DR SATPAL AN EPITOME OF GENTILITY, NOBILITY AND A STOREHOUSE OF WISDOM
Today, I propose to write about Dr Sat Pal (Bhai Sahib — “elder brother” to me), who was an integral part of my growing up, formative and adult life and who most unfortunately passed into the Heaven, a couple of days back without giving me even a semblance of opportunity to bid farewell.
Growing up in the soothing and gentle surroundings of Hans Raj College, University of Delhi where my father (whom I shall henceforth refer to as “Pitaji”, the manner in which we all addressed him) was the Principal, Sat Pal Bhai Sahib was a continuous presence in our household. So much so that in addition to our brood of five children, he in course of time, became an integral part of our family, and people started referring to him as Pitaji’s third son.
Born into a business family in old Delhi’s conservative environs, with almost negligible levels of literacy, he had an outstanding academic record in School and having been admitted to Hans Raj College, wanted to make a career out of teaching Mathematics (modelled on Pitaji’s life) and wanted to go a abroad for higher education (a privilege denied to Pitaji) of course with the intent to return to India to teach and ingratiate himself with students in India. Indeed the story goes (of course I was too young at that time to understand) that exasperated by his stubbornness, his father brought him to Pitaji, hoping to get him to come around , but, who in his own defining manner prevailed upon him to let Bhai Sahib’s desire prevail and enabled him to go abroad.
He was an integral part of our family and a part of all happenings tragic or joyous. He went abroad for prolonged periods of time and regularly kept in touch and, would you believe it, the first thing that he did on all his visits to India was to drive straight from the Airport to our house to seek my parents blessings. His devotion to our family was so intense that while, by sheer coincidence, both his biological mother and my biological mother completed their earthly sojourn on the same day, he performed the last rites of his mother and straight away came to my mother’s cremation and when I chided him, he rebuked me as to how could he have missed taking Bijee’s (as he fondly called her )blessings one last time and partaking in the last rites.
The purpose here is not to delve into mere trivia but to emphasise the role that he played in my life almost till the very end. Indeed, from providing me support and solace during the successive tragedies when I lost all my siblings over a period of time, to teaching me how to drive a two-wheeler on his weather beaten Chetak, to navigating the complexities of life, he had practical philosophies and theories , to suit every occasion and to deal with any problem, howsoever complex, which he made exceedingly simple, in his own disarming way. Mind you, even after more than a couple of trips abroad, even for extended periods of time, he retained his original simplicity and remained an Indian to the core till the very end.
The most abiding memory and telling lesson he gave was on how to deal with adversity(not always of your own making)when I met him a couple of weeks after he had undergone surgery for oral cancer about a decade and half back . He did not exhibit any apparent discomfort- surprising given that a portion of his tongue had been cut off robbing him of the salivary glands. He was chewing a small bit of a Chapati — which he kept on doing endlessly with periodical, not too infrequent, sips of water. Apparently, having lost the use of his salivary glands, he had difficulty in swallowing food and he was using water as a replacement for saliva — a process which was laborious, painful and obviously most discomforting.
When I met him, his expression did not exhibit any discomfort and his words not even a hint of rancor. On the contrary, when I asked about his welfare he simply and non-chalantly replied — “There was a boil on my tongue, which they found to be malignant and they have removed a portion of the tongue” and he ended by saying “This too shall pass — when fortunes are not permanent, tragedies will most definitely are not be”.
Thereafter he proceeded to give me one of the most telling lessons of my life which Pitaji had embedded in him and which I had never learnt. This was to count ones blessings and banish the misfortunes and perceived injustices from the recesses of the mind . He took out a sheaf of paper which contained nuggets, sayings and extracts from books and articles that he had read and shared with me the story of the legendary and iconic tennis player Arthur Ashe (which I have shared in an earlier blog) who when glossing over the fact of having been transfused with HIV+ blood (of which in normal circumstances there is a negligible chance) chose of dwell on his fortune of having been crowned the Wimbledon Champion in an era when there were players with far more talent and decidedly wider repertoire of strokes. Delving on that example, he said God had given him everything — a role model in Shanti Narayan, a loving family, a warmly embracing extended family, the love and respect of his peers and students and above all an opportunity to get a foreign education at a time when such instances were, to say the least, rare.
Amongst all this, the cancer was first a fleeting pit stop which shall stand eclipsed in the journey of life in due course of time. And fight he did with the dreaded disease and lived, almost normally, thereafter for more than fifteen years with a steely determination, extraordinary resilience and relentless fortitude.
While I promised to keep in touch with him regularly and did so for some time thereafter, familial and professional commitments slowly reduced my personal interaction with him — of course, I did manage, initially, to call him pretty regularly. However, over the last couple of years, to my eternal regret, that also became very infrequent and my last interaction with him was about a year back. So it came as an utter shock and sense of disbelief that while on a vacation couple of days back I received a call from his family that he had crossed the rubicon and I realised that I could not be present even for his last rites to pay my respects. While that is something that I will forever regret, I will never be able to forgive myself for having not kept in regular touch him howsoever busy that I may have been, the lapse is unforgivable and colossal.
RIP Bhaisahib I will miss your sagacious advice, comforting words and above all a shoulder to lean on. Am sure Almighty God would have reserved the most prominent place for you in Heaven where you can continue to spread your words of wisdom and joy and cheer all around as you interminably did here. Good Bye till I see you on the other side.