|Saturday, March 9, 2002||
THEY talk about themselves. Everyone behaves like a prima donna. If they have a towering figure among them, they are deferential towards him, off-hand towards others. Last year when Himachal Som, head of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), told me of his plans to organise the first ever world writersí conference in Delhi, I thought he was being over-ambitious. He wanted to invite Nobel Laureates, winners of Pulitzer, Booker and Commonwealth Prizes, including Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy. He wanted to put India on the world literary map. However, as things turned out, the assemblage of literary gems was cut down to modest proportions. Other Nobel Laureates must have sensed that if Vidia Naipaul was going to be there, few Indians would take notice of them, because he was the latest winner and of Indian ancestry. So it came down to a few outsiders and Indian writers living abroad: Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Anita Rau Badami, Amit Chaudhry, Farrukh Dhondy, Pico Iyer and Ved Mehta. They got a free ride home and back. The rest were Indian writers of regional languages and English.
The huge auditorium of
Vigyan Bhawan was packed: sitting in the front row were a former
President, two former Prime Ministers and several Cabinet Ministers.
Naipaul was given a heroís welcome. Prime Minister Vajpayee read out
his speech in English. His theme was, as anticipated, taken from the
latest issue of Outlook which had aired the views of some of the
top writers of regional languages. While admitting that writers of
English had put India on the literary map of the world, Vajpayee rued
that writers of regional languages had been denied both fame and fortune
they deserved. He talked of governmentís plan to set up panels of
translators and for funding publishing houses to get their works wider
circulations. Naipaul who spoke extempore without a slip of paper before
him demolished the Prime Ministerís contention. In his genteel
English, he hit the nail on the head: the principal reason why regional
languages languished was not because of the quality of writing but the
paucity of readers. If there were not enough buyers, publishers would
not risk their money on publishing their works. By inference there was
little the government could do in the matter except enhance literacy
levels and so create a large body of readers.
So to Neemrana. It is 80 miles from Delhi on the road to Jaipur. On a steep hill covered by bramble and keekar rises an ancient Rajput fortress tracing its ancestry to the times of Prithvi Raj Chauhan. It was falling to pieces till it was bought by an enterprising quartet. It was then converted into a swanky Heritage Hotel with gardens, conference rooms, auditoriums, a large bathing pool and a cuisine which matches the best available in large cities. It is also the roughest place Iíve been to: tortuous steps, narrow winding passages and sheer drops into space. People above 60 would find it hard to come to terms with it. Neemrana is not for my age group. For me the most rewarding experience was getting to know Anita Rau Badami from Canada whose novel The Heroes Walk I had rated as the best I had read last year. When she introduced herself to me, I was overcome with emotion. Instead of taking the hand she put out, I kissed her all over her face. She blushed in embarrassment. Then forgave me for my audacity. She is a good-looking woman in her 30s, bright-eyed and pleasantly buxom. She lives in Montreal with her husband, a professor of environmental studies, and their son. "Come back to India," I told her, "otherwise the font of inspiration in you will dry up."
In the afternoon I sat on the ramparts of the fort with Shashi Deshpande and Naipaulís vivacious ever-gushing wife Nadira. We heard flocks of parakeets fly to their roosts, the twittering of martins, peacocks crying in the distance and barking dogs in the village below the fort. We watched the sun go down and soft moonlight of a half-moon take over.
The next hour was dedicated to watching Sonal Mansinghís Odissi rendering of Geet Govinda. She looked younger than when I first met her 20 years ago. Or maybe it was the moonlight and the romantic aura of a haunted fortress which made her look like an apsara.
I was sober but unable to walk down five storeys of badly cobbled footpaths and uneven steps. I had to suffer the indignity of being carried by four men holding my chair. I swore never to allow this to happen again till I am taken feet first on my last journey to the unknown beyond.
What to do with Siachen?
Did you know that in the last 18 years that Indian and Pakistani troops have been facing each other across the Siachen Glacier, India has lost 3500 jawans and officers, and retired 10,000 because of injuries? A bare 3 per cent of them were killed by Pakistani guns; the rest died of exposure to cold (temperature goes down to -500C) and high altitude: no one can stay there for more than a month.It is not known how many men Pakistan has lost in this meaningless confrontation. It costs us around Rs 5 crore a day; it costs Pakistan less because they have access to the glacier by road while we have to drop all our supplies of arms, food and fuel by helicopters.
There is no human habitation on the glacier. Only ibex lived there on wild roots. Ibex have disappeared; wild roses that came out in summer have been uprooted to provide pegs for army tents. It is quite clear that Siachen is of no military importance to either India or Pakistan.
My friend Zafar Futehally, the eminent environmentalist, has come out with a solution which I am sure will be acceptable both to India and Pakistan. He has the support of Generals B.N. Nanda, Kulkarni and Admiral Ramdas. All the three retired officers are of the view that Siachen is of no military importance. I am sure that their view is shared by their counterparts in Pakistanís defence services.
Zafar Futehally suggests that Siachen be turned into a Transfrontier Peace Park. Dozens of peace parks exist round the globe at sites where two countries once confronted each other. So let ibex return to their habitat and a thousand wild roses bloom.
Not to reason why
This I have never understood;
We chop down trees but chop up wood;
We draw down wrath, we draw up wills;
We run down foes, we run up bills;
We eat food up, we down a drink
Which is a little strange, I think
We turn down offers, turn up noses ó
Just one last thought and then this closes;
We should remember, we poor clowns,
That life is full of ups and downs.
(Contributed by Rekha Ganguly, Silchar)