A Quest for Identity

By Vidhan R. Verma

August 18, 2019
Amritsar
Uday

Despite his broad grin of familiarity, I did not recognise the face. Slightly embarrassed, and more than slightly bothered by the jostling as we tried to stay still in the human wave pushing forward, I was at a loss on how best to react to the person who had just tapped my shoulder. The owner of the grin sensed this and drew us to one side of the human caravan.

I studied his face as he led me along the causeway, away from the shrine to a relatively quiet corner outside the parikrama, the circumambulation around the Darbar Sahib Temple, the holiest of Sikh sites. A tall, lean sardar, in his sixties likely, with a rugged complexion. I had not expected to be identified at the Darbar Sahib in Amritsar, away from my home. I came here to pay a homage that no one would comprehend, nor was I in a position to explain.

‘Arrey, Uday puttar, I am Parveen Singh. You remember we met when your uncle, Purushottam Bhai, was in the hospital? And before that at Mohan Bhai’s uthavni when I came to Agra. You wouldn’t remember me there certainly—so many people turned up and we barely met. What a man he was. What can I say, Waheguru has a strange will sometimes.’

Papa’s death. That was the moment that changed so much for me. I had been reliving the episodes that followed, for the past six years. If only my dad had not died, I would not have found…I composed myself. I faintly recollected meeting someone who resembled this gentleman while I looked after Tauji in Meerut after his stroke, but that could well be my mind making up details to establish a connection.

‘Ohh, I remember a little now, Uncle. So you are from Meerut then,’ I said, hazarding a guess.

‘Yes, yes. Your daddy and I were close. Well, technically I was close to Pritam Pra, who was your father’s best buddy…’

I stood there transfixed, not catching a word of the rest of the sentence after hearing that name. The name that had haunted me for the past six years. How many people had I not asked about that name; how many times had I made excuses to go to Meerut so I could discover something about Pritam Singh. And here, all by divine providence, a source had appeared before me.

‘So you knew Pritam Singh?’

‘Knew him? Of course I knew him! That is what I was telling you – he was my pra, my maasi’s son. Mohan Bhai and he—they were my protectors. Well, actually for the longest time both of them resented my presence. I was four years younger, but Maasi would force them to include me in their games. But why are we talking here? Look at me, I am so happy to see you here that I have forgotten everything! Let’s go outside. Chacha makes a good lassi right outside Darbar Sahib. Of course, Amritsar wallahs say no lassi is as good as Ahuja’s, but for me, even this one is heavenly.’

As Parveen Singh offered me a seat near the small eatery and went to fetch the lassi, my mind trailed back to the events that had led to this day.

It all started when Papa passed away after a brief but stormy fight with cancer. After the first wave of grief settled and I thought to return to my job in Delhi, the question of Papa’s business in Agra came up. Papa had always insisted that I carve my own way instead of joining his business. You are not destined to haggle over a few hundred rupees on the price of TMT rods, he would say. I never understood this, but I had heard it so often and for so long that I never thought of questioning him.

I was totally lost in the nuances of the sale, let alone getting a fair valuation, until Tauji came down from Meerut to help me. We grew quite close in the process. He filled the recent vacuum in my life, and perhaps I reciprocated for a longer one. Tauji had lost Ravi—his only son—when Ravi and I were both four. He had gone missing during a family picnic. Some said he had drowned in the river, while others suspected a new servant who was with them. Ravi was never found, and Taiji never recovered from the shock and died of sorrow a couple of years later. Tauji, who was anyway reserved, became more so after the double loss.

Tauji went back to Meerut after the deal was finalised, leaving me to sift through a lifetime of papers before the purchasing party took over. That’s how I found the ones that turned my world upside down. Amongst the really old papers was an adoption deed stating that Mr Mohan Agarwal and Mrs Uma Agarwal were adopting Uday, the son of Late Mr Pritam Singh and Late Mrs Roop Kaur. I was shell-shocked.

Your parents are as important a part of your existence as your name. That very existence, the very foundation of who I believed I was, was shaken to the core. My first instinct was to ask Mummy, but I had taken her with me to Delhi a few days ago, not wanting to leave her to grieve alone. Asking her right now would but add to her grief.

The long hours of the night gave me a chance to think things through. I realised there was no win for me in asking her or otherwise. If I didn’t ask her, I would possibly never discover the truth. If I did ask her, our relationship might never be the same again. Biological son or not, I was really close to my parents and I wasn’t ready to distance myself from the only surviving one. For her sake and mine, I decided to forego seeking the inconvenient truth. Ignorance would definitely be bliss here.

