Saturday, January 19, 2002
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Count the blessings of old age
Khushwant Singh

Harcharan Chawla with wife Purnima
Harcharan Chawla with wife Purnima

THERE are many items on the credit side of ageing to offset debits like physical debility and ailments which come with the years: poorer vision, deafness, loss of teeth, sluggish liver and bowel, slower movements, near-extinction of appetite for sex. Topping the list on the credit side is the diminution of worldly ambition and desire for fame. Though many aspirations of youth remain unfulfilled, you reconcile yourself to the fact that there is not much time left to try and fulfill them. So why not simply forget them? George Herbert wisely remarked: "He that is not handsome at twenty, nor strong at thirty, nor rich at forty, nor wise at fifty, will never be handsome, strong, rich or wise." Goethe was for giving up the struggle to gain eminence at a much younger age. "Whoever is not famous at twentyeight must give up any dreams of glory." So one pronounces the death sentence on ambition. If you failed to become a millionaire, Member of Parliament, Minister of Cabinet, win the Nobel Prize for Science or Literature as you had aspired to in your younger years, there is no likelihood whatever of your achieving any of these goals now. And to think of it, none of them are really worth the striving. In my old age my only regrets are not having made love to women I wanted to in my adolescent years and middle age. Now even regret for having failed in amorous escapades has faded to misty nothingness. Schopenhauer, then only sixty, had a point in asserting that "it is the sexless condition of old age which lays the foundations of a certain self-sufficiency, and that gradually absorbs all desire for others company." As far as I am concerned, the German Savant was only partly correct. I no longer rely on human company to pass my days, but I continue to prefer female to male company to cheer me up.

Vajpayee, the poet
January 12, 2002
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

Freeing oneself of ambition, though it lightens the burden of life to a great extent, leaves a certain sense of regret for failing to have achieved it and also leaves one envious of those who have done better. Envy is insidious and can spread like cancer from inside and ruin one’s peace of mind. You owe it to yourself to get the better of it because mere passage of time does not lessen it. Running down people who have done well only adds fuel to the fire. It is strange that we do not envy the success of people we do not know but find it difficult to stomach the success of people close to us — our brothers, cousins and friends. We may go to their homes to congratulate them with bouquets of flowers and embrace them but inside we feel all burnt up. It is much easier to love and sympathise with people who have suffered setbacks in life — so perverse is human nature.

I do not know how exactly one can eradicate envy. I know prayer and temple-going do not help one bit. The more effective way is to ponder over it in silence and ask yourself: "Why does that fellow’s success hurt me?" The answer you will give yourself is "because I am a small man. I will try to be a bigger man and can become one if I get envy out of my system."

Our real ambassadors

Seven years or so ago I got an invitation to deliver lectures in some Norwegian universities. I knew no one in Norway. I reached Oslo on a mid-winter evening to find snow piled high along the runways. The first people to greet me were a group of Sardars and a fat Sardarni, holding placards that read "Go home, traitor". This was at the height of the Khalistani agitation. Two men, a Norwegian professor and an Indian who introduced himself as Harcharan Chawla, rescued me from the demonstrators and drove me to my hotel. The government posted a security guard in the hotel lobby.

I did my rounds of lectures in distant snow-bound university towns and ended my trip with four days in Oslo. Harcharan Chawla arranged a few meetings with local Indians, Pakistanis and the Press. The Ambassador was kind enough to arrange a small party for me. I forget his name. But Chawla’s name remains etched in my memory. Although he and his wife Purnima had made their home in Oslo and taken Norwegian citizenship, they remained as Indian as if they had never left their mother country. Both were into writing. Harcharan’s first language was Urdu. He continued writing novels, poems, memoirs and travelogues in Urdu and then in Hindi and Punjabi as well. He went on to translate Scandinavian classics: Hans Andersen’s fairy tales and Nobel Laureate Knut Hamsun’s Viktoria in both Urdu and Hindi. He won several awards from literary bodies of different countries.

Chawla and his wife visited India as often as they could and then proceeded to Australia where their daughters had settled. On their visit to Delhi two years ago, Purnima was taken ill and died. She wanted to die in her homeland. Last December, Harcharan died in Oslo.

In every country I have visited I have met one or two Indians dedicated to spreading India’s message to the people of the country of their domicile. Ambassadors appointed by the government do their term of three years and are soon forgotten. Though these men and women carry foreign passports, they remain ever conscious of their roots and spread the Indian ittar (perfume) wherever they are.

Let the children take over

They may not know economics, politics, diplomacy,

They may not be able to rewrite history,

They may not know how to pit street against street,

They may not be able to rend the sky with war cry,

They may not plan and execute a sly ambush,

They may not be able to make millions out of UTI,

They may not have perfected demagogy yet,

They may not be able to generate sufficient hatred,

They may ask for love and equality instead,

They may think of happiness, laughter, play grounds,

They might commit the sin of innocence, idealism, honesty,

They might lisp, be playful and offend our ponderousness,

They might banish prejudice, prudery, even hypocrisy

They might outlaw war and harm arms industry,

And in this world, at home with anxiety,

Like birds, they might sing and dance —

These risks are certainly there, but I think,

They should be given a chance.

(Courtesy: Kuldip Salil, Delhi)

Punjabi Angrezi

Teacher of a primary school in Punjab advised his class in the best traditions of Punjabi English: "When you are empty meet me behind the class."

On another occasion he told them if they had any question to ask: "Stand your hand".

Once when he had some problem with his eyes, he sent an application to the Principal asking for leave: "Sir, I cannot come to school because my eyes have come. I will report for duty when they go."

(Contributed by J.P. Singh Kaka, Bhopal)