Shimla Diary : A gypsy’s account of the times gone by

Amalendu Upadhyaya
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Shimla Diary is a literary-cultural chronicle and documentation of its times and society, with a keen focus on the world of Hindi journalism.

Well-known poet and journalist Pramod Kaunswal, who has seen Hindi journalism in Shimla, Chandigarh and Punjab at close quarters, pens his impressions of the book. This is not just a book review but a brief and captivating account of the journalism of those times and of the cultural-literary scene in the Chandigarh-Himachal region.   

A gypsy’s account of the times gone by


Ek duniya hai kitabon ke bheetar
Ek kitabon kee apnee duniya
Gar chahein to kahein
Duniya bhi hai ek badi kitab

(Poem titled Kitab, Shimla Diary)

(There is a world inside the books. And there is a world of books. If you wish you can also say that the world is a big book – with no beginning and no end.)

For me, Shimla Diary is not just a book. It reminds me of shimmering ice and of friends, who, for me, are like so many pieces of dazzling diamonds strung together. It is another matter that I have myself scaled the Dhauladhar ranges which find mention in the book – from the Kangra Valley and from Palampur.

Years back, I had seen something poetic in Dhauladhar. The description of Sobha Singh Art Gallery at Andreta is so vivid – I may well have written it myself. Now, of course, no one talks to me about Dhauladhar and not a shred of colour from Sobha Singh’s paintings remains in my life. I remember the faces of the Tibetans I saw while climbing the hill at McLeod Ganj, their Parliament and their so-called confrontation with the locals. The writer describes how he landed in a small town of Himachal, carrying a sack full of books, a bulky camera and eyes full of dreams that were yet to acquire a concrete shape. Weary and half-asleep, I, too, had got down from a bus with some luggage and a friend on a sloping street in Dharmashala one fine morning at 4.30. Nothing became of that ‘story’, though it did get blossomed into poems later. But I nothing of that remains with me now – nothing that can illuminate life like the first rays of the rising sun. I had forgotten all that. Thanks Shimla Diary for reminding me of it and of much more. I am reminded of the Binwa River – its slim stream meandering through the Kangra Valley. Before me is a framed photograph of my wife, Gurmeet Bedi, his wife and their children standing beside an iron railing. I had also written a piece on the irony of Binwa but one will have to look for it in the library of Jansatta. It was there that I saw people picking tea leaves and tea factories for the first time. All those colourful images have faded in the humdrum of daily life.

Pramod Ranjan’s recently-published book is a collage of many genres. But their writer is common and can be seen struggling at every step for living a meaningful and complete life. In his quest for the meaning of life; his struggles, his beliefs, his thoughts, his values and all sorts of insuppressible desires are his constant companions. Two sections of the book contain poems and stories. They are supposedly based on imagination but even in them, there is no character other than Pramod Ranjan. He is there in the changing moods of nature. He is there in the changing times. He is there in every person that finds mention. Is it because this that it is a ‘diary’? Maybe, but the book’s narrative moves ultra fast. It is such a condensed description of the experiences of life over a period of 10-15 years (beginning from the year 2000) that a reader feels like a time traveller. In fact, it is more a description of the confrontation with values than of reconciling with them. And from that emerge the ‘social, political and cultural ironies and ugliness and the repulsive politics of our times (flap), which we can see and which we have to face.

Ranjan enters Himachal Pradesh like a gust of air and gets lost in the mysteries of its nature. It is a mere coincidence that this 22-year-old young man gets to meet Sainee Ashesh, who is keen to explore and discover the truth of life and the mysteries of nature through the eyes of Osho. Both get drawn to mysteries but despite this commonality, Pramod Ranjan’s quest for mysteries seems to be taking the works of Nagarjun and Muktibodh forward while Sainee Ashesh shifts base from one ashram to another in search of an unsullied Agyeya. Be that as it may, once Pramod Ranjan enters the inner world of Hindi journalism he witnesses the erosion of values all around. Pramod Ranjan could comprehend that the face of Hindi journalism was turning uglier by the day. And the subsequent events proved that he was right.