It was one thing to make such a decision, another to live with it. In the ensuing months, any moment that I had to myself, the question of my identity stuck out its serpentine head. My heart ached for answers. I finally had to accept that I would have no rest until I found the truth. I had to know.

I decided that the best course was to enquire about Pritam Singh and Roop Kaur. Given that the deed mentioned an address for them in Meerut, I decided that Purushottam Tauji would be the best person to ask. I went to Meerut the same weekend and casually dropped the question.

‘Tauji, have you heard of some Pritam Singh whom my father knew?’

‘Haan haan, he was your father’s friend. Don’t you remember him? You must have been very young when he died. But why do you ask?’

I made up a story about seeing his name a few times in Papa’s files.

‘That must be because Mohan often helped him with money.’

In the end, I gathered that Pritam was Papa’s bosom friend from his childhood. Pritam wasn’t well off and Papa often helped his friend. He and his wife had eventually migrated to Canada, where he had landed a job. Unfortunately, within a few months, they died in a road accident. Pritam Singh had no surviving family members.

I was starting to think that I might be Pritam Singh’s kid, adopted after his death, but nothing in Tauji’s demeanour raised a suspicion. Over the next few trips, I tried to delve deeper, but my investigations only corroborated Tauji’s story. Pritam’s home had long been occupied by others, and the few neighbours who remembered him had no further details to offer.

Left with no fresh leads, I finally resigned myself to the fact that I would probably never close this chapter without an enquiry to Mummy that I was not willing to make.

It was while performing the annual pitr-paksha rituals for Papa that it occurred to me that Pritam Singh and Roop Kaur’s souls were still suffering without a similar ritual. Not knowing how one goes about satisfying one’s departed ancestors in Sikhism, I decided on the next best option. My visit to Amritsar became an annual ritual to ask Guru’s mehar for their moksha. This was my fifth visit.

I was still lost in the past when Parveen Singh handed me a glass of lassi and sat down next to me. I was trying to figure out the politest way to ask the one question I had, when he spoke.

‘Those were the days, son, when relationships were valued. When no one was willing to even offer us Sikhs a glass of water after ’84, it was your father who got me my first job. I still remember like yesterday how he told Kothari Saab, “If you trust me, you can trust him. He is my brother; I take his responsibility.” Who would do that today?’

‘I am sure you and Pritam Uncle must have been very close for him to do that. You all were, right? I have heard that my dad and Pritam Singh were close, but I don’t know anything more,’ I said carefully, trying to steer him in the desired direction.

‘Well, Pritam was my cousin. Our mothers were sisters and we moved from Darbhanga to Meerut after my father’s death. My mother found work in a papad factory, and I was often with Pritam Pra and Mohan Bhai when she worked. Your father and Pritam were inseparable. I just tagged along with them wherever they went. Your father eventually moved to Agra and started his business there. He visited often though, and when he did, it was as if nothing had changed between the two friends. They were as close as always.

‘Then one of Pritam’s cousins in Punjab moved to Canada and offered to get him a job there. Pritam saw this as the only means to escape his penury. The problem was, unlike his cousin, he did not have land to sell to finance the tickets. No one would lend him money either, without a surety.

‘Pritam Pra was hesitant to approach your father, but when Mohan Bhai visited Meerut a few days later, he could sense the disquiet in his friend. It was only a matter of time before he discovered its source. Mohan Bhai did not waste a moment after that—he mortgaged his business in Agra to fund his friend, ignoring the latter’s pleas.

‘Pritam could not sleep for nights together, weighed by this debt. He was willing to lay down his life for his friend to repay it. One sleepless night, a novel thought entered his mind.’

Parveen Singh paused and looked straight into my eyes.

‘Maybe Waheguru brought us together here so you could learn this. Here is the part you may or may not know, but it concerns you. You were born to your father late in life and were the apple of his eye. He wanted to bring you up to be an officer, a gentleman of the world, and not a small-town businessman like himself. I am sure he would have been really proud of you—aren’t you a big officer at some company now? Well, aware of his friend’s desire, Pritam Pra suggested a plan. Once he and Roop Parjai settled down in Canada, they would send for you and you would have a foreign education in Canada.

