I literally fell into Aunty Mohini’s place one day. I skidded my motorcycle and fell on the road that went past her house. I had no major injuries but a lot of lacerations. There was sand on the road, and I took that turn too fast and too low and skidded. When I picked myself up, I realized that I was around the corner from the home of my father’s friends, Mohini and Rajan Alexander. So, I decided to go there, at least to wash up and have a glass of water. Aunty Mohini did much more than that. She cleaned and bandaged my wounds and gave me a hot cup of soup. It was from this incident that our relationship of mentor – protégé started. I simply have no words for it.
I had just got a driving license but had no car. She had a car but didn’t drive. So, I used to drive her around whenever I was free. She called me Yawar Baba. We would go to the library at the Secundrabad Club where I would borrow books on her card. We would then sit in the lounge, and I would have a cold coffee with ice cream, and she would have a cup of tea. And all the while I was learning…the manners and social graces of Western society that would stand me in good stead in the future. Mentoring is about demonstration more than about teaching. And that is what Aunty Mohini did so well. For my part, I learned to observe closely and imitate. After all, learning social etiquettes is a matter of imitating well. I was never ashamed of asking questions. That is how you learn. If you don’t ask, people won’t tell you either because they think you know or because they believe you may be offended. And you remain ignorant. So, ask freely. I did and learnt.
She treated me like her son, and I would spend many hours daily with her. We would talk about all kinds of things. About religion (she was agnostic), about death, about life, about Hyderabadi culture, about Western culture (she went to school in England and had an English mother), music, drama, literature, philosophy. She would give me books to read and then we would discuss them. With her I read Ayn Rand, James Thurber, P.G. Wodehouse, Gerald Durrell (I loved and love animals), Jim Corbett, J. R. R. Tolkien, and many others.
She would play records (gramophone records – days before tapes and CDs and of course, we hadn’t even heard of TVs or iPods) of Western masters and then would ask me which I liked the most. I listened to Bach, Beethoven, Brahms but I loved Spanish Flamenco more than anything else, the rhythm, click of castanets and the stamping of heels.
I would observe Aunty Mohini all the time and that is how I learnt most things about Western etiquette. Which knife went with which course, which wine went with which meat. I did not drink wine of course but learnt everything about Western cuisine. I learnt about dressing for the occasion. I learnt about addressing people of different social status. I learnt about treatment of servants and those who worked for you. With respect, concern, and regard to their problems. I never saw Aunty Mohini address any servant without respect. This is a sign of breeding and generates loyalty in those who work with you. Of course, I had also learned this in my own home. Manners were a big part of our culture and upbringing, but it was good to have the learning constantly reinforced. I benefited from this learning all my life. When I was in the tea gardens, I was famous as the only manager who spoke to workers with the plural address of respect. There are several ways to say YOU in Indian languages. In Indian languages, to address someone in the singular form is disrespectful. To address then in the plural is a sign of respect. I always do that and am the chief beneficiary of this courtesy.
Manners are a wonderful thing, much neglected today. It seems that nobody teaches them anymore, maybe because most people don’t even know where to begin. And I don’t mean only Western manners. This is what I find hardest to accept in today’s times, the absence of manners. Even simple matters like asking permission before using someone else’s space or things and saying ‘Thank you’ when someone does something for you. People on a plane India for example, have no compunctions about simply reaching across you and pulling out your magazine from the pocket in your seat without so much as a ‘By your leave’. And then they look shocked and angry if you object. Our society is changing and not all of it is for the better.
Aunty Mohini spoke fluent Urdu like all the people of her generation but was not into Urdu poetry or Hindustani classical music. So, I did not listen to anything of that kind with her. She would take me to any concert or play that was happening. I would be dressed in a suit or sherwani and she would be wearing her diamonds. I would park the car and get out and open her door. She would remain seated until I opened the door. Then she would get out, say, “Thank you Baba”, take my arm and we would go up the stairs of the theatre. After the show was over, we would stand around for some time while her friends came to meet her. To every one of them she would say, “May I present Mirza Yawar Baig.” And I would shake their hand.
