Sunday, usually the most relaxing day of the week, started on a sad note for me. The first call of the day came from Gurgaon when my sister mentioned, “Sangam, Bali Saab the na….”
Going by her words, I was sure he must have passed away but when she completed her sentence, I was shattered to my core.
The news was ascertained by an article on a news app stating “he was bludgeoned to death by two unknown assailants late night on Thursday.” I thought, why on this earth anyone would want to kill him or even hurt him?
This news took me back to October 2016 when, after leaving my job in Karnataka, I returned back to Pune on a new assignment.
One fine Sunday, my brother-in-law, who knew Bali Saab quite well proposed to take me with him to meet this fine man. I was intrigued by the fact that a man, who is hardly impressed by anyone, is so impressed by a beggar (this is what I’d perceived Bali Saab to be before meeting him) that he cooks for the person and provides a one-meal time to him daily.
I agreed to go and meet Mr. Bali. I was sure that my brother-in-law won’t ruin my Sunday by meeting some random person, and I was right.
When we reached the Pune cantt. area, I saw a plastic makeshift tent on the footpath. No one was inside. One corner was stacked with some old but fine clothing and on another side, there were some English novels. I quickly scanned the tent and I was sure it’s going to be fun to meet the man of the day.
Suddenly came a lanky old man in his 60s. He had a fair complexion, grown stubble, little-wet clothes as it had rained the previous night, but to my surprise, he was nowhere dirty.
He saw us and before we could speak, he greeted my brother-in-law with a firm handshake. When I said hello to him, he replied back in quite fluent English. I was astonished, couldn’t grasp the fact that I am meeting a beggar who speaks English.
Then I was introduced to him as what I was, but he was introduced to me as Bali Saab, who has served in the Indian army.
Yes, I was meeting Mr. Ravindra Bali, an ex-Indian army official, living a chosen life of homelessness on the streets of Pune cantt. area outside some army bungalows. For me, his actual place was inside those bungalows, not outside of it.
He sat inside his tent, smiling as usual. He bent to his right, took one novel and opened the page and started from where he had last stopped reading. I was totally in awe of him at that time. I had surrendered myself to his charismatic personality even before we had started any formal conversation.
We started a conversation and he participated in it in a very engaging manner. Between conversations, my brother-in-law passed him the lunch box and half a dozen bananas, which he accepted graciously but didn’t seem thankful. Maybe that was his way of acknowledgment.
I talked a lot with him and tried to know more about his background. I could only find out that he had a family but chose to live a secluded life with no ambitions. I asked him to come stay with us which he politely refused. We promised to give him a better life, and proposed to take him to Bihar – to which he quipped “I’m living my life the best way I can.” He was true to us. He did not have to work or beg to get meals as he was always offered food and even refused it sometimes.
During that hour-long meeting, I witnessed that he had a large fan-following. He was an avid reader and one of his friends had taken the responsibility to provide him with good books at regular intervals. In between, he shared an anecdote as to how his clothes and utensils got stolen from his tent and how he got them back from his friends (or perhaps fans) without asking for them. I believe he was surely a celebrity in his own capacity. People used to sit with him and discuss various topics and he would happily share his wisdom.
We stayed there for some more time and we took his permission to leave. Being a great host, he happily shook our hands, and asked us to come and meet him again.
I was quite happy and ecstatic to meet him and thanked my brother-in-law for the same and asked him to take me to meet him again. I met him once more but my brother-in-law kept meeting him and giving him food on a regular basis, until he shifted to Gurgaon.
The last time I had seen Mr. Bali was on January 1, 2018, in his tent at the same place happily reading a book. I had thought of meeting with him on my way back, but that didn’t happen – and I know I’ll regret it for life.
After my first interaction with Mr.Bali, I have always perceived him as a man rich in every aspect. While writing about it today, I came across so many news articles about his past, his court-martial over moral turpitude and his troubled family life, but these events did not dissuade me to think well about him.
I am amazed why a distressed man would refuse to take any help extended to him by the army or the common folk. But, I am assured, he was nowhere perturbed by his difficulties, In fact, he lived an independent life in this caged world.
Bali Saab, you will be sorely missed in our lives.
May your perpetrators get caught, so that we can know the reason what get you killed.
I won’t condole your death – your happy face doesn’t allow me to do so. But there were many better ways to leave us.
Salute to you, sir!