‘To take advantage of the free education offered in that country, you would be shown on paper to be Pritam and Roop’s son. A second birth certificate was obtained for you. You should have seen the happiness on your dad’s face, despite the prospect of your being away for several years. He was going to make something great out of you…little did he know that his plan would come crashing down in a few months. Rab had other plans; Pritam and Parjai passed away soon after moving.’

I was silent, my eyes moist as I now understood Papa’s insistence on education and not joining hisbusiness. Realising this might be my only opportunity to learn the entire truth, I said, ‘Parveen Chacha, you do not know how much this story means to me. I have been looking for certain answers for the past six years, and you are the first person I’ve met who might have them all. I barely know you, but my father called you a brother so I know I can trust you to keep a secret. Several lives may never be the same otherwise.’

‘Of course, son, whatever we discuss here goes with me to my pyre.’

‘Thank you, Chachaji.’ I took a long breath and revealed to Parveen Singh my discovery of the adoption deed six years ago.

He heard me out patiently, then gently took my hand and patted it. ‘O puttar, how much weight you have borne all these years! I wish we had met earlier; you would not have had to endure this unnecessary misery. Pritam Pra had processed your papers for Canada along with his and Parjai’s. That meant the pakka records of India and Canada showed that you were their son. When Pritam’s meagre belongings and compensation for their death were received, they were addressed to Uday Singh, his son. That scared Mohan Bhai, and he adopted you officially to ensure there would be no problem later.’

Parveen Singh’s explanation left me stupefied. The burden of six years came down all at once, and I could not hold back the tears. I cried as he embraced me. I felt as though a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

I was scheduled to leave Amritsar the same evening and took leave of Parveen Singh. Promising to meet him in Meerut, I left for the railway station. As chance would have it, my train to Delhi was delayed, and there was one scheduled to leave for Meerut in 15 minutes. I figured I could visit Tauji for a few hours and then continue to Delhi. The weight of six years was gone, but the heart still wanted an outlet.

August 19, 2019
Meerut
Ravi

As I sipped sugary tea at the stall opposite House no. 513, I went over the events that had been triggered six months ago.

I was eight years old when my parents told me I was adopted. They had sat me down in our Toronto home and told me they got me from an orphanage in India. Nothing was known of my birth parents. I thought later that I was the sorry chapter of a romance that didn’t culminate in a wedding. I had heard that was taboo in India.

My shrink thinks that learning of my adoption is the reason I’ve never developed close relationships, not even with my parents. I don’t know for sure.

Six months ago, I received a connection request on LinkedIn from one Tejinder Juneja from a news portal called Punjab Khabar, promising to tell me secrets about my life that my parents and Gurmeet Mamaji had kept hidden from me. I ignored it. My parents had long warned me that people would talk about my adoption and make up stories about it.

When Sandra told me there was a Tejinder trying to reach me on my office line, I instantly knew who it was, and took the call out of embarrassment. I mean, who reaches out on the office line these days?

‘Hello.’

‘Ravinder Pra, you are so hard to reach. Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn—I tried everything. You just don’t respond.’

‘May I know what this is about?’ I said, quite irritated, knowing there were several ears surreptitiously trying to listen in.

‘Heh heh…sorry, Pra. You are in office and all. I won’t take much of your time. I will come straight to the point. Your parents may have hidden this from you, but I will tell you a secret today. Mrs Harinder Kaur Arora did not give birth to you…’

‘Yes, I already know that,’ I interrupted tersely, ‘and if that is what you are calling about, I don’t need to…’

‘Just give me one minute, Paaji, don’t disconnect,’ he said hurriedly. ‘But do you also know who your birth parents are and where they live, or have you been given some cock-and-bull story of being raised in an orphanage?’

I was momentarily stupefied.

‘I thought as much,’ he said after a pause. ‘Now do you want to talk about it? Unfortunately, Paaji, my phone is low in call balance. As you know, it costs a lot to call you this way. I gather it may be much cheaper for you to call me. After all, you earn in dollars, heh heh. My number is…’

I quickly noted the number, relieved that the conversation was over. I had spent a lot of time thinking about the circumstances of my birth, but I was in two minds about calling Tejinder and did not do so that evening.

When I returned to the office the next morning, Tejinder had already called twice. I finally dialled his number to avoid another phone call.

‘Hi, this is Ravi.’

‘Ravinder Pra, you did not call back. Not interested to know about your life?’

‘Actually, no, I am not. Please do not call me again. Thank you.’

