What did Shobhaa De, Mani Shankar, Suneet Aiyar, Prem Shankar Jha, Navtej Sarna, Rahul Bose, Deepti Naval, Bhaichand Patel, Salima Hashmi ( daughter of the celebrated poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz) and, yes, even yours truly had in common three nights in a row….. deep in the Kasauli hills? We took a bow to the master of irreverence - Khuswant Singh - and spoke on and explored the themes of fractures and healing between communities, the emergence of a new kind of Sikh identity, the efforts to keep the hills alive, the shadow of terrorism plaguing relations between India and Pakistan and last but not the least….. all these heavy lidded themes laced with the joi-de-vivre remembrances of sex, scotch and the KS malice columns that kicked in a new kind of journalism and writing.
So was it all talk and no malice, maybe some stray gossip or the whiff of a scandal lurking around the presentation halls and rooms of the Kasauli club where most of the talking, drinking and if I may say the bitching took place? Of course not! Shobhaa De fired the first shot when she gave us a tantalizing peek of her novel, ‘Sethji’ that would be released next month. I already had an idea what Shobhaa would speak about because at a lunch meet earlier she and I had compared notes over the publisher we both have in common, Penguin, and its editor in chief Chiki Sarkar who has taken the publishing world by storm.
“Juggi,” Shobhaa told me ‘both Chiki and I are alpha females and she is as kicked about Sethji as I am.” ‘Sethji’ is a take-off on an actual, real life fringe politician who is a sleaze ball and a sex maniac rolled in one. She gave dark hints but no confirmation about the identity of that politician, but then one has to read between the lines and if memory serves me right the name Sitaram Kesari had cropped up in her discourse!
So next month be prepared to sip a ‘Sethji’ drink at Barista - that’s right that’s the new marketing gimmick Shobha would be using to promote her book!
Mani Shankar Aiyar was at his provocative best when he raided his favourite, right wing opposition party – you know the one I mean. But the real surprise was his absolutely elegant and charming wife who has written a scholarly work on Guru Gobind Singh. I never knew till the festival commenced that Suneet Aiyar was a Sikh lady! Absolutely bowled over by her gracious presence!
Mani was not the only one to stir a controversy when he raised the issue how Pakistan is completely misunderstood here in India. Senior diplomat Navtej Sarna seemed at odds with Suneet Aiyar over the vexatious issue of the Sikh identity. Suneet argued that the Sikh identity was changing, amorphous and certainly dynamic but Sarna appeared a hardliner when he responded that the external emblems and identity of the Sikh faith should not be tampered with.
Who says that arthouse stars don’t have the same nakhras as the regular stars? Rahul Bose looked pretty vexed that more people were not making a beeline for him for his autograph. Deepti Naval was caught looking over her shoulder that someone would recognize her from her early glory days.
As for me and my wife Sonu it was a great time because – just to pat myself on the back, my presentation was extremely well received and stirred some passion. We caught up with our dear friends Kim Lalli and Shveta – both high-flying corporate Lawyers from London, and often in the afternoons we would be having our own private parties!
But the festival would not have been the success it was if it wasn’t for the enormous effort put by Niloufer and her team and the absolute graciousness of Rahul Singh – Khuswant Singh’s son. Truly both Sonu and I are blessed to have Rahul and Niloufer as our friends! Let’s hope that the intimacy of the KS literary festival stays intact and it does not become a mela like the Jaipur festival plagued by socialites, wannabes and all those who pose for their mugshots for the camera!