Ajai R. Singh MD

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Life and Influences

On this page I shall describe some important influences on my life, in childhood, school, college, medicine, psychiatry and philosophy. 

Early Life

Born Ajai to Mr R. C. Singh [father] and Mrs Chandradevi Singh [mother], I am the youngest of three brothers, Kamlesh and Ramesh, with two younger sisters Anita and Indu. I took my school education at Sampson English High School, Mulund, Mumbai, from 1959-69, completing SSC, after which went to St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, from 1969-71 to complete Inter Science.

In all that I write below, I shall try to describe what was my childhood and early adulthood like, with the important influences in my life during that phase. There is no attempt at any glorification, just facts as they come to my memory and that need to be penned.

All through school I was a first ranker, excelling in studies. Just lost my rank once, in the 4th grade, behind which is a story that I will recount later. I was also a debater of some merit, both in English and Hindi, representing my school at various competitions for which I won a number of prizes. I was also a middle distance runner, for which too I represented my school on numerous occasions.

 

Formative Influences

Pitaji

Pitaji [means father in Hindi:  he insisted he call me thus, and not dad or any other anglicized version] trained me in athletics and music during my schooling, waking me up early morning for running, and later in the evening training me to sing and do other exercises.

Pitaji was a man of modest means but rare qualities. He was a handsome man who left his village to come to Mumbai seeking work in films. His teachers wept when he left his village, for he was a bright boy excelling in studies, and they knew the fickleness of the career choice he had made. He spent many years till he realised that he had no success in films and that he needed to settle. He moved like a vagabond all through, from one job to another, getting married, fathering 2 kids, but not settling down, till I was born.

From just before my birth, pitaji underwent a magical transformation. He settled into a permanent job in the railways, bought a house, and started taking care of his family. I was the first child in the family born in a hospital. Following my birth, his father made it the mission of his life to bring me up in the best manner possible.

He abandoned his vagabond ways and took to mentoring me. He would wake with me early morning to train me in running a mile and later do the high jump [for which he had made me dig a pit on the nearby ground. He looked into my breakfast and study  later, looked after my daily diet, my exercise and study schedule in the evening, having dinner together squatting on the floor [we had no dining table], and then put me to sleep.

Pitaji helped me develop a love of quality music and literature. The first poem I remember he taught me was not a nursery rhyme but Henry Longfellow’s ‘Footprints on the sands of time’, telling him that is how one should live. He used to get into moods were he would sing songs of K.L. Sehgal, Talat Mehmood and M. Rafi for hours together in his beautiful rich baritone. We had no radio at home till quite late in my childhood, so the only music I heard was his singing, and the care that he took to explain the lyrics. His rich voice still rings in my ears. The one regret I nurture is that we had no facilities to record his voice.

Pitaji was an extremely helpful man by nature. In my 4th  Grade he got to know that one of his nephew’s son was extremely naughty. He got him to stay with us, thinking he would become studious in my company. I remember the influence that he had on me. Rather than he becoming studious, I started moving here and there, neglecting my studies. That was the only year I missed my first rank. Stood 3rd rank. He had to stop his experiment, and back went the boy to his parents.

He would organize sports programmes for children of the neighbourhood, and although I was a part, he showed no partiality to me. I think that is how he was called Masterji or Mastersaheb [Sir, in Hindi] by everyone around. He trained me how to lead the group. He would often discuss with me the way he dealt with a problem at work, including how he goofed up at times.

Being a man of modest means, we stayed in a 2-room tenement, with just a cot in the living room as furniture. He himself slept on the floor, insisting I sleep on the cot since I had to rest well, having to excel in study and sport.

Being of a helpful nature, pitaji had helped educate a muslim boy AH whose parents he knew and who had his expired early. He knew the environs in which the boy lived and felt if not mentored he would turn a vagabond. Pitaji just went ahead and helped the boy all through his schooling. AH graduated and settled down in a good job. Many years later, he came to meet him to offer his grateful thanks, saying he wanted to do something in return. Pitaji was amused and said there was no need. AH insisted. Since Pitaji had helped him study, the only return gift he would accept was of education. So my father told him to teach me Urdu since I had to learn the correct pronunciation [talaffuz] if I had to sing ghazals properly. AH would come home every Sunday to teach me Urdu, and dad would cook mutton in his special style, and after my Urdu study, he would sing for us before we settled to a lovely meal.

