He was exactly seven days older than me. We were in the same class in Government College (Lahore) and lived in the same hostel, yet I was hardly aware of his existence. Everyone knew his handsome, elder brother, Balraj, who later became a film star but Bhisham had no admirers. He was among a handful of students who read Hindi. We Urduwallahs looked down upon Hindiwallahs and called them Kinto Prantoos. After we left college, I hardly ever heard of Bhisham; it was Balraj whose name we liked to drop. The two brothers had two things in common: both were entirely free of communal prejudices and had strong leftist leanings.
Since I could not read Hindi, I did not know how good a writer of Hindi Bhisham had become till he won the Sahitya Akademi award. I saw bits of his Tamas on the screen and realized what I had missed by not knowing its creator as well as I could have. And when he played a role in Mr & Mrs Iyer, that he was as good, if not a better, actor than his famous brother. The one and only novel of his that I read and reviewed was Maya Das ki Marhi. I was completely bowled over. When he rang up to thank me, I discovered he lived barely 50 yards away from me. He was a recluse, almost a hermit. Thereafter I met him a few times. It was a revelation: the man was totally free of envy and unlike other writers whose favourite topic is themselves, Bhisham never talked about himself or his writing.
Bhisham was my classmate; his daughter, Kalpana, was a classmate of my daughter, Mala, and his grandson, Martand, in the same class at school as my granddaughter, Naina. Kalpana married the architect Romi Khosla, the youngest son of my closest friend, G.D. Khosla. So our family connections went down three generations on either side. I wish I had known Bhisham Sahni better; he could have made me a better man.
Little paradise on the hills
Himachal has been my summer home since my childhood. With some justification I describe myself as half-Himachali, half Dilliwala-Punjabi. However, my Himachal abodes were restricted to Shimla, Mashobra and for the last 30 years, Kasauli. I explored the neighbouring hills and valleys as much as I could on foot. I walked down to the banks of the Sutlej to the sulphur hot water springs, Taata Paanee (36 miles). I walked from Shimla to Narkanda and back on the Hindustan-Tibet Road (72 miles) almost non-stop on two full moonlit nights and a day. Till a few years ago I went from Kasauli to Kalka to catch trains to Delhi on foot. I saw quite a lot of wild life: leopards, wild cats, mouse-deer porcupines, jackals, foxes, snakes and vast variety of birds. I wanted to know more about the flora and fauna, about the village folk and their customs.
Almost every book I picked up on Himachal in second-hand bookstores in England, Canada and the United States of America had been written by an Englishman. Many things escaped their attention. For instance I came across huts near streams with channels diverting water into a trough with taps which sent a steady trickle of water on shaved heads of men who lay fast asleep on the floor. I never discovered what it was all about. You donít see them any more. I was also told that an annual mela took place in village Sipi below Mashobra where girls were sold by auction. I went to the mela twice. I saw many pretty Himachali lasses, fair-skinned, doe-eyed and with sharp features. I would have liked to buy a few. There were none for sale. When and why did the legend begin'
There is still much to be explored and written about Himachal. I was delighted to come by Travels to Highlands of Himachal by K.R. Bharti. Fortyeight year old Bharati is a product of Hamirpur village and Shimla University. He was a topper in the Provincial Civil Service exam and is currently land acquisition officer. His earlier postings included Pangi, Dalhousie, Chamba and Nahan. He had wanderlust in his blood. Armed with a camera and a diary, he trekked through Sirmaur, Pangi Valley through which runs the Chenab, Manimahesh where Hinduism and Bhuddhism mingle in harmony, Pooh, Sangla and Spiti. The outcome is a very readable travelogue, an invitation to see some of this paradise on earth.
Murder as an art form
We have known mass murderers since times immemorial: Chenghis Khan, Hulago Khan, Ghazni, Ghore, Babar, Abdali down to Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein. Few of them killed with their own hands: their mercenaries did the dirty jobs for them. And there was always a motive which impelled them to take lives, massacre enemies they defeated, out of class or race hatred and revenge. What made our thugs unique among killers is they used the most sophisticated methods to kill using a small pocket handkerchief to strangle their victims without shedding a drop of blood. And though many were Muslims (& Hindus of all castes) they regarded goddess Kali as their patron-saint. They killed over a million unwary travellers before the British government stamped them out in the 1830s and 1840s.
William Henry Sleeman, with 17 assistants and a hundred sepoys, captured over 3,000 thugs. Of them, 466 were hanged, 1,564 transported and 933 imprisoned for life. Of these killers, the champion was a fellow named Buhram who admitted to killing 931 with his bare hands twisting a small scarf round the necks of his victims. His name finds honourable mention in the Guiness Book of Records. Our present day brigand, Veerappan, who claims to have taken over 100 lives has a long way to go before he catches up with Buhram. There is still hope for him. He does not have to contend with the ruthless British but with impotent policemen of two neighbouring states and their chief ministers who can do no better than pass the buck to each other.
In praise of an ass
I cannot praise you for want of words/ I can only worship you for what you are,/ Our honour, our glory the heart beat of the nation/ You are, for one, our cricketing star;/ For another, so gentle, so docile, so mild/ Anybody can flog you, even a child/ Such patience as only you possess/ Humiliation you alone can stomach/ We salute you for in this you represent our people/ And their unshakable faith in their luck./ Night and day, regularly you bray/ And we cannot tell the one from the other/ So sweet, so promising in the same old noises/ That you are our natural national leader./ O ass dear, I fear, I cannot measure up/ To your worth, your greatness, your qualities of heart and mind,/ The wisdom you have and we only toil.t o find! This is when I myself am a natural ass, But never mind, others will make up the loss/ And continue to salute the boss.
(Contributed by Kuldip Salil, Delhi)