One day Aunty Mohini said to me, “Today someone is coming to see me, that I want you to meet. He is not a rich man, but he is a scholar. Remember that izzat (prestige) is not a factor of wealth but of breeding, nobility, knowledge, and learning. So, greet him with respect.” Not that I would have done anything else, but she wanted to make a point. At precisely 11: 00 AM an auto rickshaw drove up and an elderly man alighted. He was dressed in a starched white dhoti and was wearing a sherwani and a cap. Aunty Mohini made the traditional Hyderabadi salutation of Adaab to him: “Main Adaab arz karti hoon Mahboob Narayan sahib (I present my respects to you Mahboob Narayan sahib). He responded in the same way. And then she introduced me to him. That is how I first met my Urdu teacher who I have written about earlier in this chapter. He taught me much more than the language alone. He taught me the meaning of grace and hospitality. He taught me that nobility is the outcome of one’s service and is defined by it. Not by how you throw your weight around.
I have mentioned my story of Rai Sahib drinking tea in another room because I was fasting, earlier in this story – a fine example of manners and consideration for others. Interestingly, several decades after this story, I was on a flight to Bangalore during Ramadan and when the food was served, imagine my surprise when the person sitting next to me asked, “Do you mind if I eat?” I realized that he had guessed correctly from my appearance that I was a Muslim and was being considerate. Rai Mahboob Narayan sahib would have been very pleased to know that among people of culture and breeding, consideration for each other is still alive. Indeed, it should be. That is the single most credible sign of upbringing. The man who asked me was a Malayalee Christian called George from Kerala and worked for GE in their HR department in Hyderabad. If he reads this book, I want him to know that I remember his gesture and appreciated it very much.
Then one day Aunty Mohini went away. She went to Bombay (it was still called Bombay then) and would not tell anyone why she went. She was gone for 3 weeks. Every day she would write a letter to me. I still have those letters. One day came a letter asking if I would like to come to visit her in Bombay. I agreed with alacrity and off I went on a train and landed in Bombay. She had given me directions of how to get to her. She was staying with her niece Indira and her husband Mohan Brito, who thought nothing of having a strange 15-year-old boy also come to stay for an extended period – eventually 2 weeks. I am blessed to have such wonderful, hospitable people in my life. Indira’s flat was in Bandra near the bandstand, a two-bedroom apartment on the 6th floor of her building with a wonderful view of the sea. Much has changed in Bandra since then, but I still remember Indira’s wonderful cooking, especially shark which I ate there for the first time. Indira’s lovely little daughter Divya who was about 2 years old became a very dear friend. I used to carry her around on my shoulder and she would want to be carried the moment I walked into the house. She used to say ‘No’ to everything and so was called No-No. I have always had a good equation with children who seem to like me and trust me. This was my first trip to Bombay and Aunty Mohini insisted that I see everything and do everything. She looked distinctly unwell but would not say what it was. I rode on the Bombay local trains—my main mode of transport to and from home in Bandra at Indira’s place—with my money in my socks, in deference to Bombay’s famous pickpockets.
I went to the theatre in Bombay, which is a much more advanced affair than what Hyderabad was or is even today. I went to the Taj on Colaba. It did not have the Towers wing then, just the old building. Once Aunty Mohini came with me and we stood near the Gateway of India, and she analyzed the Taj building architecturally for my education. She talked to me about the various styles of architecture and the importance of blending in with surrounding building styles when adding an extension. Sadly, there is a marked absence of this architectural principle in most additions in Hyderabad and beautiful old buildings like the Osmania General Hospital have huge ugly annexes that ruin the lines of the old structure. Aunty Mohini had a phrase for this kind of building style— ‘Modern Indian Horrible’. We would talk about the influence of the Moghul style on buildings in India. We would discuss the effect of the pointed arch that Muslim architects introduced, which was much stronger than the semi-circular arch used in Christian buildings; and the adaptation of that style in India, called Indo-Saracenic by the British, the term, a hangover of the Crusades. Then we would go and sit in the Sea Lounge at the Taj, and I would have my ‘regular’ – cold coffee with ice cream.
