Literature discussed on the hills

Published October 26, 2014
Indo-Pak panel, from left Asif Noorani, Salman Khurshid, moderator Rajdeep Sardesai, Mani Shankar Aiyar and F.S. Aijazuddin.      — Photo courtesy:Bindia Sahgal
Indo-Pak panel, from left Asif Noorani, Salman Khurshid, moderator Rajdeep Sardesai, Mani Shankar Aiyar and F.S. Aijazuddin. — Photo courtesy:Bindia Sahgal

Perhaps the only literature festival in the world to be named after a writer, the Khushwant Singh Lit Fest, in its third year, was held from October 10 to 12 at the almost unspoilt and picturesque hill station, Kasauli in Himachal Pradesh (India). Developed by the Brits in pre-independent India, it was at this spot that the eminent novelist, scholar, journalist and widely read columnist did his writings in summer months, when he took refuge from the scorching heat of Delhi.

Khushwant was 97 when the literature festival was first organised two years ago. He could not take the arduous journey from Delhi to Kasauli but he sent a message expressing his happiness that the cantonment authorities had maintained a high standard of cleanliness. He, however, lamented that much of the wildlife had disappeared from Kasauli.

The following year Khushwant commented that he was delighted to know that two Pakistanis also participated in the first edition of the festival. “Their numbers ought to increase,” said the man who was once called ‘the last Pakistani on the Indian soil’ by one of his detractors.

Sadly, Khushwant could not send his message for the third festival because he died this year on March 10, while he was 99, but there were five Pakistanis at the festival this time, of whom two were participants.

The opening speech was delivered by Khushwant’s son Rahul Singh, who mentioned that his father’s biggest concern in his last few years was the growth of extremism in India. “He believed in closer relationship between India and Pakistan,” said Rahul only to add that more and more Pakistanis will be welcomed to the festival in coming years. His compilation of obituaries Khushwant Singh: The Legend lives on was launched on the occasion. The entire copies, brought to the festival, were sold out. I was told that the title had a second print run in a matter of two months.

Another highly readable book to be launched that day was the former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh’s daughter Daman Singh’s Strictly Personal, which is about her parents.

Lahore-based scholar and art historian F.S. Aijazuddin, who had earlier taken a portion of Khushwant’s ashes from Delhi for plastering it on the school in Hadoli, a village in Pakistani Punjab, where Khushwant had had his primary education, presented what seemed like a large jewellery box to Rahul in the inaugural session. Out came a brick which Aijaz brought from the ruins of Khushwant’s home in Hadoli.

“Ye woh eent hai jiska jawab pathar se nahi, muhabbat say diya jaata hai” (roughly translated the Urdu idiom meant ‘this gesture can only be responded by a warmer retort’) shouted someone from the audience only to be greeted by a round of applause.

This year’s theme was storytelling and fiction. Mahmood Farooqui gave a stimulating talk on the evolution of Dastangoi, the art of verbal narration of stories, and dwelt on the stories within stories, which is the highlight of this genre.

In another session, fiction writers, Githa Hariharan, Shobhaa De and Samhita Arni, built a case for short stories, which are considered ‘neglected cousins’ of novels. De’s collection of short stories, Small Betrayals was launched soon after.

Two more segments at the KSLF were dedicated to storytelling, one had Louise Khurshid airing her views on contemporary politics in fiction and the other had Manju Kapoor, Jaisree Misra and Vinita Nangia, who debated on the blurring line between literary and commercial fiction. Misra insisted on terming popular fiction as ‘chic lit’. She used the term for the novels of Jane Austen, a point strongly and, shall we say, rationally opposed by Manju Kapoor.

On day one, columnist Akar Patel spoke knowledgeably about Manto’s stay in India and his last few years in Pakistan. Based in Bangalore, Patel writes columns for Indian papers and until recently for a Pakistani daily too.

Former Minister of External Affairs Salman Khurshid (left) with moderator Sohel Seth.
Former Minister of External Affairs Salman Khurshid (left) with moderator Sohel Seth.

A morning session on the second day, moderated by the irrepressibly witty Sohel Seth, had the former Indian Minister for External Affairs Salman.Khurshid giving his views on the position of Indian Muslims. He condemned Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement when he proclaimed Indian Muslims’ patriotism. “Why did he have to single out the Muslims, why not the followers of any other religion?” rued Khurshid, who like many others sensed prejudice in Modi’s stance.

While on Partition, like most Indians, Salman Khurshid put the blame entirely on Mr Jinnah, but he was questioned by someone in the Q&A session, “Why don’t you put the blame on the Congress leaders who pushed Mr Jinnah into demanding Pakistan?”

