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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
I top scored not only in class, but in the whole city in my
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
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
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 Music, ISBN