Khushwant Singh

Electric man in a bulb

Print edition : April 18, 2014

Khushwant Singh, a 2004 photo. Photo: AFP

Khushwant Singh (1915-2014) could talk to and entertain his readers without being condescending, and there will be no one like him again.

THAT he was prolific is clearly an understatement. With close to 100 books, Khushwant Singh, who died on March 20 at the age of 99, was a phenomenon. For many, he was a curious icon who could write in a very engaging style about things serious and yet slip into inexplicable mediocrity of thought. But, like him or not, the verdict on Khushwant is that whatever he penned was entertaining and he could churn out copy like few others can. The man himself admitted that he had lost count of all that he had written—his weekly columns, short stories, novels, memoirs and assorted books on varied subjects, including the celebrated and scholarly two volumes on Sikh history, were too much to keep track of. Five decades of writing feverishly cannot be committed to an individual’s memory. When he was asked in his later years about the secret behind his humungous and unrelenting output, Khushwant came up with this self-effacing reply so typical of him: “No one has so far invented a condom for a writer’s pen.”

From what one learns from those who knew Khushwant well, he never took himself seriously and, in turn, he looked at others through the same bifocal. It did not matter who or how powerful his targets were or whether they were dead or alive. He made irreverence his trademark and his right. As a result, he stepped on many toes and often came in for severe criticism. The editor Vinod Mehta has jocularly observed in his memoir Lucknow Boy that some of Khushwant Singh’s columns deserved to come with the statutory warning “Can be dangerous”. He should know. While he was editing The Sunday Observer in the 1980s, the Sardar with malice towards one and all had made some observations on the former Bombay Pradesh Congress Committee president Rajni Patel after the latter’s demise. Khushwant wrote about the colourful life of the Congressman with a socialist bent who loved the good things in life (including women) and recalled how one evening Patel had invited a “bevy of millionaires to raise money to help the drought-stricken in Maharashtra. With Royal Salute whiskey and French champagne we discussed hunger and famine.”

The column angered many, including Patel’s first wife Bakul, and friend and confidant, the late ad-man and writer Frank Simoes. Simoes wrote a rejoinder in which he turned all his ire on Khushwant. To quote: “If I grieved at the death of my friend Rajni Patel, I was immeasurably saddened by Kushwant Singh’s degrading epiphany. From time to time, one has observed Mr Singh putting the boot into a prostrate foe. But sticking a knife into a dead body is self-inflicted mutilation, the castration of the psyche, and serves no useful purpose.” The Sardar bravely took the criticism on his chin and left it to his son, Rahul Singh, to rise up in defence. He said that all his father had attempted was “an objective obituary of Rajni Patel”.

For all his claims that he was open to and unfazed by criticism, there was one attack on him that hurt him deeply. It was an objective, though imaginary, obituary of Khushwant Singh by the talented young journalist Dhiren Bhagat, which was published in The Sunday Observer on February 13, 1983, 31 years before Khushwant left his earthly abode. It is rather ironic though that the writer of the imagined obit died in November 1998 in a road accident. Khushwant Singh outlived him by 26 years, but when the piece appeared he was upset and even wrote to the editor of The Sunday Observer that he would never ever write for any publication that he edited or was associated with. He only made his peace with Vinod Mehta much later, after he launched Outlook in the mid-1990s. What apparently upset Khushwant was the fact that people started calling up his family, offering condolences. Many failed to see that what they had read was a spoof and reckoned that it was not impossible for a man of 68 (that was Khushwant’s age then) to pass away a few years too soon.

Given the impact it had on the man, it would be in the order of things to recall what Dhiren had written. So here goes:

“I was saddened to read that Khushwant Singh passed away in his sleep last week. What a quiet end for so loud a man. How the gods mock the mocking.

“Contradictions surrounded Khushwant at every stage of his life. He strove to give the impression that he was a drunken slob yet he was one of the most hard-working and punctual men I knew. He professed agnosticism and yet enjoyed kirtan as only few can and do. He was known nationally as a celebrated lecher but for the past thirty years at least it was a hot-water bottle that warmed his bed. He devoted his last years in the service of a woman who decisively spurned him in the end. He made a profession of living off his friends’ important names and yet worked single-handedly to diminish that very importance. Empty vessels make the most noise but Khushwant was always full of the Scotch he had cadged off others. He was a much misunderstood man. So before the limp eulogies start pouring in (how Khushwant would have hated them!) let me set the record straight. As Khushwant once said, the obituary is the best place to tell the truth, for dead men file no libel suits. (An agnostic to the end, he didn’t believe in the Resurrection).”

Much after the storm over the obit had died down I asked Dhiren why he had written the piece. He said he did it simply because he wanted to have fun and Khushwant was a bubble waiting to be burst. “I thought Khushwant being Khushwant, he would take it in the right spirit. But, of course, I was questioning his very existence which was perhaps going too far and getting too personal,” I recall him saying. To be fair to Khushwant, though he raised objections on that one occasion, he was in the main not averse to criticism. In fact, he had no pompous pretensions of being an intellectual and said he simply wrote what came to his mind, which, luckily, sold well, generating more demand for outpourings from his pen.

