Monday, 30th October 2017

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Last year’s troubles

By Khushwant Singh
  • Published 21.07.07

It is not surprising that many of our top writers of English fiction prefer to live abroad rather than in their own homeland. Raja Rao and Govind Desani lived most of their later years in Austin, Texas. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Ved Mehta, Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, her daughter Kiran, Jhumpa Lahiri and Richard Crasta live in New York, M.G. Vassanji and Anita Rau Badami live in Canada. V.S. Naipaul, Vikram Seth and Jaishree Misra live in England. This is understandable because New York and London are capitals of the English literary world, where publishers offer millions in advance royalties that Indian publishers cannot afford. India gets the left-overs and gratuity.

A new star has risen in world of English fiction by Indians — not in the Indian firmament but in a non-English-speaking country, in Denmark. He is Tabish Khair, a Bihari teaching English at Aarhus University in Copenhagen. His first novel, The Bus Stopped, published in England, was set entirely in India. His second, Filming: A Love Story, was again released first in England and will be available in India shortly. I have little doubt that it will establish Tabish Khair in the top rung of Indian authors writing in English.

Filming is a poor title for a beautifully-crafted novel. The only justification for this is the chief character’s obsession with making a film, Aakhri Raat, and making a name for himself in the film world.

The principal character of the novel is a Bengali Brahmin named Hari, who is a clerk in a post-office in Calcutta. He spends his days sorting out letters and dreaming of making a film. He is a bachelor who frequents a brothel run by a Muslim lady. Hari gets attached to the brothel-keeper’s daughter. With her he shares his dreams. She dreams of becoming a respectable housewife with a home of her own. Hari quits his job, hires a projector, a few old films, a bullock-cart and a couple of assistants to show his films in towns and villages in Bengal and Bihar. His prostitute lady-friend quits the brothel to join him, takes on the Hindu name, Durga, to help him with his peripatetic cinema shows by singing and dancing during intervals. They have a son, Ashok. He grows up into a handsome, grey-eyed lad, and enjoys running behind his parents’ bullock-cart as it moves from village to village.

There is a dramatic change in their lives when they arrive at Anjangarh, owned by a well-to-do family of Thakurs who live in a sprawling haveli, divided into parts to house different kinsmen. The head lives by himself and is rarely seen. His wife, the malkin, presides over feeding arrangements and children’s welfare, and is know to them as Badi Ma. She lost her only son, Ashok, when he was only seven. Her husband’s younger brother, the only one who went to college briefly, is more interested in singing and dancing and is probably gay. He allows the bioscopewallahs to set up their show. He visits it and invites Durga to the haveli — not to make love to her but to practice dancing. The bioscopewallahs are asked to move into the haveli. Badi Ma persuades them to give their Ashok to her in adoption for a tidy sum of money. Hari and Durga move to the film-capital, Bombay. She takes on a new name, Bhuvaneshwari. They run into another pair of would-be film-makers: Salim Lahori, son of a Muslim prostitute in Lahori Gate, Delhi, and her husband, a Maulvi Sahib. They acquire a studio, a few hours drive from Bombay, and get down to filming Aakhri Raat.

India begins to come to a boiling point as the day of transfer of power from the British comes closer. Hindu-Muslim riots break out all over the country. Trains full of dead bodies cross over from nascent Pakistan to India and from India into the nascent Pakistan. Bhuvaneshwari adopts two little children, who have narrowly escaped being massacred. Salim Lahori and a few other Muslims refuse to leave India. Right-wing Hindu militant groups led by the RSS want to drive Muslims out of India. They would like Mahatma Gandhi to be killed by a Muslim so that their task should become easier. They run out of patience and a day before the Gandhi’s assassination they attack the studio and set it on fire, killing everyone inside, Hindu, Muslim, adults and children. The news barely gets any mention because of the murder of Gandhi.

It is as powerful a tale of love, and a heart-rending tragedy, as I have read, on the partition of India. The spirit of Saadat Hassan Manto haunts every page. Manto did not want to leave Bombay, until his Hindu friends persuaded him to do so to save his life. He ended up in the Lahore lunatic asylum, which is the background of his immortal story, Toba Tek Singh. It is to Manto that Tabish Khair has dedicated his novel.

Last year’s troubles

A college student challenged a senior citizen saying it was impossible for their generation to understand his.

“You grew up in a different world,” the student said, “Today we have television, jet planes, space travel, man has walked on the moon, our spaceships have visited Mars. We even have nuclear energy, electric and hydrogen cars, computers with light-speed processing and...”

The old man replied: “You’re right. We did not have those things when we were young; so we invented them. Now what on earth are you doing for the next generation?”

(Courtesy: Vipin Bucksey, New Delhi)

A college student introduced his girlfriend to his pal: “Meet Miss so-and-so, my cousin.”

His friend replied, “How nice! Last year she was my cousin.”

(Contributed by Gurdershan Singh, Chandigarh)