Literature in the Hills
Last Friday we found ourselves at Chandigarh airport on our way to Kasauli to participate in the Khushwant Singh Literary Festival (KSLF) that was to be held over the weekend. As our friend and colleague Shobhaa De, a fellow participant put it, the KSLF was pretty unique in as much as she couldn’t recall if there had ever been a literary festival anywhere in the world ‘that honoured a living author’. Khushwant’s sway over the Indian reading public has been unprecedented. Through his fiction, non fiction, editorships and popular column With Malice Towards One and All, he has impacted generations of Indians; long before writers achieved star status, there was Khushwant – larger than life, the dirty old man in the bulb with the whiskey bottle and the girlie pictures (an image that was to be debunked many times at the festival by those who knew him well).
The festival has been a collective effort between Khushwant’s friends family and admirers namely his son the journalist Rahul Singh, his partner Niloufer Billimoria, publisher Ashok Chopra — supported by a fine contingent of Kasauli’s eminent residents and the proceeds of it would be used to restore the celebrated hill station to its former glory.
No surprise that there is a star-studded cast of participants: from politician Mani Shankar Aiyar and wife Suneet Vir Singh (who collaborated with Khushwant on his seminal book on the Sikhs) to art house actors like Rahul Bose and Deepti Naval, to top journalists like Prem Shankar Jha, Shobhaa De, Bachi Karkaria, (the last who had worked with Khushwant on the Illustrated Weekly) and India Today’s former stars Inderjit Badhwar and Madhu Jain (the latter who is soon to launch a literary magazine IQ in Mumbai ) along with Amrita Shergill, biographer Yashodhara Dalmia, naturalist and ecological gardener Pradip Krishen and diplomat-turned-writer Bhaichand Patel, amongst many others, the programme promised to be a feast for the mind. But man doesn’t live by words alone and so in keeping with the fine tradition of festivals the world over, there were a series of events planned around the margins of the festival aimed to engage and delight the invitees with music, film and food so that the weekend would pass in educated enlightenment.
For instance, Sonam Kalra, the creator of the Sufi Gospel Project would perform, there would be two films on Khushwant, which would be screened, a performance by Humor Me, an improv ensemble group and music by a Gurkha band.
A word about Kasauli. Established by the British in 1842 as a colonial hill station for its officers and servicemen, it still retains its pucca antecedents. Its long time residents exude a strong North Indian military character: swashbuckling Sardars, most of them retired servicemen who have settled in the mountains along with their elegant wives along with a smattering of well-heeled box wallahs, the audience at the festival drawn from Kasauli, Chandigarh and Delhi was a particularly genteel one.
Naturally then and in keeping with Khushwant’s self–confessed love for a glass of whiskey every evening, the bar at the Kasauli club became the center of attraction once the sessions ended and the audiences sought other agencies for delight and entertainment. Here a robust lot of former public school boys could be overheard recalling triumphs on the sports field, expanding on gossip or just sharing a laugh over a tankard of beer or a glass of the club’s legendary Bloody Mary, even while discussing the finer points of the session they had just heard with the participants.
Finally the Khushwant Singh festival will be a whirl of memories: the delightful cupcakes baked by a general’s wife and sent to the participants rooms as a welcome; Sonam Kalra’s throaty rendition of Abide with me followed by a couplet by Bulleh Shah (requested by none less than Salima Hashmi, daughter of legendary poet Faiz Ahhmed Faiz.
“How can you have Sufi without Panjabi poetry?” she whispered); the edgy humour of Humor Me and their soulful rendition of Vikram Seth’s poem on Khushwant; a quiet moment away from the festival that involved a visit to Rahul Bose’s ancestral cottage, to which he returns often to read and write; Mani Shankar Aiyar’s oratorical skills as he made a case for better relations with Pakistan, Bachi Karkaria’s delightful anecdotes recalling her long friendship with Khushwant and finally the evening hours when the cold weather would wrap itself around you making your fingers numb and your voice tremble.
And then after so much intellectual and cultural stimuli, it was time to leave Kasauli and we found ourselves once again at Chandigarh’s modern airport surrounded by a curious mix of pigeons and extremely muscular Sardars (both of whom strutted around with nonchalant vigour). A gem of a festival held in tribute for a giant of a man. We shall be back.