However, he also believed that churning out copy like he did was no easy task. “I’m a hack. I don’t hold myself in any esteem. Someone once accused me of making bullshit into an art form. I told him: You try it. It isn’t so easy,” he said in a magazine interview.

For all his efforts to downplay his intellectual capabilities and placing his Banta Singh-Santa Singh racial jokes on the same pedestal with everything else that he wrote, there was also a scholarly side to Khushwant. His two volumes on Sikh history are a case in point. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the book was researched in Delhi, London, Canada, the United States, Japan, Burma (Myanmar) and Singapore. It took Khushwant four years to write the book, which was published in 1963 by the Princeton University Press and led to several teaching assignments abroad, including the universities of Rochester, Princeton, Hawaii and the Swarthmore College near Philadelphia. According to Khushwant Singh’s son Rahul, getting teaching assignments abroad and being considered an academic was rather peculiar given that his father had not done well in either school or at university and was a rather mediocre student. He did not even have a doctorate to flaunt. Teaching Indian culture and history to foreign students was a challenge in that it was difficult to keep their interest alive in subjects so alien to them. Khushwant revealed later that he managed to keep the students awake by being very simplistic and spicing up lectures with anecdotes. This he said was the same mix—the serious with the masala—he adopted when he took over as the editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India in 1969.

Revamping that publication was his major contribution to journalism. Until then, the concept of a general interest magazine did not exist in India. Most publications merely recorded social events. Khushwant’s weekly was markedly different and covered social changes and trends, politics, cinema and what have you. The not-to-be-missed feature of every issue was the “Editor’s Page” with the iconic illustration by Mario Miranda of a Sardar in a light bulb with Scotch and dirty pictures. The Illustrated Weekly’s circulation skyrocketed from 60,000 to 4.1 lakh during Khushwant Singh’s editorship. He was with the magazine for nine years before the management asked him to leave one week before his retirement. The Editor’s Page moved with him and when he finally joined The Hindustan Times, it metamorphosed into the column “With Malice Towards One and All”, which was later syndicated and became a hit nationwide.

For a prolific writer like him, once you take out his short stories, there are only a handful of significant books to speak off. The novel Train to Pakistan is the most written about and perhaps the most evocative. It deals with Partition and is based in the imaginary village of Mano Manjra on the India-Pakistan border where Muslims and Sikhs live in harmony. And then a local moneylender is murdered, shattering the peace. The crime, it is believed, was committed by the local hood Juggut Singh, who is in love with a Muslim girl. Violence spews out of control when a train with bodies of Sikhs arrives at the village. The book was later made into a film.

Some of his other writings, like the historical novel Delhi, The Company of Women and Burial at Sea, were panned by critics. In fact, in his book on his father, Rahul Singh confesses that he has not read some of the novels written by Khushwant. “ Delhi and The Company of Women got such scathing reviews that I decided not to read them, though I knew that Delhi was the culmination of several years of research, mainly on the history of the city.” Both the books did well commercially, though Khushwant did not gloat in their success. “They get panned but they sell,” was his constant credo.

Khushwant’s tryst with politics was a controversial one and it began while he was editing The Illustrated Weekly. When Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency in 1975, he was initially shocked but later he felt he had to defend her and her son Sanjay Gandhi. Given the position he took, he expected his days to be numbered at the Weekly once the Emergency was lifted and elections were announced. Rahul Singh, in the biography of his father that he wrote, alleges that it was Morarji Desai, who replaced Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister, who insisted that Ashok Jain, chairman of the Times of India group, announce a change of guard at the Weekly. When the new government fell and Indira Gandhi returned to power, Khushwant Singh was given the Rajya Sabha ticket. He was elected to the Upper House but soon became disillusioned with politics. After Indian troops stormed the Golden Temple in 1984, he returned as a mark of protest the Padma Bhushan he was awarded in 1974. After that he devoted himself to writing, although, through his columns, he took strong positions on communal and political issues. He also stood up against the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and condemned the 2002 Gujarat riots.

In the final analysis, will there be another Khushwant Singh? One cannot see anyone on the horizon like him with such remarkable perseverance. Khushwant was a writer who could communicate with his readers without looking down on them or preaching from a pulpit. He was also someone who thought that life without a bit of fun was no life at all. Among his quotable quotes is one where he declares that “every novelist puts sex in his novels. If he doesn’t, he has no business writing fiction” and that “one person’s pornography turns into another’s love story”. He became famous, or infamous, for the naughtiness in his writings. But do not be surprised to see his translations of Urdu and Persian poetry, or the evening and morning prayers of Sikhs sharing space on the bookshelves with his more popular work.

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