As it turns out, I planned my book tour the right way round. Without my Punjab and Delhi travels for the first two-and-a-bit weeks, the impact of the Chandigarh #MilLitFest might have proved overwhelming. As it was, I had time among kind people to travel, absorb and acclimatise.
How to describe the Chandigarh Military Literature Festival? Well, I can promise you that it is utterly unlike any book festival you may have attended elsewhere in the past. It is extremely big, for a start, one of the largest in the world. It is staged in the grounds of the very grand Sukhna Lake Country Club, dotted with elegant white pavilions and stages set around the lake itself, with views of the green hills to the north where Shimla lies. There are five or six venues there of different sizes, a food court containing all kinds of good things to eat and drink and, of course, a massive book sales area too. And it is teeming with school-uniformed youngsters helping to run it, so keen to please.
Make no mistake, this festival is positively bristling with all things military, and not just books. Many of the youngsters I encountered showed a creditable intelligence and interest in the military past, present and future of their homeland. Will some of them end up in the Armed Forces? Of course they will.
One of my fellow speakers harrumphed that it was all a bit too military for his taste, but we have to see the festival through Punjabi eyes. This is border country. Punjab needs to show off its military prowess and this is a clever way of doing just that. Punjab has not just any border, but one carved with blood and fire through its heartland in 1947, after just five pitiful weeks were allowed to plan a division which would shatter the lives of millions in both India and what would become Pakistan.
Allow me to backtrack for a moment here to my time in Amritsar. There, as well as visit Jallianwala Bagh and the Partition Museum, I also went to Wagah, and I think this is the best place within my tour blog to tell the story of my experience of the border there.
A giant stadium has been erected on both sides of the border at Wagah, creating a setting for a remarkable show which takes place every evening. It is an event which is part Edinburgh Military Tattoo, part brinkmanship. I would love to know more about how it evolved on both sides, as it must have required some impressive Indo-Pakistani co-operation.
Before the ceremony began, an army officer with a mic warmed up the crowd, leading fervent patriotic chanting. A large group of colourfully-clad spectators, many of them women, then formed a relay bearing the Indian flag, racing halfway to the border and back again, the green orange and white of the Indian flag billowing behind them as they ran. Something similar was happening on the Pakistan side – hard to see – but it appeared a more muted ceremony there, spectators more sparse, clad in white, men and women seated in different areas and their soldiers’ helmet plumes black rather than red. Rather like the real ceremony on one side and its paler shadow on the other.
Fabulously-uniformed soldiers from the two armies then marched at, postured and taunted each other, gesticulating at each other right on the grim line of the border, in a well-orchestrated ritual. The impact of this appeared more cathartic than aggressive or inflammatory. Whipped into a patriotic fervour by the MC, I found myself shouting ‘Hin-do- stan! Hin-do-stan!’ until I was hoarse, along with all the others. Sitting on those hard concrete steps with brightly-clad and bright-eyed Indians was a curiously festive experience, yet charged with emotion. I left feeling oddly stirred by it all (Tom’s blood again?) while deeply regretting the need for any border at all and feeling the weight of my own homeland’s part in its creation. I certainly had no desire to acquire a tacky souvenir from any of the border stalls I passed.
All borders divide families, loved ones, family lands and communities. The pain of Partition is still felt in both countries today. It made me think long and hard about the likelihood of Scotland dissolving its 300-year union with England and I wondered if a similar ceremony might one day take place on our own border. It was a disquieting thought but I accept its possibility.
While at the Chandigarh festival I attended many fascinating sessions on subjects ranging from mediaeval Indian history to the use of nuclear weaponry – part of the fun is stumbling into different sessions, listening and learning. And I certainly learned a great deal over the three days.
The question of apology for Partition or for Jallianwala Bagh which arose more than once in different contexts is a hard one. Is it such a momentous step for any government to acknowledge that many of the past actions of its predecessors have had terrible consequences? And yet many of my new Indian friends just shrugged and said, look Vee, it is over. You cannot change history by looking back. So why apologise for it? When Britain gave us so much?
