It's been a couple of years since I translated anything by PuLa. While considering different options about what to translate next, Hari Tatya stood out as a particular appealing candidate. He is so universally identifiable. Hari Tatya - the eccentric but genial family friend with one foot firmly in the distant past that all kids have encountered growing up. Your Hari Tatya might not have been interested in history. Maybe he was into politics, or science, or even astrology. But that does not take away from the HariTatyaness of all Hari Tatyas.
Usual caveats apply - I cannot even pretend to be a good enough translator to keep most of PuLa's magic intact. But even a fraction of the essence of the character sketch should make it readable. And I have changed or omitted some references to make the essay accessible. And used contemporary phrases and expressions.
A couple of days ago, I heard someone use the phrase "irrefutable proof", and I was suddenly reminded of Hari Tatya. I had heard him say "I have irrefutable proof of this!!" hundreds of times during the course of my childhood in Mumbai. So had everyone else who knew him. So much so, that my grandma's nickname for Hari Tatya was "Mr. Irrefutable Proof".
There was nothing surprising about his penchant for that phrase, because he is always making claims that can't be justified without irrefutable proof. The guy refuses to inhabit the present. And describes the past as if he can see it unfolding in front of his eyes. He's been like that for as long as I can remember. Obviously, I can't remember the first time I saw him. But I am sure he remembers it vividly.
"Purushottam! Come on, son! How can you not remember? It was a Saturday. Late in the afternoon. How can you not remember?"
That's how he's sure to chide me for forgetting the details of my birth.
The remarkable thing about Hari Tatya was how informally he addressed everyone, be they younger or older than him. He is the only person I ever knew who spoke to my generally feared and respected grandpa like an old chum. Of course, we knew him as grandpa's friend. But he was obviously several years younger. Because he generally treated grandpa with respect and veneration. In his own way. He never used the respectful pronoun as is the norm when speaking to elders in India. But whenever grandpa entered the room, Hari Tatya would sit up straight. Maybe because grandpa gave him some pocket money to tide him over every month. And often provided him with seed funding for his latest entrepreneurial venture.
No one in the family can remember exactly when this creature named Hari Tatya became a part of our extended household. My grandfather was a very generous man, and a friend to anyone who tried to be his friend. So it was difficult to predict exactly how many people he'd bring home any given evening to have dinner with the family. Of course, in those days of the big joint family, the occasional dinner guest or two didn't really bother those minding the kitchen. In those days, rice, dal, and flour for a meal were measured not by cupfuls, but by fistfuls. The dinner table was populated by not just immediate family, but also uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, and cousins once, twice, several times removed. There was also the occasional son or daughter of a family friend studying in the city, in addition to ABC's brother-in-law and XYZ's neighbor's son-in-law. So at pretty much any meal, there were always a few unexpected guests present. I don't recall many evenings when our joint family of 12 had less than 25 plates laid out for dinner.
My grandma seemed to me like Annapoorna (the goddess of nourishment) reincarnated. Her hands were blessed with some magical touch that imparted rich flavor even on a glass of water she served. So you can imagine how tasty and welcoming any dinner table she laid out was. Hari Tatya joined our family by turning up at one such dinner table. After that, he kept turning up. He was there with us at joyous occasions. He was with us at sad moments.
But all those years, even as I grew up and looked different every year, Hari Tatya always looked the same. A simple cotton shirt, modest dhoti, and a rarely-washed Gandhi cap. We kids referred to his style of wearing the cap as "Compass Fashion". If his nose pointed east, then the two ends of his cap seemed to align with the North-South axis, like a compass needle.
I never had any idea what Hari Tatya did for a living. I only knew that grandpa kept helping him start some "promising new business" every few months. Grandpa had always had a dream of owning and running his own business. But his stable and respected position in society, the steady income his job brought him, and the large family depending on that income, made taking any big risks all but impossible. So he lived his entrepreneurial dream vicariously through Hari Tatya by funding Hari Tatya's ambitious albeit modestly scaled business ideas.
I remember one monsoon season when grandpa gave Hari Tatya money to start a business selling umbrellas. For the next couple of years, everyone in the family got a new umbrella for free in the first week of June. But I doubt Hari Tatya's umbrella business was profitable any longer than an umbrella mushroom's lifespan. It seemed like grandpa was more devoted to making the umbrella business succeed. I remember he would come home from work in the evening every day and hand Hari Tatya a sheet of paper,
"Here are orders for some umbrellas. Be sure to deliver them to these addresses right away."
