“Tu theek hai?” That would always be Kuldip saheb’s solicitous greeting, followed by a quick check on how things were progressing with me, both personally and professionally. He and my father both belonged to Sialkot, Pakistan and were born in the same year. Is that why I felt a kindred connection with him?
Kuldip saheb loved to take younger journalists under his wing and there are so many occasions I recall where he played a key guiding role. Once while lunching together at the Gymkhana Club, I had mentioned how I was regularly making the bus journey to Tihar jail to cover the Indira Gandhi assassination trial being conducted within the precincts of the prison. I was then a reporter for Sunday magazine. I got to know later that he had spoken to Khushwant Singh and told him that he had “located” the right reporter who could write a book on the assassination case. The book was published by Penguin in 1990 and Khushwant Singh personally edited it.
There are other memories which strike a very personal chord. Kuldip saheb was once sent on a cover assignment to Bihar by Ravivar, the then popular Hindi weekly from the Ananda Bazar stable. On return, he telephoned me, with a bit of triumph in his voice. “Ritu, maine tere liye ladka dhoond liya hai!” (Ritu, I have found the right boy for you!) he said. He then began to load praise on Rakesh Sahai, staff photographer with Ravivar, who had travelled with him to Bihar. I paused for a bit and then announced the happy coincidence: “Kuldip saheb, Rakesh and I have been dating for over a year and we are getting married soon!”
We both recalled this story umpteen times and as it turned out, it was on Kuldip saheb’s membership card that we booked the wedding reception at the Rose Garden of the Gymkhana Club. And the tall China flower vase he gifted us is still displayed in our living room.
Over the years, we regularly kept in touch and I regret not visiting him in London when he was posted as high commissioner. In Delhi, we were part of an informal lunch club where he displayed his fondness for food and was irked if the table was not reserved. Every time we would meet at the “At Home” functions in Rashtrapati Bhavan, he would make a beeline for the spinach pakoras, which they don’t serve any more. At the IIC, he would enjoy a plate of Pindi chana and at other restaurants, order mostly grilled fish.
Last year, he visited The Indian Express office along with Meera Dewan for filming a sequence of the biopic she was making on him and we served him canteen fare. Kuldip saheb was delighted with the heart-shaped chicken cutlets: “Wah! Indian Express canteen ka khana bahut improve ho gaya hai!” (Indian Express canteen food has really improved) he chuckled.
With passing years, one noticed that as Kuldip saheb’s travels and interactions with politicians and other newsmakers decreased, sadly so did his repertoire of fascinating stories and insights he used to regale us with. But his immense curiosity was in place as was his anxiety to keep in touch with the buzz in the newsrooms and hectic political manoeuvring.
He had by now begun to use a walking stick and had an attendant help him to the elevator and car. But Kuldip saheb would never refuse a lunch invitation and the last such meeting we had, along with Coomi Kapoor and Seema Sirohi, was in the beginning of February. At that lunch, I had invited him to attend the IPI award ceremony and sure enough, on my big day, Kuldip saheb was seated on the front row.
It was only two days ago that Coomi and I talked about how our lunch with Kuldip saheb was “overdue” and we should meet up next week. That place on the lunch table will now remain vacant.