When the idea of organising a literary festival in his name was first proposed to him by son Rahul Singh and friends Ashok Chopra and Niloufer Billimoria, all Khushwant Singh said was, “But isn’t that a bit vulgar?”
For a man who never took himself seriously, this would be an expected reply, but for all his biting remarks and caustic humour, everybody present on day one of the festival also remembered Khushwant Singh as a man who basked in the afterglow of adulation.
Homage to the old man and remembrances galore contributed to a perfect start to the three-day event, which not only aims at putting Kasauli on the literary map of India but also at creating a platform for a constructive literary discussion.
With the latest edition coming up soon after Khushwant Singh’s death on March 20 this year, it has grown in importance and meaning for those who knew him and also to the memory of the man who considered Kasauli his second home. It was here that he did most of his writing. As Shobhaa De put it, “When I arrived in Kasauli, it seemed as if the hills had come alive with the sound of Khushwant.”
As Ashok Chopra kicked off day one by reading a handwritten letter from the grand old man, the audience got glimpses of a man who was not just a great writer but one who understood the ethos of the common man. As his son Rahul says, “My father walked with kings and yet had the common touch.”
Khushwant Singh, in his letter, especially requested that the festival be dedicated to the Indian soldier. In his letter, he says, “Please see to it that the Indian soldier gets a standing ovation.” As if on cue, the audience rose to fulfil the author’s express wish. The festival is organised with the help of the military formation in Kasauli.
The first day also saw the launch of a book which is a compilation of obituaries published on Khushwant Singh in various magazines, journals and newspapers around the world.
Shobhaa De, who wrote six different obits for the author, launched the book ‘Khushwant Singh: The Legend Lives On’, the proceeds from which will go to the Khushwant Singh Foundation for the education of the girl child.
Pakistani art historian Fakir Syed Aijazuddin, author of the book ‘The Resourceful Fakirs’, brought a brick from Khushwant Singh’s ancestral house at Hadali in Pakistani Punjab and presented it to his son Rahul Singh.
As this year’s theme is storytelling, day one also featured sessions, with some interesting ones such as Mahmood Farooqui’s session on the revival of ‘Dastangoi’, a unique technique of storytelling in Urdu similar to the epic. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s daughter, Daman Singh, also talked about her book ‘Strictly Personal’, in which she has tried to narrate the stories of her parents’ lives.
A session on ‘Manto’s India and Manto’s Pakistan’ by columnist and writer Aakar Patel gave an insight into Saadat Hasan Manto’s journey from a man who went to Mumbai to make a living as a writer and how he evolved into one of the best short-story writers of all time. The day ended with a session on ‘Nicholas Roerich - A Himalayan Maestro’s Magnificent Obsession’, in which filmmaker and writer Manju Kak and writer Kalpana Sahni spoke about the painter and writer’s famous Asian expedition from 1925 to 1929.
Many more interesting and insightful sessions await the Kasauli festival crowd in the next two days. Would storytelling be the star or the enduring spirit of the grand old storyteller himself?
Contest to rename book
The Khushwant Singh Literature Festival has announced a competition to rename what they consider his best book ‘I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale’.
The competition is open across all ages, worldwide. The winner will be announced on the Khushwant Singh’s 100th birth anniversary in 2015. The book will be reprinted under the new name and published the same year. Among the panel of judges are Chikki Sarkar, chief editor, Penguin Books; Mala Dayal (Khushwant’s daughter), publisher, Rani Dayal Books; and a few surprise names from Bollywood.