Saturday, June 3, 2000
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Writers’ code of honour
By Khushwant Singh

WHILE participating in the first conference of writers and poets from the SAARC countries organised by Ajit-Arpana Caur’s Academy of Fine Arts and Literature in Delhi recently, it occurred to me that doctors have their Hippocratic oath, lawyers have their rules of professional conduct, but writers have no guidelines. They don’t know when they have crossed limits prescribed by society and some find themselves hauled up before law courts, jailed or have their books banned. Some like Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen are forced to go underground. However, any writer worth his salt must speak his mind fearlessly and face the consequences. Or keep silent.

I recalled a dialogue in James Joyce’s classic Portrait of an Artist as a young Man which could become the code of honour for anyone making his or her living out of writing. It goes as follows: "Look here, Cranly," he said, "you have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church; and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence, the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile and cunning."

"Cranly seized his arm and steered him round so as to lead him back towards Leeson Park. He laughed almost slyly and pressed Stephen’s arm with an elder’s affection. "Cunning indeed" ! he said. ‘Is it you? you poor poet, you’

"And you made me confess to you," Stephen said, thrilled by his touch, "as I have confessed to you so many other things, have I not?" "Yes, my child," Cranly said, still gaily.

  "You made me confess, the fears that I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity too."

Note that in the first half of the dialogue Joyce exhorts the writer to rise above social norms, patriotism and religious considerations. And justifies the use of three weapons a writer can use in his defence: he can refuse to say anything, run away (exile) or lie his way out of trouble (cunning). In the second half, he assures writers that they should never be afraid of making mistakes even if they put them in the dog-house for the rest of their lives.

Gandhi through a Frenchman’s eyes

About the most vivid description of Mahatma Gandhi is in a letter that French writer-philosopher and Nobel laureate Romain Rolland wrote to an American friend. Gandhi and his party stayed for five days in a villa close to Romain Rolland’s house overlooking Lake Geneva. They visited the Rolland household every day and even conducted their prayers there . Rolland wrote: "The little man, bespectacled and toothless, was wrapped in his white burnoose, but his legs, thin as a heron’s stilts, were bare. His shaven head with its few coarse hairs was uncovered and wet with rain. He came to me with a dry laugh, his mouth open, like a good dog panting, and flinging an arm around me leaned his cheek against my shoulder. I felt his grizzled head against my cheek. It was, I amuse myself thinking, the kiss of St. Dominic and St. Francis.

"Evening at seven o’ clock prayers were held in the first floor salon. With lights lowered, the Indians seated on the carpet, and a little assembly of the faithful grouped about, there was a suite of three beautiful chants — the first an extract from the Gita, the second an ancient hymn of the Sanskrit texts which Gandhi has translated and a third a canticle of Rama and Sita, intoned by the warm, grave voice of Mira.

"He was asked at Lausanne to define what he understood by God. He explained how, among the noblest attributes which the Hindu scriptures ascribed to God, he had in his youth chosen the word ‘truth’, as most truly defining the essential element. He had then said ‘God is Truth’. ‘But’, he added, ‘two years ago I advanced another step. I now say, truth is God. For even the atheists do not doubt the necessity for the power of truth. In their passion for discovering the truth, the atheists have not hesitated to deny the existence of God, and from their point of view, they are right’. You will under stand from this single trait the boldness and independence of this religious spirit from the Orient. I noted in him traits similar to Vivekananda. And yet not a single political ruse catches him unprepared. And his own politics are to say every thing that he thinks to everybody not concealing a thing."

(From 100 Best Letters — 1847-1947. Compiled by H.D. Sharma, Harper Collins).

Instant cold killer

One ailment for which everyone has his or her own personal remedy is the common cold. It works for them for sometime but not for others. For many years I relied on heavy doses of vitamin C (and aspirin) washed down with large quantities of hot lime juice. It did not kill the cold but lessened its impact and duration from the usual five days to three. In my younger days sore throat followed by sneezing and running nose were followed by a blocked nose followed by cough. It afflicted me at least four times in a year. Now in my eighties I seldom fall prey to the onslaught of cold more than twice a year. Apart from falling back on my tried prescriptions I find staying in bed for a day and ensuring a clear stomach by whatever means possible gives quick relief.

When I was in Goa recently at a dinner at the home of Commander Niranjan Singh, I ran into Machado who was once Speaker of the Goa Legislative Assembly. Somehow we got talking about common colds. He dictated to me what he described as a "sure fire" remedy to kill a cold: boil water with ginger, cloves, cinnamon and lots of sugar. After it has cooled add like juice and boil again. Then add liberal quantities of cashew nut feni. The cold will be gone.

I am going to try this prescription next time I go down with cold. But instead of sugar I’ll use honey and instead of feni rum or brandy. I feel sorry for those who don’t take alcohol; it has lots of medicinal properties.

Fall of a titan

"Cronje trapped:" — the headlines screamed

And convulsed the cricket crazy world:

Betrayed by the demi-god, his cronies cried -

Tapes are phoney: Cronje can’t sin:

Being neither black nor brown,

Ever so honest, white and clean.

But the Delhi cops unusually bright,

Have done their homework right.

For once they showed they too could win.

Pricked by conscience, the captain confessed —

"Less than honest" he had been.

As the reigning titan reeled and fell,

Frenzied fans were soon silenced.

Slumbering Board, rudely awakened, Racked their brains, worked overtime,

To find some ways to check the crime

Of rigging, betting and match-fixing,

And passed resolutions high-sounding.

Since money-spinning is their aim,

Players and bookies ruin the game:

Crazy fans praise their heroes all the same,

And Boards find scapegoats to share the blame!

(Contributed by M.G. Narasimha Murthy, Hyderabad)

This feature was published on May 27, 2000