Saturday, June 19, 2004

Khushwant SinghTHIS ABOVE ALL
What makes a city beautiful
Khushwant Singh

I have been often asked "which is the most beautiful city in the world that you visited?" It is usually followed by a second question: "Where would you have liked to make your home?"

I find it difficult to answer the first question as I have seen many beautiful cities. My conception of a beautiful city is one in which the beauty of nature is combined with great architecture. It should have green hills as a backdrop, an expanse of sea or a large river flowing through it. It must have a history. Its buildings, bazaars, plazas, markets, places of worship, museums, art galleries and residential quarters should blend harmoniously with their natural surroundings. On top of my list comes Istanbul which has all these things: grand mosques, ancient palaces, bazaars, etc and, above all, blue waters of the Bosporus, above which stand rows of villas. Italy has quite a few beautiful cities. To start with is its capital Rome, built on seven hills. It has some of the most spectacular buildings you can see anywhere in the world. However, it is far from the sea and its only river is more like a water conduit and forms no part of the life of its citizens. The same is true of Florence — lovely buildings, romantic bridges but no spread of water. Venice, on the contrary, has sea all round and most of its highways are canals on which gondolas ply as taxi cabs in other cities. San Francisco (US) is another city on my list. It has hills dropping into the ocean but no great buildings. So also Buenos Aires, which has spectacular seafront with high hills on which the rest of the city is built.

People have their own favourite cities. Londoners think London is best; Berliners think Berlin is wonderful. But when it comes to non-residents, most peoples’ first choice is Paris. Why? I got the answer reading Raana Haider’s Parisian Portrait (University Press, Dhaka). Raana is Bangladeshi, the daughter of a diplomat and wife of former Bangladeshi High Commissioner in India Tufail K. Haider, now senior adviser with the World Health Organisation in Delhi. Raana lived in Paris’s posh 16th district and no doubt moved in elite circles of the city. She was totally bowled over by the city and took the trouble to read about its past history and what eminent writers Hemmingway, Art Buchwald et al had to say about it. Like one of her compatriots, she sums up her feelings in one brief sentence: "I came, I saw and I was conquered."

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I did a two-years uninterrupted stint in Paris. I lived in the suburbs and had to take the metro from Bourg La Reine to Trocadero and back. Besides these two years, I must have gone to Paris at least a dozen times (including spending an entire summer vacation) when I was a student in England. Much as I liked being in Paris and visiting its historical monuments, cathedrals and art galleries and eating the tastiest of foods and wines, I never felt comfortable with Parisians. They are snobs without their having much to be snobbish about. And I have not run into more money-minded people. Pourboire — tips for services rendered — is a French invention to extract more money than is due. It is a way of life. Raana Haider is too enamoured of Paris to write about the lesser lovable aspects of life in the city. Being a good Muslim, she also has nothing to say about the wine-culture, which is integral to the French way of living, or about its night life.

Where would I choose to make my home ? If I had the question put to me 70 years ago, without a pause, I would have answered, London. I loved the city and I loved the English people. I still love the city but no longer feel easy among Londoners. The large influx of Asians and Africans have made Whites colour conscious and if there is one thing I cannot cope with it is a racist remark. So my answer today would be equally categorical: "I will like to live in the city where I have lived most of my life and do to this day — Delhi."


A surprise visitor to my summer villa was R.K. Singh, Chairman of the Railway Board. He happened to be in Kasauli for the afternoon and dropped in with his wife and a few members of his staff to pay a courtesy call. I took the opportunity to tell him about Kashyap, who is a ticket-checker on the Delhi-Kalka Shatabdi Express. A couple of years ago when the train had emptied itself of its passengers at its terminal Kalka, he found an attache case, which some passenger had left by mistake. He took it home and opened it. In it were over one lakh rupees in currency notes. Also a diary. From the diary, he found out the name of the passenger who was staying in Shimla. With some difficulty, he located the telephone number and asked him if he had left some luggage behind him in the train. Till then, the man was not aware of the missing attache case. Kashyap asked him to collect it from his quarters in Kalka on his way back to Delhi. The man did so. "Count the money you had in it and make sure nothing is missing," said Kashyap. The man did so. The entire sum of lakh or more was there. He wanted to give some of it to Kashyap to express his gratitude. Kashyap refused to take anything. I wrote about the episode in this very column, hoping some recognition would be given to Kashyap for his exemplary honesty. Nothing happened. I told R.K. Singh about it. Without any hesitation or delaying tactic used by senior civil servants, he said: "I will look in to the matter. As soon as I get back to my office, I will see that Kashyap gets the recognition he deserves."

It made my evening. I was exhilarated and felt happier than if the recognition had come to me. When day after day, we read little besides corruption and skullduggery at all levels of our society, for a ticket-checker to show such integrity is akin to a shining beacon. There must be thousands of Indians as honest as Kashyap. We never hear about them. We will if the media takes as much notice of them as it does of the swines who give us a bad name. Bless you R.K. Singh, your wife and children.

Bollywood MPs

Jovial Govinda danced his way

To the portals of Parliament House.

Dharmendra too joined Hema Malini

His Rajya Sabha member spouse.

To add glamour to Lok Sabha

Jaya Prada won the Rampur seat.

Each film star belongs to a different party

Is it not a curious feat?

(Courtesy: G.C. Bhandari, Meerut)