The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Just as a Patiala peg is double the regular measure that whisky drinkers take at one time, so the men and women of Patiala are larger in life than other Punjabis. The men are bigger built, better dressed, wear a style of turban smarter than that worn by other Sikhs; their women easier on the eye and saucier. They speak a dialect of their own which is a mixture of Punjabi, Haryanvi and Hindi. No one can match them in flattery. Anyone beguiled by their speech will do it at his own risk: their principal concern is with advancing their own future and they will switch loyalties to suit their interests.

This is too broad a generalization to be strictly accurate. It is based on the pattern of life set by the ruling family grandfather ' the portly, cigar-smoking Maharajah Bhupinder Singh, grandfather of the present chief minister of Punjab, Amarinder Singh. Like many other rulers of Indian states, he maintained a sizeable harem, second only to that of His Exalted Highness, the Nizam of Hyderabad. The Nizam was a measly specimen of humanity and no one knows how many women of his seraglio he was able to deflower. Bhupinder Singh was a stallion of a man with a ravenous appetite for sex which became legendary. His progeny is said to have exceeded eighty sons and daughters. As in other princely states, ladies of his harem were graded according to status from maharani or patrani to ranis, concubines, and keeps. So were their male offspring from yuvraj (heir apparent), raja, lalji, kaka and so on. Failing those grades, everyone was free to add the letter 'K' (for Kanwar-prince as a prefix to his name).

Both princes and princesses were given English names, usually chosen by their English Anglo-Indian nannies as well as Sikh names from the Granth Sahib. Thus they were Peters, Davids, Montys, Michaels, Cyrils, Cecils, Williams (including Williampal Singh); Ruby, Jewel, Diamond, Jani and so on. Most of them were sent to school and college. During the raj, it was Aitchison Chiefs College, Lahore for boys, Catholic convents for the girls. In recent years, it has been Yaduvendra or some other public school. They get their degrees. But getting a job or working for a living was regarded infra dig: that was for hoi polloi, not for the aristocracy. For them having a good time, hard-drinking and womanizing was a whole-time job.

A lower rung in the social ladder were large landowners who were punctilious in following customs and practices prevalent in Moti Bagh Palace. They lived in large mansions, ate well, drank hard and fornicated with reckless abandon. They too shunned work as something below their dignity. It is not surprising that with the change of time and deprived of much of their unearned income, they became misfits in a rapidly modernizing Indian upper and middle class society. Their pretensions of aristocratic superiority, often combined with bad manners, became the butt of ridicule.

This is exactly how they have been portrayed by Neel Kamal Puri in her first novel, The Patiala Quartet. Ludhiana born Neel Kamal is a product of the Yaduvendra Public School and is currently teaching English literature in Chandigarh. She knows Patiala well and has chosen a zamindar's family to depict how Patialvis are different from other Punjabis. The story is set in a time Khalistani terrorism was in its worst phase. She handles her theme with the deftness of a born story-teller. Her main characters are lovable, odd-balls at odds with middle class social norms. There is a lady much bothered by her teeth. Instead of going to her dentist periodically to have cavities filled, she tells him to extract all her teeth and be done with them for all times to come. When he starts to yank out the first healthy tooth, she cannot bear the pain and grabs the dentist by his testicles till it is out. Thereafter, he takes good care to keep his privates beyond reach. Another girl, usually shy, is pursued everyday by a boy from a lower class while returning home from college on bicycles. He protests his undying love for her day after day. Much to his surprise, one day she accepts his proposal for marriage. The day before the nuptial ceremony is to take place, the boy's father asks for a car to be included in the dowry. While her parents are mulling over the demand, the girl calls off the marriage. The enraged suitor threatens to kill her. He appears every afternoon outside her large house and fires a shot in the air with his revolver. Soon the family get used to hearing the shot and know it is time for their afternoon tea. Yet another lad, this time a bookworm, goes every day to the town library followed by a pack of street dogs who wait outside till he comes out with yet another book. There are innumerable episodes laced with subtle humour which make this novella highly readable. Being an academic, Puri is inclined to be somewhat verbose in her commentary and sparing in dialogues. These minor shortcomings do not take away anything from the narrative. The Patiala Quartet will rank among the best works of English fiction written by a Punjabi.

For sunny days and nights clear

Happy New Year
Free from the vanities of the world
Free from the quirks of life
Free from our follies absurd,
Free from ignoble strife,
Free from worry, free from fear
A Happy New Year to you, my dear
Free from the dry tap, free from the power cut
Free from the officials' arrogance, Free from a friend's pretence
Free from a leader's cut, free from a policeman's butt
Free from insensitive law, free from inflated bill
Free from a swollen eye, free from the sleeping pill
Free from a made-up face, free from the mad, mad race
Full of bounty, full of grace
Of sunny days and nights clear
A Happy New Year to you, my dear.

(Contributed by Kuldip Salil, Delhi)

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