In this humanly world, every individual is a uniquely different creation of almighty. The range and complexity of human nature becomes more and more apparent as we progress ahead in our journey of life. Human existence takes us through innumerable interactions; while a majority of them affect us superficially, in a lukewarm manner lasting for a few days, a handful of them touch us so impactfully that they become an inseparable part of our lives, both in their presence and more so when they are no more. Their absence is just as powerful as their presence was, in simple words they are impossible to forget. This is about such an individual I had known for around two decades. We shared no blood relation; cannot be termed as any other friend but he was someone who transformed my life in a big way. To me SP or Dada was a philosopher, mentor, office senior, elder brother, travel companion, chuddy-buddy … All rolled into one. In other words, our relationship had multifarious dimensions encompassing a wide range of interests, emotions, and engagements. It was an intense affair that had an everlasting impact on my persona. Thanks dada for adopting this novice and kind heartedly opening new worlds of knowledge, wisdom and enlightenment.
This story goes back to 2005 or 2006 may be, when I had moved into a new office at R&D Building in NTPC EOC, Noida. Other than my professional engagements, I was eager to learn more about digital cameras. Even if I was earning enough and could afford a decent one, buying a digital camera seemed like a hurdle; how can I spend two months of my salary on an electronic gadgetry when I have more serious things to save for. Around this time, I met my office senior Shri Surender Pal Singh (Later SP and Fondly Dada) at my office. Upon knowing about my secret desire of acquiring a digital camera, he opened up and asked, “Which model are you considering?” Sony Cybershot DSC H-1, I answered. “It’s a good camera, incidentally I am also planning to buy the same, ” he replied. Almost spontaneously I expressed my heart, “If you are able to negotiate a good deal, bargain for two!” SP always had this welcoming body language that even first-time strangers would immediately become comfortable. He never treated people according to their designation but to him everyone is equally important.
Few days later, SP came to meet me; looking very happy, radiating dollops of positive energy that he was synonymous with. “Malay, I made the acquisition yesterday!” he announced in an enthusiastic overtone. My first reaction was mixed; I was happy for SP but equally sad as Why did he ignore my proposal? Did he never think, even once before buying the camera? Many questions cropped inside my mind. Putting aside everything, I congratulated him. “Now we will be able to see some really good images from your travels across India” I added. SP was by this time already an indefatigable traveller and had traversed along the length and breadth of India. He had also developed great interest in wildlife – a subject that I was literally unaware of. A month later, I also secured a deal for my first digital camera, the same Sony Cybershot DSC H1 that we had mutually discussed. Equipped with new cameras, our travels also swelled. During spare time at the office, we started discussing our photographic exploits, frame by frame.
Travel Stories, Cameras and … Sarojini Nagar – further brought us closer. While I was staying in DG Block of Sarojini Nagar, SP had grown up around P&T Block of the same neighborhood. The locale was so deep rooted in his childhood memories that he would not only share old anecdotes but also strike conversation with old residents. This nostalgia and love for Sarojini Nagar stayed with him; snacking at Dilli Haat & Chanakyapuri, screening of “Aranyer Din Ratri” over a round of Beer and numerous strolls to National Museum, IGNCA, Kamani and LTG Auditorium are just to name a few. A trip together was very much on the anvil when we finally decided in favour of the ruined fortress of Timangarh and the neighbouring erstwhile princely state of Karauli. We four – I, SP, Sunita Boudi and Syam – were in the team. After a strenuous hike to Timangarh we moved into the luxurious Karauli palace by late evening, exhausted and terribly hungry. A big bowl of pakodas moved in along with masala Chai. As I gorged upon the bowl, SP cautioned, “Don’t stuff yourself with these snacks, keep some space for the dinner as well.” Here his demeanor was more like an elder brother sharing his past experience; a hint of practical advice to his impractical younger sibling.
Next day, we explored the environs of Karauli. Much against his wish to stay back for another day, I called off the trip in the middle and decided to return with Syam. SP and Boudi were visibly upset and pained about the whole thing and later they found a handy phrase to tease me bringing back the old story, “Will you run away this time as well like Karauli!” I still regret my decision to return pre-maturely; I still miss the opportunity of exploring an unknown place in august company of SP and Boudi. Sometime in the middle of 2009, I equipped myself with a digital SLR and a cheap Telephoto. I had no arena for putting the telephoto lens into use other than a bunch of sparrows at my rooftop. This is when SP, again as a mentor, opened up the vast wild vistas of mother nature. A random call one Friday evening, and a favourable scheme of events saw us – I, SP and Boudi – on an early morning drive towards Sariska. Let me tell you specifically that I had no knowledge of the destination and idea of what to expect there. My only knowledge about Sariska was related to the recent wiping of its tiger population. What is a forest? How does it look like, smell like and feel like? Why do people go to forests? Are there any good places to stay?
