Saturday, October 15, 2005

Dreaming of paradise
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghI went to bed as usual around 10 pm. And in my usual surroundings — bookshelves on my right side and behind my head, a table with a reading lamp, medicine bottles and a tumbler full of mineral water — I slept peacefully with pleasant dreams of flirting with pretty girls. Then, went into deep slumber.

I heard soft music: kirtans, bhajans, hymns. "Strange," I said to myself in half-sleep, "somebody must have switched on the radio or the TV." It went on and on getting more and more soulful. I opened my eyes.

I was not in my bedroom but on a green, undulating countryside. In front was a wall covered by a creeper of rambler roses in full bloom. A grassy path with flowering bushes led to a massive gate with nameplates in many languages: paradise — vaikunth, jannat, swarg etc. Another path, somewhat slushy and muddy, had a signboard reading inferno, narak, jahannum etc.

I realised that I had died in my sleep. What a blessed way to go without any pain or suffering. I decided to ring the bell button on the gate of paradise. I heard a chorus singing the Psalm "at heaven’s gate". The gate opened and an old man with a long white beard dressed in a blue gown opened the gate. "Yeaze." he said in a drawl. I realised he must be St. Peter, keeper of the keys of paradise. "Sir, can I be allowed in ?"I asked.

He looked me up and down and asked, "Name?"

I told him. He went into his small office beside the gate and punched my name on his computer. He turned to me: "So you did not believe in heaven and hell. What do you have to say?"

I hung my head down in shame. "St Peter, Sir, now that I am here before you throw me out, can I have a quick look at what the place looks like?"

"Okay,"he replied. "Five to 10 minutes to see what you missed by your disbelief."

He took me inside. What scene of splendour. Green meadows covered with wild flowers; trees in full bloom and yet laden with fruit, limpid streams gurgling; thousands of species of birds and animals drinking out of them, lines of wolves besides lions and lambs; elephants standing mid lotus pools spraying water through their trunks on each other. Only snakes were missing. I wondered why one had misled Eve and Adam to eat the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. The most bewitching sight was of handsome athletic young men and beautifully shaped girls with knee length hair strolling about, stark naked, hand in hand but getting no closer. I was bold enough to ask St Peter a few questions.

"Sir, I was told that paradise has streams flowing with vintage wines. All I see are water rivulets."

"Depends on the person drinking it. For those who like wine, the water tastes like wine."

"I see. But don’t they get drunk if they drink it like water?"

"Never!" he replied emphatically. "Waters of paradise produce no drunkenness."

"Then what is the fun in drinking?"

"No hangovers," he replied solemnly.

I turned to a subject closer to my heart. "Don’t all these beautiful young men and women want to make love to each other?"

"They are in love with each other," replied St Peter solemnly. "They don’t wish to do more."

"Why? Are they impotent?"

"We don’t use dirty language in heaven," he admonished me. "Men are brahmacharis and have taken vows of celibacy. The girls have committed themselves to remain celestial virgins. sex as a sin. That is why God had expelled Adam and Eve from paradise."

"Thanks, sir, now you can expel me from paradise as well, life must be very boring here."

"Get out of here," he thundered. I obeyed his order.

I turned my steps down the muddy and slippery path leading to jahannum, nark or hell. Unlike what I was told about it being a blazing inferno, it looked very much like the world I had left the night before. No Satan or Lucifer to let me in because the entrance was wide open. There were no fruit-laden trees but serpents hanging down the branches; and lions and wolves were pouncing on lambs and deer. There were muddy streams strewn with litter and scum. A row of pubs from which came roars of laughter and foul language. Drunken men and women poured out of the taverns and shamelessly spread themselves on the ground to engage in sex. They got into brawls and knocked each other out with their bare fists. Many threw up because they had too much to drink.

I spotted many familiar faces. Lot from my past and present profession: law and journalism. I think I spotted the leader of the community well; he did not have horns on his head as Satan is said to have but carried a variety of headgear — a Gandhi cap and turbans of different types. He changed his attire from dhoti to payjamas; he wore a gold Rolex wrist watch, had many gold pens and lots of rings with precious stones on his fingers.

I asked he who he was: "He is our neta, he led us to this place," they replied. I felt more at home here than in the paradise guarded by St Peter. I found a pub bearing the same name as my favourite watering hole in London. "The World’s End" on the King’s Road, Chelsea. I was welcomed by old timers, who recognised me.

"Long time no see," said one. "Where in the hell have you been all this time? Have the first one on me. What will it be — a mug of mild and bitter or what?"

"For me a Patiala peg of Scotch. Nice to be with you again."


Gogo and Faiz

During my years in Lahore, I saw quite a bit of Gogo Bhagat, a distant cousin of my wife. After we migrated to Delhi, we lost track of each other. she joined government service and rose to become Kamaladevi Chattopadyay’s principal adviser on Indian Handicrafts — in fact the Tsarina of Indian craftsmen.

She married and got involved in domestic problems. Occasionally, I ran into her in Prem Kirpal’s home as she was close to Prem’s sister Sita, who also worked with Kamaladevi, out of the blue, Gogo rang me up and said she wanted to read some poetry she had composed. I asked her over to join my evening mehfil. There was no chance of anyone willing to hear her recite. I could see the frustration on her face. Ultimately, she picked up my writing pad to write a couplet in Devnagari. "Here are some lines of Faiz Ahmed Faiz you may not know," she said as she handed the pad to me. Indeed Ihad not read them and found them charming.

Kuchh pehley in aankhon aagey kya kya nazaara guzerey thha

Kya raushan ho jaate thhee galee jab yaar hamaara guzrey ttha.

Vo kitney achhey loge tthey jinko apney gham say fursat tthee

Jo poochtey tthey ahwaal jab koee dard ka maara guzrey ttha.

There were days when different spectacles passed before my eyes.

That very street lit up when my beloved happened to pass by.

How wonderful were people who had time to hear anothers’ woes.

Who had patience to ask them how they coped with their sorrows.


Word power

An easygoing, poorly educated businessman married a school teacher. After a year or two, their incompatibility was evident. One day a friend said to the husband, "You’re too easily overcome by your wife’s power of diction."

"Oh, no," countered the unhappy man, "it’s not her powers of diction. It’s her power of contradiction."

(Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Tezpur)