Saturday, September 25, 2004

Khushwant SinghTHIS ABOVE ALL
Candid confessions
Khushwant Singh

LATE in the days left to me, I have come to the conclusion that Iíve been an imposter all my life. I have written several books on religion and history of the Sikhs, published translations of selected hymns from the Gurbani without having ever read the Guru Granth Sahib from cover to cover. Nevertheless when people refer to me as a scholar of Sikhism, I protest so mildly that they think I am being modest. It is the same with Urdu. I have published a lot of my translations from Urdu into English in my novels and in columns I write for newspapers. My vocabulary of Urdu is woefully inadequate. So I read a lot of Urdu verse in Hindi, which I read with difficulty because Hindi translations have footnotes with meanings of difficult words. People often look upon me as a scholar of Urdu. But my friend, the late Ali Sardar Jafri, who helped in translating Iqbal, told me bluntly on my face: "You donít know any Urdu." His remark hurt me but I know he was right.

I am now trying to fill up gaps in my knowledge by devoting my entire summer vacation reading the Guru Granth Sahib in the morning; I devote my afternoons reading Urdu poets, from Meer and Ghalib to Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Kaifi Azmi, Javed Akhtar and others. So the mornings are devoted to reading about praises of the Lord, the importance of the Guru for spiritual elevation, the need to conquer lust, anger, desires and arrogance by squashing oneís ego and renouncing wine and women. The afternoons are spent reading of the joy that drinking liquor, making love to women and boys with rosy cheeks and rounded bottoms provide.

In short, it is the temple at a.m., the tavern after p.m.. I have become a split personality. By the time my vacation is over, I would have finished my first complete reading of the Guru Granth Sahib. I would have also gone through the diwans of Urdu classical masters and modern poets. I fear I will end up as a schizophrenic in need of psychiatric help.

I comfort myself by believing that Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib must have faced the same dilemma. His Muslim friends who followed the Shariat law strictly must have chided him for not saying his prayers regularly and his indulgence in wine. A man who had known want, woe and fear, a man who begged for a pittance from the King, I wonder, how could he decide so quickly to change his ways and give up drinking.

To wit:

Return to the hills for verse
September 18, 2004
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

".....So have I lived and passed my days

How can I bring myself to say that God exists.

God the Bounteous Giver, God the Beneficent?

For Godís possible for those who lead happy

sheltered lives,

And know Godís grace and his loving care."

Sauda, another great master of Urdu verse, was even more outspoken on the joys of drinking:

Saaqi gayee bahaar, dil mein rahee havas

Too minnaton say jaam dey

And main kahoon kay Ďbasí

O Saki, gone is the spring of youth,

Remains but one regret in this heart of mine

That thou has never pressed the goblet in my hand,

And I protested "Iíve had enough of wine.

By the time the day is over and I turn in doors for my sundowner, I am a thoroughly confused person. I pour myself a hefty slug of Scotch-n-soda and put on my cassette player. I refrain from putting on kirtan in respect for people who would consider it a sacrilege and instead listen to Bach, Beethoven or Mozart. I come to the comforting conclusion: imposter is too strong a word for me, but humbug fits me to a tee.

Snuffed out

In Victorian England use of snuff as a nasal decongestant was common practice in high society. Gentlemen carried small silver snuff boxes in their pockets, put a pinch of the powder on the back of their left hands and elegantly raised it to their nostrils to take a snuff or two, then blow their noses into a silk handkerchief and put the box back into their pockets. I was not aware that Vietnam ladies also indulged in sniffing the snuff. By the time I went to England the practice of using snuff had all but disappeared: not one of my English friends indulged in it. There was only one shop between Leicester Square and Cambridge Circus which sold snuff of different varieties and had some silver and gold snuff boxes on display. Being the nosey type, I bought the cheapest box and a tin of snuff. I tried some. It was very pleasant. Fragrance induced a couple of sneezes and certainly cleared my nostrils. At that time I was not aware that snuff was produced from tobacco, nor whether sniffing it amounted to taking it. My enthusiasm for snuff was soon snuffed out.

I was aware that many Indians sniffed nasvaar as they took hafeem (opium) regularly. None of my friends or acquaintances used nasvaar and I assumed that its use had died out in India as it had in England. I was in for a surprise.

One afternoon a couple of young men with their wives and children descended on my home in Kasauli in two cars. They were very well turned out: though Hindus, men had solid gold karas, and ladies were in chiffon sarees, with diamonds sparkling in their earlobes and nose-pins. One of them took out a miniature telephone-cum-camera from the pocket and started taking my snap shots with different members of their families. "This must have cost a packet," I remarked. "Not much," he replied. "Around Rs 25,000." It was evident they were rich. I asked one of the men what did he do? "Business," was his one-word reply "What kind of business?" I asked. He handed me his visiting card. It read Vikas Grover: Managing Partner, Six Photo Snuff Factory, Gidderbaha, Punjab, in English and in Hindi. "Cheey Foto Naswar". Gidderbaha is a non-descript town not far from Bathinda.

So snuff has not been snuffed out in India. It has millions of addicts.

Real-life story

A friend of mine has a son who is in the habit of destroying his toys. When the boy turned five, I was invited to his birthday party. I gave him a toy car made of solid steel. It was a great success and he did not let go of it all evening. His parents were surprised that the toy was still in one piece.

When I said goodbye to the birthday boy, who was still playing with my gift, he asked me: "How do you break this thing?"

(Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Tezpur)

Button up

Teacher: What do you understand by the word Ďresponsibilityí?

Ghanta replied: "Madamji, if three out of the four buttons of your blouse are broken then the whole responsibility rests on the fourth button."

(Courtesy: J.P. Singh Kaka, Bhopal)