Then we kids would accompany Hari Tatya, brand new umbrellas stacked on our heads, making deliveries to customers that grandpa has managed to canvas during his day job. We kids usually didn't move a muscle for anyone else. We'd disappear if anyone else tried to give us a chore. But for Hari Tatya, we didn't mind looking ridiculous walking the streets with those umbrellas on our heads. We loved his company so much, we'd have walked on coals with umbrellas on our heads if he had asked us to.
Hari Tatya told us absorbing stories and taught us fascinating poems and shlokas as we accompanied him. That too at the top of his voice while walking on the street without any regard to passers by. I remember an anecdote from one of our umbrella sorties. We were all walking with those umbrellas stacked on our heads. Hari Tatya told us to put the umbrellas down, and join him on a stone bench on a street square, and regaled us with the story of Sant Ramdas.
He had a truly unique narrative style. As a result of that narrative style, for many years, we kids were under the impression that Hari Tatya, Sant Ramdas, Moropant, Sant Tukaram, Vaman Pandit, Shivaji Maharaj etc. all once lived together in the same neighborhood. Because no matter how far back in the past the event he was narrating had occurred, he effortlessly injected himself into the proceedings. The way he recounted those stories convinced us that he had seen it all unfold in front of his eyes.
"Kids, I tell you, this Ramdas
, even as a kid, was quite the character! He would run away and hide somewhere. We'd keep searching, keep seeking, but couldn't find him! His mother would ask us - have you seen my little Narayan anywhere? We'd say, sorry ma'am, we have no idea. Poor woman, she'd keep looking for him all over the village."
"Once she asked the village chief - have you seen my Narayan anywhere? The village chief had the habit of pouncing on any opportunity to be arrogant. He said - Narayan? Which Narayan? There are hundreds of Narayans in this village! Mother said - Please help me, sir. My Narayan. Narayan Thosar. Have you seen him?"
"Poor lady. There were tears in her eyes. And with good reason. Tell me Purushottam, if you go missing some day. And your mother is looking for you everywhere. Won't she tear up? Tell me, Purushottam! Won't she??"
Hari Tatya would narrate this story with so much pathos, that all our eyes would moisten up as well. Then we'd start walking again to make sure the umbrellas were delivered on time. But as our hands held the umbrellas on our heads, our shirt sleeves would be busy wiping our tearful eyes as Hari Tatya continued with Sant Ramdas a.k.a Narayan Thosar's story.
"Narayan's mother was terrified! Fair good-looking little boy. I tell you guys, this Narayan looked so beautiful as a child. Positively radiant. Plus he'd just had his threading ceremony, and wore a pearl earring. She was aghast - did those Muslim invaders kidnap him to convert him to Islam??? Oh my god!!!"
"And kids, I tell you....those damned Muslim invaders in those days....they weren't decent like Muslims we know today. No! They were just so damn #$%%*&^$#......"
And he'd unleash a barrage of expletives that any other adult would've deemed inappropriate for our supposedly innocent young ears. Maybe it's because of these expletives he let loose so readily, but to our pre-pubescent minds, Hari Tatya seemed like the epitome of valor and courage.
"So then, hours ticked by. And soon it was afternoon. Still no sign of Narayan! Mother ran home and spread her arms in front of Lord Ram's idol. Ah, how beautiful that idol was, kids, believe me! So divine...."
And Hari Tatya folded his hands to pay respects to that imaginary idol of Lord Ram floating in the air in front of him. We all were still carrying umbrellas. But still, we did our best to twist our arms and pay our respects to the imaginary idol too.
"She said - Goddess Sita, please find me my Narayan, and I will give you an offering of my best clothes and a coconut! Mother said that, and opened the closet to take out her best clothes to offer to the goddess. And lo! Narayan was sitting in the closet!"
"Mother wailed in delight - NAAARAAYANAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!"
And Hari Tatya yelled so loudly, that everyone around us on the street stopped whatever they were doing and started staring at us.
"Mother took Narayan in her arms and said - My son, I have been looking for you all over the village. What are you doing here? .... Do you know Purushottam, what Narayan's response was?"
I shook my head.
