Yasho Karan Singh, my friend…
Last week I lost my friend to Destiny. Yasho, better known as Mrs Karan Singh, died after being in and out of hospital for over a year. The last time I met her was several years ago: maybe ten or five or a little less. I really don’t remember. And it doesn’t matter because with Yasho Karan Singh it was not how often you met but how well you knew her.
Yes I knew her: well enough to call her my friend. We had spent happy times together: several years when we met almost every month. Among our favorite places, in fact more hers than mine, was The Oberoi where we often went for lunch. The prawn curry and rice, which they served, was out of this world and sufficiently spicy. But we always wanted ours to be extra spicy served with raw green chillies on the side.
I also knew her husband, Dr Karan Singh quite well though I do not remember whom I met first. I think it was Yasho Karan Singh in the Amar Singh Club in Srinagar where I went as a school kid. She was revered in the state as a Maharani, given that her husband Dr Karan Singh was born into the ruling family of Jammu and Kashmir. But then she, also, was not a commoner. Like her husband, Yasho Rajya Lakshmi was born to the royal family of the last Rana Prime Minister of Nepal Maharaja Mohum Shumsher Jang Bahadur Rana. He was her grandfather.
Yasho Rajya Lakshmi married Karan Singh, then a yuvraj (heir apparent) when she was barely 13. Within a short span, she was performing her role as wife of the Head of state. Apart from extensive traveling, this involved playing hostess to several dignitaries. The couple moved to Delhi after Dr Karan Singh’s forays into politics. He was appointed a Cabinet Minister by Mrs Gandhi in 1967.
The couple lived in New Delhi’s Nyaya Marg, having named their house Mansarover. I visited it very often, sometimes to interview Dr Karan Singh and at other times to meet his wife. He is a stickler for time; she always easy. A good time to see her was eleven in the morning for coffee. That is if our lunch at The Oberoi was not happening.
Mansarover is among the few houses to have a swimming pool in its courtyard. So each time I was led into the study or the adjoining living room, I passed the clear, still waters. Her bedroom was upstairs and I remember visiting it only once to see the large, gold antique mirror. I don’t know if it is still there.
With Delhi’s forbidding summer, I have always found it tough to handle colours. Way back in the seventies not many people wore white. I was among the few who did. I remember that day when I went to see Mrs Karan Singh in the afternoon. Unlike most days when I would be led in by her staff, she herself opened the door for me. She looked at my white dress, frowned and said: Poora safed (complete white) Don’t wear it! not full white! take a colored dupatta or a red bangle or a tikka. And before I knew she pulled out a red dupatta and flung it over my shoulder. Even though I continued wearing white years on, each time I did I remembered what she had said. Years later I understood, that like most traditional Hindus she associated white with mourning.
Once, I decided to write about her. I thought I would include her in a series I was doing for Hindustan Times on well-known people in unfamiliar surroundings. I had at that point taken Kathak dancer Birju Maharaj to a discotheque, hotelier Biki Oberoi to a dirty eating joint across New Delhi Railway Station and Mrs Karan Singh to Dera, a hamlet at the outskirts of Chattarpur. The story idea: Royalty among commoners.
Those were the days of rickety ambassador cars and I, along with my photographer, drove in one to Mansarover. We were to fetch Mrs Karan Singh and drive her to Dera village where we had organized lunch for her. The villagers had been briefed to serve stale chapattis with raw onions. I was looking forward to an exciting story, unsure whether she would kill me at the end of it all.
Things were tough from the very beginning. For starters, the car broke down and we had to push it for some distance before it started again. Before I could apologize, Mrs Karan Singh stepped out and offered to give a hand. To me that was unthinkable but she thought nothing of standing by the roadside and watching a mechanic work at it for over quarter of an hour. It was hot and muggy and I saw her very attractive face wane under the harsh sun but she made nothing of it. The drive to Dera was a bumpy one and often our grumpy driver would slam brakes when none were needed. While I was ready to smash his head, she laughed through it all.
It being a Delhi village, the rural folk had no association with her royal persona except to treat her as a mehmaan (guest). And naive as they were when they served her the stale chapattis they told her that they would have done better but for the instructions I had given them. She gave me an I-will- kill- you look but ate two of the four chapattis served to her. With raw onions and salt. It then dawned on me that in her interaction with the rural people of her home state, this was not the fist time she would be breaking bread with them. On her way out, she slipped a hundred rupee note to the host. Unfortunately for me the story did not turn out as hilarious as I had planned it out to be. She was more comfortable than I was and handled the situation much better than I had expected.
I often see the signpost to the Dera village, each time I drive on the Chattarpur road. Every time I do, I think of the stale chapattis and the raw onions and her I will kill you look.
It was Yasho Karan Singh who first took me to the Chattarpur temple. This was much before it became famous as one, which was frequented by well-known politicians including Mrs Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv. One day she just drove me there. I was mesmerized by the idol; also struck by the way they conducted the rituals. I don’t think they knew who she was and even if they did they created no fuss about it. If anything they made us deposit all our leather stuff outside before we could offer prayers. After that I became a devotee and lost count of my visits to the temple. Except the two of us never visited it together again.
Yasho Karan Singh was exceptionally good looking. Simply stunning. She had chiseled features and when she smiled her face lit up. She spoke both Hindi and English with an accent. Draped in pastel chiffons she always kept her head covered. In the last few years that I bumped into her I noticed her beautiful face lose some of its charm. And her radiance. The last time I saw her she looked several shades darker than she actually was. Maybe she is unwell, I said to myself. I must call and find out. I never did.
In the years she lived, she touched many lives in her own subtle way, whether it was people from their home state, or her husband’s constituency or colleagues at the society for the welfare of the mentally retarded which she headed. In her 71 years, she nurtured relationships: her kids, her grandchildren and the man she married as soon as she stepped into her teens. In Death she did not want to be mourned: No rituals she had told her family. It was therefore apt that while missing her, they celebrate, to quote Dr Karan Singh her vibrant and luminous life.
Two days ago I went back to Mansarover. After many, many years. It was tough to go back to the house where I had spent several happy afternoons.
This time when I walked in with my friend Shanta Serbjeet Singh, who knows the family better than I do, I found the door wide open. There was a calm silence. I walked past the swimming pool and shot a glance at the stairway, which led to up to her bedroom with the antique gold mirror. The door of the study where we often sat was firmly closed. What was thrown open was the living room where the family was. As her daughter Jyotsna Singh told us about her back injury, I looked at the lawn to my right. I think some twenty-eight years ago, I was part of celebrations here. It was Dr Karan Singh’s fiftieth birthday and Yasho Rajya Lakshmi had thrown a party to celebrate. March 9 1981 if I remember correctly. It was quite a bash and Yasho Karan Singh looked radiant in her signature chiffon. I think she wore green that day. Jyoti, as I know Jyotsna, told me that in 2000 her parents had celebrated their fiftieth anniversary.
In the last ten years, Yasho Karan Singh and I had lost touch. It was not that we never met; we did on social occasions but that sharing had gone away. Like our frequent lunches or coffee sessions. I don’t know if The Oberoi still serves the prawn curry as spicy. With green chillies on the side. I don’t know if Yasho Karan Singh continued to shop for meats at Jor Bagh’s Steak House. Or whether her superstition about wearing white was still as strong. All that I know is that my friend Yasho has moved on! I will not mourn because for me she still lives in Mansarover, waiting to chide me when I go visiting attired in stark white…