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Posted at: Mar 1, 2015, 12:29 AM; last updated: Mar 1, 2015, 12:29 AM (IST)

With love and a touch of malice

Publisher Ashok Chopra recaps a journey that began in Chandigarh. He writes about the life and times of authors, artists, actors, literary agents and painters — some of whom he published, others he interacted with. He gives us stories of their inner worlds — some known, others largely unknown

Chandigarh
A City That Never Was

Chandigarh was my first love. It gave me my first girlfriend and my first kiss; my first university degree and my first job; my first salary cheque and my first rejection slip; and my best growing-up years and lifelong friends. It is the city that made me discover the romance of the written word. From here started a journey that took me into the hidden and secret, fascinating and enthralling, mysterious and enigmatic, eerie and nebulous world of many creative artistes — all of whom have been, and are, an essential part of our literary and cultural world today.
An oval lake, spacious gardens, flowering trees and warm colours made somebody christen Chandigarh, ‘The City Beautiful’. Whoever did so must have had a wicked sense of humour – for today, just about sixty years after its birth, Chandigarh has everything but beauty.
Le Corbusier had designed the city so that its architecture could mould the people’s taste. Not once did he realize that the steel-gutted Punjabis and the fierce Haryanvis would mould the architecture to suit their own tastes.
‘The City Beautiful’ turned into ‘A Shitty Beautiful’. Instead of growing into a young, bewitching beauty, Chandigarhbeing a young planned city of India, the city started sprouting slums and shanties — the vote banks of our politicians — all over like button mushrooms in wooden trays, no different from those in Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata.
Chandigarh, once a barren landscape, developed with amazing speed. Yet, it never became a city! It should have been like Lahore (now in Pakistan), which even in the early 1940s had a population of just 700,000, but was a city with tremendous character. It had a wide variety of writers, publishing houses, well-equipped bookshops, art galleries, printing presses, newspapers and magazines in various languages, an age-old university, famous educational institutions, theatres, film studios and a great tradition of literary and artistic life.
Even today, Chandigarh lacks all these elements. The little art and culture that exist are shut in its theatres and museums. There is no tradition of clubs or associations of writers, painters, poets and actors.
The hard core elite of Chandigarh comprises a hundred-odd families — affluent and arrogant industrialists, westernized sardars in their SUVs, assorted culture vultures, conceited journalists, boisterous university professors who make a virtue of their knowledge, empty-headed and noisy politicians and pompous bureaucrats – all trying hard to run each other down. Yet, all is not lost for Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh.
Given a chance, Chandigarh can still pursue its way in a sprightly manner.
 
Balwant Gargi
The Ornamental Cactus

I first met Balwant Gargi on 11 June 1971 through a common friend, guide and philosopher, Tara Chand Gupta. He was fifty-five; I twenty-two. It was a relationship that lasted through thirty-two years, till Gargi passed away on 22 April 2003. It was a love-hate relationship —though more love and a little hate, for Gargi had literally inducted me, like a couple of others, into his small family.
Gargi, who had an eye for every pretty lass and an ear for their hidden stories of woe or praise, established himself as a ‘theatre historian’ and director of some repute. He did go on to create history in the world of English and Punjabi literature.
In 1972 he established the Department of Indian Theatre on the Panjab University campus.
Gargi, who had earned fame early both at home and abroad, was always wanting to shock people. His first Punjabi play Loha Kutt (The Blacksmith, 1944), about the double elopement of a daughter and mother in a blacksmith’s family, was a real shocker for its time. Saelpathar (Petrified Stone, 1949), Kanak Di Balli (Stalk of Wheat, 1968), Dhuni Di Agg (Fire in the Furnace, 1977) were just a few that followed. Each of these highlighted filial hate, sex, violence, betrayal and death, which, in fact, were his obsessions.
His book, The Naked Triangle: An Autobiographical Novel, was published in 1979 by Narendra Kumar, the chief of Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi. It went into three reprints. In it he laid it all bare, ‘sparing neither himself nor the women he loved. He exposed himself with the same ruthless candour as he denuded them of their pretensions and pettiness.’
Friends, former university colleagues, students, acquaintances, his estranged wife Jeannie, all had been denuded at one go. While many of his former girlfriends heaved a sigh of relief for not having been exposed, some felt cheated for not having got even a mention in the book. It created many a storm including a legal battle accompanied by a stay order from a Chandigarh court, which, needless to say, gave immense publicity to the book.
In this ‘bare-all, dare-all, part reality and part fictive construct’, Gargi used real names and characters, situations and events, and disguised them under the garb of ‘an autobiographical novel’, except for one. As soon as the extracts were published in theSunday magazine section of The Tribune in Chandigarh on 20 May 1979, Chandigarhites were up in arms against the man who had given them the tradition of theatre over the years.
 
Shobhaa Dé
Seductive! Soulful! Spicy! Sensuous!  

She is the delight of every publisher. And the envy of every author. A question repeatedly asked is what has made Shobhaa the literary sensation that she is for a quarter of a century, over which period she has written more than eighteen books. My experience would say that she has two factors that have made her a perennial favourite among a cross section of readers — men and women alike.
First, the ‘newness’ or the magic formula of making her writing new. And which remains new with every read, year after year. Take her Socialite Evenings, published in 1989. It sells even today. As do all her other books. Second, frankness with no holds barred on any topic, issue or subject that was hitherto the exclusive preserve of ‘the men’. With her, all subjects were open for discussion, nothing was confined to the closet. For the first time a woman had come out and told it all, from a woman’s perspective, in a male-dominated society. And every time she wrote, the readers wanted more. And more.
Take the brew of mass-market best-sellers based on sex, suspense, wealth, celebrities and unbridled violence. It was all a male monopoly, which Shobhaa broke into for the first time with stories told with unusual candour that would match the best writers of the high-society scene. Where at times even male writers feared to tread, Shobhaa Dé dared to.
What’s so new about the content, one might ask? Sex and high jinks are passé, but what made Shobhaa’s writing different — and therefore new — was her directness. She didn’t mince her words, and gave it, as it was, warts and all. Even when she wrote those descriptive sex scenes in her novels — all raw and rustic — there was freshness in them that readers liked and devoured, because, for her, there was no point in beating about the bush. Particularly, when the reality was known to all.
Her writings engaged, provoked, enthralled and hypnotized readers with the range of subjects she took on.
 
Khushwant Singh
The Man for All Seasons

Introduced to him in 1962, I first formally met Khushwant Singh ten years later in Bombay, in his office at the Times of India Building, where he was the star editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India.
That was the start of my association with him which lasted forty-two years, through his days after the Weekly with the National Herald, New Delhi, Hindustan Times and as a columnist, till he passed away at the age of ninety-nine on 20 March 2014.
Khushwant’s books have a long shelf life. Readers may or may not agree with his views but they all read him – usually line to line, again and again. Why so? Because of his acerbic pen, his wit and humour, and his ability to laugh at himself. His writing provided entertainment, even if it was little bawdy, information that few have and education that all love to acquire.
Khushwant Singh took writing out of upper-class snobbery and dropped it into an alley. He wrote for the people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life, who have known the seamy side of things because they live there. If, in the process, Khushwant became ‘a bit too much’, it never bothered him because that was the way he saw the world around him and wished to represent it. And the reader too laughed along with him and faithfully read his books even if a majority of them were old wine in new bottles — recycled and compiled from his columns.
— Excerpted with permission from the publisher:
A Scrapbook of Memories
by Ashok Chopra.
HarperCollins.
Pages 436.
Rs 699 

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