2014, Essay, New Delhi, Telegraph Calcutta

Catastrophe After Catastrophe After Catastrophe: Khushwant Singh’s Parting Verdict On His Nation

My first and only meeting with the Grand Khushwant Singh
My first and only meeting with the Grand Khushwant Singh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Here lies one who spared neither man nor God
Waste not your tears on him, he was a sod
Writing nasty things he regarded as great fun
Thank the Lord he is dead, this son of a gun.”

–Khushwant Singh’s epitaph to himself

 

New Delhi, March 20: To the handful few who he allowed around him during his last years, urging their cherished one to a century of years had become a collective manifesto. It cannot be said for certain Khushwant Singh, who departed in the silence of a missed breath at home in Sujan Singh Park this afternoon, shared the zest of his constituency any longer. The first and only time I ever met him, shortly after he turned 99 this February, he intoned to me in whispers his diminishing lust for life. “Oh I so dislike no longer being my own master, I so dislike my dependence on other people. Even to go to the loo I must wait to catch someone’s eye and they have to help me…it’s the thing I have begun to most dislike, it’s my health I’ve most begun to miss, that I am no longer my own master…”

Reeta Dev Burman, neighbour and frequent care-giver to Khushwant Singh, sat opposite, having just fetched him the latest edition of “Private Eye”, his favourite magazine. She waved her arms about, as if to banish that despondency of tone. “But how could you even say that, Sir, you are the master of all of us, it is we who are dependent on you!”

Singh, lapsed in his sofa seat by the fireside, just looked at her with a wan here’s-looking-at-you-kid smile. Then he raised his glass, as if toasting the incredulity of Dev Burman’s exhort, and sniffed a sip. He was seldom known to have indulged himself to more than a peg a night, but that peg of single malt he missed for nothing. He never needed to say that evening how much he still loved his daily drink, but he spoke eloquently, though feebly, of how little he had begun to enjoy living. “I’ve already lived a rich and full life, you see, how much longer can one expect to go on…” For a man who had played the quirk of writing an obituary notice on himself aged 20, he had come a fair distance. He smiled infirmly, a little disagreeably, at the mention of going on to a hundred. His eye flickered, but only as if to say, look at the state of me.

By his fireside in Sujan Singh Park, February 11, 2014
By his fireside in Sujan Singh Park, February 11, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He took another sip of whiskey, dropped wrinkled lids on his eyes and chanted the Gayatri mantra as clearly and beatifically as I have ever heard it spoken. His eyes still shut, he then said, plaintively, “The only other prayer I say to myself each morning is Om Arogyam, Om Shanti, a prayer for health and a prayer for peace.”

The room was dimly lit, like a cavernous shrine; the fire gave off the most light and it picked out books everywhere, ordered and wantonly piled, in shelves, on the floor, on the centre table where bottles of whiskey stood competing with volumes of words. The shrine’s deity sat closest to the fire. He wore a loose cap over his sparse, straggly hair and had a blanket thrown across his knees. It was a cold evening. On his chest he wore a stain of gravy as big as his heart. Khushwant Singh seldom bothered pretending what he was not. He was now an old man; when he ate, he often spilt food onto himself, and he was beyond caring about it.

He had chanced upon a piece The Telegraph had run on his feisty toast to turning 99 (In centennial corner, Indian spring With malice towards none of the other 99-ers) and a few days later he’d had word sent to me. He had recovered from the exertions of celebrations around him, he was asking if I would like to drop by for a drink. Dev Burman would be my guide into Sujan Singh Park’s most vaunted precincts. There was a sign by the doorbell to the ground-level flat that said: “Do not ring the bell unless you are expected.” I rang.

A hushed usher and a turn in the hallway later I was in the company of the man I had known by so many descriptions I was a little taken aback to see that he fit, rather shriveled, in one corner of a sofa seat. Khushwant Singh, Inner Temple barrister, diplomat, historian, novelist, editor, columnist, scion of the builders of imperial New Delhi, imp, scamp, jokester, famed raconteur of Bacchic ribaldry, much of which was myth he invented around himself.  And yet all of that barely completes the description of the man who wrote the most words a Sardar ever did, bar the possibility that Manmohan Singh has been writing his life and times from Gah to goodbye and all that. Khushwant Singh collaborated notoriously with the Indira-Sanjay imposition of Emergency, earned the Padma Bhushan only to spurn it when Mrs Gandhi ordered the army into the Golden Temple in 1984 and rendered Sikhism’s holiest sanctum a bloodied battleground. A quarter century later, he would accept the Padma Vibhushan, the land’s second highest civilian honour, from a successor Congress government.

