“All of us are going around with an entire story of our lives, completely different from the story of our lives that anybody else would tell. So much of our lives never breaks the surface.” – Claire Messud in The Guardian.
Before I sat down to write this post, I was visiting Facebook when Nick’s post caught my eye and I could not resist the temptation to include it here. Thank you Nick. I wonder what someone who has known me will write about me!
I met Balji Raju way back in 1961 in Hyderabad. He was engaged to be married to Shakuntala who was my then girl friend T’s close friend and classmate. Balaji, a few years older than the three of us, was also studying for his Masters in Hyderabad. Both Raju and Shakuntala were from the same Raju caste and the engagement had been arranged when they were both teenagers. While Shakuntala was staying in a girl’s hostel, Balaji’s family had taken a full house for him to stay and had equipped him with a servant, and a body guard cum driver and a Hindustan Landmaster car for his use. One of my unforgettable impressions of those days was how the driver, Venkaiah would bring hot lunch for Balaji in the car and serve him, while he sat in the back seat. The four of us would often go on double dates to cinemas and on picnics and all was as well as it could be for young people in those good old days.
I attended Balaji’s wedding in Vijayanagaram in 1962 and lost all touch with him till 1968 when I was posted for a few months at Hyderabad. By that time much water had flown down the Musi and both of us were very different people. I had acquired a BA, and an MBA and was working towards a career in a reputed company and was courting Urmeela. Balaji had settled down in Hydearabad as he did not like to live in his village where his father was a Zamindar. Like many such families, his family had extensive urban properties in the cities which were important for them to visit like Hyderabad, Madras, Vijayawada etc. By that time, zamindari had already become a joke with dwindling agricultural holdings, and Balaji was in the process of encashing what he could of his family’s estates and investing in urban properties. He and Shyamala were living in the same house that Balaji had stayed in while studying and were living a life of the idle rich.
I used to meet them on and off whenever I had the time during brief visits to my in laws, but such meetings tapered off due to the short time that I used to spend in Hyderabad and Shaku was not particularly friendly towards Urmeela.
When I was posted in North India, a mutual friend from Hyderabad was visiting us in Delhi and informed me that Balaji was then living in Varanasi. Since it was a certainty that I would visit Varanasi sooner or later, I had arranged to get his address so that I could visit him when I did.
Before we proceed any further, something about Varanasi. Many rich Indians used to and still do own ancestral residences there as pilgrimage in the olden days meant a few days spent there during the days when accommodation for pilgrims was in short supply. Hindus would go to Varanasi for various reasons and to be comfortable, many had bought homes there to be used by family and friends on pilgrimage to the holiest of all holy towns of India. To die there and to immerse the ashes there in the Ganges is believed to release one from the cycle of births and deaths. Moksha as it is called here. The older Hindus would prefer to go to Varanasi to die there.
In late 1980, I did visit Varanasi and found out where Balaji was staying and landed up there in the evening after work. He was living in one such home bought by his ancestors. The ground floor was rented out to two traders and he was living in solitary splendour in the upper floor, cared for by the old family retainer Venkaiah.
It was obvious to me that Balaji was not well but I did not know quite what with. He was gracious in his hospitality and reminisced about our old days together and we parted company. During my next visit to Varanasi in 1983, I met him again and it was obvious that he had deteriorated in health further but I could not find out details as he would simply brush it off joking that his time for moksha was nearing. In our chat that evening I learnt that Shakuntala had left him to live with her parents and was in Hyderabad teaching in a school and after that parting, Balaji had moved to Varanasi to be far away from her.
I met Shankuntala in Hyderabad in 1989 when I heard the full story. Balaji had squandered the entire estate after the death of his parents and was a full blown alcoholic. He had no place to live anywhere and was an emotional drain on Shakuntala who finally took the decision to leave him to his devices. He moved to Varanasi as that was the only property left and he was strapped for cash. He was in no condition to earn a decent living. He had died in 1985 at Varanasi and Venkaiah returned to Hyderabad with the keys to the house to tell the story that he had died of cirrhosis of the liver. Venkaiah had performed the last rites and immeresed the ashes in the Ganges, packed up his meager belongings and come away back to his own family.
Balaji would have been about 45 when he died. What a waste of a life that could have been very different. Perhaps, he got the moksha that he joked about.