Saturday, April 29, 2006

A taste of the Viking spirit
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghAt one time, the name Viking struck terror in the hearts of other Europeans. They were Scandinavians from Norway, Sweden and Denmark. They were pirates who periodically came in their long sailing boats to plunder, pillage, burn, rape women and kill; they set cities on fire and returned home laden with the loot. In the course of centuries, they became the most law-abiding citizens and role models for the rest of the world.

Rolf Gauffin of the Swedish Embassy in Delhi descended from the Vikings. The only Viking trait I could discern in his character was contempt for protocol which did not tally with his sense of right and wrong.

As a diplomat, he was not meant to interfere with matters internal to the country in which he was serving. If he heard of someone being persecuted by the police, he went out of his way to help them.

It was the same in India. When anti-Sikh violence broke out in Delhi after the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi, he heard from his friend Romesh Thapar who had moved my mother and sister to his house, that he should take me and my wife to safety as our lives were in danger.

He drove up to my flat and took both of us to his home in the Swedish Embassy. We spent two nights with him and his French wife Jeanne. We were not their friends, nor friends of his friend.

Thereafter, we became friends and were invited to their parties. It was always an odd assortment of guests, usually all Indians. A regular was Communist leader Harkishen Singh Surjeet, who loved Danish beer. There were also Sangh Parivaris, Congressmen and academicians.

The Gauffinsí habit of coming to the aid of their friends landed them in serious trouble. He had resigned from the diplomatic service and taken up journalism. On one of their visits to India, they tried to help an Indian bringing foreign currency which was forbidden by law. Both husband and wife found themselves in Tihar jail.

Their Indian friends tried to do what they could in the way of providing legal assistance. I wrote to Rolf and offered them hospitality when they were released. They did their term in jail, spent a fortnight in Delhi without getting in touch with anyone.

After many years, I got a letter from him from Paris where they have settled down. With the letter was a short story he had published and a poem on Viking composed by him. Both the story and the poem betray an obsession with death. I quote the first verse of the poem:

"The legend says when a Viking reaches old age,

fifty or so, itís time heís leaving the stage,

but being a warrior of great fame,

he cannot, of course, submit to shame,

of dying in bed like any old dame.

So, calling his folks, he says: ĎDonít be sadí but now Iím afraid youíre losing your dad.

I am leaving you soon for Valhall.

Have a good life, and good luck to you all."

The Suris

The Suri sisters, Suruchi and Simar, with their mother
The Suri sisters, Suruchi and Simar, with their mother

My evening mehfils draw an assortment of men and women. There are a few regulars like Nanak Kohli and his wife Pammy, Ravi and Diya of Penguin-Viking and my neighbour Reeta Devi. They occasionally bring along their friends.

Since Ikeep an open house for visiting Pakistanis, they come uninvited. One evening I had 12 guests crammed in my small sitting room; there were not enough chairs; so some took moorhas, others sat on the cement floor.

Among them were Samina Qureshie, author of two coffee-tablers, Lahore and the other Legends of the Indus; With her was her daughter Sadia who has a book being published by Penguin.

The Kohli couple arrived with three ladies, a mother and two daughters. I did not catch their names and all I heard Nanak say was "all lawyers". I was transfixed by their looks: I cound not decide who was the best looking of the three. Would I see them ever again? I asked

Nanak Kohli. "Remarkable family!" he replied. "Everyone of them including their women folk in the legal profession down three generations. Talk to them."

The next afternoon the two daughters arrived at my doorstep. They are Suris from Kalhar village, near Rawalpindi.

Their grandfather, who was in the Civil Service, took a law degree and became a practising lawyer. Their father Rajinder Singh Suri, assisted by his wife, practices in the Supreme Court.

The elder girl Suruchi ó tall, fair and arresting ó works as an assistant to the Solicitor-General G. E. Vahanvati. Her ambition is to go into the judiciary and write books.

The younger girl Simar (21) is in the London School of Economics studying for an LLB degree and means to specialise in International Law.

There must be many eligible bachelors available at their beck and call; but neither of them is thinking of matrimony. They used to say, "Law is a jealous mistress: that was when law was a male monopoly." Now the adage should be amended: "Law is also a possessive husband and master."

Kiss and Tell

Child: Mum, how do lions kiss?

Mother: I canít tell you because your Dad is a Rotarian!

Be your age

A father rebuked his son who was watching TV: "When Abraham Lincoln was your age, he was studying books by the light of the fireplace."

Son: "When Lincoln was your age, he was the President of America."

(Contributed by K.J.S. Ahluwalia, Amritsar)