Saturday, April 12, 2008

Low spirits in the winter of life
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant Singh
Khushwant Singh

There are times when my spirits are very low. Nothing I eat or drink tastes good; no company cheers me up—not even that of pretty girls who flock around me as I have got too old to respond to their flirting with me. One such dreary evening I happened to come across a couplet of my favourite poet Asadullah Khan Ghalib written at a time when he must have been in the same mood as I. Maara zamaaney nay Asadullah Khan tumhein, voh valvalery kahaan, voh jawanee kidhar gayee? I got down to translating it: Asadullah Khan, years have taken their toll, left you dead. Where has gone your frivolity? Where has your youth fled?

I felt bitter. I look forward to seeing him soon. Maybe he will agree to let me be a shagird (disciple). We could have our sundowners together — he with his Scotch and surahi; cool water with kewra to scent it with; and I with soda and cubes of ice. He may agree to explain the inner meanings of some of his compositions which are beyond my comprehension. I may persuade him to appoint me his authorised English translator.

Bhagat Singh
Bhagat Singh was an atheist. He refused to accept the concept of God
Bhagat Singh was an atheist. He refused to accept the concept of God

Of all the Indian revolutionaries whose lives ended on the gallows, the one whose name comes first on one's lips is that of Bhagat Singh. He and two of his associates were hanged in Lahore Central Jail late in the evening of March 23, 1931. We recall their deaths every year on the same day. Dozens of books have been written on Bhagat Singh and what he stood for. A curious thing about these books that I have noticed is that those written by Hindus show him clean-shaven with a rakish hat and a clipped moustache; those written by Sikhs depict him in a turban with a wispy growth of beard around his chin.

The messages are clear: Hindus think he was a Hindu, Sikhs think that he was Khalsa. Both were off the mark. He was neither one nor the other, but an atheist. The latest book on him is by a Muslim, Irfan Habib, of the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development, entitled ‘To Make the Deaf Hear’ (Three essays). On the cover page it shows him clean-shaven and in a hat; the back page shows him in a turban and a beard.

Bhagat Singh was born in a Sikh family which also subscribed to the Arya Samaj. Till his college days he was a pukka Arya Samajist, given to reciting Gayatri Mantra many times every day. Later he turned to Sikhism. Then he rejected both. After much thinking he refused to accept the concept of God. He wrote: "You talk of the omnipotent God. I ask you that in spite of being omnipotent, why does your God not eliminate injustice, oppression, starvation, poverty, exploitation, inequality, slavery, epidemics, violence and war?"

He stuck to his disbelief in God to the very end. When his Sikh jailer asked him to repent as he was being taken to the gallows, he replied: "You want me to tell a lie before I die?" People don't realise Bhagat Singh was both a thinker and doer. When Lala Lajpat Rai, for whose sake he killed Inspector Saunders, joined the Hindu Mahasabha, Bhagat Singh expressed strong disapproval. In turn Lajpat Rai called him "a Russian agent".

Other revolutionaries, notably Ashfaqullah, who was also hanged, strongly criticised both the ‘Shuddhi’ and the ‘Tabligh’ movements to convert people. They regarded all religions reactionary. How did Bhagat Singh justify killing people? He gave the answer in one sentence: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure". There is much that is little known about the revolutionary movement in Habib's book. It is well researched and well written.

Law of the land

The police carried out a raid and closed a factory. The children, who were working there, were all set free. Some said: "We are orphans. To eat we need a livelihood." The reply was swift and crude: "It is against the law".

"Then we will have to beg", they said, "or else we will have no food." "That, too, is against the law," the policeman in charge said rudely.

"If we cannot work and cannot beg, then we will die from hunger,’’ replied the crying children. "That you can do," was the answer. "There is nothing illegal in dying".

(Contributed by Rajeshwari Singh, Delhi)