Saturday, July 26, 2003
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Khushwant Singh
A paradise on earth, that is Himachal
Khushwant Singh

HIMACHAL has been my summer home since my childhood. With some justification I describe myself as half-Himachali, half Dilliwala-Punjabi. However, my Himachal abodes were restricted to Shimla, Mashobra and, for the last 30 years, Kasauli. I explored the neighbouring hills and valleys as much as I could on foot. I walked down to the banks of the Sutlej to the sulphur hot water springs Tatta Pani (36 miles). I walked from Shimla to Narkanda and back on the Hindustan-Tibet Road (72 miles) almost non-stop on two full moonlit nights and a day. Till a few years ago, I used to go from Kasauli to Kalka to catch trains to Delhi on foot. I saw quite a lot of wildlife: leopards, wild cats, mouse-deer, porcupines, jackals, foxes, snakes and a vast variety of birds. I wanted to know more about the flora and fauna, about the village folk and their customs. Almost every book I picked up on Himachal in second-hand bookstores in England, Canada and the USA had been written by an Englishman. Many things escaped their attention. For instance I came across huts near streams with channels diverting water into a trough with taps which sent a steady trickle of water on shaved heads of men who lay fast asleep on the floor. I never discovered what it was all a bout. You donít see them any more. I was also told that an annual mela took place in Sipi village below Mashobra, where girls were sold by auction. I went to the mela twice. I saw many pretty Himachali lasses, fair-skinned, doe-eyed and with sharp features. I would have liked to buy a few. There were none for sale. When and why did the legend begin?

EARLIER COLUMNS
When nothing but memory remains
July 19, 2003
A strange way of healing
July 12, 2003
Codes of conduct that received a royal ignore
July 5, 2003
Fear is lifeís only real opponent
June 28, 2003
Gambling has religious sanction
June 21, 2003
What would you choose: security or freedom?
June 14, 2003
The hullabaloo over conversions
June 7, 2003
The treadmill of Indo-Pak relations
May, 31, 2003
Why Indians turn into achievers abroad
May, 10, 2003
The Naked Triangle fetched him more foes than friends
May, 3, 2003


There is still much to be explored and written about Himachal. I was delighted to come by Travels to Highlands of Himachal by K.R. Bharti (Indus). Fortyeight-year-old Bharti is a product of Hamirpur village and HP University. He was a topper in the Provincial Civil Service exam and is currently Land Acquisition Officer. His earlier postings included Pangi, Dalhousie, Chamba and Nahan. He had wanderlust in his blood. Armed with a camera and a diary he trekked through Sirmaur, Pangi Valley through which runs the Chenab, Manimahesh where Hinduism and Bhuddhism mingle in harmony, Pooh, Sangla and Spiti. The outcome is a very readable travelogue, an invitation to see some of the paradise on earth.

Knowing Bhisham Sahni

He was exactly seven days older than I. Though we were in the same class in Government College (Lahore) and lived in the same hostel yet I was hardly aware of his existence. Everyone knew his handsome, elder brother Balraj who later became a film star but Bhisham had no admirers. He was among a handful of students who read Hindi. We Urduwallas looked down upon Hindiwalas and called them Kintoo Prantoos. After we left college, I hardly ever heard of Bhisham; it was Balraj whose name we liked to drop. The two brothers had two things in common: both were entirely free of communal prejudices and had strong leftist leanings.

Since I could not read Hindi, I did not know how good a writer of Hindi Bhisham had become till he won the Sahitya Akademi Award. I saw bits of his Tamas on the screen and realised what I had missed by not knowing its creator as well as Icould have. And when he played a role in Mr & Mrs Iyer he was as good, if not better than his famous brother in acting. The one and only novel of his that I read and reviewed was Maya Das Ki Marhi. I was completely bowled over. When he rang up to thank me I discovered he lived barely 50 yards away from me. He was a recluse, almost a hermit. Thereafter I met him a few times. It was a revelation: the man was totally free of envy and unlike other writers whose favourite topic is themselves, Bhisham never talked about himself or his writing.

Bhisham was my classmate; his daughter Kalpana was a classmate of my daughter Mala and his grandson Martand in the same class at school as my grand-daughter Naina. Kalpana married the architect Romi Khosla, the youngest son of my closest friend G.D. Khosla, Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, and his wife Shakuntala. So our family connections went down three generations on either side. I wish Ihad known Bhisham Sahni better; he could have made me a better man.

Murder as art form

We have known mass murderers since time immemorial: Changez Khan, Hulago Khan, Ghazni, Ghore, Babar, Abdali, Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein. A few of them killed with their own hands. And there was always a motive which impelled them to take lives, massacring enemies they defeated. What made our thugs unique among killers is they used most sophisticated methods to kill, using a small pocket handkerchief to strangle their victims without shedding a drop of blood. And though many were Muslims (& Hindus of all castes) they regarded Goddess Kali as their patron-saint. They killed over a million unwary travellers before the British government stamped them out in 1830s and 1840s. William Henry Sleeman with 17 assistants and a hundred sepoys captured over 3000 thugs. Of them, 466 were hanged, 1564 transported and 933 imprisoned for life. Of these killers, the champion was a fellow named Buhram who admitted to killing 931 with his bare hands, twisting a small scarf round the necks of his victims. His name finds mention in the Guinness Book of World Records. Our present-day brigand Veerappan who claims to have taken over 100 lives has a long way to go before he catches up with Buhram. There is still hope for him. He does not have to contend with the ruthless British but with impotent policemen of two neighbouring states and their Chief Ministers who can do no better than pass the buck to each other.

In praise of an ass

I cannot praise you for want of words

I can only worship you for what you are,

Our honour, our glory the heart beat of the nation

You are, for one, our cricketing star;

For another, so gentle, so docile, so mild

Anybody can flog you, even a child,

Such patience as only you possess

Humiliation you alone can stomach

We salute you for in this you represent our people

And their unshakable faith in their luck.

Night and day, regularly you bray

And we cannot tell the one from the other

So sweet, so promising in the same old noises

That you are our natural national leader.

O ass dear, I fear, I cannot measure up

To your worth, your greatness, your qualities of heart and mind,

The wisdom you have and we only toil to find.

This is when I myself am a natural ass,

But never mind, others will make up the loss

And continue to salute the boss.

(Contributed by Kuldip Salil, Delhi)

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