That was how I developed the love for Urdu poetry and ghazals, which is so pleasing to the ear, a love I carry with me even today. He was also very fond of Hindi poetry, especially that of Jaishanker Prasad, whose poetry he would often recite to make me realize how pure Hindi is equally pleasing to the ear. I specially remember him reciting:

Dhoop chaoon ke khel sadrish sab jeevan beeta jataa hai

[Like sunshine and shade, life just carries on]

Pitaji recited the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata every evening. I remember vividly how he described the stories of Krishna getting rid of Bhishma, Karna, Drona, the story of Aswatthama, the pride and vanity of Draupadi, the pure character of Yudhishtira who also had the vice of playing dice etc. I remember he telling me the story of the noble Harishchandra and how he suffered due to his truthfulness, the story of Rana Pratap who held on to his pride and lived in the jungle but did not bow to the dictates of Akbar the emperor. He had great pride in the ancient heroes and felt sad Indians were not strong enough to defend themselves from foreign invasions when their civilisation and wealth were at their peak, a view I still share with him. He shared an ambivalence about people of other religions which most educated Hindus, including myself, still share. A fascination for Urdu and Muslim culture but a dislike for their tendency towards violence and rioting and their ghetto mentality. A fascination for English and Christian culture, but a strong dislike for their conversion activities.

He dictated the early elocution competitions I took part in to me in his moods after taking ganja [a form of marijuana]. This was a carry over habit from his vagabond days. He would get high after taking it, and often sing for hours. There was a man who would get it home, whom pitaji called ‘sainik’ [meaning soldier]. This was since he worked in the RPF [Railway Protection force].  I never knew his real name, because that was what he was for us. Sainik insisted he was no soldier, just an ordinary employee of the railways who guarded the trains and railway goods. But pitaji said so what, he was a sainik – if sainiks guard the nation, he guarded national property [railways].

Around my 5-6 grade, Pitaji talked of my interest in reading to one of his Christian colleagues. He was a member of the Asiatic Library. He got for me books on various topics. I distinctly remember the first book he brought, ‘The man eaters of Kumaon’, by Jim Corbett. It was the best thing that happened to me. All through my summer vacations, I read this and other books. I especially remember reading ‘The tale of two cities’, ‘David Copperfield’, ‘Treasure Island’, and the abridged versions of Shakespeare’s works. I developed a great fascination for literature and especially liked Charles Dickens’ style of writing and story telling.

I started writing myself. I completed writing my first novel by the time I was in the 8th grade. The protagonist of that novel was the young pitaji. A friend of mine typed the manuscript for me. I later wrote another which I approached a publisher for publication. All this without the knowledge of pitaji, for I knew he disapproved of any diversion from study. I wrote for a couple of hours in the morning every day, when he was away. I often wrote 10-12 pages in a day, the story almost automatically and obsessively pouring out of my pen. And all this while I continued to stand 1st in class and do all my sports and elocution. Both writings were amateurish forays, as all such writings at that age are. The first I never considered sending to a publisher, the second came back with a rejection slip. If they had got published, my life would probably have taken a different turn.

When I turned 18, Pitaji prepared a glass for me and said I could officially have a drink since I was now a man. He never disapproved, in fact encouraged me to have a drink even in the company of guests and elders, something not common in the conservative middle class from which I came.

Pitaji also wanted me to learn self-defense. He insisted that I was to go from Mulund to Grant Road [other end of the city] to learn boxing from one of his friends in the Railways who taught it in a gym there. For 2 years, I took one period off from school on Thursdays and Saturdays to learn boxing. It helped me get rid of any fear while facing up to any adversity in whatever form.

He was himself a brave man. There was a scare in the city as there was a ‘maniac’ moving around who crushed sleeping peoples’ head with a boulder. Raman Raghav. The people in the building we stayed in were full of fear. Pitaji slept with the door of our house open just to make them realize that he was not afraid, and so neither should they be.

 

 

RSS

Pitaji had this great fascination for the RSS as an organization that instilled discipline in Hindu youths. He insisted I attend their shakhas [regular branch meetings]. The shakha would start on the dot at 6 pm and end at 7 pm and we were called swayamsevaks [volunteers]. The prayers and commands were in Sanskrit. There were boudhiks [intellectual speeches by seniors] which would talk of the glories of Indian culture and the valiant fighters of yore like Sri Rama, Sri Krishna, Rana Pratap and Shivaji, and Indian freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh, Khudiram Bose, Chandrasekhar Azad, the trio of Lal-Bal-Pal [Lala Lajpat Rai, Balgangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal] and spiritual leaders like Swami Vivekananda, Rama Krishna Paramhamsa etc. The Moghul and English invasions were never discussed, but it was clear from their talks that these were considered black periods of Indian History. I do not remember any pracharak ever giving any hate speech about other communities; rather there was great emphasis on remembering the ancient heroes and following in their footsteps to bring back the glory of Bharatvarsha [Indian nation]. The invaders, whether Moghul or British, were never considered heroes, howsoever great their valour. The people who fought against them, were, even if their contribution was small. The way the partition of India was handled was occasionally discussed in baudhiks, with emphasis on the appeasement by Indian leaders and stubbornness of the Muslim League leaders who stuck to their stand and managed the partition of India. The baudhik was always a monologue, with discussion, if any, allowed only after the meeting was over. There was no clapping after any speech. Speeches were supposed to be by the best, they did not need to be told that by any clappings. We had occasional visits by pracharaks [missionaries] who had given up their families and all trappings of power and pelf to work for the organisation. Their talks were a special occasion, as a number of swayamsevaks from neighbouring shakhas would also join in. They were inspired people.

