I used to visit Baba along with my family every year in the summer holidays when I was a kid. My memories of him from those days was of a rather serious man, given to lots of reading and specializing in matters spiritual and philosophical. He had a spartan lifestyle, with not too many interests but for reading and ayurveda. Always clad in a dhoti and a sacred thread; a kurta as well when the occassion demanded it. He is the only person I have ever seen in real life wearing “khadaoon“. Now, when I visualize baba, I see him prone on his khatia, clasping a book, and reading away for hours. Vedanta, spiritual literature and sometimes ayurveda were his topics of interest. His wore his trademark brown-framed spectacles with thick bifocal lenses on his nose, sometime held together by a string in case the spectacle-arm broke away. His room which was at the entrance to the house was a simple affair; a khatia, a steel trunk, a shelf full of ayurvedic herbs and medicines and racks and racks of books. Some books wrapped in lengths of red cotton cloth, while the others piled up on the racks in a way where only Baba could recognize the books and where they were kept. Common to all books was the layer of dust which would emanate from the fields nearby.
Baba would not only read the books many times, he would also make his own annotations and commentary on the margins of the pages. His way of differentiating his multiple commentaries on different readings of the books was by using different coloured ball-point pens. So it was pretty common to find margins covered with his steady handwriting in blue, red and green. Sometimes in pencil too. I am pretty sure that if these notes from each book were compiled this could form a great treatise on the book!
Baba, I was told, was a renowned person across the region, a Sanskrit scholar of note. In the evenings his friends would arrive and they would discuss till dusk various spiritual and philosophical matters. I was a kid thise days I could not follow the discussions except that it all sounded very serious and erudite.
Sometimes I would accompany Baba to the wedding ceremonies he used to preside over. I remember that he knew all the shlokas by heart.He rarely needed to dip into the text he would hold in his hands except when he needed to catch his breath in the middle of a long shloka! Pandits have this itch to prove their superiority over others of their ilk by finding some fault in their pronounciation of the shloka (there is a certain rigour to vedic pronounciations) or their adherence to the sequence of rituals. God forbid if someone tried to question Baba. Baba would give the mischief-making pandit a withering look, complete the shloka he was reciting, pause and break into long chastising speech in fluent Sanskrit (which I could not follow a bit) and eventually convince the other what a silly, uneducated pandit he was, thoroughly incapable of doing his job! That would end any further questioning.
There was a custom in the villages in our community during the weddings when the baraat arrived at the bride’s place. The baraatis would sit in a large pandal on mattresses spread on the ground. The bride’s family and guests would sit across the pandal, the two sides facing each other. Then would begin the test of knowledge. Someone from the bride’s side would fire a question and the groom’s side was required to answer the question. A bit like gunshots fired in the air in most parts of North India. In our community the guns would be replaced by words in the Brahaminical tradition. The question could be on any topic, but was always a serious one designed to assess the intellectual level of the baraatis. (My father tells of a baraat he had attended where the question was asked in English by some upstart from the bride’s family and my father was the only one among the groom’s side who understood and spoke English. He carried the day for groom’s side!). I remember a baraat I had accompanied my Baba to. No sooner had the baraatis settled down a person from the other side stood up and asked a long-winded and involved question on Sanatan Dharma. There was a hush of silence among the baraatis till Baba arose and spoke in Sanskrit for maybe half-an-hour on the intricacies of the Sanatan Dharma quoting from memory from various scriptures. No further question followed!
Baba’s colloquial Hindi, though, was a curious mix of Sanskrit and Bhojpuri, leaning more towards the former! I remember an incident when someone had come to consult Baba for some ailments he was suffering. Baba admonished him for neglecting his health by saying, “Prakriti key niyam ke atikraman hoi, ta kasht na hoi?” (If you break the nature’s laws then you will have to suffer). And then he handed his guest the necessary herbs and a strict instruction on dietary and life-style discipline.
So that was Baba for me, a highly knowledgeable scholar, a stern upholder of Brahminical traditions and values, a pandit much respected (and feared) by his peers. Just the right example of a strict upholder of Hindu religion. I would start seeing him in a slightly different light when I grew up a bit more!
To be concluded…