My earliest memory of Dharmendra Kumar uncle is from 1977, the one of him in his cream coloured or light blue half-sleeve Safari Suit, just back from office, sitting in the living room of their C5/8 apartment, drinking water from a steel glass. Seeing me enter the house, he would smile and call out towards the kitchen, “Arrey Shubha, dekho Sanjay aya hai.” Shubha was his wife. Together with their four daughters (Soma, Shruti, Ritu, Runu) and uncle’s Mom, they were known as the Kumar family.
The Safari Suit marked Kumar uncle out as a person with modern taste and also as an officer in the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC). This was Bombay of the late1970s and middle-class life – especially in the Jeevan Shanti Colony, LIC Staff Quarters, Santacruz – was developing along an amazing social evolution that was underway. I would go so far as to say it was the 1970s and ‘80s that laid the concrete foundation for the globalised cosmopolitan DNA of the Mumbai of the 1990s and beyond.
I was about 6 then and like other children, my routine was fixed. Depending on the time, moms knew where their children were. Mornings in school, afternoons at home doing homework and then play time from 5-7 pm and so on. I spent some time most evenings and many Sunday afternoons at the Kumars, mainly arguing with Shruti or playing with her and Soma or following Aunty to the kitchen to see what was cooking. Ritu was a bit younger than I was and very quiet, and Runu was like 3 at the time but always curious. Some days, Soma and Shruti would leave their house with “hum Mukherjee aunty ke yahan ja rahe hain” or ‘Patni aunty ke yahan’( and after 1979, “Ma, Kapoor aunty ke ghar ja rahe hain”). Invariably, they would lose track of time and then rush back because “Baba office se aane wale honge.” Baba, in their case, was Dharmendra uncle. Our apartment was in C4, the building opposite C5 and when we weren’t playing in each other’s house, we were standing at the windows and talking across the buildings. We interacted every day. Later in the early 1980s, this sibling bond was solemnised through the sacred Rakhi when their cousin Nina didi came to Mumbai, and since then Monty (my younger sister) and I have had the benefit of five more wonderful sisters.
Whenever I visited their house, Dharmendra uncle was reading and would engage with a question or two. At home, he was always in traditional attire – freshly ironed kurta and pyjama. I was naturally inclined to argue, so conversations would last 10 minutes to half an hour depending on the topic. He was a scholar and very well read on that count, but he was an original thinker, which is what made conversations very intense. Born in Purnea in North Bihar, he had lost his father when he was just four years old. Subsequently, he was adopted by his Mausi and Mausaji and he moved to Bhagalpur. The family was full of academicians and lawyers, and Dharmendra Kumar went on to earn his (he topped the university) Master of Arts in Political Science from the Tilka Manjhi Bhagalpur University. For a while, he taught as a lecturer in Khagadia College near Purnea, before joining LIC in 1967. At LIC, he completed his officer’s training with the seventh batch of direct recruits and took up his first posting at Muzaffarpur. In 1968, he married Shubha Verma whose family was from Mamarkha in West Champaran, Bihar and after other postings, they came to Bombay in 1976, a few months before we did.
As I grew older, I started understanding that he was a very capable insurance professional and from the way other adults spoke to him, it was clear he was held in regard by his colleagues and fellow officers. My father held him in great esteem but for very different reasons. “He is a prince among men,” he once told me. “He has a commanding personality, and the right balance between knowledge, courage and respectful communication.” It would be a few years before I fully realised what that meant, but it about sums up the approach that made Dharmendra uncle successful as a human being: natural curiosity, genuine openness, tempered by self-control.
Theirs was a large family, like ours. And many cousins and uncles and aunts visited through the year. Meeting them and all my relatives from Varanasi, Bengal, Lucknow and Delhi, I came to realise that Dharmendra uncle symbolised the coming together of the tradition and the modern; the rural, the urban and the cosmopolitan; the regional, the national and the international sensibilities. He hailed from a small town in Bihar and carried with him all the good values that traditional Indian upbringing instils. But he was also a man of vision and he endeavoured to change all that was undesirable or dogmatic or regressive in community and society. He led by example along with Kumar Aunty and they raised their daughters while he pursued a career, Aunty pursued her passion as a school teacher, and taking care of their elders and relatives and family friends who came into Mumbai (later also Delhi for a while) and required support.
