Some two years before he called it a day in March 2014, Khushwant Singh, journalist, columnist, historian and diplomat, saw the birth of a literary festival in his name in his beloved Kasauli – the tiny cantonment town in Himachal Pradesh. It was put together by his friends and admirers and his son Rahul Singh, also a journalist, was the moving spirit behind it.
This week as the calm of Kasauli was shattered by the brutal murder of a government officer who had gone to demolish illegal constructions on the orders of the Supreme Court, the spotlight is again on the town. Also in the spotlight are the scores of unauthorised structures in violation of rules which seek to protect Kasauli’s pristine environment. Few know that the proceeds of the Khushwant Singh Literary Festival (KSLF), a non-profit event held in October each year at the Kasauli club, are donated to preserving the ecology of the town. It was an issue closest to Khushwant Singh’s heart and he would have been distressed to witness the ravaging of the town where he spent many years writing his books and columns.
A short walk from Kasauli club is Raj Vilas, the rambling bungalow which had been Khushwant Singh’s summer home for many years. Now it has become a ‘must see’ for all those who drive up from Delhi, Chandigarh or Shimla for the festival held here each year. Authors, socialites from Mumbai, writers, theatre persons from Pakistan, and even Kasauli’s school children gather to talk books, explore ideas and seek inspiration from the man who was furiously writing his columns and churning out books even at the grand old age of 97. This month the KSLF (in its 7th edition) is travelling for the first time to London as a pop up at the Nehru Centre in London with ‘Indo-Anglian’ as the theme to showcase mutual influences and confluences of the culture of India and the United Kingdom.
Why London? Those close to Khushwant Singh say that he considered England as a second home. He not only studied there at King’s College, but was also posted in London as a diplomat in the Nehru era. The writer, who was passionate about Indo-Pak ties and ecology, admired British values and it is his many friends there who have helped take the fest to London this year.
But the home of KSLF will always be Kasauli with its snow clad mountains, pine scented breeze and colonial era bungalows. Enchanted with its cool weather and mountain views, the British developed it as a cantonment and to this day it remains as such. In fact the military brass in the Kasauli are an integral part of the KSLF and it wouldn’t have been possible to host the event year after year if it wasn’t for their support. This is why the KSLF is dedicated to the Indian soldier. Khushwant Singh was too old to attend the first two festivals in 2012 and 2013. Instead he sent this message for everyone.
“I am an agnostic. I take pride in my Sikh identity, but I have no time for religion. I believe, instead, in humanity, truth, ahimsa and hard work. My creed is best expressed in Leigh Hunt’s ‘Abou Ben Adhem’ and Kipling’s ‘If’. These poems are my contribution to this festival which I am too old to attend. Take them with you and live by them.”
Sadly, the Kasauli that Khushwant Singh knew and loved, is not the same. Along with Rajvilas situated on a quiet road, the song of birds on its lush hillsides and the crisp mountain air, the town now has a new landmark – the guest house where Shail Bala, a town planner, was shot dead when she refused to accept a bribe from the owner in return for not demolishing it.