A sort of Khushwant Singh by MC (The illustration makes him look like generic Sikh man)
In the passing of perhaps India’s best known contrarian writer, journalist, satirist, columnist, essayist, editor and raconteur Khushwant Singh at 99, the country has lost a compelling voice at the heart of its national life.
The combination of his longevity and his chosen profession, not to mention his gregarious hospitality, ensured that over the decades a large number of people came to know Singh closely and tangentially. I was one of those who came to know him tangentially.
I met him a few times at his famous Sujan Singh Park residence in New Delhi. By the time I first met Khushwant Singh in 1990 he was already 75 and I 29. Sensing my relative youth he tried to put me at ease (For the record, I was at ease as always) he instantly told me something funny as was his wont.
“You know where I live is called Sujan Singh Park, right?” he asked me. I said I did. “You also know that Sujan Singh was my grandfather and my father Sobha Singh built all this,” he went on. I said I knew that as well. “Jab log mujhe puchhte hein kya yeh sab tere baap ka hai to main kehta hoon, hanji mere hi baap ka hai sab,” he said and chuckled. (When someone confronts me by asking whether all this is my father’s property, I say it indeed is—it sounds funnier in Hindi because the expression “Kya yeh sab tere baap ka hai?” is humorous in Hindi). Sir Shobha Singh, a highly successful land owner and developer in the capital during the British raj, was indeed his father.
A prolific writer and an astute, albeit totally uninhibited observer of Indian life, Khushwant Singh was one of those rare individuals who did not just call a spade a spade but called it repeatedly. I do not feel like listing Singh’s many books and writings but it is enough to say that he had an impressive body of work. “If one lives as long as I have and likely to live even longer, then one ends up producing,” he told me during my last meeting with him in 1997 before I left India. In the interest of accuracy, I was by no means an acquaintance of Singh’s but someone who met him as a journalist a few times to seek comments about something or the other. He was always gracious with his time.
Singh was in many ways a corrective presence in a capital that is stuffed with hypocrisies and skullduggeries. I say this because during one of my conversations I described him thus and he livened up to say, “That is some expression. I like it.” He knew anyone and everyone who mattered in India’s national life—prime ministers, presidents, diplomats, writers, filmmakers, painters, sculptors, poets—and more often than not they all dropped by at his residence. He was always the center of attention at his famous gathering because the man had lived his life with such enthusiasm that he always had great stories to tell. One of many stories, perhaps somewhat apocryphal, about Singh concerns his eccentricity as a host. He had a certain time of night (I forget what specific hour but perhaps 9 p.m.) when he would simply call it a day irrespective of who the guests were, what they were in the midst of and essentially ask them to leave or, if they wished they could continue but he would retire anyway. I asked him about it and he guffawed and said, “It is more a reputation than reality.”
Unlike any other writer in India, Singh was a vigorous advocate of humor in national life. In a sense, he was living up to the stereotype of Sikh men having a robust sense of humor. He had a ribald wit and loved what in pretentious circles of high society would be derided as smut. He often liked crassness for the sake of crassness. His legendary weekly column “With Malice towards One and All”, which he wrote pretty much until he breathed his last, was for decades the most read piece in India. It always had a joke or two. To be featured in that column was regarded as high honor, even if Singh chose to castigate you. I had that honor and doubly so because he actually praised me.
In 1992, when my biography of Sam Pitroda was published, Singh was the first one to write about it. What made the pleasure greater was that I did not pursue him to do so. In fact, I had no idea that my publisher K P R Nair of Konark Publishers had sent him a copy of the book. Singh, who naturally knew Pitroda like he knew everyone in the capital, wrote a sanguine piece about him and the book. “Pitroda is the subject of a well-researched and most readable biography by a friend, Mayank Chhaya, published by Konark,” he said. Coming from Singh, it was quite a compliment. It did give the book a greater visibility and helped its sales in 1992 when it was on the Economic Times best-sellers list, whatever that means in the Indian context.
I did meet Singh after the mention in his column. To his credit he did not treat me any differently because he had already been gracious earlier. The only subtle difference was that he saw a little more potential in me than he might have before.
Khushwant Singh led an outstanding, rambunctious and scholarly life. Women loved him and so did men from their own vantage points. I think perhaps the biggest attribute in him, apart from the many that have been mentioned, was that one never had to watch out or be on guard with him. And that is from someone who barely knew him. For those who did know him well, it would have been quite a ride.