Saturday, June 26, 2004

Khushwant SinghTHIS ABOVE ALL
Star interpreters
Khushwant Singh

I HATE to mock people who are down and out. However, I make exceptions in the case of people who wield power and influence and impose their views on others. I was not at all sorry to hear that Murli Manohar Joshi lost his election and Jayalalithaa got a drubbing at the hands of her arch enemy Karunanidhi. Both are highly intelligent people, they are also irrational in subscribing to astrology. 

J Power: Jayalalithaa and Joshi

One may be permitted to ask Joshi and Jayalalithaa: "Did their stars not tell them that they would lose the elections?" I know neither of them will deign to answer a direct question put to them by a non-entity like me. But certainly, the people have a right to ask (Mr Joshi): Was it fair on your part as Minister of Human Resource Development to introduce a subject like vedic astrology in the curricula of universities? I hope your successor in office will cancel the grant you made and divert the funds to the study of some science like astronomy or physics of which you were once a professor.

As for Amma, the revolutionary leader, she is incorrigible and not amenable to reason. But she is loved and adored by many of her people who worship her as a living deity. She could have done much more for Tamil Nadu than she has as its Chief Minister. Perhaps that is also written in her stars.

And lastly, Sri Lachhman Das Madan, editor-proprietor of astrological magazine Babaji. Ever since Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced elections before they were due, you have been predicting that Vajpayee will return as Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi would never become one. Sonia could have come one if she had chosen to do so. That was not what you wrote. Madanji, you owe it to your readers to answer the question: "Were the stars lying to you or were you lying to your readers?"

Jack Wilberforce Burke Peel

His name will mean nothing to my readers. It meant a great deal to me. He was my closest English friend for more than 70 years. He died on April 3 at the age of 95. I read of it in The Independent (London). It was a two-column obituary with his photograph. Despite my closeness to him, I did not realise his greatness because like most Englishmen of breeding he never spoke about himself. It was from the obituary I learnt that Jack Peel had in his time met Stalin, Tito, Eisenhower, Churchill, Attlee and many other world figures and helped them to communicate with each other. He was not a politician, minister of government or a diplomat. He was a humble clerk with a gift for languages. He was fluent in half-a-dozen European languages and spoke them with the fluency he spoke his native English. Although he never went to a university, he was widely read and an accomplished pianist.

What makes a city beautiful
June 19, 2004
CRI turns 100: No sound of celebration
June 12, 2004
Man-motivated tragedies
June 5, 2004
A verdict in favour of secularism
May 29, 2004
Charm of the Shivaliks
May 22, 2004
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

I met him when I was a student and had taken lodging with Professor F.S. Marvin in Welwyn Garden city, some 40 miles north of London. Our first encounter was on the tennis courts in inter-club tournaments. He was better at the game than I. Gradually, a friendship developed and I was invited over for tea to meet his father who ran a small private school, his sister Nancy and his wife, a very pretty Estonian girl named Dagmar Hansen. I recall him telling me once "I don’t have much reason to be friend a Sikh. The last time I made friends with one he walked off with my girlfriend. His name was Gurdial Singh. He was in the Indian Air Force doing some kind of course at Hatfield. Do you know him?" I had not heard of Gurdial Singh. I replied, "You better beware of all Sikhs; you have a very pretty wife."

On days I had no college, I often dropped in a cafe to have a cup of coffee because Dagmar worked there as a waitress. Jack had a clerical job in the London branch of the National Bank of India and their home needed two incomes. Dagmar spoke very little English. I suspected that apart from her looks Jack had married her to keep his knowledge of the languages she spoke: Estonian, Russian and German. He was a quick learner. By the time World War II broke out, he had full command of these languages. In 1943, the Royal Air Force took him on its staff to monitor what passed between pilots of the German Luftwaffe carrying out air raids over Britain. The authorities soon found that Jack was as fluent in Russian as he was in German. So he was made a liaison officer in a department handling Soviet pilots training to handle British air fighters. He became an interpreter for Soviet Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and Soviet Ambassador Ivan Maisky. He was seconded to the British Foreign Service and posted as Second Secretary in the British Embassy in Moscow. There he met Josef Stalin. Unlike the popular image of Stalin as a cold blooded dictator of little learning, Jack found him to be a warm, fatherly figure with a sharp memory. His English colleagues who looked down on him as an upstart tried to cut him down to size by asking him to play a piano piece by Prokefiev at an Embassy reception. Jack did it with panache, unaware that the composer was standing behind him.

Jack resigned from his Moscow job in 1947 to return to Welwyn Garden city to be close to his wife who was seriously ill with tuberculosis. She died in 1947 leaving behind a son.

Question: Lalooji! Why is no attention paid to solve the electricity problem in Bihar?

So that people do not forget the RJD symbol — Lantern.
— Ajit Agrawal, Gaya

I lost track of Jack Peel during the war years. But no sooner it ended and I found myself a job in India House, London, I resumed contact with him. By then I had a wife and two children. Jack was a widower. He held a senior position in the Imperial Chemical Industries and because of his mastery over various languages, put in charge of their operations in eastern Europe. Largely because, of him, I shifted my family from London to Welwyn Garden city. We met almost every day.

I quit the service in 1951 and returned to India. We wrote to each other. The same year Jack married an Austrian girl Erika Fischa through whom he had another two sons. One winter they came to Delhi and stayed with us. He had then developed an arthritic knee and walked with a limb. Whenever I needed medicines not available in India — as I did when my father and later my mother were taken ill — I could rely on Jack to send them without doctors’ prescriptions which were mandatory. He kept track of my ventures into the writing world by getting my books and writing to me about them. Besides languages and classical music, he had an abiding interest in literature from his school days in Scarborough (Yorkshire).

During the last few years instead of Jack, it was his wife Erika who responded to my letters. When my wife died two years ago. Erika wrote to me; Jack added a paragraph at the end of the letter. I was barely able to decipher it. Erika’s last letter to me was about Jack’s rapidly declining health. He was confined to his bed but he added three words to his wife’s letter. It took me some time to decipher them: "How are you?"