All this was swirling around in my head and heart when I arrived at Chandigarh, where I was in the enviable if tricky-to-explain position of being a non-historian (I am a storyteller with a strong interest in history, which is not the same thing at all). I found myself surrounded by hundreds of ‘proper’ historians and military personnel and almost all of those I met, whether Indian or European, were utterly charming, if often a little bemused by my gender. A frequent (and understandable) early question, until people became used to my presence, was whether my husband was speaking at the festival.
The presentations provided much food for thought. In spite of the positive aspects of colonial occupation, I continue to think that an apology (without any subsequent reparations – too late for that) could play a part in educating a new generation of British children and, yes, its new and fearfully-hawkish government, on the impact of a colonial attitude to the world. It is also an acknowlegement that however beneficial the ‘takeover’ by a colonial power, there is always an alternative path, a road which was not then travelled, just as there would have been for Scotland in the early eighteenth century.
As well as all the book launches and presentations and stellar guest speakers (such as the BBC veteran Mark Tully, a hero of mine for many years), there was inevitably serious partying: three in fact, one for each night, plus a surprise to end on. I have to say that at home I am by no means a party animal and so those glittering events I attended in Chandigarh will stay with me for ever.
The first was at the house of Andrew Ayre, the Depute High Commissioner, where Mrs Ayre had supervised the erection of a vast marquee and the creation of a sumptuous buffet meal, all under a torrential downpour and without her housekeeper, who had been taken ill. It was a lovely gathering and some undertaking in the grounds of quite a modest home.
Let’s get one thing straight, however: these fabulous parties were work. Honestly they were. The bulk of networking and ‘book chat’ took place there. They were all ‘indoor-outdoor’ events under billowing canopies and awnings, somewhat challenged by the unseasonably cold weather. I was glad to have packed some warm wraps and my coat, which had a habit of going AWOL.
Next came an elegant party in a regimental mess, when it had rained so heavily that the fabulous carpet was actually underwater in places, but no-one cared: the fine band played on, delicious canapes were offered from hot trays and the whisky and conversation flowed like the deluge outside. The whisky was almost universally the Singleton single malt produced at the Glen Ord distillery just ten miles from my home, almost entirely for export. I drank a bit as it was chilly, and it felt strange to savour such a familiar taste in such exotic surroundings. I also wondered what happened to that beautiful red and gold carpet afterwards, was it ruined?
The third, and as I thought final party of the literature festival, was on the day I was due to speak. This date had been rearranged from Friday to Saturday just before I came and sadly the daily programme had not quite caught up. I also found I had been scheduled against Mark Tully speaking on William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy, a talk which I had hoped to attend myself.
Not many people had turned up at my venue by the appointed hour and I thought ‘oh dear’! Then when the technology refused to co-operate I thought, oh hang it – and I grabbed the microphone and began to sing songs from the Great War instead. Then I storytold and acted out my talk, without notes and with high drama. This worked wonders for my audience numbers and the tent was pretty full by the end of my presentation, when all prayers were answered and the technology belatedly decided to cooperate – whereupon I was asked to run through the whole shebang again, this time with pictures. It turned what could have been a bit of a disaster into a triumph and I had great fun doing it.
That night’s party was glittering and magnificent, set in the Chandigarh Rock Garden, a vast garden site scattered with strange sculptures, structures and patterns all created from rubbish found on the dump once located there, the work of one inspired man.
It was both eery and beautiful, and I enjoyed strolling through the unusual setting. I thought it was the most elegant party I would ever be invited to, but I was wrong about that.
By this stage many other delegates who had been strangers were becoming friends. Those of us staying at the Shivalik View Hotel all travelled together by minibus, rounded up by a team of charming transport organisers whose numbers seemed to vary between two and six. I also had my very own minder, Inderpreet, who was simply brilliant and, like most others involved in the festival (as future speakers need to remember), a volunteer.
