Seeds of penance

Published October 28, 2021
The writer was the anchorperson for the first day of KSLF.
The writer was the anchorperson for the first day of KSLF.

THE Decennial Khushwant Singh LitFest 2021 celebrated its first 10 years reincarnating a virtual persona of India’s most famous writer. Normally, it would have been held in Khushwant’s summer eyrie at Kasauli (H.P.), had Covid-19 not prevailed.

Unchanged, though, was the array of talent and experience KSLF attracts from across the planet. Each speaker reminds the audience of the concerns that absorbed, agitated and excited Khushwant Singh during his 99-year lifetime.

Vikram Seth, whom Khushwant regarded as his ‘second son’, lit a pyramid of a hundred diyas — one more than Khushwant’s years — and then recited the acrostic sonnet he wrote for him, an echo of Shakespeare’s sonnet 55: “Not marble nor the gilded monuments/ Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme.”

Khushwant Singh’s granddaughter Naina Dayal had the genetic right to open the first formal session. She spoke of him with an intimacy that only a family member can, for his private persona was not always as unblemished as the public one he fabricated for an adoring public.

The KSLF plants a tree to mark every speaker.

Bachi Karkaria recalled the years of Khushwant Singh’s editorship of the Illustrated Weekly of India, which he resurrected and for nine years (1969-78) nursed back to life, only to have its owners remove him and then bury it alive. The third speaker Pavan Varma, like Khushwant, had abjured diplomacy and, as had many budding authors (with Khushwant’s help), sky-dove into India’s literary landscape.

The green author Jocelyn Zuckerman ended the first day with a discussion on her book Planet Palm: How Palm Oil Ended Up in Everything ― and Endangered the World — a stark indictment of corporate greed, corruption by states as much as individuals, and crimes against humanity — for example, the profitable, unconscionable slave trade that for centuries fattened the economies of the US, the UK, France and Belgium.

Khushwant Singh admitted that scholars superior to him had written on Sikh history and religion, but he was, as the historians Eleanor Nesbitt and Dr Priya Atwal reminded us, justly proud of his two-volume History of the Sikhs and biography of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

The seasoned journalist Suhasini Haidar — overfamiliar with war-torn Afghanistan — ended the second day with an illuminating ex­­­change with David Loyn, author of The Long War: The Inside Story of America and Afgh­anistan since 9/11. It documents the US-led coa­­lition’s inexorable descent into ignominious defeat.

On the last day, the irrepressible now veteran feminist Devaki Jain spoke, recalling her iconic mentor Gloria Steinem. Khushwant, though, would have preferred his firebrand feminists to be younger, less combative.

The closing session had Jairam Ramesh (a former minister of Environment & Forests) in conversation with Amitav Ghosh on the latter’s recent book The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis. In it, Ghosh blames “the contemporary climate crisis” on “Western colonialism’s violent exploitation of human life and the natural environment”.

Both speakers agreed that governments, instead of partying at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, could take a more positive step by halving their expenditure on destructive defence. A laudable idea, but as naïve as the conviction held in 1918 that the world had seen “a war to end all wars”.

Meanwhile, the rich and the aspiring middle classes should expect to pay for their carbon-fed comforts with hurricanes, typhoons, rains, floods and droughts. The poor will always adapt faster to climate change; they have less to lose.

The theme of Ecology had ope­ned KSLF 2021 with Jocelyn Zu­­ckerman’s Planet Palm. It clo­sed with Amitav Ghosh’s The Nut­meg’s Curse — both crushing, overdue indictments of We­­stern ava­­­­­ri­­­ciousness.

Rahul Singh’s concluding remarks had to compete with the T-20 cricket match between India and Pakistan in the neutral venue of Dubai. Rahul reiterated Khushwant’s desire (echoed by every rational Indian and Pakistani) for normalcy in Indo-Pak relations, outside the cricket pitch.

He reminded his audience that the KSLF plants a tree to mark every KSLF speaker. This prompted a belated suggestion that it might not be a bad idea for former colonial powers to plant a tree for every victim of their cruelty. The Belgians could start with 10 million for the Africans decimated in the name of King Leopold II, Portugal with the 5.8m captured in Africa for trade as a commodity, Brazil with 4.9m imported as slaves, the US with 4m indigenous Americans wantonly exterminated, and Britain with 3.1m for the Africans it transplanted in the Caribbean.

Such guilt could be augmented by trees to replace the 2m who died in the Bengal famine of 1943, the 2m killed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the uncounted casualties in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 20 years, our planet would have numerous Amazon forests, seeded by penance.

The writer was the anchorperson for the first day of KSLF.

Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2021


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