appease the Acharya. And then disappear until the next year, paying only a measly amount of money for his schooling. Once or twice, Ramu tried to hide when his father came. But they always hunted him down and caught him. Why was his father so poor? And why wasn’t he born into a rich family? One day – just one day - I too will make money - a lot of money. I will have so much money I will never, never, never run out of it, Ramu would resolve.

Chandra Mohan and Ram Lal were as different as can be. Ramu caught butterflies and sometimes even dismembered them, whereas Chandra Mohan admired them from a distance. After long and strenuous hours of practice, he and Chandra Mohan would sit by the river and chit-chat till it was time for the next round of singing. Sometimes half burnt dead bodies would float by and Chandra Mohan would look away. He would rather enjoy the serenity of the flowing river. He was the mature and gentle youth and Ramu was the other boy who made trouble and was difficult to handle. How many times has he used sly tricks to make Chandra Mohan do more than his share of work around the Gurukul?

Music training would go on almost around the clock. Right from the wee hours of the morning – one exhausting lesson after another. Some drills took forever and Ramu would be bored. By any account, Chandra Mohan was the better student and Ramu got most of Acharya’s cruel punishments.

“You think this is severe punishment? I can tell you what my Acharya used to do. He would starve us till we got to sustain the tivra ma note for five full minutes” the Acharya would lecture Ram Lal “Chandra Mohan is going to carry forward the torch of Amirpur Gharaana. You are at best going to be singing in some Maharaja’s vanity court or become a low grade artiste in All India Radio. You sing poorly, but somehow expect everyone to appreciate it and shower high praise on you.”

No wonder Chandra Mohan got Acharya’s special attention. Ramu remembered the time when the Acharya took Chandra Mohan aside and taught him the song ‘Hari darshan ki’. Ramu begged and pleaded with the Acharya to be included, but the Acharya felt the song was too difficult for a simple-minded student like Ramu .

Such humiliation would instantly trigger a rush of hatred for Chandra Mohan. The Panditji remembered some of the terrible things he had done to him – like the times he soiled his Acharya’s clothes and Chandra Mohan got blamed for not washing them well. Or that time when he poked a hole in the harmonium and framed Chandra Mohan for it. The Acharya was so furious he beat up Chandra Mohan senseless.

But Chandra Mohan never retaliated. Or held any grudge. He even taught Ramu ‘Hari darshan ki’. And today, this song is a highlight of Dhana-sahib’s repertoire. People would swoon when he performed it on stage.

Isn’t it that Chandra Mohan would sing that song much more beautifully? Some of his glides and vibratos were so amazing even then. I can never equal him even now, the Panditji reflected. How many things has he taught me! And how many times has he stood by me.

Maybe when I get out of the hospital – and not float by the Jamuna as a half-burnt body - I should get back in touch with Chandra Mohan and have a long chat with him, Dhana-sahib promised himself.


The Acharya was proven grossly wrong. In two ways. First, Ram Lal moved to Delhi and his rise was nothing less than meteoric. That was the time when a classical music renaissance was taking shape in Delhi and the obscure, but rich musical style of Amirpur Gharaana caught the fancy of many classical music lovers. Indeed the Acharya had taught them so much that Ram Lal not only achieved stage success, but went far beyond that.

He was as much a social climber as he was a deft musician. He made sure he hung around the glitterati – the bigwigs who ran the Delhi Music Conclave, the movie stars, the persons who mattered. The haute society embraced Dhana-sahib with open arms. He pandered and pleased the most powerful of his patrons, while carefully cultivating an image as a lively and charismatic musician who performed, instead of merely singing. He was a consummate politician who cut down his rivals and marginalized his potential competitors.

He was bestowed a string of honors – awards, cash prizes, honorary doctorates, tours to foreign countries whose names he can’t even remember, Rajya Sabha membership and a Padma Bhushan. When it rains, it pours!! Every year he got a new title and a higher fee. His shrewd investments in property and gold made him quite wealthy.

And simultaneously, Chandra Mohan just dropped out. Panditji heard vague rumors that Chandra was somewhere in district Gorakhpur, eking out a living as a music teacher. He saw him last at Acharya’s funeral – more than twenty years ago!! He wanted to gush out to Chandra Mohan and make peace with him, but something made him hold back and look over Chandra’s shoulders. This time he was not going to hold back.

