The entries were all immaculately idealistic and, contrary to my shamefully prejudiced expectations, in perfectly grammatical prose.
“They are most fortunate who walk in ways
That lead to you as all their nights and days
And hearts are filled with radiance from you —
Then what of those who can’t afford this praise?”
From The Quatrains of Bachchoo
In Kasauli for the sixth and now-famous Khushwant Singh Literary Festival, apart from being interviewed about my own latest book and interviewing Bachi Karkaria about hers on the Nanavati murder case, I was invited to judge a school students’ essay competition.
I was delighted to do so. The entries came from several Himachal and Punjab schools and the contestants were given solemn topics to write on, including women’s rights, the blight of drugs, the development of mountainous states, their hopes for India’s future and the world’s environment — to be submitted in English or Hindi.
The entries were all immaculately idealistic and, contrary to my shamefully prejudiced expectations, in perfectly grammatical prose. These young boys and girls, probably 14-or-so-years-old, all looked forward to a utopian India. I marked the essays and insisted that the first three prizes be a tie and the second three, the runners-up, also be awarded joint second place. It was done. Illustrious writers Shobhaa De and Vikram Seth announced and gave out the prizes.
Three of the winners graciously tracked me down in the precincts of the Kasauli Club, presumably to thank me for awarding them the prizes, but I sensed to get further opinions on their work.
I asked them the routine questions, one of which was what they wanted to do in later life. Two of them said they wanted to be writers. I attempted, a trifle mischievously, to distinguish between writing and journalism. What they had done in writing well-argued essays was journalism — writing required a more deranged, deviant approach with personal experiences, prejudices and perceptions thrown in. They wanted to know what I meant and now their friends had gathered to hear it.
Suppose I was asked to write journalistically about the festival, I would list the great and good gathered there and report on a few sessions. With the freedom of being a writer I’d range wider. I could even talk about coming to and going from the festival.
Entering any Indian hotel or shopping mall, or even the Delhi Metro, you pass through a security check. Apart from detaining me if they find grenades in my pocket, this seems to be a purely symbolic exercise or one that falsifies the country’s unemployment figures.
Then, coming to the festival proper, a writer might observe that he or she was bewildered by the acronyms the speakers on political topics used. I know what the BJP stands for, but what are GST, PCC, NPA and CMIE? I have picked up in my short and happy life standard Indian acronyms such as KLPD, but Indian speakers, and newspapers for that matter, ought really to explain what they are talking about.
I suppose all groups of friends have private codes. In my circle in emails we abbreviate “Eh don’t be silly yaar” to EDBSY. And verbally — after the time when as a student I was walking with my then English girlfriend along the banks of the river Cam and a fellow undergraduate and now a prominent Pakistani, shouted from across the river “Yaar mujhe bhi dilaadey” — we use the acronymous “MBD” to denote deep desire. (This incident I didn’t tell my young audience about!)
I did tell them that Mihir Bose, the sports and history writer, despaired of the stuff that was passing for historical fact on the Web. Some idiot called Oke insists in blogs and books that the Taj Mahal is actually a Hindu palace built by someone called Teju Maharaj. Oke, incidentally, doesn’t go on to say that Elvis Presley is alive and living in the basement.
I told this audience that when I was a schoolteacher in London a colleague called Dr Cioci poo-pooed my earnest Marxist take on politics insisting that the Opus Dei was in control of all Italian politics and economics. How we mocked and ridiculed his stance, until years later it came to pass through the revelations following a Vatican murder, that the Opus Dei were indeed influencing Italian politics at the top. I must suggest to Mr Bose some research into the architectural achievements of Teju Maharaj.
My essay-prize winners and their friends, who seemed to have absorbed the fact that writers don’t stick to a subject, thanked me again and left to catch their coaches down to Patiala and Chandigarh.
If they had stayed I might have speculated on the origins of the name of Mughal Emperor Akbar’s minister Mullah Dopiaza whose anecdotes one of the festival’s guests regaled me with. Was he named after some secret characteristic of his anatomy or did he first concoct and was named after the now world-famous recipe for currying meats?
And of course I have in the last years been intrigued by the fact that drivers, rickshawwallas, waiters, shop assistants and most young strangers in India address me as “uncle”. This strikes me as strange as I have two sisters who I am sure have not perpetrated an army of unacknowledged children. Now if they called me “daddy” it would set me thinking very hard about long forgotten, even non-existent events in my misspent youth.
But these are vain thoughts. Back to my brief sojourn in the maatra vattan. I have often wondered why, unlike in the UK or European countries, Indian airports check my passport when I leave the country. I was told by a person from the IFS (Hah! Using acronyms? — Ed. Indian readers are knowing this means Indian Faltu Service yaar-fd.) that they are checking to see if someone who is suspected of committing a crime or is wanted for trial is attempting to escape the country. I understood. That makes perfect sense.
The next time I encounter Lalit Modi or Vijay Mallya in London, I will explain this to them.