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SWEET TASTE IN THE MOUTH

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By This above all: Khushwant Singh
  • Published 16.05.09
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I have acquired some traits from my role model, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. The first two are a taste for quality mangoes and premium brand Scotch whisky; the third is the belief that both taste better when one doesn’t have to pay for them. Like my ustad, I am a freeloader.

Ghalib had a passion for mangoes; he could eat a dozen a day. I can hardly cope with one. He had ingenious ways of persuading people to gift them to him. He writes about one such tactic he used when he was strolling with Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar at the Hayaat Bakhsh (live-giving) garden in the Red Fort. The orchard was heavy with the ripening fruit. Ghalib said, “Your Majesty, I am told that every mango has the name of the person who is going to eat it inscribed on its guthlee seed. I wonder if any of these bear my name in them!”

Bahadur Shah Zafar took the hint, and a basketful was sent to the poet’s home in Gali Qasim Jan in Billimaran.

My mango season starts at the end of April when alphansos arrive in the Mumbai markets. At one time, I used to receive three consignments every season — one from Syedna Sahib, another from Ajit Gulab Chand and Tavleen Singh, and a third from Saryu Doshi. For some years, Syedna Sahib has struck off my name. This year, I got a packet without a card. I assumed it was from Tavleen and wrote her a letter of thanks. It turned out to have been sent by Saryu. But my misdirected letter of thanks reminded Tavleen to send me a crate.

For me, the real mango season begins when the mangoes of western Uttar Pradesh come to the market: dussehris, langaras, ratols and others. Two of my friends who own orchards ensure that I get the pick of their fruits. One is Parveen Talha, the other is Abid Saeed Khan. Both are very generous with their produce. I get more than enough for my family of three and the neighbours.

Ghalib made no secret of his inclination to get his Scotch whisky on loan:

Qarz kee peety tthey mai, par
samajhey tthey haan
Rung laayegee meyree
faga-mastee ek din

On borrowed money I got
my drinks, but I thought
My penury will bring me
glory one day.

I am not penurious but am reluctant to buy my liquor from the bazaar. Like other freeloaders, I find the O.P. (Other People’s) brand much tastier. I have a few friends who make it a point to come with a bottle whenever invited. When my stock runs low, all I have to do is to ask them to drop in for a drink. They replenish my dwindling stock. I am sure my hero, Ghalib, was also an ustad of the art of touching his patrons and admirers and making them express their admiration for him with a bottle or two of good whisky.

Across the universe

Many years ago, I happened to be in Nanded in Maharashtra, and went to the Hazur Sahib gurdwara to pay homage to the last Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, who was assassinated there in 1708. There I came across something that baffled me. There was a row of cabins separated by thin walls of plywood in which akhand paths (non-stop reading of the Granth Sahib by a relay of paathees) were taking place with no one listening to them. I sought an explanation from the head granthi. He told me that people from India and abroad send money for akhand paths, to be followed by guru-ka-langar as thanksgiving or wish fulfilment. I could not comprehend how prayers recited by someone else could benefit a devotee who payed for them.

However, I found such practices prevalent in other communities as well. Hindus have havans performed in distant places; Muslims pay the expenses for people going for the Haj, hoping that the benefits will accrue to them. What came as a big surprise to me was the discovery that Europeans, Canadians and Indian Christians are also into outsourcing their prayers. I read about it in the latest Private Eye of May 15. To wit: ‘“The outsourcing of American and European jobs to low-wage countries like India has been happening for years,” Archbishop Jacob Thoomkuzhy told reporters in Kerala (southwestern India), “and religious outsourcing is no different. Because of a lack of priests in the industrialised world, prayers for the dead and Holy Masses are being paid for by Westerners, then offshored to India.”

It is a lucrative business for churches in Kerala. Mass intentions that are paid for in dollars or euros are carried out here by local priests. The prayers are said, and the fees paid by Westerners help cash-starved parishes here. So what’s the problem? “For example, when British newspapers whipped up a storm about David Beckham’s affairs, a Beckham fan from London paid £50 for a mass to save the soul of his hero. The Holy Mass, however, was not held in a London parish. It was outsourced by the church authorities to a bishop in India, who passed it to a remote church at Anthikad in Thrissur diocese, where the mass took place....”

However, a spokesman for the British trade union, Amicus, reacted angrily when told of the practice. “The outsourcing of religious services and the saying of the mass come as a shock to us. This shows that no aspect of life in the West is sacred nowadays.”’