Short list Not sweet Honeyed lemon

By This above all - Khushwant Singh
  • Published 12.12.09

Some years ago, I read a fascinating book titled When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It was by a young rabbi of New York whose only child, a 10-year-old son, was stricken with cancer and died. The rabbi and his wife were a god-fearing Jewish couple who had never hurt anyone. They believed that god was almighty, just and merciful. If so, why had god caused this infliction? It would have shaken most people’s faith in the existence of god. However, the rabbi remained a staunch believer. Since then, I have put the question to many people but never received a satisfactory answer. I was hoping that Jagadguru Kripaluji Maharaj, whose sermons I listen to with great interest on television, and who has a large following in India and abroad, would deal with the subject. So, I was eager to hear what one of his principal disciples, Bageshwari Devi, who translates his thoughts into English, had to say on the subject in a lecture, “Why Me”, delivered by her at the Habitat Centre. I got a copy of her text, but not the answer.

The learned doctor quoted Hindu scriptures, and like-minded Western thinkers narrated witty anecdotes, but when it came to explaining why bad things happen to good people, she had nothing new to say. She ascribed it to karma, acts done in previous lives, for which one atones in the present life or in the lives hereafter. There is not an iota of proof for previous lives or for lives to come. We inherit some traits from our parents because they are in our genes. Belief in previous life and rebirth are figments of our imagination: they are like building skyscrapers of unproved assertions on quicksand. They crumble at the slightest touch of rationality. Why not be honest and admit that “I do not know why bad things happen to good people”? Neither does anyone else.

Short list

On an average, I read around 40-50 books every year. I note down their titles, the names of authors and publishers at the back of my diary. I have slowed down — this year I read only 26. I thought it proper to write about them before the end of the year, as I intend to take two weeks’ off from column-writing.

Before I comment on books I liked and those I thought were over-rated, I have to admit that for many years I have not bought any book: they are sent to me by publishers or authors in the expectation that I would write about them. Of the hundreds I receive, I can barely manage to read 40 or 50; the rest I give away to friends or public libraries.

The first book that left a pleasant imprint on my mind was a short novel by Pinki Virani, Deaf Heaven. Virani has used the style of English spoken by the young generation of Indians in cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta and Chennai. It takes a while to get used to the language but the effort is worthwhile because the book is witty and, at times, blasphemous.

I also recommend Manohar Shyam Joshi’s The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules. Shyam Joshi had a malicious sense of wit that I have not come across in any other Indian writer. He wrote only in Hindi: this book has been well translated and makes for hilarious reading.

Of this year’s choice of books, I rate William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives very high. Dalrymple writes about India with more knowledge and elegance than does any Indian I know. And this is one aspect of Indian life I was not fully aware of — the bizarre ways adopted by religious cults in their search for divinity. Although strictly factual, his narration grips the reader. It is unputdownable.

And finally, I recommend Written For Ever, edited by Rukun Advani. It comprises a selection of articles and anecdotes published in five issues of Civil Lines, which Ravi Dayal published earlier. It restores confidence in the minds of readers that Indians can handle the English language with as much finesse as any Englishman or American.

As a postscript, let me also mention this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for literature: Herta Müller’s The Land of Green Plums. I had never heard the name of Herta Müller, nor indeed had many people outside Germany. The novel is about a German community that finds itself stranded on the western border of Romania at the end of the Second World War. They were Nazis and had to suffer worse humiliation under a communist dictator. I really could not make head or tail of it, and wonder why it was awarded the world’s most coveted literary award.

Not sweet

Question: What should be the byline to India’s foreign policy?

Answer: Chini kam!

Honeyed lemon

Question: Can a person be sweet and sour at the same time?

Answer: Yes, Madhu Koda, the exchief minister of Jharkhand.

(Contributed by K.J.S. Ahluwalia, Amritsar)