And then it all ended. I learnt the reason for Aunty Mohini’s trip to Bombay. She had gone to get a confirmation of the diagnosis of cancer.
After we returned, I have no idea how time flew. The last scene I remember was the day she died. She was in terrible pain. She asked for me and I went in to see her. There were many people in the room. Yadgar Chinoy was standing at the foot of the bed. My father (he was her physician) was in attendance. She looked at me and smiled, through that pain. She said, “Yawar Baba, take care of yourself.” I can still feel the pain in my heart. But I dared not cry. I can still see her lying there, her hair combed and dressed properly in a classy gown with a sheet covering her; in pain, but in control of herself with dignity and pride. No self-pity, anger, or frustration. No sign of any weakness. No sign of any fear. What a memory to have alive with me all these decades. What a woman!! How fortunate I was. It was an honor to have known her. To this day as I write this, my tears flow freely.
After the funeral was over, I remember sitting on a low wall under the tamarind tree at the bottom of the garden of Cozy Corner (her house) with Uncle Rama, knowing that life would never be the same, ever again. It wasn’t. But I hope that if Aunty Mohini could have seen me today she would be pleased with what she helped to build.
What did I learn from her?
I think the most important thing that I learnt was to question; to never accept anything as a given. Be it the existence of God or the rules of religion or be it the rules of society or science or history, I learnt to question everything. I learnt that to question is not to deny. It can often result in getting proof for something that was until then believed in blindly. This happened with my questioning of my own religion, Islam. I became a more committed Muslim.
I have no idea if Aunty Mohini would have wanted quite such a result, but I do know that she would have supported it because I came to my conclusions myself. Even if those may have been very different from her own. She used to say when we disagreed on something, “I don’t agree with you but will defend to the death, your right to differ.” Another thing she used to say is, “Just because something has been done in a particular way for 20 years is not reason enough to continue to do it in the same way for the next 20 years. But it is often reason enough to change the way it is done.”
I learnt that there are no limits on myself except those I choose to place. I learnt that there are no limits on change that can be wrought provided you have the perspective to chart a course, the intelligence to make online changes and the dedication to persevere.
I learnt to stand up for my rights. I learnt to stand up for the rights of others even at cost to myself. I learnt to take the unpopular stance based on the principles in which I believed. I learnt that the true measure of a human being is not his net worth in dollars. I learnt that a person may be wealthy but morally bankrupt and vice versa.
Wealth or poverty, age or youth, race, or religion, none of them is a measure of a person’s nobility. Our actions are the only indicator of our worth. Not what we know or what we possess. But what we do with what we have. Be it knowledge, power, or wealth. I learnt that possessions mean nothing. Contribution means everything. I learnt that one needs to mature and grow out of the childish desire to own ‘toys’, no matter what they cost. I learnt that the real cost is often measured in lost opportunities, broken relationships, and a failure to leave a mark. I learnt that it is not important whether we live or die. What is important is what we leave behind—our legacy to the world; what we are remembered for.
I learnt that an article made of metal or rubber (read – car, jewelry, gadgets) or another made of brick and mud (read – house) does not add value to a human being. I learnt that it is the human who adds value to his possessions. I learnt that it was important to walk my talk long before I had heard that phrase. I learnt that life always has choices and if you are ready to pay the price of the choice, you can have whatever you like. I learnt also that sometimes the price is hidden and that the hidden price is higher than what you can see. I learnt the meaning of being truthful and honest and upright. And that the cost to yourself of telling lies is far higher than whatever it was that you were trying to avoid by lying. I learnt that contrary to what is believed, you can fool yourself but not the world.
I learnt the meaning of consideration, kindness, sensitivity, manners, social graces, and hospitality. And all these and more, I learnt by seeing them in action. That to me is the true meaning of mentoring. And Aunty Mohini lives on in my heart as my first and greatest mentor.