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ON KSLF 2024, LONDON, 1-2 June 2024



Khushwant Singh would have been delighted. The latest LitFest revived his memory over two days at SOAS in London, the city he loved as much as his birthplace Hadali (in Pakistan).

The added piquancy for him was that the sessions began and ended with two Pakistanis.  The Keynote Speaker on 1st June had taken Khushwant’s ashes ten years ago from Delhi for interment in Hadali. The closing session included a brilliant presentation by Professor Qasim Aziz, a professor of neuro-gastroenterology, speaking on the art of healing.  

The London Litfest followed the pattern of previous ones held each year at Kasauli (Khushwant’s summer home), a military cantonment in Himachal Pradesh. Pakistanis are not allowed there. The local Commandant felt it would be tantamount to allowing the ‘enemy behind the lines’.

London by contrast is apolitical. Indo-Pak-Bangladesh issues are all miles away, the other side of Brighton. The KSLF sessions could breathe freely and express opinions without invoking Chatham House rules. The only vapours of dissension came from a small group camped outside SOAS’ Brunei Gallery, protesting against Israeli atrocities in Gaza.

Many speakers sweated the Raj out of their system. One author – the Bengali Subhadra Das - dismantled the creaking structure of colonialism. She challenged assumptions that have moulded western images of us, and our perception about ourselves.

Some offered inspirational messages, aimed at self-improvement. Another linked distant Kolkata with the British Cotswolds in her talk on country walks through colonial Britain. Innovatively, she connected the residue of imperial wealth, citing buildings like the orient-inspired Sezincote in Gloucestershire.

Once, the British constructed Palladian public monuments to impress their colonial subjects with their imperial intent. Back home, they indulged themselves with private homes inspired by Indian themes and motifs, funded by the wealth they had accumulated abroad. This transfer of capital in the 19th century anticipated the mass movement of money in the 20th century, when oil-sodden Arabs, Russian oligarchs, Indian trillionaires and Pakistani politicians with unexplained cash, denuded their own countries’ wealth and transferred that money to buy expensive real estate in the U.K.

Two half-Indian sisters – Marina Wheeler and Shirin Wheeler – talked about the biographies they had written of their Indo-British parents.

The theme chosen for this year’s KS Litfest - Healing the World – addressed the need to repair our fractured planet – socially, and environmentally.

No session illustrated this better than the presentation made by Robert Seatter, a BBC broadcaster / poet. His talk The Cello and the Nightingale took the audience back to the early now forgotten days of radio. He described how, in the 1920s, a young British cellist sat in a garden and practiced her cello. Suddenly a nightingale joined in, trilling. This duet continued for weeks. She wrote to the then head of BBC and suggested that it might like recording this unusual impromptu concert.

After some initial reluctance, the BBC technicians were allowed to set up their bulky equipment in the garden. The recording started. The lady began playing her cello. For about half an hour, there was radio silence. Then, suddenly, the nightingale joined in. Nature and mankind were in spontaneous harmony.

Uplifting accounts like these made one forget that there are ugly human realities like general elections. One of the speakers – S.Y. Quraishi – had served as the `17th Indian Chief Election Commissioner. He spoke on India’s Festival of Democracy, timely as the general elections were underway in India. Their result is now known.

The audience was told that 2024 is election year, with 64 countries holding elections (except China which held them last year.) Even Russia will be holding its polls between 6-8 September.

In the U.K., PM Rishi Sunak sprang a surprise by announcing a general election on 4 July. The British have a choice between two S’s – Sunak and Starmer. Sunak came into 10 Downing Street through the back door. Starmer has been waiting on its front doorstep since 2020. 

In the United States, former president and again hopeful Donald Trump has no one but himself to blame for being ousted the last time and for forfeiting the White House this year. Most leaders go from jail to the presidency. He might well be the first president to take the White House into the Jail House.

Some wit said that American democracy offered choices. Its weakness was it offered only two choices. Voters in the U.S. and now the U.K. are both confronted by this constricting disability.

Mercifully, within the hallowed halls of SOAS in London, discussions were non-abrasive. If only the accord that prevailed within could radiate throughout our war-riddled planet.

The world’s unborn owe much to the untiring commitment of KSLF’s organisers – the indefatigable Niloufer Bilimoria and Khushwant Singh’s Rahul – to save our finite earth from our infinite idiocies.  



 [DAWN, 6 June 2024]

06 June 2024
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