When I first saw Masterji, he was squinting over a piece of fabric through spectacles so thick that his eyes looked like they belonged to a giant insect. He stood up to greet us with a smile. That’s when I realised he had no teeth. He also had a bad limp. Should someone so elderly be working at all, I wondered. But when Ram Swarup started talking abut cuts and patterns and necklines, I realised I was in the presence of a true master.
Days later, when I went to him to retrieve my clothes, we got into a conversation. It turned out he was 82 years old. I was curious to find out why someone as old as him needed to work. “You ask why I still work?” he laughed. “Every day, I give thanks to the almighty that my hands remain busy and my brain active... Else I’d have been a vegetable by now!” When he told me the story of his life, I realised that this old man from Jhansi had many life lessons for people like us.
“The British were still ruling us when I was a boy. Life was unpredictable and tough for people like me. It became even tougher when I turned 12, when my father died,” he said. Ram Swarup and his six brothers had to leave school and start working. “I managed to be apprenticed to a tailor. For 10 years I worked for him without a salary. But he taught me to cut men’s clothes beautifully,” he reminisced. This skill enabled Ram Swarup to start his own shop, where he extended his repertoire to ladies’ clothes as well. “Looking back on my apprenticeship years, I feel I learnt to value skill and the passing down of it. Today, apprentices demand money even to learn from masters,” he rued. “While I can proudly say that there’s no design I can’t stitch, I haven’t managed to teach my skill to as many youngsters as I’d have liked.”
Today, Ram Swarup continues to live on the family land, granted by the British over half a century ago. Both his sons are working and well settled in their professions. Yet he continues to work every day. Every year, the sprightly geriatric comes to Delhi for a month or two, stays with some patrons and fulfills all their tailoring needs. He said he enjoyed being independent: “This is probably what keeps me alive and young at heart!” He hasn’t had a day’s illness, steers clear of medicines and the only surgery he’s ever had is a cataract operation. “Sometimes I feel modern medicines make one sicker than the disease does,” he said. In fact when he fractured his hip 20 years ago, he refused to have any surgery. Consequently, he’s had a limp ever since. “At least I can still walk, climb stairs and operate the pedals of my sewing machine!” he said. “I’m content with it....”
Now, in his twilight years, Masterji wants to somehow give back to the world. “Rich people can easily give money to the poor. I used to wonder what a poor man like me could offer society! That’s when the idea of stitching poor people’s clothes for free occurred to me,” he said. So this has become Masterji’s humble contribution to society. “Everything in life comes full circle,” he said. “I believe that every poor person who wears a garment stitched by me will send some positive energy my way....”
Would he call this, I asked naively, the key to his longevity? He smiled his toothless happy smile and said, “I don’t know about that. But it is certainly the key to my happiness....”