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Spineless nation

Friday 10 February 2006, by SINGH*Khushwant

No book has depressed me more than B.N. Tandon’s PMO Diary II: The Emergency (Konark). Tandon served in the PMO for over six years, including during the Emergency. His colleagues included P.N. Haksar, A.N. Dhar, Seshan, Sharda Prasad and Shyam Bengal. It was to this cable of civil servants that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used to turn for advice.

However, she did not take them into confidence when she declared the Emergency and put opposition leaders, including Jayaprakash Narain, Morarji Desai, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani and nearly 60,000 others in jail. She did this on the prodding of her son Sanjay with legal advice from Siddhartha Shankar Ray, supported by Dev Kant Barua and Rajni Patel. Having done so, she relied less on the PMO and more on what Tandon calls “palace guards”, which I presume meant Sanjay Gandhi, his wife Maneka and her mother Amtesh, R.K. Dhawan, Mohammed Yunus, Rukhsana, Om Mehta and others. Between them they turned the administration upside down, used their power to settle personal scores, bullied the PM to do their bidding and gave the Emergency a dirty name.

I initially supported the imposition of Emergency because I strongly felt that the opposition, including Jayaprakash Narain, had played a negative role when the country was sliding into chaos. I am convinced that the bad name the Emergency got was due to the misuse of powers by the ?palace guards’ and its unnecessary prolongation.

Tandon’s book primarily deals with Indira Gandhi’s arbitrary style of functioning. He had also a lot to say about how a vast majority of people, including those who boasted of being brave, crumbled under Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship. Besides the Akalis who kept a desultory satyagraha going throughout, no other political party - the Congress, Jan Sangh, Communists or the Shiv Sena - let out a squeak of protest. We thump our chests and yell martial slogans, but when faced with the danda, we show ourselves as spineless.

No cure for the healer

I am not sure when Sadhu Singh Vaid of Faridabad came into my life. It must have been more than 20 years ago. He left on Friday, January 27, without bothering to inform me of his imminent departure. He was possibly in his late 60s - no age for a healer to depart.

My first encounter with him was occasioned by a piece I’d written on there being no effective cure for Athletes foot - fungus between the toes. It causes itching and gives the affected foot an unpleasant odour. Sadhu Singh came to see me with a foul-smelling liquid in a tiny bottle and asked me to apply it between my toes. I followed his instructions. In a few days, the fungus disappeared.

I wrote about him. His clientele increased. He was, in fact, not a qualified vaid. He liked to dabble in home remedies. His speciality was making vinegar from cane and jamun, with which he kept me well supplied. In return, I gave him books in Hindi, Urdu and Gurmukhi and a glass of chilled campa cola.

Sadhu Singh was fat and ill-dressed, with a shabbily-tied turban, thick-lensed glasses, unkempt beard and a grease-stained kurta pyjama. Each time I asked him to sit down, my wife would warn that the chair would break. She was very concerned about the antique chairs she’d got in her dowry and never failed to warn visitors against putting too much weight on it. She did this every time Lala Kishen Lal of Rajdoot Hotel came to see me or my secretary, Lachhman Dass, sat down. All three were heavyweights. Sadhu Singh’s reply was always a sideways glance without a word of protest. He often suggested herbal remedies to my wife for her ailments. She dismissed him curtly: “Main naheen lainee.” (I don’t want it.) But when his wife died, a tearful Sadhu Singh turned to my wife for solace and not to me.

Sadhu Singh’s pharmacopoeia was as limited as his English vocabulary. Whenever I felt out of sorts, instead of feeling my pulse, his query was restricted to one word in English - “Latrine?” I understood what he wanted to know - were my bowels clear? I was inclined to agree with him that clean bowels and a functioning bladder assured good health. There is a blessing in old Punjab for new-born babes: “Muturda, hagda raheen.” (Keep pissing and shitting.)

I often chided Sadhu Singh about his own poor physical condition. “You are far too mota to be healthy,” I said to him more than once. He had nothing to say in his defence. He healed others; himself he could not heal.

See online : The Hindustan Times

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