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Times art critic Richard Cork and Balraj Khanna

Times art critic Richard Cork and author Balraj Khanna

Review by Ekene Oboko

Forecasters promised last Monday’s weather would be cold, crisp, autumny, but definitely clear. However, if you happened to be in London’s Mayfair that evening, you may have witnessed a spellbinding sight, as diaphanous wisps of mists surrounded the dark majesty of a stunning eighteenth century building. And if you looked carefully you would have seen a finger-like misty tendril beckoning you into the illuminated doorway.

Monday 10 December, 2012 saw the book launch of Balraj Khanna’s The Mists of Simla. The event was hosted by HopeRoad Publishing in conjunction with the Nehru Centre, the cultural body of India’s High Commission. Inside the centre’s elegant auditorium, more than fifty people gathered to hear the distinguished writer discuss his new book and his creative process with the acclaimed art critic Richard Cork.

Set in the Indian city of Solan, The Mists of Simla tells the tale of eighteen year old Rahul Kapoor as he navigates his way through the tumultuous times thrown up by the 1962 Sino-Indian War.

Khanna’s mastery in seamlessly depicting a range of evocative incidents in the book, led Cork to start the talk by congratulating the author on his virtuosity in writing a novel which successfully “encompasses the totality of human experience”. Khanna, himself, encompasses a duality in his artistry, since as well as being a writer he is also a successful painter. When asked by Cork how he balanced both creative forms, Khanna explained that although when compared to painting “writing is a very different discipline”, he saw no tension between the two activities and enjoyed engaging in both. He explained that as a writer and painter he was capable of surprising himself and believed this was vital to an artist’s growth, he said: “Art must delight me before I expect the audience to be delighted”.

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When speaking on the inspiration behind The Mists of Simla, India born Khanna told the audience that he wanted to redress the dominance that a particular Cold War event had had over 1962 in world history, “due to the Cuban Missile crisis’ he said, ‘the India –China war was ignored by the rest of the world”.

Another source of inspiration for the novel was Simla itself. Khanna described the city as “immensely beautiful” and “a quintessential English place”. Khanna, who came to London in the sixties, provided the audience with a potted history of the city and explained that during colonial rule Simla was “created by the British for the British and was the capital of the British Raj until 1947” [the year India gained its independence].

Referring to the more raunchy exploits experienced by the novel’s protagonist, Cork asked whether they were aspects of The Mists of Simla that were autobiographical, meeting Cork’s question with a mischievous grin, Khanna replied ‘quite largely’. Khanna shared with the audience that he kept a diary during 1962, “without thinking it would ever be used”, but fifty years on his entries have played a large part in informing his novel. However, Khanna emphasised the importance of imagination for a writer and said there was “plenty of invention” in The Mists of Simla. He continued by saying that: “the expectation from the writer is invention…when you stop enjoying this, you’re finished as a writer”.

Towards the end of the evening, Khanna treated the audience to a humorous extract from The Mists of Simla. The passage he read concerned Rahul’s attempt to obtain a “poetic licence” from his local Post Office, after receiving advice from his classmates that this would increase his social standing.

The audience was utterly delighted.

The Mists of Simla can be purchased as an e-book here on the HopeRoad Publishing website.

Find out more about Balraj khanna by visiting www.balrajkhanna.co.uk

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