Thursday, April 24, 2014

A film and a friendship

A few months ago while reading a Hindi film review, a name suddenly seemed familiar, but I didn’t pay attention to it, moved on and finished reading the review. Even after moving to other news items, the name refused to leave me and I returned to the review to see it again. Chandan Roy Sanyal and the movie was D-Day. Chandan was a close friend of mine at the school I attended in Delhi – Raisina.

Not even once during the three years that I studied with Chandan did he show any interest in or flair for becoming an actor. He was short and average to look at with wavy hairs. He was shy and hardly looked at you while talking. However, he was also popular and was liked almost by everyone in class partly because he was good at studies, particularly at maths.

I watched D-Day on CD last week and was happy to hear my wife say he was quite natural. The movie is a thriller set mostly in Pakistan (Karachi) with parts of it in India. A mafia don (modeled on Dawood Ibrahim) is visiting Karachi to attend his son’s wedding. In Karachi are also a RAW agent and an ex-army officer on the mission to capture him and bring him to India to be tried for several terrorism cases filed against him in Indian courts. Chandan Sanyal has played the right hand man of the mafia don. 

The best part about the character Chandan has played is it’s multidimensional: a shrewd and merciless person with a touch of eccentricity who is also loyal to his master, the don. Chandan has been able to bring all these essences into his performance.

My father was in a transferable government job and after we stayed in Delhi for three years, he was transferred to Calcutta, our base. I got admitted in another school. My friend circle changed and so did my world. Consequently, Chandan started receding into a past I had left in Delhi.  Suddenly one day  I got a letter (it was before emails had become part of our lives) from him telling about his days in Delhi and school since I left. After that we started exchanging mails, roughly once in two months, updating each other with our lives in Delhi and Calcutta.

In these letters, we started writing about the crushes we had in school which we couldn't discuss freely while together at the school in Delhi. After a year or so the frequency of letters dropped until we stopped writing letters to each other completely, without realizing it. Some years later Chandan broke the silence.  I got a letter from him telling me that he would be visiting Calcutta to perform a play with his troop. This was the first time I came to know he had started acting in plays. I wrote back I would come and meet him.

The troop was lodging in the same stadium that they were staging the show in. I have forgotten what the play was but remember that they were staging one show every evening of their stay in Calcutta. A part of the troop was staying in a guest quarter inside and another was lodging in long tents with three tier iron beds inside. 

After walking in, as I was scanning the place, I saw a thin youth with long hairs waving at me. As I neared the youth, I saw a Chandan completely different from the one I knew in Delhi. 

We talked about our Delhi school days. He asked me about the crushes I had written about and said how they were placed in life then. There was a girl in our school who wasn't particularly good looking but very prim and proper and stylish. Chandan said he liked the girl but now she had moved to another place.

A patrician-looking man was loitering and Chandan told me he was their mentor, Habib Tanvir. Later I read about Tanvir and came to know his stature in Indian theatre. Chandan wanted me to stay back to watch the play, but it was quite far from my home, so I decided to leave earlier.

After returning to Delhi, Chandan wrote a letter and I responded to it, but that become the last time we wrote to each other. A year later I passed my board exams and joined a college and gradually Chandan became a friend who represented a phase which was behind me by many years now. Similarly, passing years and changing whether of life would have turned me, a friend from another time and space, into someone he knew once.

In D-Day Chandan seemed to have changed very little from how I had found him at the theatre venue, in Calcutta. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Goodbye Khushwant Singh

In 1989 VS Naipaul was travelling India to research for Million Mutinies Now. While on his way from one place to another in Mumbai he was reading a popular Indian magazine trying to understand the reason for its success. Meant for house wives, it was a lowbrow magazine covering issues of domesticity without any intellectual pretensions. After flipping through it, Naipaul decided that the magazine was popular with its readers because it didn’t intimidate them, a fact that made it endearing and friendly.

It would be unfair to compare an obscure magazine with a successful author journalist who wrote on a wide range of issues and was read equally widely for close to five decades. But many of Khushwant Singh’s readers would be tempted to draw this analogy between the magazine and Singh as a writer arguing that it’s the simplicity of his style which made him one of the most popular columnists and writers of India.

There are few writers and columnists who can connect with their readers so well. Khushwant Singh’s writing was never too deep or insightful but unpretentious and direct. There was another attribute of KS’s writing which was available in almost all his essays I read – I read almost all his essays and articles – brevity.

Except a few of his essays and articles, all his pieces were short, so you could know about historical personalities, famous entities, swathes of history (mostly Indian), books and writers reading two or three pages. He, in fact, had less patience for lengthy pieces or long books - he liked the quickies. This ability to cover lengthy subjects with brevity meant you never spent too long on any piece to know its subject from one end to another.

Although his simple style is much celebrated, not many readers have noticed that Khushwant Singh’s language was not always as simple as it had become later. If you read his early pieces from the 50 and 60s, the style is direct but the language is guilty of authorial indulgence. I think he did away with his turns of phrases and use of literary words as he started spending more time on journalism than novel writing. Or it could be that as India started becoming more and more comfortable with English, some heavy phrases which were in use in the 40s and 50s became obsolete and they fell off Khushwant’s writing.

One day, when the post partition riots were at their pick, Khushwant was driving to a place somewhere in north India. And he saw a group of Sikhs standing on the way. They hailed his car and asked Khushwant for a lift. Once in the car, they told they had just killed a train full of Muslims headed to Pakistan. And A Train to Pakistan was born, a tight novel with well-crafted  characters, and the milieu of a village in Punjab authentically created. Albeit, Train to Pakistan never found respect from critics who mostly call it a flimsy work.

It’s a novelist that Khushwant Singh had set out to become; journalism was just a career compromise although it brought him much more renown and success than novel writing. I have read all his short stories except one which he had written much later in life….I liked some of them, found some passable and some a little silly. 

But all of them were characterized by ribaldry with earthy humour which was Singh’s trademark and was available in all forms of his writings. Perhaps telling that Singh had set out to become a novelist is a little factually wrong. He had, in fact, not even set out to become a writer. He started considering writing as a career when the other careers he had pursued earlier - law and diplomacy - disappointed him. He used to call himself a briefless lawyer and a tactless diplomat who didn’t have too many career options before him.I read this many times in his columns and interviews, but don't really believe it.

I think that failure in other professions pushed him into writing and he became a famous writer - was a clever story he had created later, having found literary success. His law and diplomatic careers may have been disappointing but writing wasn’t an afterthought. He had written a collection of short stories – The Mark of Vishnu and Other Stories – while on a diplomatic assignment in Canada and the book had received good press in the west. 

Profiling Nirad C Chaudhuri, Khushwant Singh had written that Chaudhuri lived a dual life: when he stayed indoors he was in dhoti and kurta and ate on floor but when he stepped out he was in suit and hat. Khushwant Singh also had a duality to him, the Khushwant Singh that emerges from his writings – a fun-loving, garrulous, light-hearted, sex-obsessed Sardar and the other is how people who personally knew Singh describe him, a serious person who liked the company of women but was very decorous to them. I am not sure which one was the real Khushwant – maybe both of them or maybe how his readers knew him was just an image he had created of himself to find acceptability as a writer of light pieces.

So as obits are pouring in since Khushwant “‘made an exit” last week, what must the iconoclast, agnostic and loner (whose favorite place was graveyard because of its calm) be thinking sitting up there? He must be sipping his favorite scotch chota, chuckling and telling: “They still take me seriously!”

Death was among his lifelong obsessions - when he was 28 he had written a short story titled Obituary. Goodbye, Khushwant Singh.
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