Saturday, July 24, 2004

Khushwant SinghTHIS ABOVE ALL
Eat, drink and be merry
Khushwant Singh

EPICURUS (Circa 300 BC) was a Greek philosopher who denied the existence of God and emphasised that since we do not know why we were born, for what purpose and know nothing about what would happen to us after we die, we should enjoy life as best as we can. Epicureanism was later summed up as a motto: eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die. It is also known as hedonism, the philosophy of good living.

We have been very unfair to Epicurus by equating his beliefs with an amoral way of living. In rejecting the existence of God, he made a series of assertions, for which I cannot find the answers. All God-believers (theists) affirm that the world was created by God (exactly when, we do not know), that He is Omnipotent (sarvshaktimaan) as well as merciful (raheem), just (aadil) and has compassion (karuna). Epicurus argues as follows:

If God is willing to prevent evil, but is not able to

Then He is not omnipotent.

If He is, but not willing

Then He is malevolent.

If He is both able and willing

Then whence cometh evil?

If He is neither able nor willing

Then why call Him God?

The logic cannot be refuted. But it leaves an important question unanswered: What is all the world about — the earth, sun, moon, stars, seas, mountains, humans and beasts? I admit I don’t know and hence call myself an agnostic. I reject theism as well as atheism which answers this question with a positive "yes" or a positive "no".

India has a long and hallowed tradition of questioning the existence of God. If you doubt my statement read Debi Prasad Chattopadhyayay’s Indian Atheism (People’s Publishing House), now in its fourth edition. He traces the questioning back to 6th century B.C. when Charvakas questioned both the existence of God and the sanctity of the Vedas. Later Indian atheists questioned the Upanishads as well. Jainism and Buddhism put more emphasis on right thinking and right conduct than on the existence of God. It was evidently a society more open-minded and able to accept criticism than ours is today.

There is good reason for my harping on the subject of religious belief. Religions have had a renaissance in the form of belief in the irrational and kow-tow to superstitions. It is not be dismissed as a matter of academic irrelevance. What faith can you impose on a party — which ruled us for five years and is the most important element in the Opposition — when it changes the entrance to its office from one side to another because a Vaastu expert advises it that that would bring it better luck? You have seen what happened to the party at the recent elections. And what do you think of an otherwise acceptable leader who wants the number of the house allotted to him to be changed from number eight to 6A, because the former is inauspicious? Or a Jayalalithaa and a Shobhaa De adding another ‘a’ to their first names because it will improve their fortunes?

Making a fool of oneself

I have the genius for making an ass of myself. Some examples of the gaffes I made remain embedded in my memory. One that sticks in my mind like a sore thumb is an incident that took place in Bombay. I was invited to a musical performance. I arrived a couple of minutes late. My hosts had kept a seat in the front row vacant for me. I sat down and took a quick look at the ladies sitting on my left and right. The one on my right was a stunner in the classical mode. Instead of listening to the music, I kept turning towards her. At the interval, I was bold enough to tell her: "I was a little late. My host did not have the chance to introduce us."

She gave me a winsome smile and replied, "I am Meena Kumari."

"Meena Kumari ji, what do you do for a living?" I asked.

Her smile froze. She abruptly left the seat next to me and sat down at a distance. A minute later, my host came raging at me. "You must be the biggest bloody fool in India. I gave you a seat next to India’s most beautiful filmstar and you ask her what she does for a living."

Another gaffe I made was only a few days ago. I got a call from Mumbai. The caller introduced himself as what my ears construed as Amrish Puri. I know there was a well-known actor of that name but having never met him and convinced that a film celebrity was not likely to want to see me, I asked him as coldly as I could, "What do you wish to see me about?" He assured me that he was coming to Delhi on his own business and would like to have a few minutes with me. "Are you sure you have no kaam-shaam with me?" He assured me he had no kaam-shaam. I gave him an appointment for 3 pm the next day.

A few minutes later my son who lives in Mumbai rang me up and gave me a proper roasting on the coals. He didn’t call me an ass but his tone lacked filial respect. "He is one of our top film personalities. You better invite him and his wife over for a drink in the evening," he ordered. I apologised and asked him to tell his friend to join me for drinks in the evening.

I invited Parveen Talha, Director of the I.R.E. Training Institute in Faridabad, who makes the tastiest kababs, and Sheela Reddy of Outlook. I told my servants about the distinguished guests I was expecting.

The Puris arrived on the dot of time. The first to enter was their seven-year-old son, a tiny friendly little fellow, wearing thick glasses. He shook my hands and presented me two miniature books he had received on his birthday. Then came his parents: the father, a tall brawny Punjabi, and his petite Bengali wife.

House of Praise
July 17, 2004
In Farid’s footsteps
July 10, 2004
One up on Ghalib
July 3, 2004
Star interpreters
June 26, 2004
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

I proceeded to introduce them to my other quests. Parveen snapped at me, "He is not Amrish Puri but Om Puri." Sheela Reddy joined her in denouncing me. "How could you mix up their names? Haven’t you seen him on the screen? You wrote about Hanif Qureshi’s My Son is a Fanatic. He played the lead role."

I was properly squashed. Om Puri was not in the least bit put off by my gaucherie. Nandita Puri forgave me. "People often mix up names. So don’t worry," she said.

Om Puri turned out to be a most likeable and unassuming man. He told me of his younger days in school and college in Patiala and Phillaur when he got into acting and how he came to acquire a Bengali wife. He happened to be in Calcutta on an assignment when he ran into Nandita. She was a journalist first with The Statesman, then with The Telegraph. Though a lot younger than Om, she fell for him and agreed to become his wife. Their son is the apple of his father’s eye. Nandita has been commissioned by Roli Books to write the text of an illustrated biography of her husband. She has a collection of short stories being published by Rupa and has also completed a novel.

It was a most pleasant evening. Parveen Talha’s farewell remark washed away all the wrongs I had done to Om Puri. "In my opinion, you are the greatest actor in the world today," she said to him. And no sooner had they left, both my servants turned their ire on me. "He was not Amrish Puri as you said but Om Puri." I was the only ignoramus among the lot.

Song of the road

On the back of a truck plying in Bhopal is the following message:

Socha tha tujhey har mod par

Yaad karengey

Lekin kambakht road hee

Seedhee nikal gayee

(I thought at every turning of the road

I will think of you

But the wretched road had no turnings

It went straight through)

Contributed by J.P. Singh Kaka, Bhopal