Saturday, May 3, 2003
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

The Naked Triangle fetched him more foes than friends
Khushwant Singh

A sixty-year-old friendship ended on April 22. Balwant Gargi who I had befriended in my Lahore days died in Mumbai. His body was flown to Delhi to be cremated. Among the Punjabi litterateurs who were present was former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral. The film world was represented by Anupam Kher. Unfortunately, only Punjabi papers carried tributes to the versatile genius because besides two or three books, he wrote mostly in Gurmukhi script.

Balwant was a bania from Bathinda. He moved to Lahore which was once the centre of Punjabi writing. He made his name as a playwright, director and a writer of satires: his profiles of well-known writers were full of acid wit. After Partition he moved to Delhi where he acquired a tiny, one-room groundfloor apartment with a small courtyard and a kitchen on one side, a lavatory at the other. He entertained friends in his bed-cum-sitting-cum-dining room.

When will the Arabs rise from medieval slumber?
April, 26, 2003
Lies in the guise of war reports
April, 19, 2003
Villain of yesteryear becomes a hero
April, 12, 2003
He has lived life on his own terms
April, 5, 2003
Birthday celebrations that leave a bad taste
March 29, 2003
Why deny ourselves sensual pleasures?
March 15, 2003
Gaumata and the beef-eaters
March 8, 2003
Adopt the country that adopts you
March 1, 2003
When minds don’t meet
February 22, 2003

The room had no furniture and all his guests had to sit or sprawl on the floor while drinking or eating. Only a few people were privileged enough to be invited to his home. Though a podgy, flabby bania, for ever washing his hands with invisible soap, he had an eye for beautiful women with a marked preference for sardarnis. I often chided him, "You have this chaska (taste) for Sikh women; I suspect because only Sikh women can read you in Gurmukhi script." I persuaded him try his hand in English to widen his circle of admirers. He did. His work on Indian theatre was well-received. He was invited by Washington State University (Seattle) to teach courses in drama. For the first time he came into some money. He returned with a large car and a pretty American wife, Jeannie. They moved to Chandigarh where he was appointed Professor of Dramatics. Everyone who met Jeannie fell in love with her. But she remained loyal to her husband. Her only shortcoming was her enormous appetite for food — at one sitting she could eat food enough for three people — and her refusal to learn Punjabi. Though she gave Balwant two lovely children, a boy and a girl, she refused to learn Punjabi and was unable to give Gargi the praise he hankered after. So he turned to others, including an attractive divorcee who was one of his students. Needless to say, she was a sardarni and had been his pre-marriage mistress. Jeannie divorced him, married another Indian and returned to the States, taking her daughter with her. Balwant was left with his son and a wayward mistress. When she ditched him for another man, he took revenge by writing an autobiographical novel in English, The Naked Triangle. It was a bad novel written in bitterness. Instead of gaining more admirers, he lost some he had.

I saw a lot of Balwant Gargi. He was a most engaging conversationalist. Through him, I met actress Parveen Babi when she was queen of Bollywood. Uma Vasudev was also a regular fixture at his dinner parties.

Balwant Gargi sensed his end coming four years before it came. He rang me up from Patiala to thank me for all I had done for him. It was uncalled for because I had done little besides lending him money when he was hard up (he always returned it) and advising him to write in English. I ticked him off: "What’s the matter with you?" and "you owe me nothing; we are old friends." He knew he was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease and would soon lose his memory. He spent his last years with his actor son in Mumbai, being looked after by a faithful servant and a lady friend, a sardarni.

Messiah of the persecuted

On the morning of April 19 died 75-year-old Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, head of the Ahmadiya Muslim Community, which is said to have around 200 million members. Ahmadiyas, also known as Qadianis, have been persecuted by fanatical Pakistani Muslims ever since their founder Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmed proclaimed that he was the mahdi or messiah Prophet Mohammed had promised would come after him. He rapidly acquired a large following in undivided Punjab. From its centre in Qadian (Indian Punjab), it gained followers in western Punjab, now in Pakistan with its main centre in Rabwah close to the Jhelum. As their members grew, orthodox mullahs raised a hue and cry condemning them as heretics and roused mobs to attack their mosques and homes. Ultimately Pakistani Parliament and the Supreme Court declared them non-Muslims. To this day they are not allowed to call Azzan before prayers and greet other Muslims with Assalaam Valaikum. Despite being persecuted in Pakistan, Ahmadiyas have spread and are found in 172 countries of the world, including Israel.

I had the privilege of knowing many eminent members of the community: Chaudhary Sir Zafarullah Khan, Pakistan’s first Foreign Minister and his brother Asadullah Khan; Dr Mohammed Bashir who was Lahore’s leading medical practitioner and his son Rashid, now settled in England; Dr Abdus Salam, the first Muslim to win the Nobel Prize for Science; Parveen Talha, the seniormost Muslim in the Indian Administrative Service; and a few others. I also had the privilege of spending an hour with Mirza Tahir Ahmed when he visited Delhi last time and was staying in the Ahmadiya mosque in Tughlakabad. Of all Muslims I have known, there were none as strict in following the tenets of Islam as the Ahmadiyas. It is ironical that they should be the targets of Pakistani Muslim fanaticism. Has anyone the right to question another person’s faith? If the Ahmadiyas describe themselves as Muslims, no one has the right to tell them "I am but you are not." That is why I, though a professional agnostic, keep warning my readers against the dangers of religious intolerance. ‘Fundoos’ (religious fundamentalists) are much the same — be they Muslims, Christians, Hindus or Sikhs. Beware of bigotry in any shape or form.

Song of war

Bush and Blair, have a flair

For doing things like mad

When one of them bombed Basra

The other pounded Baghdad

When all was rubble

Together did they babble

We won the war, the war.

Oh, look here buddy

Our face is muddy

And there’s a little scar.

But let’s not bother

If we stick together

We’re bound to go far

There’s oil in Syria

A potential area

To go and peg our tent.

Come, let’s hurry

Just kill and bury

Or we’d ever repent.

‘What would they say?’

That’s not the way

To worry your head about

If one does murmur

Others could concur

If together we shout.

So let’s make merry

Together we carry

Burden of the dead

If the conscience pricks

Play some tricks

Dole out jam with bread.

In the end, they’d understand

All was for good, all fair

And for long, sing a song

Long live Bush and Blair.

(Courtesy: J.R. Jyoti, Secunderabad)