All my queries or doubts were answered in the next two days to follow. We reached Sariska by noon, and went straight away for a gypsy safari. I was silently observing everything as SP and Boudi called out names of the many birds buzzing around the water body. Coming back, we had an unfinished task before we could call off the day and that was to find a hotel for the night. After checking for a number of resorts that were overflowing with guests, we drove to the immaculately positioned palace at lake Siliserh. Enquiring at the reception, we were told that only one room lay vacant for the night. It was a kind of a dilemma – we needed two rooms and had already scanned most of the hotels in Sariska. If we could not find a place to sleep then we had no option but to get back to Alwar. “Dada, what if we take this room and ask for an extra mattress? That’s perfectly fine!” I opened a possibility. He pondered for a while and then said, “Why not, this is workable!” Dada was extremely open and free to adapt. Settling the paperwork, we moved into the open restaurant overlooking the silent waters of Siliserh. It was an experience-of-a-lifetime!
Sariska left me with an insatiable desire to see more of Indian jungles with SP & Boudi as founding members of our wild team. A trip to Bandhavgarh merely within a month after Sariska was literally unimaginable, more so as we were in the same department. As vital members in the NESCL Quality department, going on leave simultaneously was always a difficult task. We had to choose divergent un-related reasons, often lies to reason out our leaves. Measures were also taken to ensure that no one from the office sees us together even by any remote chance. Making it to Ranthambhore is another interesting story; if the first time was unimaginably rewarding, the second trip provided loads of memories. At Castle Jhoomar Baori, we were late for breakfast after the morning safari. SP scanned through the buffet and called for the Stewart, “Do you have more watermelons? If yes, then please get me a big bowl.” As I gobbled the deep fried stuff, SP came closer and asked me, “Go get some Watermelon!” Seeing my lukewarm response on this, he added, “Don’t you love Watermelons? How can someone not love Watermelons?”
SP always tried to bring smiles on faces! At times, often at the cost of making fun of himself. This inseparable attitude manifested in a number of ways; he never missed an opportunity to start a conversation, making the conversations interesting by adding a dash of imagination, cracking jokes, imitating others, copying dancing steps from Bollywood numbers and many other innovative ways for enlivening his surroundings. His ability to mimic others was natural; once he even made my mimicry that I later came to know from other mutual friends. His sense of humour was just unparalleled. Whenever he is furious about something, he would start an act to settle down things. He also had a knack of developing catchy dialogues that he would repeatedly use to create fun. Many of these lines had attained a cult status. “Teen Cheezen bund ho gayi hai,” and “Do Chai!” are still fresh in my mind. Many times, whenever he would cross the line, I would stay mum and then after 3-4 days, he would say, “Malay, we must not take things for granted!” And soon things would return to normalcy mostly followed by a party at his place. He was an outstanding host, and always believed in throwing live parties; making drinks, ordering mouth-watering snacks and to top it all the rounds of comedy gave him true happiness. Happy to make others happy – such a livewire was SP!
As they say, good times wither away unexpectedly fast; the four eventful years 2009-2012 whizzed past like a pleasant dream. Despite the rough rides in our professional worlds, we enjoyed many travels together; no weekend passed without an outing mostly followed by a sumptuous dinner. SP was a self-confessed foodie; whenever he would offer something new he would ask, “Malay, have you ever tasted Murgh Mussallam? “My response would generally be “NO” but on some rare occasions it was “YES.” Upon hearing “Yes” his next question would be, “Where have you tasted it?” He was very particular about the taste. Accuracy of his taste buds can be gauged from another incident that happened during one of the weekend parties at Z-18, Sarojini Nagar. For the party, I and Syam were given the task of arranging snacks from Chanakyapuri. Just as we were about to leave, SP quipped in, “Don’t get anything from the Redis?” Bad luck struck us as all good outlets were closed and had no choice but to pack something from the Redis. Taking his first bite, SP could taste the blunder we had made. During this time, parties were frequent and birthdays were never missed. SP had a habit of treating us on his birthdays. BERKOS was one of his favorite places but I swear each and every celebration was memorable. I still remember how once at TGIF, SP stood and did belly dancing when the hotel staff came singing birthday carols for him. He was absolutely fearless and effortless, without any inhibitions whatsoever.
