Saturday, September 3, 2005

Life of giving
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghI write about a person very few people would have heard of. I do so because I know of no one else who has spent all her life giving away whatever she has and asked for nothing in return. Her name was Yvonne Le Rougetel, a name more French than English. But she was English-born in the Channel Islands which, though a part of the UK, is as much French as it is English.

Yvonne was bilingual. She had no problem getting a job in the steno-typing pool of UNESCO in Paris. Though good at her job, no head of department was eager to take her as his or her personal secretary and steno. She was looked at as an eccentric, known to take off her sweaters and give them to beggars shivering in the bitter cold of winter. She was known to pick up famished prostitutes and feed them lunch in the office cafeteria.

When I joined UNESCO, as head of the Press Department, Yvonne was deputed to work for me. I was also looked upon as an eccentric. We hit it off very well. She found my family a home in a Paris suburb. She found us a Scottish lass, Meg, as a cook and housekeeper. Meg married an American, Jew Duchovny and left for the US. Her son has made it good in Hollywood. Yvonne found a replacement — a pretty young English girl, Mary, the daughter of a dentist.

It was almost a round-the-clock association: all day in office, followed frequently by her dropping in at home in the evening to see that all was well. Everyone she met with us like Prem Kirpal, who was head of the UNESCO Cultural Department, became part of her family. She asked for nothing in return.

After two years with UNESCO, I resigned my job and returned to Delhi. Yvonne kept in touch through the post. Some years later, I got a Rockefeller Fellowship to write a detailed history of the Sikhs. It provided for the services of a typist at a measly salary of Rs 500 per month. Even in those times it was hardly a living wage. I wrote to Yvonne about it.

She gave up whatever she was doing and arrived in Delhi a few days later. She stayed with us for a week and then moved in as a paying guest with Kewal Chopra’s family. I think she must have had private means because after paying for her board and lodging and bus fares to and fro from Patel Nagar to Janpath, she must have blown up more than she got from me.

She seemed to live on nothing. She got her mid-morning and afternoon tea in my parents’ home where we worked together all day. She was never taken ill and never took a day off. She got me material from the National Archives and other libraries. I have acknowledged her valuable assistance in every edition of my two volumes of History of the Sikhs published by Princeton and Oxford University presses. I did not sense her growing attachment to India: she never picked up any Hindustani. She mispronounced Indian names. My cousin Kulbir, who was my father’s secretary and shared a room with her, remained Culbur to the end of his days. Whatever she saw of India was when I was collecting material on the Sikh diaspora.

As I expected, she adopted Kewal Chopra’s family. She got him over to England to stay with her and took him on a visit to the US. She returned to India almost every year and stayed with the Chopras. She came to see me every time she visited India but spent no more than 10 minutes, as she sensed I wanted to get back to my work.

The last time she came was about six months ago. Yvonne, who I thought was ageless looked really aged. She was bent double and her eyes were bloodshot. Before I could say anything, she blurted out, "Khushwant, you’ve really become old."

Yvonne died on June 29 of sepsis and infection of the urinary tract. The gentleman who wrote to me about her death mentioned that her funeral service would be held in a local church on India’s Independence Day. I never knew Yvonne to go to church. She also left a will to the effect that her ashes should be sent to India to be scattered over the Mahasu peak in Himachal Pradesh.

Patriotic verse

While Urdu is dying a slow death in India where it was born, it continues to flourish in Pakistan where it is recognised as the national language above the more commonly spoken Punjabi, Pushto, Baluchi or Sindhi. However, there are a handful of lovers of Urdu desperately trying to keep its flickering flame alive in India.

The foremost among them is Doctor K.C. Kanda, one time Professor of English literature who has published over a dozen books of translations from Urdu to English. His latest offering is Masterpieces of Patriotic Urdu Poetry (Sterling). He has selected 38 poets from Sauda (1713-1781) to Kaifi Azmi (1923-2002).

Not all of Kanda’s selections can be described patriotic: quite a few are nostalgic elegies about the past, some of deep regret at being deprived of their heritage e.g. Wajid Ali Shah’s memorable lines on being exiled from his kingdom:

Daro-deewar peh hasrat say nazar kartey hain

Rukhsat ai ahle-vatan, hum to safar kartey hain

(I cast a last lingering look at these doors and walls.

Farewell my countrymen, I embark on my long journey)

Among those Kanda has chosen are lines from Ram Prasad Bismil (1867-1927), who was hanged on December 16, 1923, for his role in the Kakori train robbery. His famous lines inspired many Indian revolutionaries:

Sar faroshi kee tamanna ab hamaarey dil mein hai

Deykhana hai zore kitna bazoo-e-qatil mein hai

Kanda’s translation reads as follows:

(We are now raring to die for our country’s sake

Let us see how much of strength the assassin can display.

Ashfaq Allah Khan was likewise convicted in the same case and hanged in Faizabad jail in 1927. In the last poem that he composed, Shorish-e-Janoon (Roar of Frenzy), he wrote:

Bahaar aaiyi hai, shorish hai junoon fitna saamaan kee

Ilahi khair rakhna too meyrey jeybo-garebaan-kee

(Spring has come ushering in a reign of frenzy wild

Save O’ God my collar from my talons wild)

I disagree with many of Kanda’s rendering. He takes more liberties with the original than a translator should. Nevertheless I recommend his anthology to all lovers of Urdu poetry.

Bad habit

Despite the old saying ‘Don’t take your troubles and worries to bed’, many people still sleep with their wives.

Loo and behold

Which is the most spacious toilet in the world?

"Indian Railway track because we can use it from Kanyakumari to Kashmir."

(Contributed by Shivtar Singh Dalla, Ludhiana)