Saturday, June 11, 2005

Old men and their dreams
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghTHE older a person gets, the more he dreams of past events. I have found this to be true in my case. I dream during my afternoon siesta as well as at night. What is more, unlike during my younger days when I used to forget what I had dreamt about, now I remember my dreams for a few days. Also, the pattern has changed. In my earlier days, dreams could be identified as insecurity dreams; missing trains, flights, being improperly dressed in a formal party, inability to pay hotel bills, going blank in an examination hall etc. Nowadays my dreams have acquired political overtones. This may be due to the fact that I read too many newspapers and magazines and little else. Ihave failed to interpret them. Let me explain three of the latest.

I dreamt of travelling by train from Delhi to Gwalior, sitting facing me were Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani. I tried to ask them a few questions but they kept smiling at me without opening their lips. When we reached our destination, I followed the two leaders down the platform. There was no one to receive them. While they went out of the exit gate, I continued to walk on to the end of the platform and saw a long range of low-lying hills. Nothing followed.

A second dream had Jayalalithaa Jayaram as she was 25 years ago when I saw quite a bit of her. Since then, she had distanced herself from me and after she became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Ilost all contact with her. However, in my dream she was most affable and full of winsome smiles. Then the dream faded out.

The third dream had more substance to it and a rude awakening. Its main character was Uma Bharti. She had once come to visit me in the company of two men, one of whom could have been her gentleman friend and mentor, Govindacharya. I recall finding her very attractive, full of animated conversation with winsome gestures. I hoped she would repeat her visits. She never did. But Iread of her entering politics, saw her on TV exhorting the rabble around Babri Masjid to give it ek aur dhakka (give it another push) and giving Murli Manohar Joshi an embrace when the mosque came down. I was soured to the depth of my soul. Isaw her pictures cuddling calves as CM of Madhya Pradesh and announcing setting up of Gaushalas in all villages as a top priority. These shenanigans did not warm my heart towards her. I also saw her on TV walking off in a huff when she was expelled from the BJP. For once, I supported the party leaders for doing the right thing. However, in my dream Uma Bharti looked as fetching as when I had first seen her. She was also very friendly and let me hold her hands. I told her, "Your hands are very khurdara (rough)". She replied, "They have to be to do a lot of rough work — not just scribble rubbish on pieces of paper like you do." For good measure, I added, "They also smell of the blood of innocent Muslims." She withdrew her hand from my grasp and gave me a tight slap on my face. I woke up with a start.

A gifted storyteller

My usual reaction to books which are launched with great fanfare or hyped for getting advance royalties running into crores of rupees is a snort of contempt. Ihave eagerly picked up many of them and, after reading a few pages, tossed them aside. Such advance publicity is sheer gimmickry. I had the same reaction to Lavanya Sankaran’s collection of short stories, The Red Carpet. After reading about the huge sum of money her publishers paid to her before putting the book in the market Ihad no intention whatsoever of going through it. Then, Ninnia Singh mailed me a copy to my summer abode in the Shivaliks. Having nothing better to do for relaxation, very reluctantly, Ipicked it up and read the first story. I was charmed. "The girl is gifted, a born storyteller." I admitted to myself. Iput aside the work I was doing and went from one story to the next without being able to put down the book. If she was around I would have taken her in a bear hug, kissed her on the forehead and blessed her. More power to your pen.

Lavanya Sankaran is a Kannada Iyer Brahmin born and living in Bangalore. She was educated in Bryn Mawr College (USA) and evidently lived in the States for some years before returning home to marry and settle down in the city of her nativity with her husband and daughter. She paints on a small canvas: all her stories are about Bangaloreans (mostly Brahmins) who make their fortunes in America and return to Bangalore. Most of them are in the software business like infotech, computers and the sort of things that made their fellow Bangalorean, Premji, the richest man in India. A gentle tone of satire and humour run through all her stories. Those who assume airs on their return home are known as ABCD—America Born Confused Desis. As a matter of fact most of them are not America-born but Bangalore-born. Also, not all are Kannadigas; Gujarati emigres outnumber other Indian emigres.

I recommend Lavanya Sankaran’s The Red Carpet as a sample of good, terse prose with an eye for detail which brings her characters to life. She is a sheer joy to read.

Mosque vs taverns

Arjan Singh of Chandigarh shares my passion for Urdu poetry. At times, his letters in Urdu (he disdains to write in English) run into eight pages crammed with couplets of his choice, notably from Mirza Ghalib. He had noticed that I often alluded to the poet’s praise of wine and taverns. So, once on a short visit to Kasauli he gifted me a very tattered copy of a book entirely devoted to maikhanas and saqis. It has become my favourite bedtime reading, I came across a short, humourous piece by Josh Malihabadi which I could not resist translating into English:

Jee han: Masjid yaheen hai aagey barh kar

Haanjee Ghaffaar kee dukaan key ooper

"Lekin lekin"..."Janaab lekin kaisee?

Mein poochh rahaa tha maikhana hai kidhar

"Yes, sir, the mosque is near here, a few steps ahead on top of Haji Ghaffar’s shop."

"But, but... What is the but about?"

"I wanted to know where is the wine shop."