‘Didn’t you save any contacts on your old phone? On your Gmail account?’
‘No, I just entered the number from my diary whenever I wanted to make a call.’
‘Anyway, save all the contacts on the cloud and not on the phone.’
‘Forget that, just save them on your Gmail. I wish you wouldn’t have to manually save all your contacts in one go. It takes up too much time.’
‘I have all the time in the world. You do your work, I will waste my time, I mean spend my time.’
‘Are you writing my history geography?’
‘We had very good bad days. But nothing to regret, let me tell you, nothing to regret. By todays standards, we were very poor.’
Kamal Kumar Tandon was the fourth of eleven children borne on 23rd January 1938 (unofficial) to Indrani Devi Tandon, wife of Ramakrishna Tandon, barrister, in the holy town of Benares on the banks of the river Ganga. Pre-independence India was a country ravaged by poverty and large families struggled to make ends meet. My great-grandfather struggled to find work in an infantile legal environment and his family faced several hardships.
‘We used to have a saying, ‘Aave shukul, bajaawe toti, tab larikan ka milihe roti’ which meant, when Pitaji will come home whistling with a few coins jingling in his pocket, then we will be able to buy wheat, grind it into flour and prepare rotis.’
The sleepy town of Hardoi in Uttar Pradesh (then known as the United Province) was home to the Tandon family, supported primarily by farming and cattle rearing. On days when money was hard to come by, Kamals mother would say to him ‘Here are a few coins, go buy some gehu from the market.’
‘We used to come back home from school in the afternoon, we were very hungry and yet mother would send me back to the market to buy flour. I would get very angry, but what to do? This had to be done.’
Having witnessed the death of two of the youngest of his ten siblings, the harsh realities of life were no stranger to Kamal even as a young boy.
He grew up facing the cane of tough masters in the classroom, performing embarrassing punishments such as the murga which meant that you had to squat until your backside nearly touched the ground and try to grasp both your ears with hands brought in from behind the legs and between the knees, chiefly for the mirthful amusement of masters, who grew tired of the boisterous nature of young boys. Kamal eventually did well in mathematics and science courses and was encouraged to take up Engineering by his professors.
He completed his intermediate education at the Harishchand College in Hardoi before a brief stint at the University of Benares. However, financial troubles caused him to take up a scholarship in the Marine Engineering institute in Bombay. Enthralled by the prospect of living in the city that was home to Bollywood, Kamal spent three years in Bombay and the final year of his certificate course in Calcutta.
‘You know life is not a bed of roses, but this is life. You must understand, this is life.’
He was married to Asha Seth now Asha Kamal Tandon of Delhi on 24th May 1969 and they were blessed with my mother Vini in 1970 and her sister Hema a few years later. A marine engineer by trade in the growing merchant navy industry, Kamal sailed the seven seas, rising in the ranks of the engineering divisions on the ships that carried him across the globe.
For 16 years the Chief Engineer was at sea, sometimes with family in tow.
My childhood years were spent listening to tales of frozen decks on the harbours of Russia, tigers and cannibals in the Andamans, the wonders of the Panama canal, the rising skylines of Chicago, kimonos and confusion in Tokyo and many more.
Kamal spent the last 24 of a career spanning 40 years as a Chief Surveyor with the Indian Registrar of Shipping, traveling from coast to coast and dock to dock.
‘The pleasure that you get from helping a person who is in need. You cannot describe it, you cannot write it down. You can only feel it.’
A quiet life of blissful retirement well earned occupies my grandfather in the present, watching re-runs of Ramayana & Mahabharata on the television, communing twice a day with God in quiet prayer, preparing a glass with soda before lunch and dinner and discussing the state of the economy with my grandmother (measured by the price of onions).