Celebrating a life lived well : A tribute to a father

Rekha Chowdhary
Last year on this day, our father Harbans Lal Chowdhari passed away at the age of 98. Had he lived for one and half year more, we would have had a grand celebration for him being hundred years old. That was not to be, but certainly celebration is in order, the celebration of his life – for he lived not only a full life but also a meaningful and purposeful life. Himself a self-made man, (of course with the support of his Uncle Bhagat Ram Chowdhari), he not only worked his way up in his own career but also help build at least two important institutions of the State of Jammu and Kashmir – the University of Jammu and Kashmir and the Regional Engineering College. Though he started his formal job in the service of Maharaja Hari Singh, as a private assistant, the turning point in his life came when he became the private secretary to Justice Janaki Nath Wazir who was then the Chief Justice of Jammu and Kashmir High Court and later also became the Vice Chancellor of University of Jammu and Kashmir. This association brought my father to the then J&K University and as an early employee of the University he worked towards its institutionalisation and rose to the position of Deputy Registrar. This was the time when the administrative wing of the University was comprised of one Registrar and two Deputy Registrars (one for Kashmir and Jammu region each). Irrespective of the power and position that he enjoyed, he submitted his resignation in 1964 from this position around some principled difference with the then Vice Chancellor and soon joined the Regional Engineering College (REC) and worked there as Deputy Registrar and later as Registrar. Since he had joined this College during the early years of its existence, he was quite instrumental in laying its institutional foundations. The early years of the college were quite volatile not only because of the lack of leadership (either the position of Principals was vacant or there were other issues) but also because of the political situation of Kashmir. Among the few educational institutions which were considered to be troublesome, the REC was one. Holding the position of Registrar at that time was quite a tough task. What helped him to succeed in his job was his principled stand on college issues as well as humane administration. ‘Rules are important and should not bot be bent at will, but these are made for human beings and need to be interpreted in humane way’, that was his mantra.
Superannuated at the age of 58, he did not perceive his working life to have ended. He joined the profession of his passion. He had the passion of becoming an advocate right from the beginning but because of his compulsion to be in job, he could not attain the law degree at the right time. It was during his middle age that he succeeded in having the degree and used it soon after his formal retirement from REC. Partnering with Sh. Harbans Lal Bhagotra, he entered into this profession and got absorbed in it like a fish in the water. Having the interest in recording and analysing the facts, he also started writing the JK Law Digests which were quite handy and useful for the legal fraternity. It was his love of the profession as well as the hard work that despite being an outsider, who had joined the profession very late in his life, he was able to earn the respect, especially of the younger colleagues who would fondly refer to him as ‘senior advocate’.
As a person who had experienced the history of pre-partition and post partition period, he could give a very elaborate understanding of events that are treated as historically important for this state. Born in Kotli and brought up in Poonch, he had traveled to various parts of the area now known as PoK and could clearly talk about its geography, terrain and the culture. During the period of partition, he was part of the administration dealing with the rehabilitation and settlement of refugees and therefore, he could give a detailed discourse on the events preceding and following partition. In fact he loved to talk about the history of Jammu and Kashmir as well as its legal and political dimensions. Since he died within a few days after the modifications in Article 370, I was disappointed that I would not get to know how he reacted to the changes. I was away in Shimla at that time. Reaction, he would certainly have, that I knew. I had the great satisfaction when my brother told me that soon after the changes, he gave him (my brother) a detailed discourse on this Article and implications of its modifications!.
Intellectual as he was, he met the process of ageing, and losing his partner (my mother) and his friends, who were passing away one by one (the last two persons were Sh. Om Saraf and Sh. Baldev Kalra) – by absorbing himself in reading good books. He had already exhausted the classics, he now read the literature of the time – be it Amitav Ghosh, William Dalrymple or Salman Rushdie. Alternately, he would love to read Urdu poetry and fiction. He also loved to listen to good music. He was not religious per se, but certainly he was philosophical and spiritual and believed in the theory that all answers lie within oneself. I don’t remember how many times he would have discussed with me the purpose of life and the inevitability of death. Every time he would discuss it, he would end up by saying how satisfied he was with his life and how grateful he was for everything. He had every reason to be satisfied since he performed his duties well – He was a devoted son to his mother and took up the financial responsibilities when he was still a student. He gave all the three of us siblings the education, guidance and ethical framework of life. He proved himself to be a very good husband and looked after our mother singlehandedly through the prolonged period of her illness (Alzheimer). He was a role model for all three of us – not only because he lived his principles but he taught us how to age gracefully. Challenging the very notion that people stop changing and learning with age; he continued to grow as a human being. Over the years he became more understanding, patient and kind-hearted. And yet he remained young at heart – loving his food and his taste for stylish clothes; his love for long drives and picnics.
Celebrating his life, we feel very thankful that we were part of it. In each of us, there is a part of him (and of our mother, of course). He was our inspiration and whether it has been the question of dealing with situations within our professional life or personal life – we have the answer before us. Papaji, as we used to call him, taught us how to face these situations by example. It was through him that we learnt that there is no religion bigger than humanity; that friendship is the biggest asset that one can have; that life by principles is more important than the so-called external successes; that ambition is important but having a distinct character is more important; that to grow it is important to have the capacity to be self-critical!