Saturday, March 9, 2002
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

When writers talk about themselves

Khushwant Singh

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.

Travelling in a womenís compartment
March 2, 2002
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

In the Outlook article almost all bhasha writers interviewed accused writers of English of not having their hands on the pulse of the Indian masses and catering to foreign readers. This charge, though repeated ad nauseam, was palpably false: Indian writers of English have their roots deeply embedded in the Indian soil and are as knowledgeable about the country of their origin as those who have never gone out of India. Though repeating many times that they did not envy the success of writers like Naipaul, Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy or the younger lot like Geetha Hariharan, Anita Rau Badami, Anita Nair and others, it was clearly the case of grapes being sour. There was no need for confrontation between Indians writing in their mother tongues and those writing in English. But confrontation it did become. I looked forward to them facing each other across the table.

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)