Saturday, September 18, 2004

Khushwant SinghTHIS ABOVE ALL
Return to the hills for verse
Khushwant Singh

The last week of August when the monsoon should have well been beating the retreat, it seemed it had just been woken up after sleeping through June, July and most of August till alarm bells sounded warning of a drought. Then it opened up its much delayed bagsfull of bountiful waters to make amends for its tardiness. I, who relied on its keeping its time-schedule, had prepared myself for spending the month of September in my earthly paradise, Kasauli. It would not be as warm as Delhi and not too cold for comfort. Delhi was denuded of flowers, Kasauli hills would still have its monsoon blossoms, chiefly the spectacular cactus, yucca gloriosa with dozens of bell-shaped, ivory pale white flowers suspended from one green stem and wild dahlias of various colours blazing away on hill slopes.

I left a rain-soaked, rain-drenched Delhi in the early hours to catch the Shatabdi Express to Chandigarh. There were few people on the road; even the approach to New Delhi Railway station, which is usually clogged with buses, cabs and three-wheelers and can take a good 15 minutes to muscle through, had comparatively less traffic than usual. It was the same with the train on which one has to book oneís seat many days ahead: there were quite a few seats still unoccupied. Many people had evidently decided to stay at home.

We sped through a very green Haryana with stagnant pools of water lining both sides of the rail track. I saw more cattle egrets and herons in the ponds than ever before. The track had obviously been weakened by heavy rain. The train slowed down to a snailís pace. We crossed over the Markanda and the Ghaggar, both swollen with muddy water, and arrived at Chandigarh almost an hour behind schedule.

The power of doubt
September 4, 2004
Trouble with the truth
August 28, 2004
What makes a perfect evening
August 21, 2004
Kasi yatra
August 14, 2004
A prince or princely impostor
August 7, 2004
A tale of intrigue, violence
July 31, 2004
Eat, drink and be merry
July 24, 2004
House of Praise
July 17, 2004
In Faridís 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 couldíve been Betaaj Badshah
April 17, 2004
The potent Gayatri Mantra
April 10, 2004

It was bright and sunny. And sunnier were the smiles of Punam Sidhu, her husband and Deepak who make it a point to help me to get off the train and get into a car meant to transport me to Kasauli. There was little traffic on the hill road besides lines of trucks coming downhill. This time, fragrance of roasted corn mingled with the fragrance of apples being transported from Himachal orchards to the plains. As the Kasauli church clock struck one, I was back in my mini-Baikunth for my autumn work-vacation. Here I find solitude I sorely miss in Delhi. I share Ghalibís longing for a companionless silence:

Rahiye ab usee jagah chal kar jahan koee na ho

Hamsukhan koee na ho, aur hamzubaan koee na ho

(Let us go and find a place in the world where there is no other

No one there to talk to, no one to share your thoughts).

When I was here in May and June, I had a punishing schedule of work to put finishing touches to two books at the same time. The only extracurricular item I had on my list of work was reading Urdu poetry between lunch and siesta and between dinner and nightís sleep. Since my vocabulary of Urdu is poor, I often use Hindi which I read with some difficulty to help me out with difficult words. By my bedside I had Gnaneshwar Prasadís compilation of selected poems given to me by his daughter Kamna Prasad.

To my utter dismay his explanations of Persianised Urdu words in the footnotes were in even more obscure Hindi. So when I met Kamna next time, I told her that her fatherís compilation needed updating and simplifying. And rashly promised to translate her selection into English. She handed me a sheaf of papers with her selections neatly printed in Devnagri and Urdu. I had with me other translations by K.C. Kanda, T.N. Raz, Victor Kiernan and Ralph Russel. Undaunted by their scholarship, I got down to doing my own versions ó four couplets a day at a leisurely pace.

I will quote them in these columns and will be grateful if readers point out mistakes and make them more readable. Needless to say, I started with Ghalib. I give two of his couplets in praise of wine ó he was an unabashed wine and Scotch bibber:

Ghalib chhuti sharaab, par ab bhee kabhee kabhee

Peeta hoon roz-e-abr-o-shab-e-mehtab mein

(Ghalib foreswore wine

But from time to time itís true

when dark clouds span the skies

And nights are lit by the moon

he breaks his vows

And takes a sip or two.)

An equally popular couplet must have been composed by him in his old age:

Go haath mein jumbish nahin, aankhon mein to dam hai

Rahney do abhee Saagher-o-meena meyray aagey

(Though I can no longer stretch my hands

I still have some sparkle in my eyes

Let the wine jug and the wine cup remain

Before me where they lie.)

By sheer coincidence, I got a note from an army officer in Kasauli for an appointment to see me. He was Lt Col J.S. Likhari. With a name like that, I was sure he was into writing in some language or the other and I could pick his brains about my translation.

At tea time, a strapping sardar and his comely sardarni joined me. "How did you come by a name like Likhari? I asked him. "One of my ancestors was a master calligrapher who wrote with his nail. So we came to be known by the name," he replied. His wife said, "He also has a beautiful handwriting. I preserve his letters." "They must be love letters," I suggested. "Yes," she replied with a blush. "When he was courting me."

I asked them another question which Ghalib might well have asked visitors calling on him. "Are you drinking people?" Both nodded their heads, meaning yes.

Noblesse oblige

Once a prince along with his courtiers went for shikar. There the prince got separated from the retinue. He got very thirsty and luckily spotted a well with a rope and bucket lying by the side. Although he could pull a bucket of water from the well, he felt it was beneath his dignity to do so. He waited for someone to come and help him out.

After sometime the son of a nawab happened to pass that way and being thirsty asked for water. The shahzada expressed his inability to pull water. The second man said, "I am a nawabzada, how can I pull the water." Both waited till a third man arrived. Being a raizada, he also refused to demean himself by pulling out water.

After some time a fourth man appeared and asked for water. One of them replied, "I am nawabzada and they are sahibzada and raizada. So you will have to pull the water and help us too, as we are very thirsty."

"How can I pull the water?" replied the newcomer. "Iam a haramzada."

Contributed by M.L. Verma, New Delhi