But if he took deep offence to Operation Bluestar, he turned with no less anger at the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the communal riptide that tore across many parts in its wake. One of the things that he recalled to me that first and last evening with him was his sense of outrage with the causes and consequences of the tearing down of the Babri Masjid. His wrath had probably been touched off anew by the insistent arrival of L.K. Advani to the private fete at Sujan Singh Park the day he turned the final lap to a hundred. “That man has blood on his hands,” Singh told me with a sense of disdain undiminished after all these years, “And I told him as much, and very openly. I was to be chief guest at an event and Advani was there as deputy prime minister. When my turn came to speak, I said it out loud, his hands are dipped in blood. He heard me out, and told me he would give the answer to that another day…” Advani had arrived at his birthday party and left; circa February 11, 2014, the day of our assignation, Singh still awaited his promised reply. I begged one question of him before the clock ticked over half seven in the evening, time for Singh to prepare for dinner and retire. I asked what he thought of the state of the nation, having spanned all its years since Independence and before, and he threw me a quizzical glance and asked, “But I didn’t get what you said.” He probably did not want to answer that one, but I repeated the question. “Ah,” he said, rearranging his blanket, “It’s one catastrophe after another, catastrophe after catastrophe after catastrophe, but I’ve got used to it.”

He didn’t have long to bear with it. He went just as he had wished. “All that I hope for is that when death comes to me, it comes swiftly,” Singh wrote in his last book, ‘Absolute Khushwant: The Low Down on Life, Death & Most Things In-Between (Penguin, 2010)’, “without much pain, like fading away in sound slumber.” A fair guess is the note he’d most have preferred to attend his last journey is a crescendo of “Cheers!”, apt salute to the son of a gun. Now gone. RIP Khushwant Singh.

2014, Essay, New Delhi, Single Man

The Inimitable Ravish Kumar on Single Man

Bihariyat Via Angreziyat: Daastan-e-Single Man:

“The imposition of emergency had beckoned a new genre of books into the room, studies of Adolf hitler and nazism-William L Shirer’s The rise and fall of the Third Reich, Albert sower’s Inside the Third Reich, Joachim C Fest’s biography of Hitler, the diaries of Joseph Goebbels, Men Kampf. Indira Gandhi was being studied as a symptom of fascism” 

