Saturday, January 5, 2002
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

When Indian writers meet
Khushwant Singh

I have attended many writersí conferences in different parts of the world: Philippines, England, Scotland, the USA and India. I got very little out of meeting eminent authors, most of them full of self-esteem. But invariably I succeeded in befriending one or two and continued corresponding with them. Fifty years ago in Manila I got to know Sional Jose. Last month he sent me his latest novel through his son visiting India. In Leeds I met Kavi Jasimuddin of Bangladesh. I visited him in his home Palasbari in Dhaka; his daughter Hasna and her husband Maudud visit me whenever they are in Delhi.

In Hawaii I spent seven days with R.K. Narayan and he often dropped in on me when in Delhi. Thatís about it. I wasnít very eager to attend the SAARC Writers Conference in Delhi organised by Ajit Cour of the Academy of Fine Arts and Literature. Anyone who knows Ajit knows she never takes Ďnoí for an answer. She managed to get President R.K. Narayanan, Vice-President Krishan Kant, Cabinet Ministers Jaswant Singh, Jagmohan, three ex- Prime Ministers and a host of Indian litterateurs besides writers and poets from all the countries including the ravishing debutante Manjushree Thapa from Nepal and my friend Minoo Bhandara (brother of the novelist Bapsi Sidhwa) from Pakistan.

Behind the mask of a terrorist
December 29, 2001
An exercise in futility
December 15, 2001
The power of self-destruction
December 1, 2001
Jaipur and its Rajmata
November 24, 2001
Meting out humiliation as punishment
November 10, 2001
Women like her do not die...
November 3, 2001
The Karnataka-Canada connection
October 27, 2001
Making English an Indian language
October 20, 2001
Worshipping the mother of all rivers
October 13, 2001
Salman Rushdie: Genius or eccentric?
September 29, 2001
A Telugu saga set in 19th century
September 22, 2001
A blot on the face of Mother India
September 15, 2001
Leaving for the heavenly abode
September 8, 2001
Controlling the urge to backchat
September 1, 2001
A tale of modern India
August 25, 2001
Reflections on the brother-sister bond
August 18, 2001
A dacoit or a dasyu sundari?
August 11, 2001
A case for moderate drinking
August 4, 2001
A dangerous twist to a harmless practice
July 28, 2001
No escape from pain and sorrow
July 21, 2001

All were happy and said Ajit Courís bandobast was very pucca. I made a brief appearance on the first day. President Narayanan had to leave without making his speech because of the shoot-out at Parliament House. The deliberations of the SAARC writers meet were blotted out of newspapers and TV channels because of the attack on Parliament House.

I received an unexpected bonus in the form of a new friend. I was sitting in the hall awaiting the Presidentís arrival when a young lady came up to me and introduced herself: "I am Prathibha Nandakumar from Bangalore. My editor Belegere wants me to interview you."

As is my habit I count up names of ladies I know. I know six Neelams, two Vandanas, dozens of Sheelas, Shakuntalas, Ushas, Umas, Ninas, Miras and Minakshis. She was the third Prathibha. The first was Pratibha Pachisia, a lovely lass from Rajasthan, now a Mrs Desai living in New York. The second is Pratibha Prehlad, the dancer. "Prathibha what?" I asked.


"Are you a drinking girl?"

She nodded. "Then come at 7 p.m. sharp when I open my bar. Depart at 8 p.m. when I close it." I gave her my address and telephone number. "Be punctual. I am very fussy about time." Pratibha Nandakumar turned up at 6.20 with a bouquet of flowers for my wife. Igave her mild ticking-off for coming before time.

The conference ended at six. "I had nowhere else to go," she pleaded. At the end of the evening I invited her for the next evening, and the following evenings. She interviewed me. I interviewed her.

Prathibha Nandakumar is the youngest of 10 children of her Brahmin parents. A bright student: topper in all subjects at school and college. Innumerable academic prizes, including the coveted gold medal and later the Sahitya Akademi Award for contribution to Kannada literature.