Feel guilty, Ramu! That a second rate musician like you has become so successful while a true talent like Chandra Mohan is having a pitiful existence today. Can it be that all the nasty things you did to him drove him up the wall and resulted in his downfall? Did you steal his success?

Oh, little voice, be quiet!!!


And Dhana-sahib’s audience lapped up his mannerisms. His temper tantrums and sanctimonious lectures are equally legendary. It is all a part of the Dhana-sahib cult – his trademark, if you will. In fact, they even come to the concert halls half expecting the Panditji to display his fireworks. The more he yelled and screamed at the audience, the more quiet they became – and more they believed that they were getting a better performance out of the Panditji. He expected a military-like discipline from his audience. Anyone caught chatting in the back rows would get a firing – and sometimes, even got thrown out.

“I am not harassing anyone. Classical music is not something that you put in a juke box and dish out. The musician will always have to be personally in command.”

If anyone’s cell phone dared to ring, that person would get the death sentence.

“Sir, this is concert hall. Not your office.” He would chew up the offender “But, go ahead. Talk. I will stop till you are done talking.”

He has been called a megalomaniac and a difficult person to deal with. In fact, once he even walked out because the organizers didn’t put enough saffron in his milk. He was also labeled the ‘perfect singer’ – one of the vanishing breed - who demanded and got the classical ‘respect’ out of patrons of music.

“He is the reason why classical music is even surviving in India. He is the guardian of arts.”

Adulation came from all quarters.

That may be so, Ramu. But why are you particularly nasty to people who dare criticize your singing? Remember the time when a critic described your concert as ‘a flat and unexciting recital ..….. and that your musical phrases are not thrilling any more’?

Yes, Panditji remembered everything. He phoned the newspaper immediately and lambasted the reviewer.

“Do you know the difference between ati vilambit and madh-vilambit? Do you know the difference between a cow and an elephant?”

Not only did the reviewer apologize, but even the newspaper editor apologized and sent you a personal note the next day. The same critic will probably write your obituary - that Dhana-sahib’s amazing voice is silenced forever on this earth….it is a tragic loss for music lovers everywhere.

The next round of consciousness and the Panditji found himself in a dusty, nameless village with his father and a dozen of his relatives. They were pointing to a demure girl at a distance and told him that she was Bimla Devi and she was going to be his wife.


The wedding went on for several days and the entire village turned up to celebrate it. Right after that, Panditji remembered he and his bride getting into a horse carriage and riding home on a dirt track. There was romance in the air and he was pretty sure that raag Zila Kafi was playing somewhere in the background.

But five years later, when she still did not bear him any child, every moment with her seemed like a waste and a punishment. She was an embarrassment and became the wife he cannot be seen with in public.

Ramu, so many times in your concerts you have sung ‘Beloved, when will you come?’ with love and longing ness in your voice. Why haven’t you said that to your own wife? Why?

Sometimes media persons asked him about his wife.

“Is your wife also a gifted musician like you?” a reporter once asked him.

“You see, this is a musical household. Even my gardener knows music.”

What a liar you are, Dhana-sahib !!. Bimla Devi knows nothing about music. How many times have you belittled her and harassed her about it?

“But she has no time for music. She is always busy in the kitchen. The sweet that you are eating is her handiwork. She makes the best mithais this side of Allahabad”

Your back-handed compliments are not going to hide your true feelings about her, Ustad.

But, at least I didn’t fool around with other women, even though many women threw themselves at me, the Panditji tried to protest.

You didn’t philander because of your own inadequacies, Ramu, not because of your high moral standards. Face it. You are just a terrible husband!! And Bimla is such a devoted wife. She hasn’t even eaten the last two days. She has been keeping a vigil in the lobby outside ever since they hauled you into the ICU. Repent, Ramu!!

Then there was that listless summer day, when a man walked into Dhana-ji’s house with a boy.

“My boy, Jugal Kishore, can sing well, Acharya-ji.” The man told Panditji. “Please take him as your student. With your tutelage he can become a great singer. Of course, if he is no good, throw him out on the streets and let him become a cobbler.”

“Sing a song, son.” – Panditji.

The boy’s singing pleased Dhana-ji. He immediately agreed to take the lad as his disciple. At that time it seemed like a perfect solution – perhaps Jugal Kishore was the son he always wanted to have. Even Bimla Devi liked him. Panditji promptly renamed him Malhaar. Jugal Kishore was too unmusical. The boy’s father left and never came back after that.