संकर्षण ठाकुर की क़लम इतिहास पर साहित्य की तरह चलती है । उनकी अंग्रेज़ी में कोई आक्सफोर्ड वाला बिहारी मानस की आहट सुनते हुए इस उलझन में पड़ सकता है कि क्या बिहार को भी अंग्रेज़ी में बयां किया जा सकता है । मैं ख़ुद मानता रहा हूँ कि बिहारियत अंग्रेज़ी में नहीं कहीं जा सकती । कुछ अल्फ़ाज़ ऐसे हैं जिनके बिना आप बात तो कह सकते हैं मगर बिहारी मानस की परतों को नहीं खोल सकते । संकर्षण की अंग्रेज़ीयत बिहारियत को दोनों विलियमों शेक्सपीयर और वर्डस्वर्थ के अंदाज़ में पेश करती है । वर्डस्वर्थ और शेक्यपीयर को 1985 और 1986 के साल में पढ़ा था । जब मैं नौवीं दसवीं में था । वो भी जब हमारी टीचर इंदिरा शांडील्य ने अंग्रेजी में पढ़ाने की ज़िद की तो हम हिन्दी मीडियम वाले गिड़गिड़ाने लगे कि कुछ्छो नहीं बुझाता है । के के पांडे भी तंग आ जाते थे अंग्रेज़ी को हिन्दी पढ़ाने में । मैंने शेक्सपीयर को हिन्दी में पढ़ा है । यहाँ यह बताना ज़रूरी था ताकि आप मेरे बारे में भ्रम न पाल लें कि मैं कहीं शेक्सपीयर और वर्डस्वर्थ की भाषा का ज्ञाता तो नहीं जो अंग्रेज़ी अख़बार द टेलिग्राफ़ के बंजारा संपादक ( रोविंग एडिटर) संकर्षण की बिहारियत वाया अंग्रेजीयत को बांच रहा हूँ ।
सिंगल मैन – द लाइफ़ एंड टाइम्स आफ़ नीतीश कुमार । जिस तरह से हार्पर कोलिन्स ने किताब के कवर पर सिंगल मैन को बड़ा छापा है उससे लगता है कि यह नीतीश कुमार की कोई जीवनी है । लेकिन यह किताब पूरी तरह से वो कहती है जिसे प्रकाशक ने छोटे हर्फो में छापा है । द लाइफ़ एंड टाइम्स आफ़ नीतीश कुमार ।
इस किताब में ख़ुद संकर्षण आपातकाल और जयप्रकाश आंदोलन के दौर को याद करते हुए बड़े हो रहे हैं । वो दौर लेखक के बचपन का था । उनके पिता जनार्दन ठाकुर सम्मानित और बारीक पत्रकार थे । नीतीश के बिहार को समझने को समझने के लिए बिहार को जानना ज़रूरी है । लेखक नीतीश के बिहार को लेकर शुरू के साठ पन्नों में कोई ख़ास उत्साहित नहीं हैं मगर वे ‘बिहार ना सुधरी’ से ‘बदल गया बिहार’ के बीच यहाँ के मानस की मनोवैज्ञानिक सहूलियतों को पकड़ रहे हैं । आँध्र प्रदेश में तीन सौ इंजीनियरिंग कालेज हैं मगर बिहार में दस । कुछ दंबगों के किस्से हैं जो बिहार के इस दौर में जीवाश्म में बदल रहे हैं । एक सज्जन कहते हैं कि हमारे ये गार्ड लालू के समय की निरंतरता हैं मगर अब कोई इनके साथ मुझे देखता है तो हैरान हो जाता है कि जब ज़रूरत नहीं तो क्यों रखे हैं ।