‘Pra, there I know you are lying through your teeth. I am sure you would have tossed and turned in your bed all night, wondering what this journalist from India wants to tell you about your birth that your parents have not. Paaji, let me assure you, this is a story so interesting that Hollywood will make a thriller out of it, heh heh. It has all the great elements—suspense, crime, secrecy, guile, and also the great love of a brother for his sister.’

Every time he laughed his ugly laugh, I disliked him a little more.

‘OK, let’s get it over with. Please tell me whatever you have to tell me.’

‘Paa ji…it’s such an intriguing story. I wouldn’t tell you just like that. It’s worth a Hollywood movie and I have done a lot of research to get here. My labour needs to be compensated, right? But how would you know, eh? I will tell you one part of the story and then you decide if it’s good enough.’

The guy then went on to assert—through a long-winded narrative—that my parents did not adopt me from an orphanage. I was ‘bought’ from a criminal who had stolen me from my birth parents. Gurmeet Mamaji was somehow involved in this whole affair. Tejinder had discovered all this when he was trying to dig up dirt on Mamaji, who was a local politician now.

‘Paaji, money is secondary; it’s just the compensation for my effort. I think everyone has a right to know the truth about himself, and it’s my moral responsibility to let you know. Just for that reason, with great effort I have also found out the identity of the poor couple who paid the price of your Mamaji’s great love for his sister.’

His laugh followed. I hated this slime more by the minute. He claimed he had solid proof to corroborate his story and wanted 10 lakh rupees—less than 20,000 dollars, as he said—for the rest of the story, with supporting evidence. It was the last detail—the identity of my birth parents—that suddenly made the whole affair seem real. I knew then I would buy the information.

We worked out the deal. I transferred the money

Ever since I’d paid the Tejinder, I was divided. One part of me wished that he would disappear. I would be a moron for having trusted him so far, but I would also know that there was no truth in his story. The other part wanted my money’s worth and to live with a life-shattering truth forever.

I had just started to have doubts about Tejinder when the packet arrived. There wasn’t much to show for the money I had paid. Copies of some newspaper clippings with very grainy pictures—hard to make out anything from those. There was also a copy of an FIR. Tejinder asked me to call to piece the story together.

He told me the entire story, using the documents to substantiate it wherever required. I hated to admit it to myself—for someone with no scruples, his research was quite exhaustive.

Bhushan Lal was the prodigal son of a couple who had served my mother’s family for several decades in their ancestral village of Assi Kalan. While he was lying low after a failed dacoity, he managed to get employment with a wealthy business family in Meerut. He soon gained their trust and used the first opportunity to kidnap a young boy of the family and disappear.

The original idea was to extract a ransom, but the cops acted too fast and he got cold feet. He had no option but to escape to his village

While his parents detested his ways, they knew he was looking at a long jail term if they did not help him. They approached the people from whom they had always sought help—their employers. Gurmeet Mamaji had just started his political career and knew it would not serve him well to get involved in Bhushan’s business. However, he remembered his childless sister in Canada; this might be a godsend to help her.

So he arranged for Bhushan to lie low, for the cops to not look too hard for him, and for the adoption papers to be prepared.

Gurmeet Mamaji thought he had covered his tracks well, but as he rose to new heights in his political career, he came under greater scrutiny, and Tejinder managed to dig up the evidence. Mamaji bought his silence when he was blackmailed. However, when Tejinder tried to milk his cash cow again, he realised that the cow had grown ministerial horns and now threatened him back. So Tejinder approached me as another scheme to liquidate his investment.

I was silently absorbing all of this when Tejinder spoke again. ‘Paaji, I have also determined the whereabouts of your birth parents. Lakshmi Agarwal—your birth mother—never recovered from the loss and died a few years later. Your father is still alive, though the double loss has made him a shadow of the man he was. I can give you his address. It’s up to you what you want to do with it.’

My hands trembled as I made a note of the address. I know Tejinder spoke for some more time, but that is the last thing I remember of the call.

In the months that followed, I googled the names a thousand times, checked out what I thought was Purushottam Agarwal’s home on maps, before I realised there was no peace to be had until I visited the place. I had no idea what I was supposed to do there, but I thought I would get some closure.

The flight landed in Delhi late at night, and I was in Meerut as day broke. The taxi driver was a little amused that I chose not to get down at a house or hotel, but at a tea stall that was just opening up. Number 513 stood right opposite—a single-storey building surrounded by a green patch and enclosed by a low boundary wall. Both the surroundings and the white building had certainly seen better days. Sitting at the tea stall, I could easily see the front gate and what went on in the compound.