Hindi journalism had already become stark naked and was increasingly being controlled by Jain and Sahu owners of publications rather than the editors. Raghuveer Sahay was driven out and then ‘institutions’ like Prabhash Joshi and Rajendra Mathur collapsed like a house of cards. Although this was a good beginning in the sense that citadels were collapsing. These citadels were alluring and to a great extent had the right concerns but from the inside they were Brahmanical. In the words of Muktibodh, this was the fall of Mutts which could have been turned into an opportunity for creating a world of unhindered expression. But that did not happen mainly because no alternatives to these giants could emerge and the biggest losers in the process were the language and the pro-people orientation, which they had managed to bring into journalism, notwithstanding their biases.

Clearly, when Pramod Ranjan entered the field, decadent marketism had seeped into not only the language but also into the presentation and orientation of the newspapers and magazines. Punjab-Himachal region was dominated by the Punjab Kesri and as such, the scene there was bound to dismay and pain an individual who had shaped many a magazine with a progressive outlook. He recalls a string of writers from Brecht to Girdhar Rathi and from Arun Kamal to Kumar Ambuj and while quoting their poems, shares his experiences with the readers. He probably gets some relief by placing his experiences at the door of the readers.

Pramod Ranjan does not stop at his experience of Himachal Pradesh and the afflictions of the newspapers published from there. The reason being that he had his own vision, his own literature and his own values which helped him realize wherein lay his way between happiness and gloom, between victory and defeat. Had he been blown away by or accepted the inert newspapers, his quest would not have taken him to a small town on the Assam-Nagaland border (at the time of the publication of the book, Pramod Ranjan is teaching at the Assam Central University). No wonder, the Hindi journalists and writers with their dead souls and their absolute lack of yearning of any kind find Pramod’s nomadism very mysterious and unfathomable.

Be that as it may, the Diary shows that even in that phase of his life, Pramod Ranjan gave the highest priority to the writer within him. While reading the book, a sincere and sound attempt to get introduced to this writer is utterly warranted. Just see these lines of a poem “Ghatiyon mein atka/ pahadon par latka shahr/ gira gira/ ab gira/ itni baraf padee/ tab bhi nahin gira (Shimla) (Hanging into the valley/ held by the hills/ falling, falling, this town seems to be falling/ It snowed so heavily/ But still it did not fall) or “Shimla mein barf ke baad/ khili/ aur pasarti hee gayee/ dhoop (Tumhari Hansi) (After snowing/ it shines in Shimla/ it spreads/ the sunlight). And see a worldly poem, away from nature. “Khoob dekhna sapne/ unhein jeene ke liye/ mujh itihaas kee ungli chhod/ Adhyatan ke muhane se lena/ chalang bhavishya kee or/ aur hardam/ samay ko rakhna/ pairon kee nauk par/ shat shat suryon kee ushma bhar/ karna prem/ chir yuva/ kranti geeton sa damakna/ bitiya/ juda nahin jeevan aur swapna” (Aashish) (Dream a lot/ And to live those dreams/ breakaway from me – the history/ and take a leap from the new/ towards future/ and, always/ treat time with disdain/ do love with the energy of a thousand sons/ be eternally young/ shine like revolutionary songs/ my dear daughter/ life and dreams are not divorced).

These poems may be few in number but they are rich in values and in the understanding of life. They have mountains, snow, nature, concern for friends, presence of the father and daughter. These poems have been born out of our daily life. They have books, children and the mist of time. There are no events – just the night sky, dreary with the burden of uncertainties. The journalist within Pramod Ranjan is alive and awake and it does not allow the sensitivity and the consciousness of the poetry to die. This is what sets these poems apart. While reading the poetry section of the book, it should be remembered that they were written more than one and half decades after they were experienced. Clearly, poems on the interregnum must also have been written. Only the writer can know how his poetry evolved. Does it survive within him in its original form? Or has it turned towards the genres of prose? Or has it found its way into the unique critical and research-based writings, the evidence of which one can find in the last section of the book containing interviews?