During all these years, I had developed a strong liking for many behavioral traits that SP demonstrated so flamboyantly. Integrity is definitely the first of them when we are increasingly subjected to the vagaries of corruption. It takes courage to withstand pressure and remain honest when the whole system tries to derail you. SP being a senior and a role model provided that courage that helped me to resist the many temptations successfully. His spontaneity and effortlessness in connecting with absolute strangers amazed and inspired everyone. While delivering his official duties, he treated all humans equally, irrespective of their power and position. This I consider is another hallmark of a genuine person; very rare in times when people treat people depending on their stature – both social and economic. Unconsciously I was getting transformed in the company of SP and today when I see myself I can easily make out the changes brought in by his dominating presence.
SP was a socially aware person and never missed an opportunity to help others. One day he brought a paper cutting with one particular case of one meritorious yet poor student unable to support his education. Over a cup of tea, SP organised the whole thing as we came forward to contribute towards the noble cause. This was his charisma; he so easily convinced us, directed our energies and resources all for a noble cause. He was undoubtedly the most well-informed amongst the whole lot and never missed an opportunity to enlighten us. This is another remarkable feature as not many people want to share their knowledge freely. Few days later, we all received letters from the Collector of West Godavari District thanking us for the contribution. I was clueless whether we deserved to be thanked as I believed it was SP who worked as a catalyst to bring out that hidden goodness within us. This small act made me realise the joys of giving!
SP’s multifaceted talent was well-known and duly recognized by one and all in professional circles. For the same reasons, when a series of celebrations were planned on occasion of 10th anniversary of NESCL, SP was selected as one of the leaders for organizing a cultural program. SP’s directorial venture “Bijli ki talash” went on to become a grand success. He thoroughly enjoyed his role as the director of the play often going for rehearsals after the office hours. SP was always a people’s man, happy to be surrounded by them, a true leader who would take everyone together. He also inspired me to do a few cartoons for the special edition of NESCL Magazine “Uddhav.” Incidentally, I still have the relevant pages with a small caption informing – Creators: S. P. Singh & Malay Mandal.
On a personal front, the more I was getting closer to SP the greater discomfort it was bringing in for my old friends. Possessiveness often makes the worst out of the best relationships. Another conspicuous activity of ours included Pandal hopping during the Durga Puja celebrations. Starting with unhealthy deep-fried snacks and ending with the highly infectious Kala Khattas, every stroll was special in its own way. Like a local guardian, SP would take us to so many unknown, unseen places very much in our own locality. My discovery of Delhi would have been incomplete without the enthusiastic navigator in SP. By this time, I was seriously troubled with another perennial problem of mine. Finding a suitable matrimonial match proved too difficult a task for me. SP not only searched for prospective grooms on matrimonial sites but also came along with us as family member to meet them. SP demonstrated outstanding mental strength while taking care of his mother who was undergoing treatment for Cancer at Ganga Ram Hospital.
I have always believed in the ethereal presence of a superpower that oversees our lives. He is there always and we just need to have faith that he is there, for every reason and on every occasion. Acquisition of immovable property has never attracted me and even now it fails to excite me. On the contrary, I feel a sense of unease accumulating wealth. I would rather spend; mostly on books, cameras, music recordings, travel and printing albums. But I never wasted money either. Sometime, in 2009 I came to know about a housing scheme that never really excited me. One day while leaving the office, SP advised me to have a look if not acquire it. We went together and met Mr. Gaur of NTPC. Almost then and there, SP literally took over my thought process and in a matter of few minutes, I ended up buying a flat at Gaur Grandeur. It was solely because of SP; something like the “Mogoj Dholayi” of Hirok Raja.
