Wine, Women and Words

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winew3 November 2014: This October, it was the third Khushwant Singh Literary Festival in Kasauli, but the second attended by Sommelier India. The wine was as good as the year before, especially the Sula Sauvignon Blanc, which won the silver medal at the Decanter Asia Wine Awards in 2012, writes SI correspondent, Renu Chahil-Graf (pictured left with Rahul Singh).


Served in the bar of the legendary Kasauli Club every night at the after event drinks, this crisp and dry wine, was popular with all.For red wines lovers, the Cabernet-Shiraz was fully satisfactory and served at a perfect temperature. This medium-bodied wine, accentuated by ripe cherry and plum fruit, with attractive aromas of black pepper, is great to drink on its own – thus, perfect as an aperitif.
There seemed to be more people with wine glasses in their hands, rather than the vodka flavoured concoctions and the amber-coloured liquid. Both red and white – and both men and women of all ages drinking wine. Great progress! But whether the change from last year was statistically significant, I cannot confirm…
However, the presence of and presentations by women writers was as exceptional as before. The opening day session entitled “Khushwant Singh in the Company of Women” could not have been more appropriately discussed than by Shobhaa De, Arshia Sattar, Dr. Amrinder Bajaj and Githa Hariharan. Daman Singh’s moving presentation of the biography of her parents Manmohan Singh and Gursharan Kaur, the startling revelations in Bina Ramani’s The Roller Coaster Truth, and the historical overlays between Hitler’s Berlin and Gandhi’s India described by Laxmi Dhaul riveted us to our seats.
Indeed, a special feature of this literary festival is that you dare not leave your seat! Not only to keep your place in the room, but to make sure you do not miss getting meaningful insights and picking up new learnings. Once again, the environment was featured; lessons by Prashant Mahajan on how to be a volunteer nature tracker resonated with all and tiger experiences by Raghav Chandra and Bob Rupani left us open-mouthed. Kavitha Rao’s All You Wanted to Know tips for making it in the world of freelance journalism was an invaluable takeaway.
Being that Kasauli is a Cantonment, the recounting of military stories always opens our eyes. The warmth of Sam Bahadur permeated the room with the description of Zenobia Masters’ and Behram Panthaky’s experiences while the latter was ADC to the great General. Captain Amarinder Singh passionately reminded us of the indelible role of Indian troops during World War 1, which was now finally being recognised and honoured. Scandal point is never far away – and yes this charismatic grandson of the People’s Maharajah confirmed that Bhupinder Singh did indeed kidnap the Viceroy’s daughter in Simla and take her on horseback to Patiala, riding through the night!
But there were sober and sobering moments too – again – at this festival. Describing the shocking spread of drug use, addiction, HIV infection and the fast growing industry of chemical intoxicants in the Punjab, Dr Banerjee, Shashi Kant and Ajay Bhardwaj challenged the audience to write, and to do more, to fight drugs and treat those affected.
Art featured. The Russian Himalayan painter Nicholas Roerich’s towering works presented and discussed expertly by Manju Kak and Kalpana Sahni. The story of a “Sikh Charmer” married to a Hungarian woman, the offspring being the artist Amrita Sher-Gil, illustrations of her spectacular work, and life cut short at a young age – were described in a moving photo montage by Vivan Sundaram.
Then, there was star power! Rajdeep Sardesai, Suhel Seth, Bachi Karkaria, Salman Khurshid, Mani Shankar Aiyar… All passionately expressing and analysing substance – from poetry to politics.
The pièce de la resistance is, however, saved for the end. The single person who stole minds and hearts alike this year was Fakir Aijazuddin from Pakistan. Whether it was describing the experience of carrying his old friend Khushwant Singh’s ashes across the border to his birth village, Hadali, or analysing cross border shenanigans, his discourse was precise and captivating. Yes, many would have followed him home, but for that elusive visa issue!
What continues to amaze is how Niloufer Billimoria and Rahul Singh successfully bring together such an eclectic and dynamic mix of minds. It is – again – only to be hoped that the festival stays small and intimate. With only a few sponsors, especially those bringing in the wine!

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