Saturday, August 26, 2006

Throw the book at show-offs
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghThere was a time in my younger days when the desire to show off oneís learning by reeling off titles of books and their authors was the done thing. One fellow who was a regular at the Coffee House would challenge everyone round the table: "Come on! How many books have you read? Have you read so-and-so by so-and-so, and so-and-so by so-and-so? If you havenít, then what have you read?" By the last question he indicated you had read nothing.

There was one whippersnapper, a student of Forman Christian College, a clean-shaven Sikh named Hitinder Singh Malik ó Hitti for short. He often boasted of having read every newly published book by a well-known English or American author. His father was impressed by him and brought him over to my home in Lahore so that he could mix with people with similar pretensions of book-learning.

I soon sensed Hitti was a bigger fraud than the rest of us. I was eager to cut him to size.

A new book by Aldous Huxley was being much talked about. It was not fiction but his dabbling in the occult. Unlike his other books, this one had some illustrations in it. Needless to say Hitti claimed to have read it and pronounced in a tone of authority: "I think it is the greatest work Huxley has done so far." With an innocent look on my face I asked him, "Are there any pictures in it?" Hitti scoffed: "Donít be silly! Have you ever seen pictures in a Huxley novel?" I picked up the book from my shelf and roared triumphantly: "You are an absolute fraud! Here, look at the pictures. It is not a work of fiction."

Hitti was squashed. He pleaded "Please donít tell anyone about this. I beg of you." His palms joined together as in prayer. Needless to say I told everybody. Hitti disappeared from our circle.

A bigger fraud than Hitti was a Muslim lawyer who published the first of a projected four-volume history of Mussalmaanaan-e-Alam (Muslims of the World). He held a Press conference and announced that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The news made the headlines in all newspapers of Lahore. Thereafter, nothing was heard of the three volumes yet to be written, or the author, or the Nobel Prize.

There was one class whose book knowledge no one dared to question: members of the Godís chosen Indian Civil Service (ICS) regarded with awe as repositories of learning. Those were the days when poets like T.S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas and Louis MacNeice were the chief topics of discussion in literary circles. So we made it a point to read them.

Much of Eliotís Wasteland was beyond our comprehension but we made it a point to memorise a few lines and come out with them whenever we got a chance to show off. We turned to Arthur Lall and his brother John Lall, both in the ICS to enlighten us. Both had gone through three incarnations. They were brought up to disown their Indian heritage and anglicise themselves. They spoke no Punjabi, a smattering of Hindustani to communicate with their servants, but spoke a haw haw brand of English which would make the British blush.

When on probation in Oxford, their English buddies asked them: "What kind of Indian names are Arthur and John?" So they changed them: Arthur became Anand Shankar, John became Janardhan Shankar. Back home, they found their true selves and reverted to Arthur and John. John went on to write a definitive book on the Taj Mahal. Arthur paid a heavy price for his alienation. He wrote a novel The House of Adampur in which he wrote of this Punjabi roots and how emotional he got hearing Waris Shahís Heer Ranjha sung. He got the loverís genders mixed up and made an ass of himself.

Let me revert to showing off book learning. Justin Richardsonís lines in Take Heart: illiterates are pertinent:

For years a secret shame destroyed my peace ó

I had not read Eliot, Auden or MacNeice;

But then I had a thought that brought me hope ó

Neither had Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope.

Loving Mumbai

Raju Samal, an Oriya, fell in love with Mumbai at first sight. He came to the metropolis as a young man and serenaded his new-found beloved with songs. He is now a professor in Pune. He still cannot put Mumbai out of his mind. He has compiled an anthology of his songs in a slim volume entitled Many Moods of Mumbai (Angle Advertising).

Raju has no great opinion of modern poetry: "Costly Book Shops/ glossy books/ rich customers/ I struggled a lot and found at last/ A poetry book written in prose.

Raju has a poor opinion of modern painting: Art Galleries/ exhibit colours/ spilled from confused minds/ Visitors admire/ and call them modern art.

He himself refused to be bound by rules of rhyme and metre and reads like haiku. But he has the deft touch of haiku and manages to convey his message in a few words. About fashion shows, he writes:

Big brains take great pains

to imitate those men and women

of old stone age

who did not know

how to put on clothes.

In the same strain he writes about modern trends in girls with cropper hair wearing T-shirts and jeans:

College boys/ college girls/ hold court/ in college campus who of them are the boys/ who are the girls?

About ladies who organise bottle parties he writes:

Spicy chatter/ among the society ladies/ a parliament/ seriously discussing/ nothing in particular.

There is something uncanny about Raju Samalís very short, unrhymed lines. They sum up the messages he wishes to convey with panache.

Odd ads

Nicholas Koch of Mandi Gobindgarh Public School sent me two clippings from Hindustan Times which make odd reading. One is from its correspondent in Samrala. It reads: "Dosa Ram (28) reportedly committed suicide in his house at Disposal Road."

The second is an advertisement in the same paper, put in by Principal Mrs Neena Khanna for posts of Vice-Principal for Army School, Ambala Cantonment run by the Army Welfare Education Society. Under the heading Experience, she writes: "Experience of running a school, either as Principal, Vice-Principal or Headmaster ĎHaving death with primary childrení in this capacity may also be considered."

Dear Principal Sahiba: Please let us know what you mean by "having death with primary children?"