The year 2012 ushered in a phase of change; a long pending paradigm shift we had been eagerly waiting for. SP and Boudi were expecting a baby; Mili announced her arrival on 11-Sept-2012 at Fortis, NOIDA. A month later some positive developments started to happen in my life and by Oct, I found my better half; another friend-for-life. Around this time during Durga Puja 2012, I went to meet SP and were about to go out for pandal hopping. I asked him, “So, where should we go?” Judging my mood he came out with a googly, “Well! We can also go to Dilshad Garden?” bringing an instant smile to my face. This sensitivity was really a rare side of SP known only to a select few. I tied the knot with Ankita in Jan 2013 and just as the things looked perfect for another innings, in March 2013 both of us got promoted … and transferred to different corners of India. Without a hint of hesitation, we embraced our future and ventured out. During this time our jugalbandi became quite famous. SP would start, Today I have Himalaya, River Ganga, Alpine Forests, Corbett & Rajaji National Park, and Tigers. What do you have? Replying to him I would say, “I have Satpuras, River Narmada, Satpura ke ghaney jungle, Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Pench, Sloth bears, leopards and tigers.” While the audience could understand and enjoy the entertainment part, we could actually see the infinite possibilities of exploring those natural havens that we had only seen in pictures.
Even though we parted our ways in May 2013, we were in constant touch. We both were battling different set of challenges. SP decided to stay as a forced bachelor at Haridwar and immersed himself in the official work – organizing the inspection work force that was in disorder. My story took an unexpected turn as I became increasingly frustrated with the idiotic eccentricities of project life. I was turning radical by each passing day eager to dismantle and run away from the stereotypical rigmaroles of routine life. I took to writing and dreamt for the day when I would tender my resignation. On the other hand, SP greatly occupied himself with work and made good progress professionally. We often discussed my official situation; and other than Ankita, SP was the only person who knew my rebellious state of mind. In some discussions we did have difference of opinions, conflicts, but those differences never impacted our camaraderie.
In 2015, SP, Boudi and Mili joined us for “The Great Indian Jungle Trip” covering Kanha – both Kisli and Mukki. I was overjoyed to chalk out a jungle trip for the man who had introduced me to the joys of wildlife. Those days at Baghira Loghuts at Kisli were amongst my most cherished memories. Later we moved to Mukki and saw huge tigers. That soulful meeting at Mukki by the banks of River Banjar is still clear in my mind. Another opportunity to team up with SP happened in the summer of 2017. As a matter of fact, that was my last meeting with him in blood and flesh. But the warmth has remained intact, so fresh as if it was just about yesterday. What an adventurous trip it was? We started early morning from Narsinghpur, while SP and family took a flight from Delhi. After driving for around 5 hours non-stop, we stopped at a road side eatery. SP, Boudi, Mili and Ranjit (who picked SP and family from airport) also joined us. His energetic presence was enough to take away the fatigue. The good times spent at Tadoba with early safari trips to Zari whizzed past but the memories have stayed on. That is why I often tell people to travel, bond and create memories … they are priceless, precious, peerless!
In Oct 2017, When I was planning an adventurous trip to Madagascar, I really wanted SP, Boudi and Mili to join us. I spoke over the phone and explained the whole itinerary. “Dada, such opportunities come only once-in-a-lifetime and a nature lover like you simply should not miss this. Despite my insistence, it never happened but I became more resolute to see through the trip. Later I came to know that he had skipped the trip to take care of his ailing father. Our telephonic discussions intensified sometime in 2019 when I was experiencing a professional low. “Enough is enough!” I wanted a change. Working in shifts, I was in constant touch with SP. “Dada, you can pass your time in a township if you have a handful of like-minded people but where would one find another person like SP Singh in the whole world,” I would conclude. It was the esprit de corps that gave us so much happiness; so much excitement, purpose, entertainment, fun and frolic that we could ignore the boredom of routine life.
Even as I try to wrap up this brief note in remembrance of SP, a steady influx of many more stories are cropping up in my mind. I know that a person as lively, charismatic, enthusiastic, and humane as SP cannot be summarized in a mere write-up, it would require volumes to do justice to his memory. On second thoughts, I believe the person whom I had so intimately known for close to two decades cannot simply fade away just like that. He is there with us; his is omnipresent. He is in our thoughts; in our actions; our decisions and choices, … he is a part of our lives. Even after a month, not a single day has gone passed when I have not seen him, felt him and connected with him. Initially it was painful; people told me to distract my mind and erase his memories. But the more I tried to divert myself, the more his memories came back to hurt me. So I decided the other way; not to forget him but to bring him back to centerstage just as SP liked. This has comforted us both. SP is now alive in our memories and shall remain to do so, Forever!