A rebel: she married her college sweetheart, a Gowda of peasant stock. She was into poetry both in Kannada and English. In the earlier years of marriage some of it was sensuous and revelatory:


Did I unwind all of my

Binding six yards

Carefully chosen by him

Like a snake uncoiling?

Did I reveal in a

Careless or calculated casualness

The unmentionable?

Then how come you know

Of all the bruises and black marks

On all my most intimate parts

Hidden well under the six yards?

I donít know, but why did you

Didnít you, by the end of the second cup, tremble

Remembering a woman in rage?

Two children followed, a boy and a girl, Also disenchantment with romance and marriage:


In the story I narrated yesterday

He was at first a prince

and turned into a frog

after her kiss.

My mids complain

I donít know how to tell a story.

Some years later into what became a loveless marriage ,Prathibha met with an accident in her kitchen. Her sari caught fire and charred most of her left side, left thigh and arm. Six months in hospital, but she survived. And now she writes from the early hours of the morning to 10 p.m. when she returns to her home and family in Jayanagar. She is in her early forties and outgoing and warm without a trace of bitterness. I made a long-distance friend. We write to each other. And ring up when long-distance calls are half-rate.

* * *

To return to the futility of writersí conferences, I canít help quoting the batchy verse an English woman poet wrote about them:

Men of letters ere we part

Tell me why you never fart?

Never fart, dear Miss Bright?

We do not fart because we write.

Dating India

When Alexander the Great invaded northern India in 327 B.C., he had contingents of Arab soldiers in his army. Many of them carried bundles of dates khajoor because it is one fruit which can last for months without rotting. Having eaten it, they spat out the seeds in the battlefield or outside their tents. Some took root and in a few years date palms rose to their full heights and bore fruit. So we can date the origin of khajoor in our country to Greek incursions. It also explains why our dates are not as good as those that come from Arab countries. Dates grown from seeds are of poor quality, those grown from cuttings and carefully cross-pollinated by humans with tender care are much tastier. There are around 40 female trees to one male ó how Arab can you be? Actually date-palms were known to ancient Eyptians thousands of years before Macadonian-led armies invaded India. Pictures of palm-trees being harvested appear in many ancient Egyptian monuments.

I gathered this information from Taizoon Khorakiwala who is a businessman consultant with offices in Bombay and Oman. He brings me packets of Omani dates whenever he is in Delhi: He is helping set up a business management institute at the Jamia Millia. Oman produces over 200 varieties of dates of which one variety named khalas(finished) are rated the best: not over-sweet and of delicate flavour. Also the most expensive and good earner of foreign exchange. They are the favourite of the Saudi royal family.

For Arabs, the date palm is the tree of life as well as the Omm al Faqir mother of the poor. Date juice is dihs ó palm honey. Dates are also cooked and dried to make masilily or madlooki. I have little doubt that there must also be date wine or brandy which though relished is not written about.

In due course of time dates acquired cultural, social and religious importance for the Muslims. During the holy month of Ramazan, Muslims broke the dayís fast by eating dried dates or tamar. Prophet Mohammed is quoted in the Hadith as saying ".... if the hour of resurrection came to you while you were planting a date palm, you should continue to work if you could."

Why donít we Indians explore possibilities of cultivating good quality dates in our country? Has our Council of Agricultural Research ever thought of planting them in our desert regions?

Osama at home

A Punjabi businessman who had an office in America had an arrangement with a Sikh taxi driver in New York to be picked up from Kennedy Airport whenever he arrived in the city. When he went there a month ago instead of the Sardarji cabbie, his wife came to pick up. On the way to his hotel he asked the lady driver," Sardarji kitthey nay" (Where is your Sardarji"?)

She replied, Oh tay pugg pa kay ghar baithey nay (He is at home wearing his turban).

(Courtesy:J.S. Bhandari, Kolkata)