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

Vajpayee, the poet
Khushwant Singh

I have a soft corner for Atal Behari Vajpayee. Despite his RSS roots and continuing association with the Sangh Parivar, I think he is a good, if not a better Prime Minister than any we have had. He is a warm human being. I am not so sure of his stature as a poet. Some years ago he read out a poem he had written on his birthday following the destruction of the Babri Masjid. It was an unpardonable act of vandalism and I felt an apology was due to the entire country. His poem was a kind of apology for what he had failed to prevent. The refrain was Kya main boorha ho gaya hoon (have I really become an old man?) After he finished reading it, I asked him, "Atalji, why don’t you speak out openly against this monstrous act?" He remained silent. I took the poem from him, made him sign it and published its translation in my column.

Last year, a friend gave me a collection of fiftyone of his poems and marked two or three for my special attention. I was appalled. One was gloating over the inception of the RSS at Nagpur as a beacon of light. Another a rustic idyll warned a village maid against going to Manali, his holiday home. It runs somewhat as follows:

When Indian writers meet
January 5, 2002
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

Goriya, Manali mat jaiyyo

Jaiyo to trishul lay kay jaiyo

Manali mein milengey Khalistani

And drivel of that kind. I don’t think he knew what was contained in the collection. It was certainly most inappropriate for publication after he had become Prime Minister. Perhaps he had no time to go over the contents and does not know how to deal with sycophants. By now his poems have set to music, song and dance. How does a Prime Minister of a country steeped in sycophancy, keep his balance of mind? I was glad Vajpayee had become Prime Minister and would have little time for writing poetry of the kind he allowed to be published.

I was somewhat alarmed to hear that Pavan Varma, currently our Ambassador in Cyprus, translated a selection of Vajpayee’s poems — 21 Poems (Viking). Varma is a competent translator and wisely chose to exclude Vajpayee’s politically-motivated compositions meant to be chanted loudly at mass meetings. He has done a good job and captured the lilt and subtle nuances of Hindi poetry. He includes Jung naa honey deyngey (we shall not allow war).

Never again will fields bear the fruits of blood,

Nor farms produce a harvest of death,

Never again will the sky rain fire,

Never again will Nagasaki burn,

We shall fight for our dream of a world without war.

(N.B. Atalji, read your own poem before making your next statement on Pakistan).

My favourite among Varma’s selection is Naee gaanth lagtee (A new knot is tied):

The river of life seeks the ocean again,

The winter sun slips down like golden rain,

In the heart, the mango grove’s fragrance,

The shehnai’s lost cadence

Like a pain, half-forgotten, comes suddenly alive.

A new knot is tied.

Not far, not near, the goal is unknown,

Yet to life’s rhythm, I resolve to move on:

A pattern drawn on water,

All shackles undone —

Again, and again, by a mirage I am enticed.

A new knot is tied.

Punjabi bashing

Punjabis do not think there is anything laughable about them: they regard themselves numero uno among Indians. They make jokes about bhaiyyas (from UP and Bihar) and Bongos (Bengalis). All the rest living south of the Vindhyas, they know as Madrasis. Other Indians do not share the Punjabis self-esteem. To them Punjabis are loud-mouthed braggarts who know no culture save agriculture. The main butt of their anti-Punjabi jokes are the newly rich who flaunt their opulence by living in palatial bungalows with rooms decorated with chandeliers and garish porcelain vases full of exotic flowers (often both items made of cheap plastic). They find Punjabi weddings very hilarious: brass bands followed by fat men and fatter women dripping with gold and diamonds doing bhangra as they go along crowded streets. The comic side of Punjabi parvenus had to be exposed by someone who has known them well. This has been done by Jaishree Misra in her second novel Accidents like Love & Marriage (Penguin).

Jaishree is a Keralite Nair who spent her school and college years in Delhi. It is likely that the Punjabis she met complimented her on her looks by saying: "You look more like a Punjabi than a Madrasi." Jaishree is very light-skinned and pretty. Anyway few Punjabis know the difference between Tamilians and Malayalis: south of the Vindhyas all are kali kalootis (black as black can be). Even those who are aware of Keralites as being different from Tamilians refer to them as Mallus. Jaishree Nair is married to a very handsome Uttar Pradeshi Dicky Misra and lives in London. She had to settle scores with Punjabis’ anti-everyone-else attitude. She has done so by making fun of them. While doing so she has also taken a swipe at the institutions of marriage and the joint family system.

In her novel, Punjabis are represented by the Sachdevas who have made their fortune in textiles and readymade garments. The family comprises Mr and Mrs Sachdeva, two sons of whom the elder is married to the daughter of an equally wealthy Punjabi family, the Singhs. The younger son is a handsome young fop who does nothing besides taking girlfriends to discos. The Sachdevas live in a large house in Maharaja Bagh. The Singhs own an equally large house in Sainik Farms. The Malayalis are represented by the Menons who live in a two-bed room flat in Saket with their only child, a ravishingly comely daughter called Gayatri. Menon works in the Indian Standard Institute, and his wife is a professor. Their home is packed with books. They have a rickety old jalopy in which Menon just about manages to get on the road. Gayatri’s closest friend is Sachdeva Junior’s wife. They have been bosom friends since their school days. Gayatri wins a scholarship to Oxford where she has an affair with a married Don who refuses to divorce his wife to marry her. She returns to India, gets Professor’s job at Jawaharlal Nehru University and resumes her friendship with Mrs Sachdeva junior. Though her friend, she meet the younger Sachdeva who falls headlong in love with her and proposes marriage to her. The stumbling block is her mother-in-law to be, Mrs Swaran Sachdeva, who cannot bear the idea of her son marrying a kali-kalooti Madrasan — the fact that Gayatri is neither dark nor Madrasan are matters of minor detail beyond her comprehension. The closely-knit Sachdeva family begins to fall apart. The break comes when the Menons come to call on the Sachdevas. Swaran Sachdeva behaves discourteously towards them. The Menons write off the Sachdevas as ill-mannered upstarts with no breeding. Swaran’s bachelor son walks out of the family. The elder son, who is on a business trip to London, has a torrid affair with a blonde cockney girl he meets at Heathrow Airport while looking for a taxi. The girl calls his mobile telephone number which is picked up by the wife, who returns to her family. Sachdeva senior who spends most of his after-office hours sitting naked in his air-conditioned study storms into his wife’s bedroom in his nakedness, gives her a tongue-lashing and moves out to a motel. Poor Swaran is left with only her chauffeur and cook who has been fantasising sex with his mistress over the years he has been bringing bed tea for her.

Though a little over-written, Accidents like Love & Marriage makes delightful reading, it is at the same time witty, malicious and humorous.

Matrimonial wisdom

A woman marries a man expecting he will change, but he doesn’t. A man marries a woman expecting she won’t change, and she does!

* * *

Man-woman wisdom

To be happy with a man. you must understand him a lot and love him a little.

To be happy with a woman, you must love her a lot and try not to understand her at all!

(Contributed by: Amir C. Tuteja, Washington)


At the rear of a small Tata truck in Shimla:

Tata se aayee main

Dilli mein shingaar hua

Driver se shadi ki,

Par helper se pyaar hua

(On a Tata truck I came as a bride to Delhi, I was married off to the driver, but fell in love with his helper)

(Courtesy: Roshni Johar, Shimla)