The book also includes a story, which has newspapers as its backdrop. It gives us a peep into the inner world of journalism where a scribe called Ramkirat is trying to choose between the short stories of the chief editor and a former chief minister and between film news and government publicity. The pieces Pramod Ranjan wrote for newspapers during his stay in Himachal Pradesh show that he was an alert journalist. This is clear from his comments published then. They are not only documentation of their times but also reminiscences along the lines of a diary.

How a writer coexists with the world of his writings is revealed only after the passage of time. For instance, when Pramod visits Himachal Pradesh after a gap of almost 15 years, he goes to places the social fabric of and the cultural legacy of which is very different from the rest of the state.

Interviews with the residents of Kinnaur, Lahaul and Pangi valleys have been included in the book. Most of them are Buddhists. But they also have faith in the beliefs of the tribal area and its mythological tales. It is the world which the urbanites may find somewhat bizarre in some respects but in its totality, it is enveloped in the darkness of religious faith and beliefs and of lack of education. But this dark region is not so different from the urban life that the newly emerged saffron saviours of the Hindu religion cannot usurp the gods and goddesses of those of non-Hindu faiths. They have started making intrusions into the region. These interviews, in a sense, are true reporting as they reveal how the minions of the powers-that-be and the government machinery is out to impose its religion on that society. Be that as it may, dwelling on a society and its culture with great sensitivity and interacting with the people in a way so as to whet their curiosity and unveil new dimensions before them are notable specialities of the research-based journalism of Pramod Ranjan.

Publication of the travelogue, telling the tale of the life’s struggles and the concerns and the worries of a writer-poet-journalist just 40 years of age is rare in Hindi literature. This book brings to the fore some unknown aspects of the personality of a less-known poet, a better-known journalist and a writer well-known for his Bahujan concerns.

You can very well identify with all the comments in the book because there is no exaggeration there. You can correlate with the descriptions in the book – you can deeply feel your internal connect with them. It is my personal experience that we can find much that is ‘ours’ in Russian classics ranging from Gorky’s Mother to the characters of Chekhov and Tolstoy. We can feel that the places which figure in these works are around us, the mother is my mother, the school, the education, the pain and the grief – all are mine, all belong to this land. That is why; we are able to imbibe the world of these works. You will find that the characters of Shimla Diary are very much yours or have close links with people around you. Not only that, but these characters have been portrayed very sensitively.

As I began reading the book, I felt a sense of unease. I started thinking what would have happened had, instead of Garhwal, I had been living in a rented accommodation somewhere in Himachal and suddenly a man from Bihar, an unemployed struggler, had knocked on my door – a man who had landed in the inaccessible hills with his sacks of books and a box of clothes to make a living.

In these hills, Pramod Ranjan meets a writer of spiritual inclinations called Saini Ashesh. And Pramod doesn’t meet him like a bewildered man but a spirited one. He lives with him, reads and writers with him, learns from him and armed with his realistic experiences, struggles with his host’s fantastical concepts on life and world and gets introduced to Vijay Vishal, Rajkumar Rakesh, SR Harnot, Tulsi Raman, Amreek, Shimla, Thiyog, Dharmashala, Dhauladhar, Divya Himachal, Amar Ujala, Dainik Bhaskar, Punjab Kesri, Bhartendu Shikhar etc.

At that time (2001-05) I was also working for the Chandigarh edition of the Jansatta, which was gasping for breath. You can realize that Pramod Ranjan got introduced to a world that was a mixture of literature and journalism. Did he get influenced by this messy world? No, not at all. But yes, while reading the book I could recall that these are the places and the persons whom I had got introduced to in 1989-90, much before the period described in the book. I was in touch with most of these places and persons till 1995 and later, for two more years in 1999.