संकर्षण ने नीतीश को एक अणे मार्ग में रहने वाले नीतीश में नहीं ढूँढा है । बल्कि ख़ुद के साथ उन गाँवों क़स्बों और ज़िलों में देखा है जहाँ कई तरह के बिहार हैं जिन्हें आप सिर्फ बदलाव और यथास्थिति के खाँचे में बाँट कर नहीं देख सकते । नया बिहार या बिहारी पहचान में राजनीतिक गर्व का भाव भरने वाले नीतीश की उम्मीदों को आशंका की नज़र से देखते हुए संकर्षण शायद उन परकोटों को ढूँढ रहे हैं जहाँ से कोई कूद कर इस बिहारी पहचान को फिर से अलग अलग जाति की पहचान से बाँट सकता है । अपर कास्ट नीतीश के अगेंस्ट चला गया है , मैं जब भी पटना फ़ोन करता हूँ ये लाइन सुनाई देती है ।संकर्षण कहते हैं कि यह बँटवारा तो नीतीश ने भी किया । पसमांदा मुसलमान, अति पिछड़ा और अति दलित । इस सवाल के जवाब में नीतीश कहते हैं कि विकास और पहचान की राजनीति में कोई अंतर्विरोध नहीं होता है ।
इस किताब का पहला चैप्टर मेरा प्रिय है । जब संकर्षण लोहिया और जेपी के बारे में किसी सिनेमा के इंट्रोडक्शन की तरह लिखते हैं । सत्तर का दशक जाने बिना तो आप बिहार का प्राचीन इतिहास भी नहीं जान सकते । पटना जाता हूँ तो मुझे ये बात बेहद हैरान और रोमांचित करती है । बिहार में सत्तर के आंदेलन का अवशेष लिये कई लोग मिल जाते हैं मगर आज़ादी की लड़ाई का इतना शानदार इतिहास होते हुए भी कोई बात नहीं करता । जो सत्तर नहीं समझेगा वो उसके बाद का बिहार नहीं समझ सकता । सत्तर का दशक बिहार के इतिहास में पर्दे पर किसी सलीम जावेद की कहानी की तरह बच्चन जैसे महानायकों के उभरने का दशक है । फ्लाप हिट होते होते कभी लालू चल जाते हैं तो कभी नीतीश ।
ख़ूबसूरत वर्णन है पटना के काफी हाउस का । रेणु, दिनकर,बाबा नागार्जुन इन सबसे उनकी बिहारियत के साथ मुलाक़ात होती है । पढ़ते पढ़ते लगा कि मैंने भी दिनकर को देख चिल्ला दिया हो- सिंहासन खाली करो कि जनता आती है । बाबा नागार्जुन का रात में अंडा लेकर आना और संकर्षण के साथ मिलकर कड़ुआ तेल में पकाना । अच्छी अंग्रेजी में बिहार मिल जाए तो समझिये कि आक्सफोर्ड में दो बिहारी मिल गए । कहीं कहीं रूपक नुमा शब्द यह भी बता रहे हैं कि नेसफिल्ड और रेन एंड मार्टिन पढ़ कर सीखें हैं तो ऐतना तो बनता है । संस्कार हिन्दी का और अभिव्यक्ति अंग्रेज़ी की । इसीलिए इस लिहाज़ से भी किताब को पढ़ना दिलचस्प अनुभव है ।
बहरहाल आज का बिहार फासीवाद की वो समझ नहीं रखता जो सत्तर के दशक के बिहार में बना रहा था । उन किताबों और बहसों के ज़रिये फासीवाद को समझ रहा था । किताबें ख़रीद रहा था । किताबें पढ़ रहा था । वो लड़ाई कमज़ोर हो चुकी है । सलीम जावेद की फ़िल्म का ये वो सीन है जहाँ एक नायक घायल पड़ा है । मंदिर की घंटियाँ बज रही हैं । बेतहाशा शोर में भगवान के चेहरे पर ग़ज़ब की ख़ामोशी पसरी है । नायक बिल्कुल सिंगल मैन की तरह आख़िरी लड़ाई लड़ रहा है । क्या होगा पता नहीं । क्लाइमैक्स का सीन है । सीन में कोई और नहीं । सिर्फ एक सिंगल मैन है ।
मैं इस पुस्तक को पढ़ रहा हूँ । पढ़ते हुए देखना सबसे अच्छा तरीक़ा है पढ़ने का । लेखक और उसके पात्र की जीवनी बन पड़ी है । और दोनों के बीच का समय  इतिहास । पढ़ियेगा । पाँच सौ निन्यानबे दाम है । बाटा कंपनी का यह निन्यानबे छाप गया नहीं । जाएगा भी नहीं । खुदरा लेकर जाइयेगा ।
2005, Essay, Patna, Tehelka