But it was downhill from then on. Malhaar wasn’t cut out to be a singer. Any amount of coaching or punishment just did not improve his abilities any. In fact, right after his voice broke, Malhaar absolutely refused to sing and Panditji had to accept with great disappointment that he was not going to leave behind a musical legacy named Malhaar. From being a favorite son, Malhaar fell into the abyss and became just an errand boy who opened car doors for the Panditji or carried his flask and his tanpura.

Ramu, weren’t you so frustrated you hated Malhaar with all your heart? And how abusive you got with him sometimes.

Then one day, unable to take the indignities any more, Malhaar just disappeared – with about seven thousand rupees in cash. Dhana-ji was so beside himself that he didn’t even complain to the police.

“He is not my son, anyway.” he told his friends “I tried to give him life. He doesn’t want it. I never asked him to come. And I never asked him to go. He is legally an adult now. I am not bothered about him.”

Malhaar did come back after a year or so, with the seven thousand rupees. But the Panditji wasn’t interested in taking back the money – or Malhaar. Eventually, after much imploring, he did forgive Malhaar somewhat. But the damage was already done and Panditji could only keep him at a distance. Malhaar found a menial job at the other end of town and moved out of Panditji’s house. Even then, he came by often and still did many chores for the Panditji. Didn’t he see Malhaar in the lobby outside with his many fans and well-wishers? Or someone just like him?


It was almost midnight and a new set of nurses and doctors were taking over ICU duties. Nurse Renu has just finished giving instructions to nurse Poonam about the patient in bed number eleven – Pandit Dhana sahib. Renu was telling her that he was still not out of the woods. In the display behind, they could see the rhythmic dance of his ECG trace. His pulsoximeter was fluctuating like the nuances of a musical phrase.

“Ladies and gentlemen, heeeere’s Pandit Ram Lal Dhanvantari-ji once more!!”

Could she have imagined it, nurse Renu tried to reason with herself. It sounded like an announcement of sorts, like a radio or a TV was on. She looked around. No, nothing was on. But where did it come from? Did the duty doctor say something? No, Dr. Gupta just stepped out and there was no male at all in the ICU at the moment. Why is the hum of the ICU machines sounding almost like the tanpura and other musical instruments warming up for a musical concert, she wondered.

“This may sound bizarre, Sister Poonam” Renu told her “But I can hear voices….actually, more like a crowd inside a theatre or something. Maybe I am just imagining…”

Poonam cocked her ears to listen. “Oh, wait, even I can hear it. Look Renu. The Panditji has grabbed his IV line and talking into it, like it is a microphone or something. This is out of the world.”

“Oh, yes. How strange!!”

“Where? What are you ladies talking about?” the ICU technician came over and tried to see “I can see nothing. He looks like he is in deep sleep. He is not even stirring.”

The commotion attracted even the cardiologist, Dr. Sinha to the Panditji’s bedside. “This is so surreal. Even I can hear everything - loud and clear. Shh. Quiet. The musician is going to say something.”

“Check. Check.”

Panditji is speaking !!!

“I am going to dedicate my final song to several people.” He began his little speech “First, to my Guru, Acharya Gaumukhi. I owe it all to him. And I am going to ask my dear friend and older brother Pandit Chandra Mohan to sing with me – wherever he is. I am sure he can hear me. Even though he is not very well known, he is ten times more talented than I am. I want to pass the torch on to him……… all recording companies, please rush out and sign him. He is the future of our music. Brother, as a mark of my love and respect for you, I am going to sign away all my royalties to you and your family.”

A big round of applause.

“You guys over there. Keep it quiet. You are going to disturb the other patients.” – Dr. Gupta. He is back in the ICU.

The Panditji continued. “And next, I am going to dedicate this song to my foster son Malhaar – the son I am so proud of…..I know you are not very interested in music Malhaar, but all the same……And son, I am also going to give you my Lucknow home as a mark of my love for you. You are so close to my heart….”

Again a loud applause. Dr. Sinha and the nurses were clapping too.

“You guys are crazy. There is absolutely nothing going on in bed number eleven. I see nothing at all. You are just imagining things. Get back to work – NOW!!” – Dr. Gupta.

The Panditji cleared his throat for effect and kept going.

“In America, they always say ‘my beautiful wife’ . I have a beautiful wife too – Bimla Devi. Please stand up dear. This song is dedicated to you too.”

