I am fortunate to have friends of all age groups. Last month, I lost the youngest and most enthusiastic of my friends- Vepa Paratha Sarathi – at the age of 96. He was the best example of how a person should lead his life: simply, frugally and with a huge smile on his face, no matter what the adversities and circumstances may be.
I used to meet him and his wife Shanta often as my daughter and his grand daughters were friends since childhood. He was a slightly-built, diminutive man full of child-like enthusiasm, always rushing off to give lectures at various law colleges, the AP Judicial Academy and theNationalPoliceAcademy. When the grand daughters were small girls, he used to drop them off to my place, mostly walking down to leave them or pick them up as we live in the same neighbourhood. Sometimes he would stop for a cup of tea which he would gulp down quickly as there would be an auto-rickshaw or Police Jeep waiting outside to take him for his Lectures and he did not want to keep the driver waiting.
Often he would give me a book to read-PG Wodehouse and Arthur Conan Doyle were his favourites. When I once mentioned to him that I was a law graduate, he came over to give me a book on the Indian Evidence Act. It was a busy week, I was caught up with mundane chores and the house was being painted, yet I could not put down the brown paper covered book that I had thought would be dull and boring. The anecdotes, the quotes and the humour that the author used to enrich the subject matter were all extra-ordinary. The next time Uncle Sarathi (as I called him) telephoned, I remarked how much I was enjoying the book that he had lent me. He said, “You can keep it, it is mine.” Only then did it dawn on me that Vepa P Sarathi and Uncle Sarathi was one and the same person! He later gave me copies of his other books Interpretation of Statutes and Ancient Indian Mathematics and Astronomy. He was as genuinely delighted by the fact that I liked his book as he was with the thought that I had no prior inkling that he was the author.
He was a humble man, not given to dropping names or telling all of his accomplishments. Once when he could not find his reading glasses and wanted to find a phone number in his telephone book, he handed it over to me. I was amazed to see the names of several Legal Luminaries and their numbers written in his old fashioned handwriting. Over the years, I learnt that he had been appointed as counsel on behalf of the Government of India in the Bhopal Gas Leak tragedy. He started practicing law in 1942, after taking a degree from theMadrasUniversity. He also had an MA in Mathematics from thePresidencyCollege. He had been the Legal Assistant to the Press Commission, as well as a member of the Law Commission of India. He was down to earth and modest but he was over the moon when the NALSAR University of Law conferred an Honorary Doctorate on him in 2007. He was happiest while he was in NALSAR. He commuted daily from home by bus to this University situated many miles outsideHyderabad. I never saw him tired; in fact he always seemed refreshed after his interaction with the students there.
His only daughter had died of hepatitis and then his son-in-law passed away but he was never one to complain about life. He looked after his late daughter’s adopted child and her two sisters too. He was an atheist who read the Bhagvad Gita daily and lived his life inspired by it. He found humour in everything: when my son was very small and mischievous, he had left a tap open at Uncle Sarathi’s place and all the water had drained out of the overhead tank. It was peak summer and it must have been a hardship to be without water until the next day but he used to often chuckle and recount this incident to me. It is only fitting that my son Khordad is now grown up and in law school.
He was multi-talented: the water colours hanging on the walls of his house were all painted by him; he was a prolific reader with an elephantine memory who could quote verbatim, whether it was from Shakespeare or a book of jokes. He had very few clothes in his wardrobe; even that cupboard was filled with books, as was the rest of his house!
I met him and his wife last on New Year’s Eve when I had gone to drop my daughter there. I went in to wish him and his wife and stayed on for the next few hours. He was only 22 and his wife a mere 16 when they married and they would have celebrated their 75th year of marriage but fate ruled otherwise. He spent most of the evening teasing her and substantiating his statements with quotes of George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and even PG Wodehouse. She seemed to revel in it, basking in his attention and I suddenly realised that I was lucky to witness one of the rare Love Stories that spanned two centuries.
He was born on 17th July 1915 and his wife and grand daughters used to celebrate his birthday every year after his return from NALSAR. He would say, “I can’t understand why they make this fuss over me year after year” but one could see that he was hugely enjoying himself. I was pretty sure that whether Sachin made his 100th century or not, Uncle Sarathi would definitely hit his own maiden century as he was batting on splendidly. He did think so too. Even in hospital with an acute respiratory disorder, all he could talk about was getting back to NALSAR in time for his lecture. He died as he lived, on 25th January 2012, with a huge smile on his face, leaving his legion of fans and well-wishers devastated. It was a rare honour and a privilege to have known a person like him.