Columns

THIS ABOVE ALL
Once babus, now netas
KHUSHWANT SINGH

Saturday, November 29, 2008
KHUSHWANT SINGH


Quite a few Indians who were in the foreign or administrative services (IFS and IAS) have made their mark in politics. They gained the necessary experience of the administration and a ‘yes minister’ attitude towards their bosses before they took the plunge. A few names come to mind immediately. Syed Shahabuddin (IFS) quit the service and became Member of Parliament, and now edits Milli Gazette to highlight problems facing Indian Muslims. Mani Shankar Aiyar quit the foreign service, was twice elected to the Lok Sabha and is now a Minister of Cabinet. Yashwant Sinha quit the administrative service, was elected to the Lok Sabha and became a minister in Vajpayee’s BJP-led government.

Above all, self-styled Kanwar (Prince) Natwar Singh (IFS) was twice elected to the Lok Sabha, was Foreign Minister in the Congress-led government till his name was embroiled in a financial scandal. He ditched his old party and joined the BJP. He then ditched the BJP to join Mayawati’s BSP, from which he was recently kicked out. However, there were others in these coveted services who opted out of them to pursue vocations they wanted. One of them is Ajay Singh Yadav, who left the IAS in 1998, and gave reasons why he did so in his autobiography Why I am Not a Civil Servant. He lives in Bhopal enjoying writing books. His latest is Forty Four Poems (Lighthouse Books). They make good reading. I picked up a few verses from one which deals with the transition of a babu to a neta:

Socialism is my party’s official creed;
An old omnibus in which all sorts can ride;
Former commissars and RSS men;
All sitting amicably, side by side;
Actually, it does not matter what you believe;
The important thing is what you profess;
Socialism is rather chic;
And goes down well with the English language press; Ideological purity, in any case;
Has now gone rather out of date;
Who can afford the luxury of principles;
When he has to win the people’s mandate;
In politics what counts is management;
That’s a game in which I am rather skilled;
Who remembers how much power you generate;
Or how many roads you build;
What counts is promise, not performance;
In my book that’s a rule of thumb;
You may think I am being clever;
But I would rather be clever than dumb.
Most readable of 2008

It has been the best year for books written in English by Indian and Pakistani authors that I can recall. That applies to both fiction and non-fiction. On an average I read around 40 books every year. I note down their titles and authors’ names in the end of the last two pages of my diary and put a star against those that impressed me. I found I had awarded star status to more books than I had in the past years.

Some fiction was memorable. There was Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (Penguin-Viking), his best work so far. I think it should have won the Booker Award. Instead, it went to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (Harper Collins). It is highly readable but leaves a bad taste in the mouth because it had only nasty things to say about India redeemed by clean prose, satire and humour. I preferred his collection of short stories Between the Assassinations (Picador). With a bit of luck and hard work, he should be able to dominate the Indian literary scene for some time. Another Indian who has earned a name and fame for herself by winning the Pultizer Prize for her Interpreter of Maladies is Jhumpa Lahiri, living in New Delhi. Her latest collection Unaccustomed Earth (Random House), though on the same theme of emigre Bengali bhadralog in the US seeking out each other, has a remarkably good first story. Let us hope she widens her range of subjects.

Pakistani fiction writers have turned to Indian publishers as they have none worth their while in their own country. A remarkably good first novel was Moni Mohsina’s The End of Innocence (Penguin-Viking) based in a country estate owned by her parents near Lahore. Another readable novel—half-fiction, half facts—was Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes (Random House) based on the assassination of General Zia-ul-Haq. Equally readable was Twilight by Azhar Abidi (Penguin-Viking) on the disillusionment of well-to-do Indian Muslim families which migrated to Karachi hoping to create a modern Muslim society losing out to mullah-bigotry.

My list of non-fiction is entirely Indian. First came Goodbye Shahzadi (Roli) on the life and assassination of Benazir Bhutto by Shyam Bhatia. Soon after appeared Behenji (Penguin) on Mayawati by Ajoy Bose, followed by Navtej Sarna’s The Exile (Penguin-Viking) on the life of the last Sikh Maharaja Dalip Singh, and Ajit Bhattacherjea’s Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah: Tragic Hero of Kashmir (Roli).

I found all of them informative and absorbing. There were also a couple of books which I enjoyed but which didn’t fall in these above-mentioned categories. These included Wild City: Nature Wonders Next Door by Ranjit Lal (Penguin) and Good Night & Gold Bless (Penguin) by Anita Nair.

At the end, I must add some words of caution. I am no longer able to visit book stores, browse over their shelves and buy what I fancy or heard praised. My reading is restricted to what publishers and authors send me, hoping I will say something about them in my columns. I do the best I can.