Over the course of several years, a vivacious, youthful, extrovert BP Khemka became increasingly reserved, reticent and reclusive. However, to me, my Nana stayed the same. With me, and this is something I consider both a privilege and a testament to the mutual comfort and confidence we shared; Nanaji remained humorous, fun-loving, childlike, naughty even! And that is precisely how I’d like to reflect on him, and remember him.
My earliest memories of my beloved Nana go back to when I was perhaps around eight or nine years of age. The point from which I actively remember our interactions. He was an extremely indulgent grandparent. Our frequent meetings would be in Delhi, as much as in Calcutta. Through scores of shopping escapades at South Extension in Delhi, to Gulshan Toys below the Defense Colony flyover, I’d take blatant advantage of his generosity as well as of his sheer embarrassment each time I’d throw a public tantrum and he’d promptly instruct my mother to procure for me, whatever it is I was throwing abovementioned tantrum for!
Childhood antics aside, as I grew older, I developed what I perceived to be a unique closeness with him. One that was less headlined by monetary largesse, more defined by a genuine closeness – an undefined kind of mentorship, where he would regale me with countless stories of his years in the village, his business-beginnings, the ways in which he solicited his first few contracts, the tedious tactics of securing his educational degrees, anecdotes of his numerous trips to Neem Ka Thana (which he thought would find special resonance with me since I lived in Jaipur, in Rajasthan). While he was graphic in his descriptions, he was strangely modest about his own personal achievements – an attribute he couldn’t otherwise be accused of!
On several trips to Calcutta over my vacations from school, he would take me along to his office and hold court proudly with Mr.Murari along for the ride, and expound on how and whom all he had mentored, these naïve young, modest students and young entrepreneurs who had subsequently reached the pinnacles of success! The sheer joy on his face was unmistakable and so endearing, even if one took what he was saying with a pinch of salt! And speaking of salt, he loved the opposite. Always up for a quick, or relaxed (if time permitted), cup of coffee and a substantial portion of cake or dessert! I have lost count of the number of coffee shops visited with him, both in India, and throughout various trips abroad that I took with him.
Trips abroad is also the perfect segue to another vital role he played in my life. Most, if not all my travel through my childhood was with him. Australia, Singapore, Japan & Hong Kong, an endless list of excursions that were experiences I hold for a lifetime – exposure that shaped me, taught me, enriched me, broadened my horizons, evolved my world view; this infinite opportunity was all courtesy my Nana. And it made me wiser and dream bigger, thanks to him, quite literally, showing me the world. These holidays taken together too, had their share of Nanaji’s many funny foibles – incidents that serve as nostalgia that I dearly hold on to till today. For instance, on a trip to the Gold Coast in Australia, as a young 16 year old, I was naturally struck by the beautiful women I saw on the beaches. My Nana, sheepishly trying to steal a glance himself, poor guy, would get caught each time by my Nani and be immediately reprimanded, his innocent and harmless schemes shut down forthwith! He even refused to enter the rather large, moat-like winding swimming pool at our resort in Hamilton Island citing some feeble alibi, when he was palpably scared, and was on that instance too, hauled up by my Nani who declared that he was a coward for not entering a pool that was being enjoyed by toddlers!
Another important way in which I suppose he ‘groomed’ me was by introducing me to the Races. Horse Racing was big in Calcutta and he would ensure I was always dressed the part too; giving me many of his own suits including a specific and rather expensive pin-striped YSL double breasted one . He would also regularly take me to a store called Burlington and have formal clothes stitched for me! Many visits to the various clubs in Calcutta, from Saturday club to the Calcutta club, from other Calcutta classics of the time ranging from Skyroom to BlueFox; he took me everywhere! And what an education that was as well.
Many years hence, once I was in college in Delhi, I enjoyed the huge benefit of living in his apartment. And because he would often visit his Delhi office (I suspect increasing the frequency more than required since I was also stationed there now), my Nana and my relationship evolved to yet another stage. He would confide in me about many things, people, goings on. He would also love for us to go out together, and between his three favorite haunts in Delhi (in no particular order), the Hyatt coffee shop, Tai Pan at the Oberoi, and believe it or not, Djinns, the nightclub at the Hyatt again, we had some absolutely amazing times! Imagine a seventy-year-old grandfather and a nineteen-year-old grandson sitting at a nightclub together! I think he inadvertently and rather nonchalantly redefined ‘cool’. Here too, his many guiltless shenanigans continued. I recall vividly, we were once riding the elevator at his Bikaji Kama Place office building and this was circa the dot.com boom; we got talking to a young entrepreneur who had just rented a space in the building. When asked if Nanaji was the same ‘Khemka’ as the NEPC airlines family, he confidently, without batting an eyelid, proclaimed that not only was he connected to NEPC, he also owned half the Beer and Chocolate in Russia and had business interests globally! I later realized that the Khemka bothers seem of often ‘pool in’ their businesses when in such social situations; it was both exceedingly embarrassing yet hilarious at the same time. Another Nanaji classic was regularly witnessed at Tai Pan. Whenever he and I would be there for a Chinese meal, usually at lunchtime, the manager would dutifully come and place a can of Budwiser beer at the table, announcing, “your beer Mr.Khemka.” Nothing extraordinary about that, on its own. But whenever, for the same meal, we’d be accompanied by my Nani, the very same manager would come and religiously place a glass of freshly squeezed juice at the table and announce, “your orange juice Mr.Khemka!”
Many such merry capers took place over the years. Once at a family wedding in Delhi, Nanaji was nowhere to be found. He had simply vanished. Worried, I searched through the hotel for him. I found him, of course, at the Bar, hiding in plain sight. He was so mortified when I caught him that he made some flimsy excuse about how he had bumped into some work-related Russians and was treating them to a drink – a little hard to swallow when there wasn’t a single non-Indian to be seen anywhere!
In the past decade, I noticed that Nanaji had grown increasingly disillusioned. Lots of things seemed to preoccupy and worry him. I dare say I know what constituted most of that list of woes. Even so, the few times I visited him pre-pandemic, he was a picture of vitality and zest, and greeted me with the same enthusiasm as he had always, taking me to office, for meals, and playing with my then toddler-daughter; to see great grandfather and her in his arms, I will be eternally happy that we made that particular trip with Krisha to Calcutta.
Now that he is gone, I so deeply regret not having been to see him more recently. It is one regret I shall take to my own grave. From his office to his private museum at his Ballygunge Place home, and to his various apartments over time in Delhi, I have seen him be his own self, unfettered, unworried, unhinged! That is how I want to remember him. Smiling, laughing, eating, drinking.
This may sound harsh but for once, with his passing, I am NOT sorry for YOUR loss. Because I am profoundly sorry for my own loss. I will miss my grandfather more than any lyrical expression can convey. It is terribly bittersweet for me – that he lived a happy, full, amazing life and was so ceaselessly happy in his own company are all beautiful facts. That I couldn’t say bye to him, that I selfishly don’t have a little more time with him, and that he is leaving my Nani alone, are bitter truths. My dear dear Nanaji. I love you. I always will. And I trust that even up in the good place, you will be relaxing, and in your own immortal words – “having the a la carte!”