Shared lives

It is a mere coincidence that around the departure point of the 21st century the book refers to, I suddenly departed from that world. Left behind were my footprints which Pramod Ranjan has brushed and cleaned. Shimla Diary does not tell one tale. For me, the book has many starting points, many intervals and many climaxes. I have lived in Chandigarh for more than a decade. Doing journalism based at Chandigarh meant having an overview of the entire Himachal and Punjab. Likewise, in Shimla Diary, Shimla means Punjab or Maha Punjab. When I had joined Jansatta in 1989, a four-page colour pullout titled Guruvari Jansatta was published every Thursday. Generally, what was published in it in the name of the cover story were excerpts of some inflaming novel or story, along with photos or sketches of women with their waists exposed, their deep-neck blouses and protruding eyes. Needless to say, they were trash. One day the editor told me that its format had to be changed. The pullout has to be made like the Ravivar Jansatta published from Delhi. He said that the pullout should present glimpses of the society and culture of Punjab, Himachal, Chandigarh, Haryana and Jammu & Kashmir. I copied the addresses of some persons living in these states from Pahal, the first magazine which had published my poems in 1983. When I began digging, I got to meet Satyapal Sehgal, Laaltu, Nirupama Dutt etc and then Rajkumar Rakesh and Tulsi Raman and hundreds of pen-pushers of Himachal. They sustained my journalism for more than a decade and it a short span of time, Guruvari Jansatta could carve out a niche for itself.

Some of them also met Pramod Ranjan and they included scores of young writers. Shimla Diary is a cultural voyage. When I read the book, I felt as if I am reading a bigger and much bulkier version of Guruvari Jansatta. It made me recall my days as a cultural correspondent when I was paid by the inches and columns of the published material and I ran my household with than income. Besides many other things, Pramod Ranjan also experienced financial problems in those times while I had seen both richness and poverty in my time.

Towards the end of the last decade, I felt as if I was the last man left behind in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Chandigarh. But now I realize that I had my co-travellers. They might not have been with me in my journey but they were following me. This gives me a great personal satisfaction.

While reading Shimla Diary, I felt that the situation in Shimla-Chandigarh in the year 2000 was worse off than in 1989. I can say without any hesitation that had Pramod Ranjan got a good newspaper and a good editor, he could have established not one but twenty Guruvari Jansatta, which had to be closed down due to the newsprint crisis during the rule of Rajiv Gandhi. Of course, those feature and literary articles which would have been published in Guruvari were carried on one page of the regular newspaper every day.

Reading the book made me realize that no fever is worse than the fever of struggle and poverty. But one just has to look back i.e. if you have survived. You can feel it only when you get freed from them and have marched forward or in moved away in any other direction. To feel it, it is not only necessary to survive but also to keep it close to your heart so that you are never so far that it disappears, is forgotten and no longer visible. In Ajit Kaur’s novel Khanabadosh, a woman, betrayed by her lover, is shivering due to high fever and saying, “At least this fever is with me?” Clearly, I could comprehend Shimla Diary, written by a gypsy friend of mine, because I have seen the social, cultural, intellectual and journalistic world described in the book from close quarters. The journalism of that era was dark and scary to a great extent – so scary that it could make one can abandon one’s struggle for survival.

Yes, one more thing. According to Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena, “Apna ghar na banaeiye, baar-baar chaukhat se sar takrata hai”. Those who are free and gypsy – only they get fever and only they can write Shimla Diary. So, continue to be a gypsy, continue to be free and do not fall into the trap of greed. Shimla Diary holds the banner of self-respect aloft. That is why this book is relevant and meaningful not only for me, not only for a specific period but for all times to come. Its world-vision would continue to hold up the mirror to society.

Book:  Shimla Diary

language : Hindi

Writer: Pramod Ranjan

Pages: 216

Price: Rs 350.

Publisher: The Marginalised Prakashan, Delhi, Phone: 918130284314,9650164016

(Known for his excellent grasp and understanding of Indian theatre, art, literature and music, Pramod Kaunswal, a poet and a journalist, had begun his journalistic career with the launch of Amar Ujala from Meerut in 1989. He was with Jansatta for a long time. Apni Tarah Ka Aadmi, Rupin-Supin (collection of poems), Raat Ki Cheekh (Translations of stories of 14 world-famous authors), Kya Sambandh Tha Sadak Ka Aadmi Se (Edited: A compilation of poems of leading young poets of the country) and Suron Ki Sohbat Mein (Selected articles on Indian music and dance) are among his leading published books. Currently, he is working with Sahara India TV. )


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