119 Years of Trust This above all
THE TRIBUNEsaturday plus
Saturday, March 20, 1999

Regional Vignettes


Freedom At Midnight

IT must have been in the early 1970s that Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins invited me to lunch in the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay. The restaurant was in a basement and famous for its "Standing Pomfret", a fish split in two and made into the shape of a tent. At the time it was the most popular eating place in the city and one had to reserve a table well ahead of time. Since the two authors were celebrities, they had no difficulty booking a corner table for themselves. They asked me to join them exactly at noon when the restaurant opened. When I got there, we were the only three in the room.

Lapierre ordered a couple of bottles of chilled white wine to go with the fish to be served an hour later. They put a tape recorder on the table, took out lists of questions they meant to ask me and told the waiter not to disturb us after he had served the wine. The questions related to my novel Train to Pakistan. How much of it was fact; how much fiction; the atmosphere in Lahore in the months preceding Partition; what I had experienced and seen with my own eyes; what I had heard from others. The restaurant began to fill up. Many glasses of wine were consumed. I was grilled like the fish I ate for almost three hours. We were the first to enter the restaurant and we were the last to leave. When their book Freedom At Midnight was published, I hurried to get a copy expecting to see myself quoted in many pages. I have three lines and a footnote. It was and remains the raciest and the most readable book on the Partition of India.

Collins and Lapierre were pioneers of a new form of historiography which combined journalism with creative writing. For subjects, they picked up recent events and interviewed as many people who had witnesed these events and mixed their versions with hard facts. After Freedom At Midnight came O Jerusalem. It told the tale of the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel against heavy odds, with neighbouring Arab States mounting invasions to stamp out scattered Jewish settlements.

Then came Is Paris Burning?... narrating details of the liberation of the French capital from its Nazi conquerors and its German commanders’ refusal to blow up the city, as ordered by Adolf Hitler. Between them the two authors produced five books, everyone of which made to the best sellers’ list. Lapierre was alone in his involvement with India, particularly Calcutta. He was the sole author of Belgrad Dove and The City of Joy. He was completely bowled over by Mother Teresa and in his own way continues her good work among lepers and destitutes. When he and his wife visited Calcutta recently they received a hero’s welcome from thousands of grateful people whose lives had been changed by his efforts. They thronged the airport holding placards reading "Welcome to the City of Joy".

Dominique Lapierre is the son of a French diplomat who was posted in America. By 18 when he started writing, he had as much command over English as he had over his native French. He travelled extensively in the USA, Canada and Latin America. He had a passion for cars of latest models. Most of his early writings were travelogues. He was appointed correspondent for Paris Match, the most prestigious and widest selling illustrated magazine of France. Money was no problem. Wherever a big story broke, Lapierre and the magazine’s photographer were there to cover it. They hired aircraft to get there first and bribed characters involved to get exclusive interviews.

Lapierre developed the journalist’s penchant to dramatise the most banal of incidents. He travelled across India in a Rolls Royce. His fancy automobile developed a knock which worried him. He had it serviced in Delhi. A Sikh mechanic opened up the engine and rectified it. Lapierre records that when he tried to start the car, it had become so silent that he could not hear that the engine was already running. "Why are Sikhs good mechanics? asks Lapierre. "I was reassured; Sikhs are taxi, truck and airplane drivers of India. Guru Nanak, the sacred founder of their community, had instilled a genius for mechanics into them."

A Thousand Suns (Full Circle) is a collection of some of his best articles, only the last of which is about India. However, I picked two rather silly errors which could have been avoided. He describes General Allard, one time Commander of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army as "Commander of the Indian armies of the Sultan of Lahore." And photograph of a ceremonial procession of Indian princes in which Maharaja Yadavendra Singh of Patiala is given the name of his father Maharaja Bhupinder Singh. I hope in future editions which I am sure will be many, these errors will be corrected.

Our own Jarawas

Charming! This modest 147-page illustrated book Andamans Boy by Zai Whitaker (Tulika) is a cleverly contrived story written in deceptively adolescent vocabulary. It gives the reader a lot of information about birds, trees, marine life and tribals mainly Jarawas who inhabit parts of the Andaman Islands. If I had anything to do with prescribing textbooks, I would strongly recommend it as compulsory supplementary reading for high schools.

The story is simple. Arif loses both his parents at the age of 10. He is left with a large fortune which his guardians, his uncle and aunt living in Bombay covet. He hates living with them and runs away from home. He gets on a train to Chennai and is taken over by a kindly Tamil family travelling in the same compartment. Unfortunately for him his photograph is published in all the papers with a large reward for his arrest. He is recognised by other passengers because of his long curly hair. At Chennai railway station, he escapes through the milling crowd, has his head tonsured and gets on a ship bound for Port Blair. He is mistaken for a boy meant to look after a consignment of goats. At Port Blair he is recognised by yet another person but he escapes on a truck loaded with crocodiles heading for a zoo. He knows how to handle these reptile and gets a job to look after the reptiles. The police are looking for him. So he makes another successful escape. "With his pet parakeet he gets to an island inhabited by Jarawas. He is adopted by them. From Port Blair consignments of gifts like printed cloth, plastic buckets and trinkerts are regularly off-loaded to entice them to become "civilised" and give up their thickly afforested islands to the government for lumbering and farming. Some fall to these temptations, others drive away their self-appointed benefactors by shooting arrows at them. Arif warns them against the dangers of modern civilisation.

Zai Whitaker’s credentials are impeccable. She is the daughter of Laiq and Zafar Fatehally of the Bombay Natural History Society and a kinsmen of Salim Ali. They have written many books on nature. Zai married Whitaker and between them they set up a crocodile and snake farm near Mahabalipuram. The marriage broke up. Zai is currently teaching in a school in Kodaikanal and has her two sons with her. Like the rest of her family, she is thoroughly involved with nature and has inherited a gifted pen from her parents.

Phoney praise

Flatterers are funny folks
They invent fantastic jokes.
Laloo, they say is Magic King
He can make a buffalo sing!
For her link with silver screen,
Jayalalitha is golden queen!
Bal Thackeray (a cartoonist’s delight)
Is a tiger, full of fright!
Boast the members of his clan
Advani is like the Iron Man!
For a proof, why go afar?
Bhandari still governs Bihar!

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