Did I remember the place that was once my home? Honestly, I had thought of this moment so often that I could no longer separate fact from fiction.

Seeing my obvious interest in the bungalow that stood opposite, the chatty stall-owner started talking about it and its occupants without needing any prompting. The story that I now knew well was repeated—the child’s disappearance, the demise of the lady of the house, the poise of the man amidst all this.

As I sat listening to his narration, my birth father came out and began tending to his little garden. I had come so far, yet I could not gather the courage to cross the street. When a young man entered the bungalow a little later, his identity was supplied immediately. The younger brother’s son—my cousin—who now lives in Delhi.

I had to wait another couple of hours to catch the next glimpse of the occupants. During this time my mind made a thousand attempts to cross the street, but my legs none. The nephew was leaving and Purushottam Agarwal—my father—came to the gate to see him off. He stood there for a few moments, looking at the departing guest, and our eyes met briefly as he was about to go back inside.

I do not know what happened at that moment, but I stood up as our eyes met. He gave me a long, enquiring look, his eyes possibly trying to recognise me, but failing. I knew that was the moment for me to walk across and talk, but all I could do was offer a brief nod, which was reciprocated. I thought he considered talking to me for a moment, but then dropped the thought and continued inside. I thought he wiped his eyes before entering the house.

I sat down again, trying to gather the courage that I knew I would never be able to gain. After several moments I got up and left.

August 19, 2019
Meerut
Purushottam

I was watering the small patch of flowers that Lakshmi had been so fond of, when Uday entered. I was surprised, but he explained that he was returning from Amritsar and on impulse thought of visiting me before proceeding to Delhi. Mohan’s loss has brought us closer together, and I can see he cares deeply for me.

I made some tea while he freshened up. I could see that he had something in his heart that he wanted to share, but I let him take his time.

‘Tauji,’ he began slowly, ‘I want to tell you something you that I learnt of just yesterday. When we were in the process of selling the business in Agra, I came to know certain facts about myself, about my birth, that completely shook me. That Mohan Agarwal might not be my real father.’

I was so stunned that I couldn’t speak. I had to try really hard to hold back the lump forming in my throat. My heart pounded hard and I had to rest my mug on the table to not give away the trembling of my hand. Uday was too absorbed to notice.

He narrated a story that I could follow only because I already knew some parts and had a strong inkling about others. My mind kept racing elsewhere. When he finished, I could not hold back my tears anymore.

‘My son, how much have you suffered!’ I said, reaching forward and holding him in a loose embrace.

‘Yes, Tauji, I am glad it’s over now and I can live in peace.’

‘Yes, my son. Cry no more,’ I said.

His tears followed mine and we sat for a few minutes like that. Finally, wiping his tears, Uday said he had to leave for Delhi, and promised to visit again soon. I saw him off to the compound gate and watched him walk away until I couldn’t see him anymore.

I was about to turn back when I noticed the Sikh man at Govardhan’s stall. Our eyes met and he stood up and nodded. I returned the nod but did not recognise him. We stood frozen for a few moments, but then I remembered I had important business that could not be delayed.

I went inside the house, to my bedroom, to the wardrobe. I pulled out the steel box and took out the two stapled papers that lay at the very top. As I walked to the kitchen with it, I read it one last time even though I knew the contents by heart.

This is to certify that the following information has been taken from the original record of birth which is registered in Meerut Nagarpalika of Meerut District of Uttar Pradesh State.

Name of the Child: Ravi Agarwal

Date of birth: March 23rd 1988

Mother’s name: Lakshmi Agarwal

Father’s name: Purushottam Agarwal

The second page was similar, but for one detail

This is to certify that the following information has been taken from the original record of birth which is registered in Meerut Nagarpalika of Meerut District of Uttar Pradesh State.

Name of the Child: Uday Agarwal

Date of birth: March 23rd 1988

Mother’s name: Lakshmi Agarwal

Father’s name: Purushottam Agarwal

With tears in my eyes, I set the papers alight.

Vidhan’s personal story is about the two worlds he has lived in – growing up in small town Madhya Pradesh, and global citizenship in his day life. Most of his stories germinate from sitting with his lawyer dad and snooping tidbits from the simple and complex lives of his clients. Others are born from eavesdropping over-hearing conversations on flights, lounges and hotels. Vidhan graduated from IIM Calcutta, despite admitting during his admission interview that he wants to be a writer (tip: don’t try that). He calls Bangalore home and longs to go gathering stories in small town India.

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