Saturday, December 4, 2004


Khushwant SinghTHIS ABOVE ALL
Goings-on in the name of god
Khushwant Singh

EARLIER COLUMNS
Of matters religious and erotic
November 27, 2004
Faith should unite
November 20, 2004
Fine art of party hopping
November 6, 2004
Kiss and kismet
October 30, 2004
Food fads and filmi gods
October 23, 2004
Yesterday once more
October 16, 2004
Bose smart, Nehru smarter
October 9, 2004
Exploding myths
October 2, 2004
Candid confessions
September 19, 2004
Return to the hills for verse
September 18, 2004
The power of doubt
September 4, 2004

The arrest of the seer of Kanchipuram brings to light once more the sordid goings-on in many places of worship. Just about every religious institution ó Hindu, Muslim and Sikh ó is fouled with misuse of money given as offerings by devotees. Quarrels between those in charge of these institutions often leads to litigation, violence and, at times, murder.

A few years ago, three men lost their lives in Sai Babaís headquarters in Puttaparthi. Retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Justice Bhagwati was the then head of its business affairs. Nothing more was heard of what followed except that no one was charged with the crime. If you want to know more about the place, read Lord of the Air (Vikas). Later, Bibi Jagir Kaur, then head of the SGPC (as she is once again), was involved in the mysterious death of her own daughter who married someone against her motherís wishes.

As for Muslim dargahs, I recommend you read Tehmina Durraniís In the Name of Allah (Penguin-Viking). Fleecing devotees, incest, murder and getting away with every crime is a common occurrence in Pakistani and Indian dargahs.

The main reason for these places of iniquity flourishing is the patronage extended to them by presidents, prime ministers, chief ministers, captains of industry, millionaires and powerful politicians.

This has been highlighted by the way leaders like Murli Manohar Joshi and George Fernandes, who should have known better, flew to Vellore jail ó where the Kanchi Shankaracharya was held ó organising mass rallies of sadhus to protest against the arrest.

In short, the principle that the law must take its course has become a cliche more observed in breach than in observance. Can the country afford to allow people with muscle and money power to get away with such flagrant defiance of law of a civilised state?

Lord Snowdon

I recall him as a dashingly handsome army officer, a Welshman, named Tony Armstrong-Jones who went on to marry Princess Margaret, the fairest of the girls of the British Royal Family. He was elevated to a peerage and became Lord Snowdon. They made the handsomest young couple in Great Britain. However, that did not prevent the marriage from falling apart. Snowdon made a career for himself as a master portrait photographer. There are over 20 books of photographs taken by him.

He was recently in Delhi to do a photographic coverage of the people of India. I was one among the many he wished to capture in his camera. Needless to say, I was vastly flattered. Also, curious to see how he looked after all these years. I was in for a surprise.

My door bell rang exactly at 2.30 pm as scheduled. I opened the door. There were six people, three White, three Indian. One of the Whites was in a wheelchair. That was Lord Snowdon, I did not know he had been crippled. Now in his seventies, thinning on the top but still handsome. I shook hands with him; opened the second door to make space for the wheelchair to be taken in. He had to be helped to get up and take a seat in the chair beside mine.

"I am not very photogenic," I said, to get the conversation going. He nodded in agreement. "I am described as the worst-dressed man in India," I said by way of apology. He looked me up and down and nodded again to indicate agreement with the popular verdict. He looked round the room and decided the light was not good enough." "Letís go outside," he said. There was a wedding shamiana being put up on the front lawn and a number of urchins about. "I have a small patch of green at my back. No one will disturb you there," I said. "Let me see," he said and asked his lady companion and the English assistant to take him there. He was helped back into his wheelchair and pushed through my bathroom to the verandah overlooking my garden. He looked round without making any comment.

"You sit in that wicker chair in front of me," he ordered. I obeyed. He looked through the camera. "Remove the cushions from the chair," he ordered. I complied. He had another look through his camera. "Take off your glasses," he ordered. I took off my glasses. "Remove your jacket, the watch chain and pens in your pocket." I did as I was told. There were no Ďplease no if you donít mindí, just orders issued in staccato sentences. Evidently the royal right to command and expect immediate obedience had got ingrained in him.

Throughout the one-hour photo-session he alternated between looking into his camera and fixing his steely gaze on my face. When it was over, I ventured to ask him "What kind of camera do you use?"

"Itís Swedish."

"Hasselblad?"

He nodded. He was surprised Iknew the name. He returned to the sitting room. "Can I offer some chilled beer or white wine? I asked.

"I would not mind a glass of wine," he replied.

I asked his escorts what they would like. Before anyone could reply, he waved his hand telling them to buzz off. All of them trooped out. He was relaxed. "How many books have you written?" He asked.

"Too many," I replied, "Over 110 ó all kinds ó novels, history, short stories, translations; also a lot of rubbish."

He smiled ó for the first time. "What are you writing now?"

"Just putting finishing touches to a collection of obituaries Iíve written during my carreer as a journalist and my own views on death any dying. I have entitled it Death at my Doorstep. Have you thought about death?"

"Not much. Thereís nothing you can do about it; so why bother?"

"Itís human. Donít you want to know where you go after you die?" I asked.

"Whatís the point? I donít much care."

"Are you religious? I asked."

"Not really."

"Go to church?"

"Occasionally."

He decided to turn the tide of questions. " You still have long hair?"

"I do."

"Let me see it."

"I took off my woollen cap and let down my hair."

"Itís all white," he commented, "Your beard is black."

I dye my beard."

"Why?"

"If I donít do it, people say Ďyou have got oldí. I donít like that. I dye it black and people say Ďyou havenít changed a bit over the yearsí. I feel better."

He smiled again. He finished his glass of wine and ordered his escort to put him back in his wheelchair and take him back to the hotel. I saw him off to my doorstep and extended an invitation. "Whenever you feel like having a sun-downer, you will be most welcome ó 7-8 pm."

"Thanks. But I heard you say to my lady escort that a lot of people drop in every evening unasked. You called them spongers."

"But I am inviting you."

"Thanks." He shook hands. He waved me farewell. I have no idea what his photographs will turn out to be like.

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