Saturday, May 22, 2004

Khushwant SinghTHIS ABOVE ALL
Charm of the Shivaliks
by Khushwant Singh

WHEN I made my plans to get away from Delhi to cooler climes, the gulmohars were in full blaze of glory of fiery reds and molten gold . The sun was hotter than the gulmohars. Along the water tanks on either side of the Rajpath from Vijay Chowk to India Gate, jaruls (Queen’s flower) were beginning to come out in mauves and pinks. Many trees had shed their winter foliage and had fresh light-green leaves sprouting on their branches. Juicy cantaloupes and water melons were piled up in mountainous heaps in grocers’ shops; choice mangoes had yet to make their appearance. They should be in the market by the time I return.

My weather forcast went wrong. The day before I was to leave Delhi, a violent dust storm blew over the city. It was followed by heavy rain and showers of hailstones as large as pigeons eggs. The temperature dropped by six degrees and a pleasant cool breeze began to blow. It was too late to change my travel schedule. But it did occur to me how foolish one can be in predicting future events. The day on which the dust storm engulfed the city was declared by astrologers to be the most auspicious: akhshay tritiya (day of eternity) and Akha Teej) when nothing can go wrong. Unfortunately, everything did. Almost 20,000 couples, including Virendra Sehwag, decided to get married. Jayalalitha, who does not take a step without consulting her astrologers, led her party members to file their nomination papers for the Lok Sabha elections. The anger that God Indra displayed on baraat processions and marriage rituals in Delhi had to be seen to be believed. And almost certainly quite a few of Amma’s devotees had to bite the dust in the elections. Will my countrymen ever learn to use their common sense and discard superstitious beliefs in astral phenomenon? I doubt it. And for once I am not at all sorry: it is the theme of short stories I am working on during my sojourn in Kasauli. How the most religiously devout can also be the most corrupt; how often those who extol the virtues of celibacy turn out to be whore-mongers; how the brightest of people can also be the stupidest. I haven’t yet thought of an appropriate title. I am toying with calling it "India: the land of humbugs," I love my India and want to rid it of humbuggery.

Rain played hide and seek through the third week of April. The day after the "auspicious day of eternity" was washed out, there was not a cloud in the sky. The day following I woke up to claps of thunder and lightning. The journey to New Delhi railway station was in pouring rain. A few minutes after the Shatabdi Express commenced its northwards, journey towards the Shivaliks, it was a clear blue sky. We sped through the dust bowl of an expanse of khaki fields with stubbles of harvested wheat crop and neat squares of dot. Awaiting us (I am too old to travel alone — my daughter Mala accompanied me) on the platform to help us out of the train was my old and trusted friend A.S. Deepak and two gorgeous beauties, Punam Sidhu with her son, and Nagina Kohli of Aroma Hotel. I was reminded of an Urdu couplet:

Iss say waqt aur kya dhaayega sitam

Jism boorha kar diya, Dil jawwan rahney diya?

What more cruelty can time inflict than age the body and leave the heart still young?

Onwards to Kalka and Shimla by road, courtesy the car provided by Nagina Kohli. For a summer week-end, there was surprisingly little traffic. So, more hungry rhesus monkeys lined along the roadside awaiting passers-by to throw them some food. The gulmohars had yet to don their flamoboyant reds but jacarandas which had wilted in Delhi were still there in all their full glory like clusters of blue sapphires to embellish God’s own signet ring.

My ill-repute preceded me. In on time, the word spread that I was seem driving past. By the time I had settled in my summer abode, two young men arrived carrying a bunch of red roses and a ball-point pen who could it be but Kuldip Munshi who always keeps a few pens and coloured pencils to give me when I come to Kasauli?


People like to return to the scenes of their childhood days if for no other reason than to see how much of what they remember is correct and see if there were some old people still around who could recall their parents and grandparents. Once a British cantonment with a school and a large hospital, Kasauli had quite a few English boys and girls who were born or went to school there. So there is always a trickle of English visitors every year whose sole aim is to visit homes they once lived in and go round the cemetries, including those in neighbouring cantonments in Sabathu and Dagshai, to see if any names or tombstones ring a bell of the past.

Meditating upon the Gayatri Mantra
May 1, 2004
Idol speculation
April 24, 2004
He could’ve been Betaaj Badshah
April 17, 2004
The potent Gayatri Mantra
April 10, 2004
It is time to revive Hindustani
April 3, 2004
Recipe for cooking bestsellers
March 27, 2004
Relative appeal of beauty and films
March 20, 2004
Khayyam was a rationalist
March 13, 2004
Look for your goldmine
March 6, 2004
Of scarecrows and political satire
February 28, 2004
The importance of punctuating thought
February 21, 2004
Ghalib knew his worth
February 14, 2004
In the sunset of their lives
February 7, 2004
Chennai, the city of achievers
January 31, 2004
Pakistanis are like us only
January 24, 2004

This April we had two English couples who return to India every two or three years to visit scenes of their childhood, which includes Kasauli. One couple I had known for many years and had them stay with me in my home in Delhi. They are Giles and Lisanne Radice. When we first met, Giles was a Labour Party Member of Parliament and into writing books on contemporary British political history. Prime Minister Tony Blair put him in the House of Lords. 

Now, he spends three days of the week in London to attend to his parliamentary duties and the remaining four with his wife in their country home in Lincolnshire. Lady Lisanne Radice is also his writing partner and edits books for a publishing house.

Giles’ father and grandfather was in the ICS and amongst the Brits who supported India’s Freedom Movement. I suggested to him that he do a book on Englishmen and women who supported India’s demand for Independence. The Indian National Congress was set up by an Englishman, A.O. Hume; Annie Besant (Irish) was President of the INC, B.G. Horniman and C.F. Andrews were ardent supporters of Gandhiji. Medeleine Slade (Mira Bai) was a close disciple. 

Spratt and Ben Bradley were imprisoned in the Meerut Conspiracy Case. There were dozens of others in India and England who agitated for India’s freedom. Giles seemed to be taken up by the idea. "I get good reviews for the books I write," he said ruefully, "but they don’t earn me much royalties. " I replied, "I get panned by most critics but manage to make to the best-sellers list. You do one on Brit supporters of Gandhi and I bet it will make the top of best-sellers in both countries."

The other couple were David and Gina Alexander. David was in the Army (Sappers) during World War II. He also spent some time in Kasauli and other Indian cantonments. He speaks Hindustani fluently and makes it a point to come back to India every four years to refresh his memories of the days of his youth as a soldier and keep up his Hindustani. 

It is to Brits like the Radices and Alexanders to extend their hands of friendships to the Indians; I know there are thousands of Indians who will grasp them eagerly to start a new chapter in Indo-British person-to-person relationships.