The 2nd annual Khushwant Singh Literary Festival kicked off in the pristine Kasauli hills on Friday, with writers, actors and a director in attendance. The cool mountain air carried many an opinion, remembrance and thoughts — on not only new books, but also on one of the most loved men of Indian literature — Khushwant Singh, too old now to return to his favourite writing place.
Friends of the 90-something writer — including Aitzaz Ahsan Chaudhury, senator to senate of Pakistan; Vinod Mehta, advisor to Outlook magazine; Jugnu Mohsin, publisher and editor of the Lahore-based newspaper, The Friday Times; David Davidar (novelist and publisher), former athlete Milkha Singh, director Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra, writer Neel Kamal Puri and theatre person Rani Balbir Kaur — tried to sum up Khushwant’s multi-faceted personality. While Chaudhury thinks of Singh as a “strong and trustworthy person,” Mohsin considers him to be an “embodiment of composite culture of the subcontinent.”
Then there is Mehta, calling the author a “self-deprecatory man,” though Davidar prefers to think of Singh as “a very disciplined writer who’d stick to his rules.” Rani Balbir remembers her connect with Singh through the Gurbani and Sikh history, “and not sex and scotch,” topics he has popularised himself with. To a laughing audience, Puri reminds, “He is a very learned, erudite man and not just the heavy drinking womaniser as he makes himself out to be.”
Director Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra
With many authors having recently written on Punjab, the discussion naturally ventured towards the Punjab of then and now. “One of my father’s most fervent desires was for the borders to become more porous,” shared Rahul Singh, Khushwant’s son, while reminding those present of his father’s great love for India before its division into Pakistan, and later Bangladesh.
Citizens from across the border were able to throw new light on how their community viewed Punjab, a part of which still pulsates in Pakistan. Mohsin, in her flawless Urdu and Punjabi, spoke fondly of the “great land of Punjab before its division,” and added that it had once been known for love, peace and beauty, before an ugly phase of terrorism took over. “People have no recollection in Pakistan of Punjab other than it being a warzone,” she said of their side’s Punjab, adding, “remember Heer-Ranjha and Soni-Mahiwal? I don’t believe many youngsters do now.”
A staunch Indian view on the topic was presented by none other than the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi — Rajmohan Gandhi, whose book, Punjab — A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten was released in September this year. “Though the Partition is one of the bloodiest chapters in our history, for people to think that Punjab before that was a serene peaceful state engaged constantly in farming is not true. It has had a long and violent past much before Partition took place.
The book is not meant to raise any questions or provoke anyone, but is meant to put the facts together to give a clearer picture of past events in history,” he said about his work, while adding that it suited the Britishers to create Pakistan, especially earlier than was intended (allegedly June, 1948). Also present at the fest was Ashali Verma, author and journalist, reading excerpts from her book, The Victoria Cross: A Love Story.
If politics was beginning to get murky, films soon came to the rescue of those who preferred that the day and the talk remained sunny. ‘Flying Sikh’ Milkha Singh, who was present along with film director Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra who won acclaim for his film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, released earlier this year, talked about the tremendous success of the film and its making. Mehra, on being asked why he’d opted to make a biopic on an athlete and not a cricketer, revealed that “atrocities like the Partition of our country have resulted in a lot of lost childhoods and that is what I was looking for, not just an athlete.”
Attention then zoomed in on Vinod Mehta, whose book on yesteryear actress Meena Kumari , titled Meena Kumari — The Classic Biography, was launched in August this year, shed light on the “queen of tragedy’s” traumatic past. “She was just a meal ticket to her family, being hocked around studios by her father since she was only five years old. Even to the men in her life she was just that, to the point that on her deathbed she did not have enough to pay her hospital bills,” he said. This prompted Mehra to confess the reason for his entering into films.
“I am into films because of the film Pakeezah [that had Meena Kumari in the lead] which I watched for seven days in a row, until my mother scolded my ears off,” he laughed, further describing the late actress’s fearlessness and disregard for the male stranglehold on women. “In an era where women were only known for who their husbands were, the men in Meena Kumari’s life were known because of her status.”
Poignant thought. Enough to let the curtains be drawn on a day filled with ponderings and await a new sun.