Saturday, June 21, 2003
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Gambling has religious sanction
Khushwant Singh

WHEN I first went to England in 1934, I ran into a young Sikh about my age who was staying in the gurdwara in Shepherds Bush (London) and getting two meals a day free of charge. Though he had only passed his matriculation examination, he was known as Gyani (learned). He was looking for some job in a factory or to become a pedlar. If nothing better came his way, he would become the granthi (scripture reader) at the gurdwara. A few weeks later I heard the boy had hit the jackpot. He went to a dog race, laid a bet on one and won over five hundred pounds ó a sizeable fortune in those times. When he returned to the gurdwara, he spread out the currency notes on his bed and slept on them at night to symbolise his rolling in wealth. He moved out of the gurdwara and found another lodging in keeping with his new status. I lost track of him.

When I returned to England in 1947 as a PRO in our High Commission in London, I met Gyani again. He was a peon, the lowest paid on the staff. Whatever little he earned, he staked at dog races. It was a mugs game but he could not take it out of his system. Gambling had got into his blood.

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The human species can be divided into two: those who love to gamble and those who do not have the guts to do so. I belong to the latter category. On the other hand, my late wife loved to try her luck whether it was at a horse race or in a casino. And invariably lost. Many of my friends are gamblers. Some have Bridge sessions over weekends and play non-stop from Saturday evening to Monday mornings. They play for high stakes and the rich invariably lose money to the poor. I had a cousin whose main income after retirement came from his earnings from Bridge. At Golf most players take modest bets of one golf ball for first nine holes, another for the second nine and a third for total of eighteen. Others play for much higher stakes, running into lakhs of rupees.

Gambling has religious sanction. Pandavas gambled away their wife Draupadi on the throw of dice. The episode reflects poorly on their sense of rectitude and attitude towards women. Gambling on Divali night is a hallowed tradition. Betting on horses, dogs, at casinos, roulette, stocks and shares, buying lottery tickets, taking bets on outcomes of cricket matches being played in a distant country, etc are different expressions of the same instinct ó a base on i.e. to earn money without the sweat of oneís brows. Knowing that to be so, we have let gambling become our second nature. At the most trivial argument, you will hear someone challenge shart lag jai(lets take bet). Even I who am averse to gambling succumb to an occasional bet of a bottle of Scotch over a quotation or historical event. So far I have not lost one and friends who took me on never honoured their commitments.

Does God speak to you?

Jaya Thadani is the daughter of the late Justice Dalip Singh of the Punjab High Court and niece of the late Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Gandhijiís disciple and Cabinet Minister in the first government of Independent India under Jawaharlal Nehru. She belongs to the branch of the Kapurthala family which converted to Christianity. Not all members of the family are as devout as Jaya. Though married to a Sindhi Amil, who are more Sikh than Hindus, she converted to Catholicism and goes to Church every morning whether she is living in London or in Hanover (USA). We write to each other at least once a week. We have much to argue about because she is a staunch believer, I am an avowed agnostic. God speaks to her; He does not speak to me.

With one of her letters, Jaya sent me a magazine Mission Today marking four articles which she thought would be of interest to me. One is by Father Christy Fox entitled Prayerful Renderings:A First Step to Listening to God. His argument runs somewhat as follows:The word of God Lectio Divina is today used as a method of prayer. In the Jewish tradition, God spoke through his prophets or through significant events like the Jewish exodus from Egypt and Babylonian exile. It is understandable that the Jews were not aware of prophets or teachers like Mahavir, Buddha, Kabir, Nanak or authors of the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavadgita. They also refused to recognise later prophets like Jesus and Mohammed who belonged to the Hebraic tradition. Father Christy takes Jesus Christ as the alpha and the omega of the voice of God as narrated in the gospels. But what he says is valid for all people interested in communicating with the Divine. First read the text, then ponder or meditate over it till it sinks into your consciousness. Then, if you have any questions, or are uneasy with state of things, put your fears and doubts to Him. And wait for His answers. The rules are equally applicable to any thoughtful writing on any subject: read, mull over what you have read till you understand it.

I read scriptures of different religions on a regular basis. If the language is beautiful I re-read the passages and often commit them to memory.I also have many questions to which I try to find answers or seek them from friends who have similar interest. I donít put them to God because I donít know who or where He is. Needless to say, He in His turn never designs to speak to me.

Mountain journey

In early May, the uphill drive from Kalka at the base of the Shivaliks to Dharampur, 15 miles into the mountains, is well-worth the effort for the flowering trees that line the roadside. When I left Delhi, Jacarandas (neelams) had faded, gulmohars were fading out, jaruls (queens flower) had come into their own. When I detrained at Chandigarh, amaltas (labournum) was about to come into flower. For some mysterious reason as we drove past Hotel Timber Trail, a bare five miles from Kalka, all these trees could be seen in all their glory, the most gorgeous spectacle being lines of azure blue neelams best seen in clusters. Gulmohars were a fierier red and amaltas more golden yellow than the ones in Delhi. Fresh mountain air made them healthier. In addition to these, there were also a few coral trees with embers still glowing on the tips of their branches.

The holiday season was a few days away. It was midweek and middle of the day. There was little traffic on the road so I could relax in my seat and watch hills and valleys that lay below. It was dry and dusty. Pines had shed their needles; pine-needles are inflammable fodder for forest fires. I could see two thin spirals of smoke rising on a hillside across the valley. As we turned off the Kalka-Dharampur road towards Kasauli, I saw a huge cloud of black smoke billowing up the Kasauli hillside. It was mercifully a good distance away from my villa and directly below Flag-Staff House, residence of Brigadier Thakur who rules over the cantonment. His brigade of jawans would no doubt fight the fire to extinction. A couple of miles later, I passed a miniature fire engine leisurely trundling its way towards Kasauli.

I was expecting to see a lot of flowers and birds in and around my villa. Last year I had planted three bougainvilleas; they had taken root, should be in flower. A year before my son and daughter had planted jacarandas in memory of their mother whose ashes they had strewn in the garden. I expected to see them in blossoms. I was disappointed. My bougainvilleas were dead; jacarandas had survived but still too young to flower. There was hardly any bird life. The season of courtship and singing was over; they were busy rearing their young. An eerie silence broken by wind soughing through the pines and an occasional screeching of a parakeet. Billoo, the black-n-white mongrel pup I had adopted last September, was now six months old. He refused to come near me. The harvest had been gathered, the granaries were full and no birds sang. I had no excuses left, I had to get down to work.

Why late?

Teacher: Sheela, why are you late?

Sheela: Sir, a boy was following me."

Teacher: Why should that make you late?"

Sheela: "Sir, he was walking very slowly."

(Contributed by JP Singh Kaka, Bhopal).