"Yeah, well, it's difficult for you to know. How would you know? An innocent little child like you can't even imagine what the future Sant Ramdas said. Narayan said...get this, kids.... Narayan said - Mother, I was pondering the fate of the world"
"That's what he said - I was pondering the fate of the world."
Hari Tatya finished the story. He blew his nose. Then he wiped his eyes with his shirt sleeves. All us little umbrella carriers, or chhatrapatis, had no idea what to do next. Hari Tatya regained control of his demeanor and said,
"Just think Purushottam.... he was about your age. And what did he say? I was pondering the fate of the world! Unbelievable! Simply divine! Tell me Purushottam, do you have such a boy in your class? A boy who will hide in the closet? And say - I was pondering the fate of the world?? Is there? Tell me!"
I meekly shook my head.
"Yeah! So that was Ramdas! Saintly right from his childhood. I have irrefutable proof of this. He went on to become Ramdas Swami.... Sant Ramdas. But just because he was a Sant, don't think he was a softie. You should've seen him flex his muscles. The way his biceps sprang up, almost jumping out of his skin, I tell you! All he had to do was bend his arm ever so slightly, and his bicep would spring up. If you struck his bicep with an iron bar, the iron bar would bend! But Sant Ramdas would barely notice the blow. Barely...."
Hari Tatya kept staring into nothingness for a couple of minutes as if he had just seen Sant Ramdas in the flesh. He smiled a little and gradually shook his head in admiration.
Then suddenly, as if waking up from a dream, he shook his shoulders. And in a voice completely devoid of the narration-specific baritone, he said,
"Umm....Purushottam....tell me...Nerulkar...Nerulkar is the guy who lives around the corner from the grocery store, right? How many umbrellas has he ordered? Three, right? Let me check..."
Hari Tatya fished out the sheet from his pocket, verified the order, and led our umbrella-bearing procession to the Nerulkar residence.
No one in that procession had yet truly returned to the present, to the real world. One kid was visualizing the full scale and strength of Sant Ramdas' legendary biceps. Another was wondering how a well-built 10 year could fit inside a 17th century closet in a poor Brahmin family's house. Yet another was promising himself that when he grew up, he'd work out so intensely that an iron bar would bend when struck on his biceps. With all these anachronistic thoughts in our minds, dreamy expressions on our faces, and umbrellas on our heads, we were helping Hari Tatya run his business.
It goes without saying that the umbrella business didn't last long. None of Hari Tatya's businesses did. The reason was obvious to me. Hari Tatya aspired to run those businesses. But his passion and dedication towards running them was nothing compared to the passion and dedication grandpa had for those businesses. But grandpa's passion and dedication was moot, since he couldn't practically quit his job. And Hari Tatya, who was supposed to run the business, usually inhabited a completely different reality.
Later, grandpa gave Hari Tatya money to start a business selling agarbattis (incense sticks). So Hari Tatya started walking around with a big bag of agarbattis hanging from his neck. Grandpa and Hari Tatya would discuss the sales of the day every evening. Often, it'd turn out that Hari Tatya had taken 1 rupee from a customer for an agarbatti pack worth 75 paise, and returned 50 paise instead of 25 paise. And on most days, the bag hanging from his neck was as full in the evening as it had been in the morning.
But still, after all these discussions, on his way out, Hari Tatya would open the door and happily yell at us kids,
"Jai Jai Raghuveer Samartha!"
That's a line from the Dasbodh
- Sant Ramdas' treatise on spiritual and practical matters. It is particularly known among Marathi people for its guidance on practical matters, a ready reckoner for success, if you will. Hari Tatya was a man who kept quoting that practical treatise at every possible opportunity, but remained utterly and truly impractical. He never reached an appointment on time, never left an appointment on time.
Grandpa and Hari Tatya clearly loved each other, cared for each other. But they also spent several nights arguing with each other. Random corners of various rooms in our house were stacked with unsold inventory from Hari Tatya's failed ventures - from umbrellas to agarbattis to books to backpacks. Once in a while, when we eavesdropped on the arguments, what Hari Tatya said was oddly but somehow appropriately unrelated to the business at hand and more relevant to arcane Maratha history,
"Dude, I have irrefutable proof of this! Come with me to Maval right now! I can literally see where that horse Krishna's hooves landed!"
