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.