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Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Khushwant Singh's New Book: review in The Herald

I must begin this review with a confession: I am an unabashed admirer of Khushwant Singh. I have known him for years and enjoyed many a delightful evening in his cozy flat listening to his yarns and talking about his three great passions: people, poetry and politics. Ensconced in his favourite armchair, his feet atop a cane stool, a fire blazing in the hearth, surrounded by piles of new books gifted to him in equal numbers by aspiring and established authors, he is witty, curious, engaging; in fact, a very far cry from the ‘dirty old man’ of popular imagination. Till his health permitted, he would permit two or three or four (never too many to make a crowd) of his friends and admirers to drop in (always after taking a prior appointment) at a scheduled time (starting from 7.00 pm sharp and ending on the dot of 7.45 as he sits down for his dinner at precisely 8.00 pm). Recent years have seen him retreating from public life and meeting fewer and fewer people; though, as the number of his books continues to grow at a steady pace and his columns continue to appear, the ‘Sardar in the Bulb’ (immortalised by the cartoonist Mario Miranda) continues to light up the life of countless Indians with his deep insight into human nature.

After several best-selling books in a career spanning six decades, comes his newest offering: The Freethinker’s Prayer Book and Some Words to Live By (Aleph, 2012). Only someone who does not believe in God yet recites the Gayatri Mantra without fail when he gets up before dawn every day, who proclaims to be an agnostic yet knows large chunks of the Bible and the Holy Quran by heart, who has consistently tossed his hat at the windmills of the gods yet evidently draws his strength and inspiration from some hidden source somewhere could have written such a book. The words of Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Kabir, Marcus Aurelius, St Thomas Aquinas, Lalan fakir, Shah Abdul Latif and many more merge seamlessly and effortlessly. Prayers and snippets by poets, philosophers and prophets ranging from William Blake to Maulana Rumi to Lao Tsu, passages from religious texts as diverse as the Vedas, Upanishads, Avesta, Granth Sahib, as well as verses from Tagore, Ghalib and Keats make this an eclectic and individualistic culling from a man who has sipped long and deep at the fount of learning. Yet, in a manner typical of Khushwant, he remains characteristically irreverent:

‘Once you have decided not to bow to any gods, and if you have a good bullshit detector, it is possible to separate the sublime from the ridiculous and derive inspiration from the words of prophets and poets, gurus and rogues, grave men and clowns. There is a lot to be learned from both the sacred and the profane. I have done that nearly all my life and put down in my notebooks hundreds of lines from different sources that appealed to me… I offer them to you as life codes from an ancient and unrepentant agnostic. Read them with an open mind and an open heart.’

Justifying this wide-ranging selection, Khushwant concludes thus:

‘Since I am not obliged to hold any scripture as sacrosanct, I think I have been able to cull the valuable and memorable from each holy book, ignoring a lot that is of indifferent literary quality, illogical or contrary to a humane and liberal world view.’

At 97, Khushwant has been saying that it is time for him to hang up his boots and go. But those of us who have grown up on a steady diet of Khushwant Singh’s writings – be they in the form of columns, editorials, translations, book reviews, books of fiction and non-fiction -- can only wish him long life and good health, and say: ‘Allah kare zor-e-qalam aur ziyada…’

Also Read:

1.     Train to Pakistan, Chatto & Windus, 1956: a historical novel that placed Khushwant among the finest chroniclers of the partition

2.     A History of the Sikhs, Princeton University Press, 1963: it established Khushwant’s reputation as a serious, even scholarly, writer.

3.     Sex, Scotch and Scholarship, Harper Collins, 1992: the title says it all; the selection comprises vintage Khushwant with dollops of readability.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Interview with Prof Gopichand Narang in the Hindu, today

Stalwart, scholar, spokesperson for Urdu, Prof Gopichand Narang is also a symbol of the pluralism and secularism that was once the hallmark of Urdu tehzeeb. He talks to Rakhshanda Jalil, soon after receiving the Moortidevi Award, on the state of Urdu today, newer ways of making it more accessible and the perils of politicising culture.

           What do you have to say to those who claim Urdu is the language of the Muslims?

