TO K. D. SETHNA WITH LOVE
I am sorry I was unable to attend your funeral for I was hospitalised for a major operation. Yet I could have made it, but for the physicians in the private hospital who warned me not to move out of bed for a few days at least. I insisted on seeing you at least for a couple of minutes, but my sister who is an anaesthetist caring for me in the hospital room raised her finger and wagged it at me. It is good to have a physician in the family. But at times a big botheration too.
When did I see you last? Must be two years ago, if my memory does not fail me. When I entered your room in the Ashram dispensary sometime by sundown, the bed you usually occupied was empty. The nurse who was making your bed was kind enough to inform me that you were in your wheel chair in the hall facing the sea.
I tip-toed my way to the hall, my aim being not to disturb the many ailing men and women, probably on their death beds there. I sat cross-legged on the floor by the side of your wheel chair, and directed my eyes to go along with yours.
All poets love the sea. The ever rolling waves trying to gain a piece of land for themselves and the land refusing with a scowl and forcing them to retrace their steps… Ah, what a lovely sight the ocean makes! Who would not find time to stand and stare at the sea? That day we two, guru and shishya, stared at the Bay of Bengal without disturbing each other.
It was I who broke the silence, by clearing my throat.
“Hello, Raja! When did you come here?” You asked
“I don’t know, Sir!” I told you a lie. “How long are you here?” I asked.
“Who? Me ?… I do not know. I do not know why I am still here. I do not know what I am going to do here,” you said. I knew what you meant by the word ‘here’. Tears threatened to trickle out of my eyes. How can a writer like me, a child of yours, who had the privilege of studying the art of writing under you, ever afford to lose you?
I guess you saw my tears… Then you said, “Perhaps my name is playing hide and seek with the Lord of Death and he is still in search of it in his mammoth register,” and made me laugh.
I know you are full of humour and your jokes are not meant to hurt anyone.
I still remember the day when I entered your house where you last stayed before you shifted to the Dispensary, I saw a few foreigners sitting around you and having a chat with you. When I felt a bit hesitant to intrude you smiled and welcomed me: “Come in, Raja and join the lit-chit-chat.” You then introduced to me all the four foreigners who were all women and told them “Here is Prof.P.Raja, our star-reviewer for Mother India.” I felt elated for you have honoured me with such a nice certificate.
When I searched for a chair to sit in, your eyes rowed all over your study-cum-office and finding all the chairs occupied you said without any hesitation; “No chairs! Then choose a lap” and sent every one of us to rib-tickling laughter.
“When is it not a feast with Sethna around?” I heard someone comment there.
I was one among those blessed few who had the honour of laughing with you. And whenever you made me laugh, I thought to myself what a sincere disciple of Sri Aurobindo you were. Was it not the Yogi’s Yogi who said, “Humour is the salt of existence”?
At a time when I began writing poems without knowing what really was meant by the word ‘poem’, and showed them to you for your comments, you were quite frank in passing your judgement. You said, “Don’t waste my time”. The next time I opened my folder before you, you asked me smiling charmingly as usual: “What? You have brought something for my bin?”
I laughed before I showed you a folder of seven poems. You went through them as an ophthalmologist would with an eye. You selected one and you tore the rest to pieces under my very eyes and threw them into your cane bin. The poem you selected for publication in Mother India was “One Aim- One Desire-One Goal”. Later you gave me a copy of Oct.1979 issue of Mother India, congratulated me and said: “Follow the title of your poem in life too”. I took your advice very seriously and till today, Sir , I strictly follow it.
Out of the six hundred and odd poems I had written and published so far in various journals both in India and elsewhere, you have published less than a dozen poems in Mother India. But when those poems were reproduced in American Journals and a few dollars rolled into my coffers, I recognized the worth of Mother India and understood your caliber as its editor.
I always wondered how at this ripe old age, you meticulously edited Mother India, the brain child of our great master Sri Aurobindo. Once when I entered your study, I saw you proof-read the pages of the forthcoming issue of Mother India. You gave me a page of the proof and asked me to proof read it. I felt extremely jittery and nervous. Yet you encouraged me to go ahead. I did what best I could do and showed it to you. You went through that once again and found more mistakes on that page than I succeeded in finding. “You need to be a bit more careful when you proof-read. It is like tight-rope walking. If you lose your balance then that paves way for your fall. Mistakes in a magazine tell upon its editor. The editor should never allow his readers to look down upon him.” O Sir! You are a lofty personality. One can only look upon you for help.
How can I ever forget the day I met you my dear sir? It was on Feb.21,1979… Mother’s birthday… Darshan day in our Ashram. It was around eleven in the morning. Mr. George Moses, (a retired Superintendent of Police, a voracious reader and editor of a literary journal Youth Age) introduced me to you in your house at Rue Suffren, where you lived with your wife. It must be mentioned in passing that your wife became a great fan of mine when I began to write my creative short stories and also translated Tamil fiction for Mother India.
But the day I met you I was only a budding writer, a struggling writer with a very strong itch to write. I placed a cardboard file before you and spread it open.
“What is this?” you asked.
“A file of clippings… all my writings,” I answered with my hands shaking in fear.
“Oh, I see! What do you want me to do with them?”
“Go through them when you find time… If my writings could get me a chance to write in Mother India, then I would consider myself a blessed being,” I said in all humility.
“I see, “You said as you flipped through the clippings in the folder. You then banged it shut. I was disappointed because you didn’t even bother to read a single line.
“Can you review a book for Mother India?” You asked looking at me through your thick glasses.
“Review? I have not written a book review so far.”
“Perhaps you were not given a chance so far. Then try with this,” You said giving me a copy of Collected works of Nalini Kanta Gupta –Vol.7. It weighed heavily both in my hand and on my mind. “You review will speak for your literary acumen and will help me judge your writing abilities.”
“Life is full of challenges,” you said and added, “Take this too as a challenge.”
You then advised me on the art of reviewing books. I had taken heart from your short lecture, took about a month to go through the book, wrote the review and submitted it to you. You went through the whole review making editorial changes. You beamed with joy and said: “You can write for Mother India.”
I jumped for joy.
By the end of April you gave me a copy of May 1979 issue of Mother India, patted me on the back and invited me to write regularly for Mother India. Thus began our friendship and continues till today. I am not ready to believe that you are no more here in Pondicherry.
Out of the three hundred and odd editors of magazines and newspapers both in India and elsewhere, who published my writings so far, I think you are the only one magnanimous enough to devote several hundred pages for my literary effusions.
Is not the writer in me a blessed being who gained valuable experience and training under your tutelage?
A quarter century ago when my daughter was not even two years old, I brought her along to your house. That was the first time she went to your home. As we entered your study, the child saw you, stood spell-bound for a minute and then whispered into my ears, “Appa! He is god.”
“What did she say?” you asked me touching her chubby cheeks.
I/repeated what she whispered. And you said, “If her soul could see the god in me, then I have not lived in vain.”
It took a very long time for me to understand your statement. Yes sir! I got the message.
Do gods die?