London 2012: Farewell, my friend Raj Mongia

Now,  no more,  Raj Singh  Mongia,   as he was three weeks back when I met him in his quarters  at a retirement community in Northwood, England. He died in sleep a couple of days back.

The bloke betrayed no signs of excitement on  seeing me,  a visiting friend from India.  Raj Singh gave us a deadpan look when Nangia and I dropped in on him, unannounced,  on our way to the neighbourhood pub for dinner.  I had expected him to drop whatever he was doing and join us to dinner;  or else,  ask us to drop our plan, and join him for beers at his pad.  He did neither.  We spent 15 meaningless minutes,  making small talk.  The Raj Singh, that  bear-hugger pappe  type sardar that I had known 45 years  back was nowhere  there to be seen,  that day.

For the record,  the   Raj Singh I knew  had beard, a faceful of it and not the goatee he sported (as in Photo) ;  had mischief in his eyes.  He wore turban as the Sikhs do,  lived in a Shepherds Bush bed-sitter,   relished his daily pint at the neighbourhood  pub, and the saag & phulka  made by a generous landlady,  who was Bhenji  to us all.  By  ‘all’,  I mean self  and a couple other bachelor  friends who visited Raj Singh for beer and home-made phulka  on weekends.

Bhenji  is 84,  and still around at her old place.  So I heard from Nangia.  Raj Singh moved on in life,  to work on oil rigs as engineer;  to marry and to divorce;  and then to came and  live in a retirement home, where I met him on a recent visit to London.  Somewhere along the way  he had  his left leg amputated  following   infection  he acquired during  hospitalization  for something else.  Raj Singh was diabetic.

During our 15-minute meeting,  my friend on wheel-chair seemed hard put to make conversation with me –  a long forgotten friend from India.  He seemed uninterested in nostalgic natter.  I withdrew into my shell,  leaving Raj Singh to  ask questions ,  about my London visit, and make small talk about  his life in a  retirement home.  Nangia distracted him by flipping a cigarette-end  out of the window.  ‘He’s incorrigible,’  quipped Raj Singh.  They had known each other from New Delhi  coffee-house days in early 60s.

Nangia,  in a mood to  make amends,  went out to Raj Singh’s  backyard  to retrive the cigarette butt. While he was gone  Raj Singh filled me in on how strict the  matron was .   Raj Singh said she  would fine him if she were to find the discarded butt  outside his window.  We left a few minutes after Nangia returned and restored  the butt to its rightful place – the ash tray on the coffee-table.

Outside,  in the car,  I couldn’t help but  share with Nangia my disappointment on our meeting with Raj Singh. Here I was, all geared up to surprise an old friend  with a visit after four decades and a half;  and all that he could find to talk about was the cigarette butt tossed out into his backyard.  Maybe our visit held him back from watching Olympics.  The TV remained  switched on to the sports channel through our brief visit.

In retrospect , now that Raj Singh is gone,  I reckon I was harsh and went horribly wrong in judging him.  He was deadpan that day because of suffering of some kind;  because he was bottling up  something that nagged him . Though long-time friends, we weren’t, presumably, worthy of his trust so  that Raj Singh could have unburdened whatever it was that weighed  on him, that evening.