And truly, Hari Tatya could probably see where those hooves has landed centuries ago. I often wonder if Hari Tatya's default existence was in the distant past, in the golden age of the Maratha empire. The odd occasion when he acknowledged the 20th century was probably like a dream to him.
"So there we all were. Standing in the royal court with Shivaji Maharaj on the throne. And they brought in the daughter-in-law of Kalyan's vanquished governor. Oh wow! She was absolutely gorgeous! A true beauty if I ever saw one! And as the victorious king, Shivaji Maharaj had the right to have his way with her. She was his for the taking. She was so damn beautiful, I tell you guys! And her flawless milky white complexion! She was at least 6 times as fair as this girl Yami everyone thinks is so fair. And I'm not making this up, boys. I have irrefutable proof of this!"
When I was a kid, our neighbor Yami Gokhale was the benchmark of fair complexion. She had the whitest skin we ever saw. The Gokhales were the only Konknastha Brahmin family in our neighborhood, and Konknastha Brahmins are reputed to have fair/white skins. The rest of us were mainly Deshpande-Kulkarni types with wheatish-to-dark skins. Hari Tatya himself was as dark as the iron pillar in Delhi. So when he said "6 times as fair as this girl Yami", we had genuine trouble imagining how fair the daughter-in-law of Kalyan's vanquished governor must have been. But Hari Tatya had no trouble embellishing his story.
"We were all standing there, staring, admiring her beauty. Maharaj himself was stunned by her beauty..... tell me kids.... Maharaj who???"
We had all memorized the answer to this question thanks to several prior lessons from Hari Tatya,
We kids yelled out the official complete title for Shivaji as if we were orderlies in the Maratha court of the 1600s. When we said this correctly, Hari Tatya regally looked at us with an expression of pride and humility, as if he were Shivaji himself!
"Well done, boys! So anyway....where was I?"
"6 times as fair as Yami" one of us piped up.
"Okay, you idiot. Who was 6 times as fair as Yami?"
"The wife of Kalyan's vanquished governor."
"WIFE????????" Hari Tatya screeched.
We all took a step back.
"You idiot! Where did his wife come from? There in Kalyan, the vanquished governor is splayed out dying, yelling YA ALLAH! YA ALLAH!"
And Hari Tatya laid down on the ground with his limbs flailing in the air, invoking the Koranic almighty.
"He is dying! His wife is next to him, crying! The one they brought to Shivaji Maharaj's court was his beautiful daughter-in-law!"
"6 times as fair as..."
"YES!" Hari Tatya thundered, "Will you stop obsessing over Yami, for crying out loud?"
The boy looked away and Hari Tatya continued,
"So we were all staring at this exquisite beauty that was the daughter-in-law of Kalyan's vanquished governor. And Maharaj was looking at her too. Oh, and how handsome Maharaj himself looked, I tell you, boys! Eyes like an eagle. Sharp straight nose. Thick flowing beard. Rich well-defined sideburns....."
Whenever Hari Tatya narrated a story about Shivaji Maharaj, this effusive description of his appearance was bound to turn up sooner rather than later. As soon as Hari Tatya mentioned the sideburns, we'd complete the remaining description -
"...the regal crown on his head, the divine Bhavani sword at his waist, a pearl necklace hanging against his chest, a tilak on his forehead....."
When we completed this description, Hari Tatya looked at us all with an expression of genuine bliss and satisfaction.
"Well done, boys!" Hari Tatya nodded and continued, "So Maharaj said to the beauty - betaa, pardaa nikaalo, darney ki koi baat nahin (Child, take off your veil. There is no need to be afraid.)"
All of us had heard the story of the daughter-in-law of Kalyan's vanquished governor dozens of times. But every time, this particular line was delivered in Hindi for some reason.
"So that beauty raised her veil. Maharaj looked at her. And said - Wow! Goddess Bhavani has made you extremely beautiful!"
Because of Hari Tatya's numerous renditions of this story, all us kids grew up assuming that the job of making someone beautiful had been assigned to Goddess Bhavani. In fact, we were so convinced of it, that for many years afterwards, whenever I saw a beautiful woman, I'd think to myself - Goddess Bhavani has done a good job on her!
