Saturday, September 30, 2006

ĎIt doesnít matter, I donít give a damní

KHUSHWANT SINGHOf making many books there is no end; and much study is weariness of the flesh," says the Bible (Ecclesiastes). This is precisely what I am doing: scribbling and reading all day long. Two more books are on the assembly line. I hope to put an end to book writing by the end of this year. But reading I have to continue otherwise I would not know what to do with myself.

It is said that idle hands turn to mischief; I am too old to make mischief. The worst I can do is to spread malicious gossip. That I do with unabated zeal during the one-hour mehfils I have every other evening when the goblet goes round and reputations are torn to shreds. I have time hanging on my hands. Some of it I fill listening to classical music and day-dreaming. I would like to sing but do not have the voice to do so. I envy those who have. My hero is an Irish Miller about whom a little-known Irish poet Bickerstaffe (1733-1808) wrote:

There was a jolly miller once

Lived on the river Dee;

He worked and sang from morn till night;

No lark more blithe than he.

And this the burthen of his song

For ever used to be,

I care for nobody, not I,

If no one cares for me.

The last two lines pretty well sum up my attitude to life. One thing that can be said in favour of old age is that it is too late to have ambitions. When one is freed of ambition, one is freed of envy and ill will. If there are people who no longer care about you, you donít have to care about them. Earlier, in my life I learnt to repeat two lines which gave me solace:

"It does not matter. I donít give a damn:" Now they have become a reality.

Despoiling Himachal

Much as I look forward to getting out of Delhi and spending a few weeks in the hills, my heart begins to sink as I cross the barrier at Kalka (Haryana) after paying a totally unjustified tax and enter Himachal.

Virbhadraji can you justify it or the laws against non-Himachalis buying land or property in your state? Are we or are we not one country and one people? The road is narrow and cannot be widened without hacking down hill sides with all the trees which hold them together.

Trucks by the hundreds are lined on either side. If you find yourself behind a bus or an oil-tanker belching black smoke as it groans uphill, it may take you several kilometres before you get the chance of overtaking it without running into a car, bus or truck coming down from the opposite side.

Much worse is seeing new dhabas, restaurants, hotels and houses eating into farmlands. They block subterranean springs and create chronic shortage of potable water.

Himachal, which has done so well in health, primary education and communications under the leadership of Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh is woefully lacking in foresight about what can happen in the near future to its once afforested hillsides. He has also got his priorities wrong.

Capt Amarinder Singh, Chief Minister, Punjab, has been accused of breeding rare species of pheasants in his farm near Chail. These birds are on their way to extinction. If not bred in captivity, they will be lost for ever. Come to think of it I have not heard black partridges for many months.

A redeeming feature is the presence of the Chief Justice of Himachal, Vinod Kumar Gupta. He lends a sympathetic ear to organisations of conservationists like the Save Kasauli Society and often acts on his own to check vandalisation of the stateís environment. What should primarily be the job of the Chief Minister is being done by the Chief Justice.

Property developers have become the greatest menace to Himachalís future, I hope I do not live to see my beloved state grow bald, being short of trees; rickety because of its hills being blasted out of shape; and barren because of its springs drying up. As it is, I have complained about my having to brush my teeth with Bisleri. I donít want to see the day when I have to wash my bottom with soda water.

Many friends ask me about owning a house in the hills. My late wife inherited one 60 years ago so I can speak with authority based on experience. Unless you mean to live in it round the year, you will regret owning it. The current prices of modest-sized bungalows with small patches of garden is anywhere between Rs 2-3 crores.

Building a new one costs marginally less. If you only mean to spend a few weeks or months of summer in the hills, staying in a good hotel will be a lot cheaper and save your wife the domestic drudgery. If you own a house, you will have to pay many kinds of taxes as well as bear the damage caused by snowfall or the summer monsoon.

I have to shell out around Rs 1 lakh every year to keep the approach road passable, plug leaks in the ceilings, change electric wires, repaint the roof, and woodwork, etc.

You will have to have a caretaker to look after it when you are away. I have the third generation of the gardener-chowkidar engaged by my late father-in-law, who bought the house 60 years ago. There are now six of them living in the staff quarters. Besides paying salaries to two, I have to foot their water, electricity and telephone bills.

Owning a house in the hills is like owning a white elephant. Why donít I sell it and stay in a hotel when I need a holiday? I have come to love my little cottage. I have thousands of booksósome very rare, paintings, ancient prints, a garden which produces nothing but is a haven for exotic birds and butterflies.

Above all, it is the home of my black mongrel Billoo, who guards it fiercely against human and simian predators. You can guess what my advice to people who toy with the idea of owning a house in Himachal would be donít be foolish! Himachal cannot afford to have more property owners. You will be welcome as visitors and do your bit to keep our mountains green, clean and healthy.

It was a sad ending to my sojourn in Kasauli. Four days before I was due to leave, Billoo was badly mauled by stray dogs. He dragged himself to sit by me for a while. He refused to eat anything I offered him. He refused to smile or wag his tail. Before I could take him to a vet, he was dead.

Kal Gay

There was a pretty young man of Calcutta

Who set the local girlsí hearts a flutter.

Alas, when they

found he was gay,

Dejected were Misses Sen, Das and Dutta.

(Contributed by Prabhaat Vaidya, Mumbai)