Between 1984 and 1987, our family moved to Delhi but we kept in touch and when my father was transferred back to Mumbai, I came ahead since I had to take admission and join college. My parents and the Kumars conferred and I stayed with the Kumar family for a couple of months upon returning to Mumbai. It was no different from being at home. My friends could come over, I could visit friends but had to be back home by dusk, had to keep space in order, and help with whatever needed to be done like everybody else. Also staying with the Kumars at that time was Shailini didi, which meant there were six youngsters of different ages in the house – that gave us 8 perspectives on any topic and a diverse range of tantrum styles every day. Plus, we had regular visits and conversation with the Kapoor, Jyoti Swarup and Jambunathan families. Jyoti Swarup Aunty (Dr Smriti Swarup) was the favourite go-to person for youngsters seeking serious advise on personal issues or studies or future plans – she was cool, fun and an educator (she rose to head SNDT’s Special Education department). But that’s a different story for another day. Evenings were very lively, weekends were a blast with serious card games and a lot of arguments and discussions. Everyone’s study or personal matters were addressed in the living room of an evening and opinions taken and decisions facilitated by Dharmendra uncle and aunty. When my parents and sister finally arrived from Delhi, we moved to our apartment but the daily visits between families continued.
As an insurance industry professional, Dharmendra uncle rose to great heights in a 36-year career serving across India, eventually retiring as Executive Director of LIC of India. Post retirement, he was Dean of the Centre for Insurance and Risk Management at the Birla Institute of Management Technology. He also served as Chief Trustee of the Micro Insurance Academy. He authored three books (Trust with Tryst: The LIC Story, Thresholds in Indian Insurance and The LIC of India: A Saga of Trust) and co-edited the book India Insurance Report. He also served as editor of the Journal of Insurance and Risk Management.
A man of immense patience, Dharmendra uncle was able to silence entire generations with a single gaze and speak volumes with one smile. Having spoken to him on several occasions, I always thought of him as a mischievous boy who was very aware of his responsibilities and therefore exercised extraordinary restraint on his words and actions. He treated everyone by the same rules of conduct – be it himself, his family, friends and colleagues. A continuous learner, Dharmendra Kumar attained several executive development qualifications from Management Development Centre, ASCI Hyderabad, IIM Lucknow, ISB Hyderabad, and National Insurance Academy (NIA) Pune.
He was a significant influence in my life along with Kumar Aunty. A great scholar, Dharmendra uncle was a wonderful orator, an ardent debater and a very good writer. He treated everyone by the same rules of conduct – be it himself, his family, friends and colleagues. And like a great mentor, he kept track of everyone’s progress.
In the late 1990s, uncle was deputed to the newly established National Insurance Academy in Pune. I had just finished my post-graduate degree in journalism and communication and was working with the Pune Times of India at that time. I visited them to eat aunty’s home cooked meals and to talk to both of them. Didn’t visit often enough, but on one visit, after lunch, he handed me a reddish-brown folder and said: “Yeh tumhare liye hai. Jo bhi likhoge, isme sambhalkar rakhna.”
It was a brand new leather folder with intricate handiwork on the cover. At the top right corner of the cover was a plastic name tag placeholder, inside which was a neatly cut rectangle piece of white paper. On the paper uncle had written in Sanskrit the words: संजय उवाच:.
“Tum jante ho Sanjay kaun thhe? Dhritarashtra ke salahkar aur saarthi thhe woh, aur unhe divya drishti ka vardan tha. He saw the entire Mahabharat as it happened in Kurukshetra and narrated it to the blind king while they were in Hastinapur,” he said. I had known the meaning of my name since childhood, but Kumar uncle’s gentle words and gift brought home to me the responsibility of the gifts I was born with. I still have that folder and the writings from that period.
And that’s the kind of person he was – always looking into the human soul, establishing a deeper bond and providing not just empty encouragement but concrete support and direction. He looked at all young people with an open mind, just as he did with his daughters. Debates and discussions were a regular engagement in their house. And everybody who wanted to have a say, got their opportunity. His advise was always fair and focused on getting people to make their own decisions. There are numerous young boys and girls from different families and different parts of India that Kumar uncle and aunty have encouraged, helped and guided throughout their lives. And their daughters are carrying their work and legacy forward in their own meaningful ways. Soma is an educationist of repute, principal of an international school, social worker and mentor to women from different walks of life. Ritu is a well-known and well-published scientist. Shruti has an impressive career in corporate finance, while Runu is a thought leader in digital technology. But those are just their professional credentials. They are mothers, and wives and community leaders and mentors and also their own individual selves.
Earlier this week, Dharmendra uncle passed away in the evening of May 17, 2021 due to a cardiac arrest. He had been in and out of hospitals the last few years and had taken it all with his customary fighting spirit and quiet smile. Looking back at what little I knew of his life, and as an independent observer I believe he has shown us how a person can become immortal through their Karma or deeds. What he leaves as legacy is a thriving community of families led by individuals who are responsible citizens across the globe.
I will miss looking into his calm eyes and hearing him say: “Kya haal hai beta? Jo bhi karo, khush raho. (How are you son? Whatever you do, be happy).”