Saturday, March 2, 2002
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Travelling in a women’s compartment
Khushwant Singh

KARTHIKA of Penguin-Viking dropped in with a friend she introduced as Anita Nair. "Are you a film producer?" I asked. "No," replied Anita, "I am a writer."

"What books have you written?"

Karthika intervened, "We published two of her novels — The Better Man and Ladies Coupe. I sent you both but you did not take notice of either."

I was embarrassed and took the offensive. "I get books by the dozen every week. If you want me to write about one, you should mark it ‘must read’.

Karthika sent me another copy of Ladies Coupe. Once I started on it, I could not put it down. I listed it in the category of "must read" works of fiction. Anita Nair is a discovery:a born story-teller with a style of narration which compels reading. She is young. She will get to the top.

Ladies Coupe is contrived. Six women find themselves crammed in a three-tiered women’s compartment of a train travelling from Bangalore (Anita Nair’s home town) to Kanyakumari. They have nothing in common save their gender: some made happy marriages; some were not happy; one was raped and took her revenge, another seduced men much younger than herself. Of course they do not open up to strangers on their first chance-meeting; they do so to the readers giving every juicy detail. Their being together in one compartment provides the framework and holds the story together like a ribbon holding a bouquet of different kinds of flowers of different shapes, colours and fragrances.

Glimpses of Urdu poetry
February 23, 2002
Stamping the police
February 16, 2002
Beer came before bread
February 9, 2002
Getting away from the world... to be in Goa
February 2, 2002
Coping with the death of a loved one
January 26, 2002
Count the blessings of old age
January 19, 2002
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

The main character of the novel is Akhila, a frustrated spinster in her forties, who has spend all her younger years looking after her parents, siblings and their offsprings who shamelessly keep sponging off her. Finally she decides to break loose and without telling anyone boards the train to Kanyakumari to be by herself to discover her identity. Panic grips her because she has never before been alone by herself. She records her feelings as she sets out on the voyage of self-discovery. She writes: "Panic fans the flames of fear. Panic dulls. Panic stills. Panic tugs at soaring dreams and hurls them down to earth. Panic destroys. Akhila felt panic dot her face. She had escaped. But from what to what?

"Quo vadis — Akhila remembered the strapped Bata sandals her father had bought just before he died.

"Quo vadis. Do you know what that means? It’s Latin for ‘whither goest thou?’ ‘I like the conceit of a pair of sandals that dare ask this question. Something Ihaven’t asked myself for a long time.’ He justified the expense of buying an expensive pair of footwear, of allowing himself to be inveigled into buying a brand from a shoe showroom rather than kicking up a pair from the usual shoe shop.

"Quo vadis? Akhila asked herself. Then in Sanskrit: Kim gacchami. Then in Tamil: Nee yenga selgirai.

"Akhila didn’t know any more languages but the question dribbled through the boundaries of her mind in tongues known and unknown. Kicked by a creature in a yellow-and-red striped jersey and spike-studded boots called panic.

"Akhila saw herself as a serpent that had lain curled and dormant for years. She saw life as a thousand-petalled lotus she would have to find before she knew fulfilment. She panicked. How and where was she to begin the search?"

Among the wittiest and the most malicious is the life-story of Margaret Shanti and her husband Ebenezer Paulraj. He is a handsome youngman who becomes principal of a public school in Coimbatore. Margaret is a teacher of chemistry who reduces every thing into combination of acids, alkalines and gases. Her husband is a pompous self-opioniated prig who successfully destroys Margaret’s self-confidence by bullying her into aborting her first pregnancy and then treating her as a house-keeper and a cook. He entertains sycophants to lavish meals without concern of the extra chores he inflicts on his wife. Margaret avenges herself by overfeeding him till he loses his athletic figure and becomes a fat slob. "Love is a colourless, volatile liquid," says Margaret, "Love ignites and burns. Love leaves no residue — neither smoke nor ash. Love is a poison masquerading as the spirit of wine."

