“He’ll be impossible to replace. It’s such a loss,” he adds in an altogether different mood.
Maninder had this ability to move effortlessly between gaiety and gravity. He probably had found the thread that connects the extremes.
I met him some twenty years ago when he arrived to teach in the college where I was already teaching. That college, in Hoshiarpur, had then a Principal who liked to take himself very seriously. And he had managed to surround himself with men and women who competed with one another to sustain their boss’s precarious endeavours. Maninder, it seems, had been dropped in this theatre of the ludicrous by some malicious naughty gods. One day as the Principal sat basking in the sweat-scented congregation of his flattering chamchas and chamchis, officially designated as a staff meeting, he walked in late, went straight to the Principal’s side, put both hands on his table, bent a bit low, and began, “Bhāji, the office boy told me you wanted to see me. I am not really late. I was sitting in vacant classroom and reading. I had the room bolted from outside to avoid being disturbed. Yes, may I know why you called me?”
The boss’s lips twisted under the unaesthetic imbalance of his recalcitrant moustache. We knew his pride had been wounded: the twisted lips always indicated the throes of a struggle to put himself into words, in which he always failed, so that he ended up frothing at the corners of the mouth. How could a mere teacher, that too on probation, treat him like an ordinary mortal? Maninder’s fate was sealed. Soon enough, when he booked half a dozen boys for using unfair means during an examination, the principled Principal persuaded the college management to terminate his services. He was again on the road.
He had once given me a book to read. It was titled Oddballs. I was to gradually discover what a great oddball Maninder himself was.
Years later I found him again when his story Bhār was published. I called him. He almost sang with happiness to hear my voice after all those years. After that we used to talk once or twice a month. More often it was he who called. And he invariably scolded me for not calling him. I had to reinvent all the banal excuses at my disposal. He always forgave.
He came to meet me last year when he was visiting some relations in Patiala city. He borrowed a scooter and rode through the cruel traffic all the way to my house which is quite far from the city. “I can’t see clearly in the evenings, but I pushed on. I had to meet you, Rajesh baba.” He had come to pat me for co-editing the journal South Asian Ensemble. He loved the way I wrote. He liked that I had not let myself die under the weight of trivialities. He wanted me to write in English on Punjabi culture. “There is a world of work waiting to be done. We’ll sit down soon again and I’ll tell you what you should do,” he spoke with a conviction that was irresistibly infectious. Had he been in some university, how many people he would have inspired, driven, even kicked. And they would have been grateful. Some say he could not get a teaching position in a university because he had a tendency to kick the wrong people. They are perhaps right. His goodness was irrepressible. He hit you to do you a good turn. Unfortunately, not many recipients of his eccentric generosity had a heart as large as his.