"Maharaj then said - If my mother had been as good looking as you, then maybe I too would have been good looking! Hearing this, I swear you Purushottam, that lady was so touched, tears started flowing from her eyes. Then Maharaj gave her a sari as a gift, and respectfully sent her back to Kalyan, untouched and unmolested. That's how wise and decent our Maharaj was!"
Just as Hari Tatya finished narrating the story, grandpa showed up. Suddenly, Hari Tatya's demeanor changed, and he earnestly said,
"Listen Purushottam, tomorrow morning, we must leave really early to sell those agarbattis, understand? Later on, the streets get so crowded, that it's difficult to move about!"
Of course, all us kids understood the sudden change in Hari Tatya. In fact, we had an unspoken arrangement with him, in which, if we saw grandpa approaching, we would quietly tell Hari Tatya about it.
This arrangement worked great when we were kids. But kids don't always stay kids. They grow up.
We grew up too. Lost our wide-eyes innocence, and developed a healthy sense of cynicism and sarcasm. We went from revering Hari Tatya to poking fun at Hari Tatya. Once we started making fun of the guy, we realized that grandma had been doing it for ages. If he occasionally turned up late for dinner, grandma would say,
"Oh, you still haven't had dinner, Hari Tatya?? When you didn't show up at the usual time, I thought Shivaji Maharaj insisted you stay over at his palace for dinner!"
Hari Tatya would say nothing.
"Or maybe at Peshwa Bajirao's table tonight.... in a silver plate!"
I don't think the ridicule mattered to Hari Tatya. In fact, I am sure that in his mind, he really had dined with Shivaji Maharaj thousands of times. Once he entered the idyllic world of the past, he completely immersed himself in it.
Once, our entire family went to Pune for a function. Hari Tatya came with us. For him, Pune, steeped in Maratha history, was Valhalla. Not only did he come with us, but he took all us kids for several walks around the city all week, and all but recounted the history associated with every tiny rock we encountered.
When Hari Tatya took us to the bare spartan innards of the historic Peshwa palace Shanivaarvaada, he told us the story of Peshwa Narayanrao's
murder. And of course, he ran around the place yelling,
"UNCLE!! SAVE ME!! UNCLE!! SAVE ME!!"
Be it the reign of Shivaji or the reign of Peshwas, this man was always there. 'How was Hari Tatya present at every historic event related to the Maratha empire in the 17th, 18th, and 19th century?' - was a question we never asked ourselves when we were children. And when we grew up, although we poked a little fun at him, we never asked him that uncomfortable question to force him to confront the fact that his fantasy world was just that - a fantasy.
Hari Tatya led us through the streets of Pune, reliving several processions full of elephants and horses. His eyes had apparently seen the first ever public Ganpati, in Kasba. He didn't just know the details of everything that went on at Lal Mahal; he could even identify the window from which Shaistekhan
was hanging when he lost his fingers to Shivaji's sword.
"And the bugger went to the Mughal emperor Delhi and greeted him with his chopped up fingers!" Hari Tatya told us with ill-concealed glee, "The emperor said to Shaistekhan - Sir Uncle, where are your fingers? Khan said to the emperor - that bastard Shivaji, that rat of the hills, he cut them off! Imagine that! This no-good Shaistekhan called Maharaj a bastard! That damn #$%%@#$$#@@@..."
Hari Tatya, in the presence of us kids, fired at Shaistekhan a colorful expletive of such unbridled hostility, that if the Khan had heard it, he would've presented his hands to Hari Tatya and said, "if you want, cut off my remaining fingers, but please, stop with the profanity!"
Hari Tatya often turned up when least expected. Similarly, he often disappeared when least expected. On Chaturthi (a holy night for Marathis), if Hari Tatya didn't show up for dinner, even grandma would wonder,
"Where the heck is Hari Tatya? Has he gone to Panipat to wage another ill-advised war?"
Hari Tatya was sorely missed on every holy occasion that he didn't show up, solely for his flair at leading aarti (public prayer). He knew hundreds of of aartis. He seemed to know by heart the aarti for every god and goddess in the Hindu pantheon. When a shirtless Hari Tatya, with tilak on his forehead would start the aarti of the Dashaavtaars in his booming voice, everyone's hands instinctively came together in devotion. And when I say his voice boomed, I mean it! Even the person holding the pooja plate would put it down, probably worried about it vibrating because of the voice.