Thunderous ovation. Renu and Poonam clapped the loudest.

“I have a surprise for you dear. We are going to go on our much-delayed honeymoon to Switzerland. And this is one trip where no tablaichi or Tanpura strummer is going to come along” .

“Ladies and gentlemen, my final song is a folk song. A kajri in Raag – Mishra Mand

The raag Mand goes ‘Sa Ga ma pa dha ni sa Sa ni dha pa dha pa ni dha pa ga ma ga re sa.

In Mand, the phrase Ga Ma Ga Re Sa comes often. This is a light classical piece”

jhir jhir barase saavan ras buu.Ndiyaa.N
ki aa_ii gaile na ab barakhaa bahaar

Cluck cluck fall the raindrops

For, the rainy season has arrived!

(ab barakhaa bahaar ki aa ii gaile na)

”My god, Sister Poonam! How well is the man singing!”

”Yes Renu. Can’t believe it. He must be confusing the sounds of the ventilator machine with the drum beat. He thinks he is in a concert.”

“Who is singing? The musician? You must be dreaming. To me he looks still … and fighting for his life. You must be hallucinating … just like him.”

“Can’t you hear it? Look at his lips move. His voice is rising.”

Ab barakhaa bahaar ki aayi gaii na. Come on everyone. Clap and dance.

Feel the rains!! Soak ii in!!! Don’t just sit in your chairs. Sing along. This raag is anyway a mishra, so any extraneous note is okay……Sir, you ….in grey kurta, it is okay if you talk on the cell phone. It could be an important call. I won’t think anything of it. Come on guys, clap!!!”

“Doctor, I too can see that he is really singing.” – the ward boy.

“Hey, come down to the ICU. Remember that famous musician who had a stroke ? He is actually singing in his bed. Unbelievable!!!”

(Dhan dhan baman…

Ki kab aiii hai ab piyaa hamaar

O brother, ask the astrologer to read the portents:
When will my lover come to me?

Ki kab aiii hai, ab maut hamaar)

When will my death come to me?

Death?!?! This line is not in the lyrics!

“He is getting loud. He is going to disturb the other patients. Increase his sedation.”

“No no. He is alright. Music can be therapeutic to other patients too. So, let him sing. He should tire himself out soon.”

“Can we have some sanity here please? Nobody is singing. You are all experiencing mass hysteria.”


By now, a sizable crowd has gathered around the Panditji’s bed. Bimla Devi was straining against the glass window to peer inside, desperately praying that nothing terrible was going on.

“This is even more bizarre. He is kind of becoming younger!” – nurse Renu, again “His wrinkles and grey hair are gone. He looks only forty-ish”

“Wow!! Look how rapidly he is getting even younger. He is almost a young man now. He looks very cute.”

“You guys must be crazy. He looks the same. He is not becoming young or anything. You are not in a seedy bar. This is the ICU, for heaven’s sake and patients need your attention. If you fool around any more, I am going to report you to the authorities”

“Look he has already become a baby!!”

“He is starting to throw his clothes away. Watch it, he is chucking the hospital gown.”

“For the last time - he is remaining still – like he always was. You guys must be smoking dope. Get out of here. Poonam, you need to replace his bag in a few minutes.”

“He is throwing his little kurta, he is taking off his diapers. He is throwing off his name tag.”

“Where? He is not!!”

“Oh, watch it!!. This devil of a child is throwing all the CDs around. That is Panditji’s favorite one – the Kirwani he sang in London.” Bimla Devi was wailing from the lobby.


In a few minutes, the child was done tossing his clothes – and all the CDs. He was buck naked, except for the beautiful smile on his face. Then he slowly toddled his way toward the bright lights and beautiful angels on the other side of a magical portal. At the exact moment little Ramu crossed the mystical threshold, the ECG machine went flat and the oxygen saturation level dropped to zero. In a few hours, the hospital sent the mortal remains of Pandit Dhanvantari in an ice box to be cremated in his native village.

The world woke up to the news that Pandit Dhana-sahib was no more. “It is a great loss for music lovers everywhere. ….” They wrote in the newspapers “Dhana-sahib’s amazing voice is silenced forever on this earth …...but it is now playing in heaven for all the gods.”

They are very wrong. The heavens only hear the childish babble of baby Ramu.

Author’s note: My thanks to internet sources for the lyrics and translation of the kajri.