The second Khushwant Singh Literary Festival sought to preserve Kasauli’s environment with history, poetry, and a touch of anxiety.
How can a festival about Punjab not have a generous sprinkling of Sikhs? So, amid colourful turbans and bright winter shawls, writers, film stars and socialites gathered in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh, last weekend to converse on books of, by, and for Punjabis at the second Khushwant Singh Literary Festival.
Khushwant Singh himself got to have the first word at the event held in his name, though he couldn’t attend it. Leigh Hunt’s Abou Ben Adhem and Rudyard Kipling’s If were his contribution. “Take them with you and live by them,” he said in his message.
With ‘Greater Punjab’ being the theme, a popular contingent from Pakistan led by the eloquent Jugnu Mohsin, managing editor of The Friday Times, helped rekindle some of the inevitable nostalgia for the Punjab that is now in Pakistan. Along with Madeeha Gauhar of Ajoka Theatre group, painter-activist Salima Hashmi and lawyer Aitazaz Ahsan, the Punjabis from across the border made a passionate plea to fellow Punjabis to support them in their war against fundamentalism in Pakistan. “Sections in my country want to make people forget that we were ever the same,” said Mohsin. “By subtly pushing the public’s sympathy towards Arab nations, they are making Pakistanis lose their moorings.” Madeeha talked about theatre of peace and her pain at the sudden cancellation of shows each time there was an incident on the border.
The festival kicked off with a party at Raj Villa, Khushwant Singh’s home in Kasauli. It was here that he did most of his writing. The legendary Nargis is said to have once slept in his bed during a holiday. This time, in the absence of Nargis or Khushwant Singh, it was Bachi Karkaria who had the privilege of sleeping on the same bed, as she declared at a session, ‘Not so strange bedfellows’.
The dignified Milkha Singh talked about his book and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Other events were also in keeping with the spirit of Punjabiyat — Rajmohan Gandhi’s book Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten; Mark Tully on heritage and Indian Railways; Bhai Sikandar Singh on Sikh relics and heritage; Asha Sharma on An American in Khadi, her biography of her grandfather Satyanand Stokes, the American missionary who brought apples to Himachal Pradesh. Manoj and Babli: A Hate Story created a stir when a real-life character from the book came forward to speak about his harrowing experience at the hands of khap panchayats. Navtej Sarna’s Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition, a translation of his father’s short stories, was launched, as was Vinod Mehta’s Meena Kumari.
Talking about the fine military tradition of the area was Rahul Bose who has a Kasauli connection. He has inherited an old bungalow and often resides here. Rubbing shoulders with the literati from Mumbai and Delhi were several old Kasauli residents who have also made the town their summer home: Ashok Chopra, Komal GB Singh and Anand Sethi.
Notwithstanding all the bonhomie between the Punjabis, the Pakistani guests gave the organisers — Rahul Singh and Niloufer Billimoria — anxious moments when the army authorities in Delhi suddenly asked for them to be evicted from the cantonment premises. With the Kasauli Club — the venue of the festival — being under the local Army formation, which had extended help in other ways, Standard Operating Procedures regarding foreigners in cantonments kicked in and it took some frantic telephone calls to restore peace.
To acknowledge Khushwant Singh’s love for nature, there was an ode to birds by Gillian Wright and Bulbul Sharma and to moths and butterflies by Peter Smetacek. The festival was dedicated to the Indian soldier.
In the sea of lit fests — at the last count they numbered almost 80 in India alone — this is probably the only one with a cause: that of preserving Kasauli’s unique environment. The organisers Rahul and Niloufer have declared that they will create an eco garden with the funds raised from this year’s event. Indeed, many of the contributors were friends and admirers of Khushwant Singh’s. The intimate, convivial gathering ended with a screening of a Train to Pakistan, based on Khushwant Singh’s eponymous book, and a lunch hosted by the Pasrichas, another old family of Kasauli. It is anybody’s guess how long this quaint festival will maintain its quiet and serenity.
This article has been edited to correct a factual error