It was a hot summer evening in 1983. The sun had faded out but there was no relief. The table fans creaked and blew hot air; our rooms at the PG Hostel Ranighat had turned into ovens with its walls baked in the blaze for the whole day.
Gupteshwar Pandey in his shorts came out and dived in the river Ganga, swimming like a flying fish in its swirling streams. He vanished in the depth and sprang up his face—bubbles gurgling out from his lips and nose-holes—in repeat acts. Wary that the swirl might suck us, we were splashing and floating near the staircases at the riverfront. We breathtakingly watched Gupteshwar’s head bobbing up and down at distant streams.
It was neither the era of internet triggered social media nor Gupteswhar had grown tall in his career to draw attention beyond his friends. But the Ganga that flew right near our hostel in Patna was scarier than the little known river Khanua in Gopalganj district in which the Bihar DGP dived on May 21.
The video of the DGP dipping and bobbing his head and face up went viral, taking the generation living in the internet era, by surprise. “Sir, you are from Bihar. Look at this video, the DGP of your state has dived in a swirling river”, said Renu, a young woman who supplied me food at my room in Jalandhar, Punjab, thrusting her mobile phone ahead of the food packet on me.
To be honest to all of you my readers I was not surprised at all. What I thought after seeing off my food supplier was that my friend Gupteshwar has not changed at all. He remains the same he was when he was a 22/23-year old student—same impulses, same virility, same generosity and same reflexes.
I have not much to say about why he had jumped into the river Khanua . In this era of internet driven lightning fast communication, you all know that he had taken the dip to dispel the communal tinge that the vested interests had given to an unfortunate incident of death of a 15-year old boy Rohit by drowning.
What I would like to bring to the fore is the aspects of Gupteshwar’s persona which you are not aware of. Many of you might not have been born when he was a student. Many of you who lived at that time might not have lived with him as a friend or student.
What has been cardinal to Gupteshwar is his proclivity to act in an extraordinary manner against extraordinary situations. The day was extraordinarily hot and humid when Gupteshwar had dived in the swollen Ganga. He had helped me and many other friends floating and swimming in the river to beat the heat. All of us know that the communal fire spreads faster than jungle fire. He had dipped in Khanua to douse the communal fire before it leaped up and spread engulfing Gopalganj district that borders Uttar Pradesh.
Our India has as many as 29 states and as many DGPs. Some of the DGPs might be sharing their initiation in the 1987 batch of the Indian Police Service (IPS) with Gupteshwar. Incidentally, a common IPS friend, Binoy Singh informed me that the current Punjab DGP was Gupteshwar’s batch mate and I as Gupteshwar’s friend could meet him when I was in Punjab recently.
But it is Gupteswhar who is more in the news of late. India among most of the countries across the world is reeling in the havoc of Covid-19. There is a sense of hopelessness all around. Stress and depression have gripped the youths and old alike. In such a situation mired in dark spells of melancholy, Gupteshwar has been working as a proverbial ray of hope. He fans out in remote hinterlands of Bihar, inspecting his police stations, patrol police, talking caringly with chowkidars to star ones in his rank and file and presenting himself among the sad-faced dwellers in hinterlands as their brothers and sons. You invariably watch him popping on Facebook— mask on and hands folded—and appealing you to stay isolated and quarantined. He appears to have taken it upon himself to save the Biharis from the impact of the novel virus. And the people at large respond to him for they find in him someone from among them. Serving the state for over 30 years in the capacity of the SP, DIG, IG, ADG and now the DGP he is the same for the larger people what he was to his family and friends as a student.
Saints and Thieves
Some of you might be finding bizarre in him sporting a long tuft tied in a bun in the back centre of his head. Some of you might have watched him wearing ochre-colour lungi and vest when he is relaxed—these moments are few and far between these days. These days, he wears a knit uniform and strides like a determined Corona warrior. But walking, talking and meditating in ochre-coloured attire are natural to him from his youth days.
You know, several chillum smoking and cannabis ball gulping hermits lived at the river bank when we lived there at the Ranighat PG hostel. The Ganga, then, was in full flow. The Raj Kapur film’s song—“Ram teri Ganga maili hogayee; papiyon ka paap dhot-e dhot-e (The Ganga has contaminated itself by washing the sins of sinners)”—had not yet emerged. Unlike today when it looks like a putrid drain with mound ubiquitous sands in its bed here and there, the Ganga was alive in full glory then. Its bank was abode of small temples and half clad hermits; their bare torso and forehead smeared in ashes from the fire on cremation grounds. The heart-shaped leaves of the Peepal trees that shaded these temples and hermits danced and sang even in stillness. The crows cawed and sparrows, bulbuls, barbets, pigeons and parrots chirped in the leaves and foliage that glistened and were as fresh as the river.
A Brahmin from Buxar, Gupteshwar loved the company of these hermits as much as he loved us. To our amusement, he talked to those ascetics for hours and they shared with him stories about Gods, ghosts and spirits. Had it been fiction, I would have conjured the images of the ghosts and spirits, Gupteshwar met through these reclusive hermits. But it is a column aimed at telling you what I watched with my eyes and observed with my physical senses. I was amused to see him spending nights with them when flowing water cried, hitting the banks and the mortals cremated their dead.
Recently, you would have seen a video news-clip in which Gupteshwar milks his ‘desi’ cow in his official campus at Patna. The scene might have fuelled unusual glee in you. But let me recall the story of a milkman. A vegetarian who abhorred the essence of onion and garlic, he had a milkman, supplying milk to him in his hostel room. Of course it was a ‘desi’ cow’s milk for hybrid variety that was non-existent those days. The milkman who wore soiled dhoti in his waist and sported bare torso was a self-styled palm reader. Many of us made fun of him but Guteshwar stretched out his palm to him, making him read it and do his prophecies. After some time, I found that he did it more to make the milkman feel important before him.
Once we went to watch the night show of a movie at Ashoka Cinema Hall on the Buddha Marg, 10 kilometres away. Over with the movie, we walked for our hostel; it was a moonlit night. A suspected thief clad in lungi and netted vest began stalking us as we came near Chhajju Bagh. I sensed that he had a dagger in hand and I was scared. We took the turn for a lane that had the house of a judge. That stalker too took to the same lane and was closing in on us. Gupteshwar suddenly stopped removing his shirt and shouted, “If you you want to take our shirt you can take it but don’t follow us. We don’t have money that you can snatch”. The thief fled.
Coming from a farmer family, he had a steady supply of ghee—clarified butter– from his home. He used to mix ghee and rice to eat. He generously shared it with me and others. Not a foodie in the classical sense, Gupteshwar loved eating vegetable eggplants and berries with rice that is still his favourite. Though a vegetarian he had many meat eating friends. I was one of them.
He was deeply drawn in mysticism. He meditated for hours when he found time from his studies that he still does when he finds time from his police duty. He had deep reverence for the scriptures—be it the Vedas or the Quran Sharif or Bible. Though deeply religious, he abhorred sectarianism that he still does. But I will tell you about these aspects in my subsequent columns when I get the chance to write on him again.