"What then is the purpose of life. What exactly are we looking for? The usual answer is happiness. ‘Define happiness,’ asks one of the women in the coupe. Akhila quotes words of a New Year’s greeting card: ‘Happiness is being allowed to choose one’s own life; to live it the way one wants. Happiness is knowing one is loved and having someone to love. Happiness is able to hope for tomorrow.’ Would the woman she was talking to ‘who wore marriage as if it were a Kancheepuram silk sari’ understand that what Akhila most desired in the world was to be her own person? In a place that was her own. To do as she pleased. To live as she chose with neither restraint nor fear of censure."

Ladies Coupe made delightful reading. Bless Anita Nair!


Migratory Indians

Come winter and Indians settled abroad arrive in hundreds to spend a few weeks visiting their relations, friends, temples, gurdwaras, dargahs, and other places of pilgrimage; have another look at the Taj Mahal, Ajanta-Ellora and the Kutub Minar. If they have time to spare, they drop in on me as another relic of the past. Then they wing their way back to the lands of their domicile.

This winter I had quite a few callers on me. There was Mangalam Srinivasan who many years ago spent quite some time in Delhi with her two children, hoping Prime Minister Indira Gandhi would give her something worthwhile to do; so that she did not have to return to States. It did not work out and Mangalam returned disappointed to Washington. Her children were happy to get back. Now she is with her husband in Harvard and came on a short visit . She did not like my asking her whether she had put political ambitions out of her mind. "I never had political ambitions," she replied firmly. "I wanted to do something which would make a difference in people’s lives." I liked the way she put it.

Jasjit Kaur’s ambition in life is to spread the message of her gurus in America. She and her husband, besides earning their living, devote their spare time organising camps for the new generation of American Sikhs. She came full of beans as ever and gave me a specially designed Cross pen with the Khalsa emblem Khanda-kirpan on it. Then there were Dr Munir Kadri and his wife who live in Rotorua (New Zealand). He is a surgeon specialising in prostrate gland surgery. He times his visits to coincide with an Indo-Pak mushaira, organised by Kaamna Prasad. He also performs surgeries free of charge in different towns and Indian cities as part of his debt repayment to his countrymen.

Rajwinder Singh has made his home in Berlin and publishes poetry both in German and Punjabi. He is a bachelor. When his parents were alive, his winter visits were made to inspect nubile girls lined up by his parents and friends to take one back as his bride. I wrote about his entertaining me in his flat in Berlin when his German girl friends, past and present, had prepared a Punjabi feast for over 30 guests. That put an end to his bride hunting in India. Last year, he came with a Spanish girl. In his poetic manner, he gushed: "The first time our eyes met it was like a clap of thunder. We fell in love and decided to get married." The clap of thunder was not followed by a rain of confetti. "She is an actress in Barcelona and wants to live there. I have become German and have been given the status of a poet laureate. I can’t start another life from scratch in Spain. And she wanted me to give her a child."

"So what’s the problem?" I asked. "Give her one and live your separate lives."

"It’s not so simple; she thinks a child needs its parents to be together," replied Rajwinder mournfully.

Rajwinder returns to Europe next week with the problem unsolved. Meanwhile, he had a triumphant fortnight in his home-state (Punjab), with the publication of a second collection of poems in Punjabi Ghar Tey Parvaaz Sangam (Nanak Singh Pustak Mala) with a laudatory introduction by Professor Pritam Singh of Patiala. There was another launch in Delhi.

The winter is not quite over. Basant Panchmi has come and gone but mists, occasional rain and wintry conditions persist. I expect a few more India-born foreigners to pay migratory visits to their original homeland before the summer sets in.

Behind a truck in Himachal

Krishan kare to leela

Hum karein to paap

(When Lord Krishna does it, it’s illusion,

When we do it, it’s a sin)

(Contributed by Rajnish, Shimla)