Saturday, October 12, 2002
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L


Mocking at oneís own people
Khushwant Singh

Rajni WaliaONE evening when I had run out of all ideas and was overcome by lethargy, I sat gaping at the wall of books facing me and the shelf beside my armchair. Normally when I am in this blank state, I take a stroll round my little garden. I could not do that because it had been pouring since the morning and the chill was biting into my aged bones. I had a fire lit and thought Iíd listen to some music. I felt too lazy to look for the right tape to put in my 20-year-old cassette player. I began to pull books out of the shelf to see if any would interest me. I came to Philip Rothís Zuckerman Bound. I had read Rothís novels and had been very taken by him. But this one I had not read. Probably what had daunted me was its size, nearly 900 pages. It would take a week or more to go through it. I didnít have that kind of time as I had come up to Kasauli to get on with my own novel which was not shaping out as well as I had hoped. However, I opened Rothís book to see why I had overlooked reading it earlier. It had been gifted to me. The inscription read: "With great respect ó from Kiran Modi. Dated 2nd July 1992." I could not recall who Kiran Modi was but the name created pleasant vibes. She must be somebody I had liked and must have given the book to me because she may have shared my admiration for Philip Roth.

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I began reading Zuckerman Bound. I read it by the fire side, in bed till sleep overtook me and for the next four days till I finished it. I felt angry with myself because I did no writing of my own. It was like a drug I could not get the better of.

The story is of Nathan Zuckerman, a Jew born and brought up in Newark (New Jersey), USA. He writes a novel, Carnovsky, about American Jews, based largely on his own family and friends. It is a large success. He gets over a million dollars in royalties, another six million from film rights. Overnight he becomes a celebrity. Everyone in the street recognises him. Women want to share his bed; he marries three in succession. All is hunky-dory except that most of his community and his family think he has made fun of them in his novel and turned anti-semitic. Dozens of characters come and go in Zuckerman Bound; they tell their tales and disappear. It is like a phuljhari which sparkles and splutters about in all directions before it dies out. For me the most amusing of his characters is a bore who latches on to Zuckerman. Heís been a minor celebrity himself for a short period and wishes to publish a novel like Zuckermanís and carries his manuscript with him wherever he goes. He hangs on to Zuckerman like leech, uninvited joins him at dinner, takes half a sandwich which Zuckerman leaves on his plate to get away from him and pursues him on to the bus stand, talking endlessly. They pass delicatessen. Zuckerman accepts his offer of an ice-cream cone. While the bore is inside waiting his turn to be served, Zuckerman makes his escape. The bore catches up with him a few days later and renews boring him. I found the character particularly amusing because I have to cope with quite a few bores of the same species.

Howsoever much hurt Zuckermanís family feel at their portrayal in Carnovsky, they keep their opinions to themselves. They donít resent Nathan Zuckermanís success as a novelist at their expense. Most touching portrayals are of his parents: his father, a retired chiropodist, and his mother who oozes with kindness towards everyone. They live retired lives in tropical Florida. Then the father has a stroke and is taken to hospital. Members of the family fly in from different parts of the country to be by his bedside. The father has difficulty in speaking and a word or two he manages to blurt out are not clear. However, the last word he says to his mega-celebrity son, Nathan Zuckerman, sounds like "bastard".

Colour of scholarship

Among the visitors who descended on me in my hideout in Kasauli was Rajni Walia who came down all the way from Shimla to spend a couple of hours with me. Rajni is colourful in every sense of the word. She was decked up like a filmstar ready to face the cameras: heavy make-up, a dupatta with colours of the rainbow, a paisley-shaped bindi more colourful than any I have seen on any forehead. She carried a handbag studded with stone marbles of many hues. "Where on earth did you get that?" I asked.

"Baghdad," she replied. "My dad was Adviser to the Iraqi Government for some years. I spent quite some time with him and did a lot of shopping."

"And what do you do?"

"I am Associate Professor of English literature in Government College, Shimla."

"Why Shimla? Why not Chandigarh or Delhi?"

"My husband is in the Himachal Forest Service. Shimla is his base."

"Can you tell me the name of the tree under which we are sitting?" I asked her because I was still uncertain of its identity."

"Toon."

"And that big one facing us?" I see a lot of langurs on it, eating its leaves."

She took one glance and replied, "Himachalis call it khirik. My husband will give you its Latin name. I picked up information about trees because I often go out with him on tours into the hinterland."

"Where else have you been?"

"Just about everywhere," she replied and fished out a book from her handbag. "I did this in Australia. It was written under the guidance of Dr David Parker, Professor of English at Australian National University, Canberra."

I had not read anything by the writers on whom Rajni Waliaís book "Women & Self: Fiction of Jean Rhys, Barbara PYM & Anita Brookner focused; nor I suspect, have many Indians. The one thing that they share in common (according to Rajni) is their disappointment in love and marriage: Something most women in love, married or single, experience in their lives.

Rajni has an MA, M.Phil and a Ph.D from Panjab University, and has got a first class first in all of them. She is currently writing on contemporary Indo-American womenís fiction. Appearances are deceptive. This woman I took as a light-weight because of the care she had taken in decking herself up was loaded with scholarships. Long after she left, the fragrance of the perfume she wore lingered in the pine-scented air of my little garden.

Sights ó lovely and ugly

I love to see Vajpayee ponder and pause

When an interviewer asks him a question complex and deep.

Vajpayee closes his eyes and does not speak for minutes ó

Till the interviewer himself falls asleep.

I love to see Sonia Gandhi read her speech

From a text written in Hindi chaste

With an accent foreign in tone and timber

Like a tube filled with desi paste.

I love to see Laloo Yadav ridicule his rivals

Particularly when he is in pastoral form,

His English words fall on urban ears

Like hailstones in a summer storm.

I hate to see Narendra Modi wax eloquent

On the awakening of fascists in slumber

And decry those who happen to be in minority

But go on multiplying their nasty number!

(Courtesy: G.C. Bhandari) Meerut

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