I learnt to be proud of my nation and know of the glory of India from these meetings.  What I also learnt was how things should be started and finished on time. A shakha starts on time, irrespective of how many people are present. There are no crowds to wait for. It takes place on the open ground, even if it is pouring. No umbrellas are allowed during the prayers. If it rains very heavily, the shakha pramukh [leader of a branch] would wait with swayamsevaks for a while conducting a small baudhik.  If there is no one else, the shakha pramukh, or in his absence, the swayamsevak [volunteer] starts the shakha, is supposed to wait for 10-15 mins, say the prayer and end the meeting. I learnt early that one does not do some thing for crowds, or to please people, but because it is the right thing to do. I still remember standing drenched in the rains, standing in the prayer position of a swayamsevak and later shakha pramukh, reciting in Sanskrit, ‘Namaste sadaa vatsale matribhoomi/ Twayaa Hindu bhoomi sukham vardhitoham/ Mahaa mangale punya bhoome twadarthe/ Patatwesha kaayo namaste namaste [I bow to thee, O loving Motherland/ I exist to bring about the happiness of this land of the Hindus/ To the benevolent and blessed Motherland/ I bow myself and offer salutations again and again.]. I also remember the bemused passers by watching and smirking, but carrying on unmindful. It had a tremendous influence on me, to continue to do something desirable unmindful of people’s negative opinion or barbs. 

I had two occasions to attend shibirs [get togethers]. One in the town, one at Chichwad, near Pune. They were lessons in community living with the strictest of discipline. I learnt to wake up early, to recite prayers, to have a full day of physical and intellectual activities, to eat frugally, patiently standing in a queue to fill my plate, and yet enjoy doing night duty as a guard while the rest slept in the sprawling tents set up on the open grounds for volunteers to stay. I still retain those habits of frugal living and long hours of hard work, thanks to the discipline and rigour that I learnt to endure early in life.

 

 

Madam

The third lasting impression on my life was my school principal. Seema Sampson, a very strict spinster Jewish lady, who stayed alone on the school premises she set up, the first English medium school in Mulund. She was known as ‘madam’ all over.

She came from the city to the suburb of Mulund to set up an English medium school. I was one of her first admissions, since Dad wanted me to study in an English school but preferably non-convent, since he had strong views on religion.

She was peculiarly attached to me. Once I distinctly remember I was late to school, and we were all made to wait out. After a while, Madam was taking her rounds, and when she saw the students waiting outside, she started firing them. Then she suddenly turned her eyes and saw me. She was dumbstruck. She immediately calmed down, and said, ‘Ok, students, just go to your classes, and start your study.’ The students knew whom to thank for being let off.

Madam had a strong feeling I was her dad reborn. She wouldn’t tolerate any teacher finding fault with me. Once a teacher made me stand out of class since he felt I was talking to a neighbouring student, which I was not. He was actually looking for an excuse to get at me because he ran coaching classes and I had not joined it, and yet stood first. I stood out for the entire period, not complaining. Madam saw me standing out since this the SSC class was directly opposite her office. She called me and asked what had happened. I told her the truth. She called the teacher and said, ‘Do you know what you have done? The best student of my school was made to stand out. How dare you do this?’ And the teacher was out of school in the very next month.

I had taken Sanskrit in my SSC board exam, and the Sanskrit teacher told the other teachers, ‘Ajai may be very bright, but he won’t get more than 60-70 marks in Sanskrit.’ Now Sanskrit is a scoring subject, and brilliant students could get between 80-90 in the subject.

When Madam heard this, she had made her decision. She told me to accompany her in her car to learn Sanskrit from a Professor at Mahim, a good 24 km away. She would drop me at the professor’s place, go meet her relatives, and send her driver to pick me up an hour later. And then have dinner at her aunt’s place. The only relative she visited. Twice a week for 3 months. I scored 87/100 in Sanskrit.

So that I scored well in maths, she insisted I solve 2-3 papers per day before the Board exams. She told the maths teacher that I had to get the corrected papers the very next day. The teacher, one of the very best, took them home, and corrected them.

