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My first acquaintance with Vinod dates back to the late 1970s, when I was given an MA course to teach at the Arts Faculty at Delhi University.
I was to discover that Vinod occupied a very back seat in that copious class room, number 62.
I cannot recall now how well or badly he did on his exams, but it was clear that he had a rather cynically scant regard for the prospect of a great academic career.
Such a course must have seemed inimical to his over-riding devotion to music and theatre. His restive impishness had more lively and creative things in sight at the time.
Of course, the calling of journalism – where he won fame, awards, and the anger of rulers so outraged by his honesty that they were to try and charge him with sedition – was to come later.
I was to earn his acceptance, unbeknown to me, in a most curious way—one that was a suggestive reckoner to what comprised his social, intellectual and related choices in the years before him.
Some two decades or more after we signed off as teacher and student, back home on a late evening with a searing headache, my landline rang (there were no mobiles then); Vinod was on the line.
“Sir, aap tayyar rahein, mein gaadi bhej raha houn” (Sir, please be ready, I am sending a vehicle).
(In passing I could not dissuade Vinod from using that obsolete honorific “sir” to me: “thoda time lagega, sir”, he would say – ‘It will take me some time’.)
This was a precipitate invite to his TV show, due to go on air in barely half an hour after the call.
Done in by my headache, and always reluctant to be on television, I demurred, but was persuaded to say yes by my colleague and spouse, Shashi, who felt one must never say no to a dear student.
Vinod’s subject that evening for the episode was cricket, it turned out; and I had come to his mind as an old state-level player.
The show over, I asked Vinod to please have me sent home pronto, as I felt a little unwell.
“Aaj nahi jaanei doonga, sir; pehlei mere saath IIC chaliyey.” (i will not let you go today; please accompany me to the IIC first.)
He would not take no for an answer.
Once at the India International Centre, we ran into friends who were frequent presences there.
The conversation carried on till well past 11 o’clock.
Finally, I begged Vinod to send me home. At which he took me to his car, sat himself behind the wheel and set off for campus, driving with aplomb.
Among other things, Vinod never shied away from enjoying the good things of life so long as these were hard-earned.
At the outer gate of the staff quarters of Kirori Mal College, I got off to say thanks and good night.
Which is when Vinod let go:
“Sir aaj himmat ho rahi hai; kutch kehna hai”. (Sir, today I feel emboldened to share something.)
Apprehensively, I nodded concurrence.
So, here is what Vinod then confided:
“Sir aap class mei pipe peetei thei; so ek din hum nei socha aap ko tung karein” (“Sir, you used to smoke a pipe in class; so one day we decided to tease you.)
So, what did you do, I asked, with no memory of anything related to my pipe,
“Mein bhi ek din pipe le ke class mei aaya” (I too brought a pipe to class one day.)
And what happened then, I followed up.
“Aap khoob bol rahei thaei pur beech mei haath se mujhe podium ki taraf bulaya” (you were in full flow but beckoned me to the podium.)
And, what next?
Sir, ghabratei main podium tak pohoncha” (Rather shaken, I reached the podium).
“Then sir, aap ne kaha, ‘Give me some tobacco.’”
“And then, sir, I never brought my pipe to class again, thinking this could be a bargain I could not afford.”
“But, sir, here is what I want to say: that day I knew I could respect you as someone who did not teach one thing and do another.”
Dear, dear departed Vinod, I have never received a compliment I have valued more, and the memory of that enabling perception you showered on me that cold midnight while we stood alone at the gate has remained with me as an inspirational incentive.
May I say, you went on to live your creativity, your spotless humanism with unrelenting independence of mind and conviction, without ever descending into diatribe, hate, rejection, or worse, moral indifference.
You took on the fake, the bloated, and the cruel, and never flinched from the consequence.
You were a good teacher to many more than I may ever have reached.
It is another matter that our time takes a heavy toll of whatever is beautiful and true, as you were.