There was also the lovely Rima Hooja from Jaipur, who suggested I speak at the book festival there, a couple of sweet Gurkha officers with a keen interest in the Battle of Imphal; a young, tall, devastatingly-handsome naval officer whose excessively correct politeness when sober was only exceeded by his righteous superiority when drunk – and so many more whose names and numbers I still have on WhatsApp, the communication tool of choice.
I woke with a sigh of relief on the Sunday morning that I could have a nice quiet day and just enjoy the presentations of others. The Sunday was to provide the most exciting speaker of all for me as Captain Amarinder himself, Maharajah of Patiala and Chief Minister of Punjab attended the festival. Captain Amarinder is himself a respected author and historian. Even the carpets had been renewed in his honour (there must be a carpet shop somewhere in Chandigarh which sells carpet by the square acre).
The Captain arrived at the main pavilion bristling with security and it was only then that I had my slightly mad idea. I had just the one copy of Major Tom’s War left, the rest had been sold – so why not present it to the Captain? It was hopeless when he arrived – too many security guards and others and I realised I should have asked to do it in advance, not on the day. Someone suggested waiting for him by the exit instead but I could see it wasn’t going to work: I am 5′ 2” and the average Chief Minister’s bodyguard is about 6′ 6! I just stood by clutching my book and feeling a little foolish. Then – a miracle. ‘Take my hand,’ instructed a deep voice from on high, and I found myself being towed through the crowd of gun-toting bodyguards before I could draw breath. That was how I was presented to and talked with Captain Amarinder Singh, Maharajah of Patiala. And he was lovely.
‘Ah, I have heard of you’, he said. ‘I have been reading the papers.’ I was glad to know my efforts at publicity had paid off! We had a photo or two taken together and then he swept on, flanked by his vast entourage.
My tall saviour turned to look down at me and beamed. I recognised Amarpreet Singh Badal, a senior finance minister and politician, who had bought a copy of Major Tom’s War only the previous day and to whom I had been chatting earlier. He must have noticed my half- hearted efforts with the book. This simple act of kindness, which meant such a lot to me that day, still brings a lump to my throat. A very decent man.
The invitation to the Captain’s special party at his house arrived about an hour later, by WhatsApp, a lovely surprise. I had thought I was all partied out, but I soon decided I would need to be wrong about that.
It was a beautiful party, with fewer invitees than the others, at Captain Amarinder’s farm about 20 minutes outside Chandigarh. There were braziers lit to keep us all warm, and this time delicious Italian-themed food, which caused great excitement among my new Indian friends – although to their amusement I still sought out some dal makhani to enjoy! Some fascinating people were present, not least the Captain and his family, who were very kind to me.
Inside the house there were some interesting paintings and sculptures and a fabulous bar, where I was able to take a snap or two as my friend Yai Yaphaba the Gurkha presented his own book on Imphal to the Captain.
Just one thing worried me about all the partying. A few minutes after midnight I got a text from our posse of transport people saying that they were waiting for us in the minibus. I thought I was about to be left behind so shot outside, but when I went to find them they were alone, huddled together shivering under blankets – it was particularly cold on the last night. Perhaps security was too tight to allow them in somewhere to keep warm, and of course they did not themselves complain, but it made me uneasy to think of them waiting for us all like this in the cold, and possibly for four nights in succession.
I went back inside to try to round up a few of the other guests (honestly I did!) but no luck, more drink was poured and I then only have the vaguest memory of the party after that. I am pretty sure we ended up singing songs from the Sound of Music in the Captain’s beautiful bar with some of the family and the other hardworking organisers until well after midnight.
So that was the night I learned to party like a Maharajah… and I suspect no other book festival I attend will ever quite live up to that in Chandigarh for the sheer spectacle and warmth of welcome. I am so grateful to Mandeep Bajwa and his team for inviting me to attend and covering my flight costs and to my publisher Kashi House for helping me with internal travel costs, too.