Later in a conversation with this writer, Khurshid conceded that Mr Jinnah was an enlightened and liberal person. Answering a question on the position of Urdu in India, he said that unfortunately the language has been linked with Muslims. He commended the role of Indian films in popularising the language among the masses, despite their inability to decipher the script.

In the afternoon, the session on Khushwant Singh as a bridge between India and Pakistan attracted a very large audience. The hall and the adjoining room were jam-packed, if one may use a convenient cliché. Introducing the subject, Rahul Singh, said that the subject became all the more relevant because a day earlier, an Indian Kailash Sathyarthi and a Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, both dedicated to the cause of education, were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

The panellists had two Indians, Salman Khurshid and Mani Shankar Aiyar, both Congress Party leaders, and two Pakistanis, F.S. Aijazuddin and this writer. Rajdeep Sardesai, a well known media personality moderated the discussion. Aiyar, a former Indian consul general in Karachi, said that the Modi government extends a hand of friendship to Paraguay but adopts an aggressive stance against next door neighbour Pakistan. He cited examples to prove his point.

Earlier, Sardesai talked of how difficult it was for the people of the two countries to get visas to cross borders. He recalled that when he was doing a show for a leading Indian channel and was keen to invite Pakistani cricketer Aamer Sohail, he was told by the Indian High Commission in Islamabad that it would take four months to process the visa.

While responding to a point raised by Sardesai, F.S. Aijazuddin said that he had studied the constitutions of both Pakistan and India and there was not even a semblance of hatred for the other country in either. He also raised an interesting point, that three Indians who have crusaded for peace between the two countries were born in what is now Pakistan – Khushwant Singh in 1915 at Hadoli, Kuldip Nayyar in 1927 at Sialkot and Mani Shankar Aiyar in 1941 at Lahore.

Commenting on the statement by a member of the audience that cricket and hockey encounters often resulted in ugly situations, this writer said the best way to bring the people closer is through cultural contacts. “Please send Lataji to Pakistan and we will send Abida Parveen. There is no competition in music. Please remember music cuts across all geographical boundaries,” I replied and won applause from the audience.

Sadly, Khushwant Singh’s role as a bridge between the two countries could not be discussed. I wanted to talk about his love for Urdu, particularly Urdu poetry and his invaluable translations of Iqbal’s Shikwa and Jawab Shikwa, not to speak of his great admiration for Ghalib.

Senior journalist Bachi Karkaria
Senior journalist Bachi Karkaria

On the third day, an interesting discussion on television news channels in India between Rajdeep Sardesai and senior print journalist Bachi Karkaria, who likened news programmes to a steak “because they are seldom rare and never well done”. She put the blame on the 24/7 TV’s insatiable appetite for news and for trying to be the first to what is called a news break. I realised that the situation is just as bad, if not worse, than our own private TV channels.

Raising some thought-provoking points, Sardesai recalled the story of a college professor, who fell in love with a student, called Julie. In order to make the story juicy, the TV producer interspersed the news with songs from the Bollywood movie Julie.

He said that thanks to live coverage in a matter of an hour or two, news becomes history but he strongly condemned the practice of masquerading opinions as news. He also spoke about the owners of TV channels’ practice of wooing politicians in power or about to gain power to get monetary benefits. “How can you expect the staff of the channel to be objective in such situations?” he concluded.

Full marks to organiser Ashok Chopra for keeping a strict check on timings of all sessions. Kudos also to another organiser Nilofur Bilimoria, who attended to smallest details.

The morning sessions were held outdoors when the crisp sunlight was warmly welcomed. Another remarkable feature of the KSLF was that there was one session at a time. One didn’t have to debate, which session to attend and which to ignore, a problem that persists in literary festivals in both countries.

At lunches and dinners one was struck by the warmth shown to us Pakistanis. The Indians who had visited Pakistan had similar views to express about the hospitality they enjoyed on the other side of the Great Divide. Those who had migrated from what is now Pakistan were highly nostalgic.

A unique competition was unfurled at the third KSLF. A prize is to be awarded to someone suggesting a new name for Khushwant’s book I shall not hear the Nightingale.

Finally, lurking in the open space at the venue of the festival and, in fact all over Kasauli, were monkeys searching for food. The larger among them were menacing. One of them tried to snatch a bag from novelist Samhita Arni while she was walking in a bazaar, thinking that it had food, he wasn’t successful but the poor girl was left with some scratches and had to take anti-tetanus shots. If Khushwant had been alive he would have passed the blame on homo sapiens, for it is they who have invaded the territory that rightfully belongs to ‘our distant cousins’.

— Photos courtesy of Bindia Sahgal

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