Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Penny for your money

Khushwant Singh

March 4, 2006

One Diwali day a Sardarji rang me up to say he had met God and wanted to tell me about it. He also wanted to wish me a happy Diwali. He turned up a little later. His driver put a huge basket full of fresh and dry fruit and a couple of Scotch bottles in front of me. This was Nanak Singh of Nanak Milk fame. When I asked him about his encounter with God, he was evasive. When he left, he gave hundred rupee notes to my servants. I found it somewhat vulgar but kept my mouth shut. I saw him off to his Mercedes Benz.

God had been good to Nanak Singh. He had come penniless from Pakistan in 1947. He had plied a cycle-rickshaw in Delhi before getting into the milk business. His products were of better quality than Mother Dairy. He became prosperous and then went into producing desi liquor. He became a millionaire.

He could read and write Gurmukhi and Urdu. He spoke no English but could point out paragraphs in contracts which needed elucidation. He was a typical Indian brand of a newly-rich man without any pretence of sophistication. He believed everyone had his or her share. I was inclined to agree with him.

When I wrote about him the first time he came to see me with a wad of hundred rupee notes and asked me how much I expected. I ticked him off roundly. Sheepishly he put the money back in his pocket. When one of his sons got married, the invitation came in the form of a sandalwood music box. When I opened it, soft filmi music came out and with it Nanak’s voice inviting me to his son’s nuptial in florid Urdu. Inside were silver cups with cardamom, crystal sugar and sesame seeds. I went to one of the receptions at Ashoka Hotel. The guests were squirted with French champagne and entertained by Shakila Bano Bhopali, qawwali singers and mujra dancers.

Once he invited me to dinner and asked me to bring the prettiest girls and match them with his daughters-in-law. I took Reeta Devi, Sadia Dehlvi, Kamana Prasad and my wife. He sat with his sons’ wives in front of us. All the girls were very pretty. He pressed a button on the dining table; a panel on the side wall slid aside revealing a variety of Scotch. Then he took us to his outer gate, where some beggars were lined up. He made us give them blankets, sweaters and scarfs. “I do this every evening before I eat my evening meal,” he said.

Nanak liked showing off his newly-acquired wealth and generosity. But he was
never vulgar, only childish in his display of wealth to his friends. He has been dead for some years. I miss him.

This brings me to other marriages by other newly-rich Indians. The Roys of Sahara Airways in Lucknow, the Mittals in London and others. Most recently, hotelier Sant Chatwal had a reception for his son’s wedding in Mumbai and Delhi. The thousands of guests invited included ex-presidents, ex-PMs, CMs, captains of industry and, above all, the media.



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