"AAAARTI SAPREM JAIJAI VITTHAL PARABRAHMAAAA....PHAKTA SANKATI NANAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA...."
When that "AAAAA" started, all us kids would have bets on who could keep going the longest without stopping for breath.
"PAACHAVE AVATAAR PARICHE DAADHI TISTHASI.....SAHAVAA AVATAAAR..."
By the time he was halfway through the 10 avatars, Hari Tatya's own delirious avatar was worth marveling over. We kids would get caught up in the fervor too. Whenever Hari Tatya became engrossed in the aarti, his right eye developed an odd squint. On such occasions, we kids would turn our back on the holy idols and stare at the divine Hari Tatya instead.
"PINDYA PATAKAA...VAISHNAV NAACHATI..."
At this line, he'd spin on the spot a couple of times. We kids would spin too.
"CHANDRABHAAGE MADHYE SNAAN KARITI"
I can still picture the imaginary dip he would take in the imaginary holy river at this line.
Towards the end of the aarti, his voice got even louder at the DEVAAAA.... and of course, all us kids would join in. That was the only moment in the whole year when we had a license to scream as loudly as we wanted. That's what made Hari Tatya so special to us kids - in his company, we could be what we wished we could be all the time.
Today, after remembering Hari Tatya after all these years, I can't help but get a little choked up. Dozens of people of all ages, appearances, and backgrounds came to visit grandpa when I was growing up. I can remember some of them well, can't even picture the faces of many others. But no one was as memorable as Hari Tatya.
When Hari Tatya walked into the compound of our house, he'd first stop and talk to us kids playing in the yard, and only then go greet the adults. He was popular not only among the kids in my family, but also other kids in the neighborhood, who had no compunctions in calling out his name when they saw him,
Hari Tatya would acknowledge the kid who had called out his name and do his best to entertain. He'd pretend to jump up and down like a monkey, make funny faces, march around like a drummer boy until everyone was laughing. He'd stop whatever he was doing to entertain kids.
Sometimes he'd do this when he was walking with grandpa, engaged in some serious discussion about their latest business venture. Grandpa would discover that he was talking to fresh air, and Hari Tatya had stopped several steps back to make faces at some kid. On such occasions, grandpa scolded him in public, asked him to behave like a grown-up.
But grandpa did love Hari Tatya a lot, like a brother. I never fully understood why the bond between them was so strong, because you couldn't find two men more unlike each other. But the bond was strong. If grandma made some special dessert, grandpa would always remind her to set some aside for Hari Tatya. Not that grandma needed any reminders. She cared about him too. Often she'd tell other women in the kitchen to make sure there's enough food set aside for "that old crow Hari Tatya" in case he dropped by.
Hari Tatya resembled a crow in many ways. When he moved his gaze, he moved not just his eyes, but even his neck, like a crow does. His eyes had a slight squint, like crow's eyes. But his squinted gaze had seen a lot of things that others with a normal gaze missed. He had seen Shivaji's coronation, the third battle of Panipat, the Buradi Ghat skirmish...
"Even if we die, we'll keep fighting on!" Hari Tatya, down on the ground in our front yard with limbs flailing, hollered Dattaji Shinde's dying words.
Even today when I read Dattaji's tragic death, I see him as Hari Tatya in my front yard. Over the years Hari Tatya got me intimately acquainted with Shivaji, Tanaji, Tukaram, and everyone of any importance in Maratha history.
I never really liked history lessons at school, nor did I fully understand them. School history was infested with dates that had to be memorized. Hari Tatya's history wasn't tangled in the cobwebs of distant dates; it was as alive as he was. And he brought it to life for me.
As a child when I made my first trip to Pune, I was surprised not to see Shivaji or Sambhaji Maharaj there. When the train passed through the Sahyadris, I hoped to catch the glimpse of the Marathi army crossing the hills in full battle gear. Hari Tatya's refusal to think of history in past tense had rubbed of on me. His tendency to inject himself into any event and narrate in first person made it seem like all those events had occurred just before Hari Tatya came to our house.
People often personify History when they say things like "History will remember", "History will note", "History tell us", and so on. Today I realize that the "I" in Hari Tatya's stories was never meant to be Hari Tatya himself, but that personification of History.
