When the phone call from Kasauli came late on the night of Feb 20, I had an inkling that it was bad news. Jatinder, a former household help of Baljit Malik said it in one line, “Sahib nahi rahe”. Baljit had passed away on February 18 in New Delhi and by the time the news of his death percolated to his friends, he had been cremated. Kasauli would never be the same again.
Baljit Malik is single-handedly responsible for having protected the pristine environment of Kasauli from the ravages of builders. His lonely battles against the property dealers and well-connected builders from New Delhi often brought dire threats to his life, but he never flinched from taking them on. And it was during this time that I came to know him, as I too was doing many stories on the shabby state of Kasauli cantonment in newspaper where I was working at the time.
My first interaction with him was the one which left a lasting impression on my mind. My editor tasked me to do an interview of Baljit, who had achieved a celebrity status by then for his environmental wars, and off to Kasauli I went with the Chief Photographer. Baljit was in his typical gregarious spirits and the interview was a no holds barred one in which he lashed out at the builder ‘mafia’ as well as gave glimpses of his personal life which were a bit tricky to write. The topping was the photograph which he posed for on a brand new swanky motorbike (which was given to the house help to buy daily provisions!) wearing a Jamaican hat and holding a cigarette in hand.
I wrote the interview as honestly as I could and put in all the personal details too, which he had insisted upon, and which entailed his relationship with his female household help who looked after his physically and differently-abled son. The interview got printed with very few changes and a day later, while I was on assignment in Srinagar, I got a call from Malik. “Man Aman this is Baljit speaking,” he boomed in his typical Doon School masterji clipped accent and my heart sank. I was sure he would be annoyed and would retract all controversial quotes. Baljit said that he was in Delhi and had not read the interview but he had been getting calls from his friends who were annoyed with all the details it had and wanted him to retract. “But I stand by every word I said. Good work. Send me 25 copies of the paper and mail the package to the care of the Manager, Hotel Ambassador, New Delhi,” he said as my pulse rate came back to normal.
That was Baljit. Steadfast, sure of himself, eccentric, not-caring two-hoots and blunt to the core. A cub reporter for The Indian Express back in the 1950s, he used to pride himself for having written for the newspaper for several decades. It would not be wrong to say that as the older residents of Kasauli faded away gradually, Baljit Malik, held the torch for revival of the hill station’s glory and worked hard for it. He fought tooth and nail against an attempt to hand over the British-era movie hall to a fast food chain and took on political heavyweights to stop the setting up of chalets, ropeways and helipad.
A jazz fan to the core, Malik initiated Kasauli Jazz Festival and began holding it in Hotel Maurice, spending his own money. The lack of audience never deterred him. He took out a newsletter which he used to paste all over the town in which he highlighted the environmental issues and his own poetry, taking on the system. He was never on good terms with the local military authorities because of the manner in which he challenged their authoritarian diktats in the cantonment town and on many occasions I helped him in his efforts by writing about his face-offs.
The loss of Meeto, his daughter from his second marriage, had left Baljit broken. When I visited him in Kasauli some weeks after her death he said, “Come let me show you Meeto”. Right besides the entrance to the house, he had planted a sapling along with part of his daughter’s ashes. His moist eyes reflected pride and pain as he was very fond of the academic achievements of his daughter and her death came as a shock to him.
But Baljit must not be remembered in sadness. He should be remembered the way he was. Wearing a hat, smoking Gudang Garam cigarettes, sipping rhododendron wine and occasionally shouting profanities. And, of course, driving around in Chandigarh in a red Ambassador car with a ‘Kala ghoda’ tied to the roof. Once in Kasauli, when he was in the midst of a water conservation drive, he would not let me use the toilet to pee and instead asked me to potter around his flower beds and find a spot to relieve myself as it would do lot of good to the flowers. When it became obvious that he was pretty serious about it, I had to follow his directive.
Baljit’s eccentricities could sometimes threaten to overtake his sensibilities and, to his credit, he could not care less about what people thought. Once, he summoned me from Chandigarh to Kasauli to cover a ‘special tree plantation drive’ being held with the local Army brigade. I arrived to find Army jawans planting saplings on a hillside and two Colonels standing-by grinning sheepishly. A wedding band, clad in all their liveries, played ‘Aaj mere yaar ki shaadi hai’. I asked Baljit why he had brought the band. “Because trees are living beings my friend. They will grow better if they hear music,” he boomed.
You will be remembered, Sir. Kasauli will remember you. The hillsides and the trees will recall your efforts to protect them. I am sure you greeted the grim reaper with a smirk followed by that full throated laughter. ‘Nishan-e-mard-e-momin ba tu goyam? Chu marg aayad, tabassum bar lab-e-ost. (What is the sign of a man of faith? When death comes he has a smile, on his lips).’