           They are misguided. This is part of the communal divide created by the politics of partition. They are not friends of Urdu. The most unfortunate thing is that sometimes our administrative machinery succumbs to such narrow views and implements wrong policies. In fact, the larger issue is the communalisation and politicisation of culture. This is also connected to the harmful and unhealthy vote bank politics. The fact is that Urdu is a product of the composite culture of India and provides a bridge between not only communities but countries also. The labelling of Urdu by religion goes against the very grain of the secular genius of Urdu. It is detrimental to its growth. Why only Urdu and Hindi? Why is no other language marked by such a divide? English is the largest spoken language of the world, but has it ever been restricted by Christianity or any other religion?
           Is Urdu in India dead, or dying?

           Urdu is neither dead nor dying. It is surviving though with difficulties. It is a victim of the aftermath of the two-nation theory and facing problems at the school level especially in north Indian states. It is well known that Urdu is the most cultivated form of Khadi Boli Hindi, and being the core of Hindustani, it is at the heart of the lingua-franca not only of India but all of South Asia. It has been sustaining Bollywood movies, satellite TV serials and entertainment industry. Can anyone think of all this activity minus Urdu?
Can investments in cultural capital sustain a language? Or must languages be linked to employment to survive?

           The two are interlinked. Language is a construct of culture and culture a construct of language. A speaking community must have equal opportunity for growth and progress so that it can partake in the development of the country. Our democratic structure has all the provisions; similarly, subaltern Urdu needs to be guaranteed all those rights and privileges which are enjoyed by other regional languages in India.

Music, be it in the film industry or ghazal gayeki, has done much to sustain Urdu. But most mehfils and mushaira see a largely ‘grey’ audience? How does one draw younger audiences towards Urdu?

           It’s true. Language and culture are dynamic. They are not static. All art forms are perpetually changing. The ghazal from Ghalib to Faiz to Shaharyar, Gulzar and Javed Akhtar has also changed. So is the ghazal gayeki and singing styles and popular music. Urdu has the resilience and capacity to cope up with new challenges. The moot question is the provision of equal protection under Right to Education Act and honest implementation of three-language formula in our general education system at the school level.

Comparisons between the state of Urdu in India and Pakistan are made all the time. Don’t you think this is an unfair comparison? For most Pakistanis, Urdu is an effective second language whereas we still have a substantial number of ‘native’ Urdu speakers?

           Unnecessary and wrong comparisons are generated by politically-motivated vested interests. You are right. Even today 7 to 10 crore Indians claim Urdu as their first language, though there is no state in India where Urdu speakers are in majority, although Urdu is the second largest spoken language after Hindi and a source of strength to Hindi. In north-western areas covered by Pakistan, Urdu has been a link and cultural language from the pre-partition times. Good that it now has State patronage, but English has the upper hand as it is in India. The fact is that Urdu in Pakistan is yet not the State's official language. I am of the view that with increasing globalisation the rise of multilingualism is a must. The age of mono-lingualism is a thing of the past.

How can the teaching of Urdu in the Urdu script, for a lay person, be made simpler? At present it is daunting and only the very diligent manage to learn the script.

           Like Bengali, Urdu script is cursive, artistic and beautiful. It is not difficult. Rather it is close to short hand as it is more consonantal than vocalic. The short vowels are generally omitted and not written. It might appear difficult as opportunities for learning it at the school level have been denied. Not to mention my own series of books Let's Learn Urdu in both English and Hindi, there are scientific materials by which one can learn Urdu script in a matter of weeks. Much depends on the motivation and time spent practicing it.

On a personal note, can you single out one text/verse that speaks to you again and again, no matter how many times you read it?

           There is none other than Ghalib. He always speaks to you and is so refreshing. He is a poet of all times and ages. His world is too vast and too contradictory to fit into any one category of things. His poetry is unique not only for the intensity of emotions and depth of thoughts it expresses, but also for the exquisite charm and the beauty of the world which he reveals. Ghalib is also valuable for a completely fresh approach to the world. He is endowed with a passionate appreciation of life, yet he deeply questions the very fundamentals of faith and dogma never compromising on the unity of mankind and freedom of human spirit. He has a range and touch of magic no other Urdu poet has.