Chronicle Of A Death Foretold

 

From the week that Nitish Kumar took over as NDA chief minister of Bihar in 2005 — and from far before Narendra Modi intervened — a piece on how long his unnatural alliance with the BJP could last

At the heart of the JD(U)-BJP alliance is a virulent anti-Lalooism. Now that their implacable foe has been quelled, will the combination crumble under the weight of its contradictions?

For a sense of where this massive mandate may have landed Nitish Kumar, perhaps this vignette from the recent past. Gandhi Maidan, Patna, staging post of many a momentous turn in our times — Indira Gandhi rallying opinion to wage the liberation of Bangladesh, the frail forefinger of Jayaprakash Narain risen to undo the Mighty Indira and her Emergency, an inspired Laloo Yadav sworn in to do what JP had left unachieved.

But this is Gandhi Maidan on November 16, the penultimate day of canvassing for the Bihar elections and the NDA’s final show of strength against the entrenched Laloo Yadav. A lesser battle, a lesser stage, a lesser audience. But in the immediate context, a moment momentous enough. These men had come storming Laloo’s castle several times in the past and each time they had been repulsed, one way or the other. This was a now-or-never moment.

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Star of the show, general of the battle: Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United). On his flanks, his allies, leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Atal Behari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Uma Bharti, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Sushil Modi, Shahnawaz Hussain, Hukumdeo Narayan Yadav, Nand Kishore Yadav, Ravi Shankar Prasad, arm still in a sling from that gun assault. This was meant to be an NDA affair, a joint rally. Was there another leader from the JD(U) on stage? No. Did the stage sport JD(U) colours? No. There was the odd JD(U) flag held aloft in the audience but none courtesy the organisers.

Symbolic of what is to come? Or mere happenstance that the spearhead of the challenge — and now chief minister — found himself swamped by saffron at the peak of the campaign?

Nitish Kumar rode the show as unanimously agreed alternative to Rabri Devi, the BJP was upfront in stating that loud and clear. And now that the arithmetic of elections too has gone firmly in favour of Nitish, the BJP is in no position to dispute his skippership of the alliance even if it wanted to. The JD(U) has bagged nearly 90 seats, the BJP 55. So, for the record, everything is straight.

Continue reading “Chronicle Of A Death Foretold”

2013, Essay, Journalism, New Delhi, Telegraph Calcutta

Tejpal And Tehelka, Maker And Unmaking

As literary presaging goes, Tarun Tejpal laid out the markers of his recent life with admirable, even frightening, clarity: The Alchemy of Desire, The Story of My Assassins, The Valley of Masks — his three novels to date, in that order.

It seems a rending irony too how the littlest of Tejpal’s constructs have flown off his ingenious desk to taunt his current circumstances. When Tehelka was a fledgling tabloid, a raw and unwashed reincarnation of the hounded shell of tehelka.com, the resident wordmeister, Tejpal himself, minted the smarter of many pitches that would become bow-tie to the brand. “You can’t change the truth,” it went, “But the truth can change you.”

The jury has just begun to grind on violations that ring-sided Tehelka’s tarnished Goa celebfest, but the subterfuge that played out in the public space subsequently has already laid convincing claim to being called sordid.

This is not about the dark episodes that are alleged to have transpired between insistent boss and reluctant employee, this is about what light Tehelka’s protagonists have cast upon themselves in the aftermath of unthinking misdemeanour. Deceit is one word that comes readily to mind. Deception is another.

Continue reading “Tejpal And Tehelka, Maker And Unmaking”

2013, Bihar, Essay, Telegraph Calcutta

Bihar’s Chhatth: Pre-Vedic Gift To Post-Modern Consciousness

 

“Chhatth ke argha taa deyli babua,

Tabhiyo Bihar naa sudhri…”

(I’ve done the devotionals of Chhatth, young one,

But even so Bihar shan’t redeem itself)

— play on the refrain of a popular self-deprecating Bhojpuri ballad

 

For far too long Bihar’s name was, in good measure, infamy. It exported hungry migrants, bad news and an outcrop of civil servants. The first two did Bihar little credit. The third came at such a premium it became not a Bihari thing but exceptional of Bihar — they were uber-Biharis, those that had overcome Bihar rather than come off it. Bihar: boondock of malignant cargo.

That unseemly signature has begun to cure itself lately, and may already have become a stylized curl along fringes of water across the land. From the Juhu beachfront in Bombay, to the Ganga ghats of Varanasi and Calcutta, to the shallow moats of Delhi’s Boat Club and punctuations of rivulet, stream and pond strewn betwixt, an iridescent frill has erupted and put new colour and contour to what Bihar or Bihari might mean — pre-Vedic Chhatth has brought to its devotees the gift of a post-modern consciousness, the opening of a grand frontier of their mostly hard-pressed migration.

It’s what N.K. Singh, technocrat, politician and notarized fellow of Bihar’s ruling elite, calls a “cultural watershed” in the annals of his people. “The journey of Chhatth out of Bihar and to far places is, finally, evidence of the confident assertion of Bihari identity,” he says, “It represents a phenomena far beyond migration, this is high-value migration. Like Diwali has travelled to the White House, Chhatth has taken others parts of India in its sweep.” What Singh picks out as most remarkable is that “Chhatth is not something Biharis are sheepish any more to observe outside their domain, they are doing it with pride wherever they are.”

Continue reading “Bihar’s Chhatth: Pre-Vedic Gift To Post-Modern Consciousness”