I scored 99/100 in maths, the only reason not 100/100 because no one could get full marks then.

Madam called my father before the board exam and asked him if I had a room to myself for study. Dad said no. She told him there and then that I should shift to her house and she would look after everything.

It was unbelievable that Madam, who would do nothing out of the way for anyone, gave her own bed and bedroom for me to sleep and study, while she went and slept on a ‘diwan’ in one of the outer rooms. She would wake up early morning, prepare a glass of hot milk mixed with dry fruits and get it on my table as I studied, and only then make her own tea/breakfast, or whatever.

I top scored not only in class, but in the whole city in my board exam.

I later joined the St Xavier’s College since Madam insisted I must move out from the small town of Mulund to experience the city of Mumbai.

Madam also insisted that she would pay for my entire education in college. I continued to stay with her while doing my medical studies for the first year, later shifting to the medical hostel.

She continued to take a keen interest in my welfare all through my medical studies.

I feel overwhelmed when I think of how much she, and my father, did for me.

 

 

College, MBBS, MD and Psychiatric Practice

 

Having a great liking for literature, I wanted to take up arts for my college studies. This aroused great opposition from my school teachers and even from Madam. They all felt such a bright boy should take up science and be a doctor.

Pitaji sat with me one day and said, ‘I don’t mind you taking up any career, and I know you will excel. My only wish is there should be a doctor in the family. Can you honour my wish?’ I thought for a moment and told him, ‘Ok. I will honour your wish. But you must honour mine.We make a deal. I will become a doctor as per your wish. But I will become a psychiatrist, as per my wish. Is that ok?’ He agreed. The career choice was made.

I joined the St Xavier’s College in 1969 and completed my Inter Science in 1971. Travelling from one end of the city to another every day for study was in itself a great learning experience. I remember there was a large hoarding outside the Vidyavihar railway station where a thought for the day would be written. I would not miss reading it. One that I distinctly remember was, ‘Great men talk of ideas, ordinary men talk of events, and small men talk of people.’ I decided to concentrate on ideas and avoided talking of people.

During the first year of college, I remember taking it easy and enjoying seeing many movies. I was intoduced to quality movies at that time by a college friend whose father came from the film industry but who had very strong dislike for the crass level of films that were being made then. We had a gap between lectures and lab work, and Liberty theatre was walking distance. The first movie I saw there was Madhumati. I distinctly remember as we entered the theatre, the song, ‘Dil dhadak dhadak ke keh raha hai aa bhi ja’ was on. Later we saw Guru Dutt films like Pyaasa, Saheb, bibi aur Ghulam, Kaghaz ke phool etc and many other classics of Hindi cinema.

 In Inter Science, I devoted full attention only to studies. I attended no tuition or coaching classes but was extremely regular with my attendance and self-study. I walked into medical college, scoring marks that gave me a choice to enter any of the 4 medical colleges in the city.

I joined the one which was, and is still, supposed to be the best. Seth G. S. Medical College, Mumbai in 1971. Both Pitaji and Madam were thrilled at this. I know Madam, another teacher and I used to go for a number of movies at this time, as also go on sat/sun to Khandala, a nearby hill-station where Madam had a bungalow, sharing it with the family of 'J's with whom she was close.

Returning on Sunday evening, it was a pleasure visiting home, and that was part of an unwritten rule of pitaji. Wherever his sons were, Sunday evening they had to come home to have a drink with him and eat the special mutton dish he would prepare. I still remember the fond smile he gave when I reached home. He made no demands on me, only expecting that I be there at home Sunday evening to enjoy a meal with him.


Points to be elaborated by and by

I got my medical degree [MBBS] in 1975, and later [MD] in Psychiatry [Psychological Medicine] from Seth G.S. Medical College and K.E.M. Hospital, Mumbai, India in 1979. Later, from 1979 to 1986, I worked as a Senior Research Fellow with the WHO Collaborating Center in Psychopharmacology in India, working with terminally ill patients and deaths due to acute emergencies, for which my paper won the BPS Silver Jubilee award at IPS in 1986 and was later published. I also worked  for a while as editor of a now defunct periodical called ‘Psychology and Human Behaviour Digest’ which published during 1988-91.

 

I simultaneously started private psychiatric practice in 1981, and continue to practice in Mulund, a suburb of Mumbai, India.

 

Swara Sampada and Mens Sana Monographs


2003 was an important year, as I founded a non-profit music organisation called Swara Sampada, and also published the first monograph for the Mens Sana Monographs.

In 2005 wrote the Swara Sampada Sourcebook on MusicISBN 81-901406-2-0.

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