"All us soldiers on Sinhagad
were terrified by the enemy's swollen ranks, and started running away from battle, when Suryaji stood in our way. WAIT, he shouted at us, I HAVE CUT OFF THE ROPES THAT WE USED TO CLIMB UP. Well, what could we do? There was no way to run. So we turned around and joined the battle again. A sword through an enemy's throat, a spear through another's stomach, we kept going!"
"Tanaji had already been martyred. Shelarmama was wounded, but still fighting. I tell you, Purushottam, I have never seen a man bleed as much as Shelarmama did that night. His clothes were completely red. But oh, when he finally landed a blow on that Udaybhaan.... that was all it tok. Udaybhaan was flat on his back. Soon the tide turned, and we had won. We lit up the signal torches. Shivaji Maharaj saw our signal and reached Sinhagad in an hour."
"When he learned that Tanaji had died, Maharaj started bawling like a baby! Like a baby, I tell you! He said in a broken voice - "I got my gad (fort) back, but I lost my sinha (lion)". Oh, the plaintive voice when he said it, I swear to you Purushottam, I couldn't bear to hear it. I had never and have never since heard Maharaj sound like that. And I have irrefutable proof of this. Not making it up. Even the stones on Sinhagad melted at the intensity of Maharaj's sorrow. That's how Maharaj was. Which Maharaj?"
"GoBrahminPratipalak........" we'd break into our well-rehearsed chant.
As time went by, my childhood too became history. Most of the elders in the family passed away. The house also aged. Maintaining the yard became too much of a hassle, so it was tiled. The little flower garden was gone, as were grandpa, grandma, and dad. I lost touch with most other members of the family as well. There was no way to always keep in touch with Hari Tatya.
Once in a while, the clock turns back, and in the broken glasses of the old house's windows, I see countless reflections from my childhood. Occasionally the scent of an agarbatti, or the first drop of rain on a new umbrella makes me think of Hari Tatya. And his voice starts echoing in my head.
That man, no relation of mine, gave me more than most of my close relatives ever did. He'd take us kids high in the open skies of fantasy on his wings of history. Bring to life everyone from history. He made sure that the roots of the tiny saplings that were our childhoods were buried deep in a glorious past. Hari Tatya never gave us snacks or candy that money could buy, but instilled in us a sense of pride for our heritage that no treasure in the world can.
He strengthened our tiny wrists with the character of the past. I never realized it then, but can see the true value of his efforts now. Those wrists don't always turn the way they are supposed to. But Hari Tatya instilled in us the confidence that if need be, they can turn the course of history.
Now Hari Tatya himself is part of history. Old age made him a shadow of his former self. It was much later, during his last and eventually fatal bout of illness, that I learned Hari Tatya had a grown-up son. He worked in some trading firm in East Africa.
In those final days, when I went to meet him, I couldn't bear to look at what old age had done to him. He was almost fully blind. As he laid there looking weak, his shriveled body didn't even cover half the bed. I sat next to him.
"Hari Tatya, it's me Purushottam."
"Oh Purushotam! Great!" he smiled in the direction of my voice, "As you can see, I am now Surdas! So how have you been? You're in Delhi these days, right?"
"Ah, never got to see Delhi."
"Why don't you come with me?"
"There's no use now. I may be able to visit Delhi, but won't be able to see it, which is the whole point. No, I'll just admire it in my mind."
Hari Tatya felt silent. I felt tempted to gather all my childhood friends, including the 1/6th fair Yami Gokhale, and holler,
Maybe it would have brought life back to his eyes, put some meat on his bones, and maybe he'd have said,
"I tell you, Purushottam! We were all standing there dumbfounded in the court at Delhi. And Sadashivrao Bhau
was chipping away at the golden throne! With his bare hands! Pieces of gold flying all around, as the rest of us watched, unable to move!"
Come to think of it, Hari Tatya didn't need to see Delhi for all this. Whatever he had seen of history, he hadn't seen with the eyes he lost to old age. I spent several hours with him and left, aware that this might be the last time I get to meet him.
A few days later, Hari Tatya's obituary appeared in the newspaper with the cliched salutations and praises - affectionate, kind, loved by all, etc etc. As I read the obituary, I realized it didn't even come close to capturing the essence of the man. It was the first and last printed record my old childhood friend, who usually lived in the distant past, having any contact with the present. All it did was offer "irrefutable proof" that a man called Hari Tatya had existed in our times.