|Always laidback? Pic: India Today|
Here was a brave, frank man with heavy security guarding him. A man who did not spare anybody, but supported a lid on the press, among other things, during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. A self-made man who lived and died in a house he inherited from his builder father, Sir Sobha Singh, who was a witness in the Assembly Bombing case for which Shaheed Bhagat Singh and others were sentenced to death.
Khushwant Singh is dead. He was 99. They said he lived a full life.
Standing in front of sandbags and a stern-looking guard, before I could be ushered in to meet him, I had often wondered about the several dichotomies. At some point, he took me to his study. The curtains had Arabic calligraphy; there were artifacts and plaques with Urdu verses. He asked me to read from one. I could not. There were two realisations. He, a product of the Partition, had got over his misgivings about Muslims. I, in search of universalism, had paid scant respect to heritage. That moment somehow defined how I would view him.
There were searing moments in ‘Train to Pakistan’, and uncomfortable ones in ‘I Shall Not Hear the Nightingales’; in ‘Delhi’, a novel, he used the eunuch as a metaphor. At least, it seemed so. Largely, however, he gave you bits and pieces that you could discard at will, leave behind in airports that you passed through.
Most of the obituaries in print and on television have droned on about his love for the good things of life, and then added with some gravitas that he was a serious man. After all, he wrote the “definitive”, “scholarly” ‘A History of the Sikhs’. In many ways this is such a limiting perception, as also being utterly disdainful. Clearly, there is discomfort over accepting one who confessed to “malice towards one and all”, which of course was not quite true. Singh did have an illustrious career as a diplomat, a lawyer, and then as a gadfly writer and magazine and newspaper editor.
Yet, he was not a dissenter, in that he did not shun the powerful and he did have his groupies. What is described as his “kindness” was really about social upstarts massaging his ego for which they got a tailpiece mention in his columns. If he wrote a few words about a pretty poet with two sonnets to her credit, her stock went up. His word counted for much among the wannabes, so much so that a woman columnist was so thrilled he called her buxom that she even wrote about it. He did a plug job for the world, and the world returned the favour.
More than what he said, it was the reactions to him that were always intriguing. Despite the hoopla about his obsession with the lewd, everyone is convinced he was a nice man. He confessed to debauchery, freeloading, a vicious pen, and yet he was respected. People invited him to speak on matters of national interest; in academic circles he was considered a scholar; in the media, a pathbreaking journalist; among the litterateurs, a sensitive person with the knack for picking the right books; among the liberals, a secularist; and among the religious, a god-loving agnostic.
It appears, though, that he was never striving for the sensational. I could not find anything sensational about monkeys in the hills where he had a vacation home, or the attractive wife of a tea-estate owner, or even Shraddha Mata, a hip god woman, in a leopard skin dress trying to woo Jawaharlal Nehru. What Khushwant Singh did was to make people feel good. If somebody were at the receiving end of his jibes, then the fellow’s enemies, as well some friends and readers, would end up feeling good.
|The cartoon by Mario Miranda: |
it became the logo for all his columns
The reason he was considered an epicure is not because people genuinely recognised his good taste, but because they felt that by elevating him to that level all that he said, including about them, would acquire a certain stature. In that sense, Khushwant Singh too was a product – the man sold in a bulb, the logo that went with his columns. He had no control over anything, including Sikh history. They called him anywhere, and he’d go. They’d ensure him his Scotch and early dinner – a precondition to his agreeing to attend any function or party – and he was happy. He thought he was happy.
How does one define a full life? Is it not empty of itself trying to fill up every cranny with the bon mots thrown its way like careless whispers on a dark day? And what is this about looking for the real man behind the mask? Why could he not be taken at his word that he was what he was?
The problem is that Khushwant Singh did too many things. Look closely. By telling us so much he did not really reveal a lot about himself. His columns were essentially a compilation of people and places, a few anecdotes and those execrable jokes that he got from the rustic heartlands. When did you read about his struggles? And struggles there would have been, mainly with himself. A man who despite his non-belief felt guilty about not visiting a gurdwara must have been introspecting and fighting those nagging doubts.
But when you are a hot-selling item on a sleek shelf you do not have the prerogative to be insecure. Self-defense is an ongoing process where you must keep falling into rat-traps laid out for you. That is the tragedy of being a phenomenon. That is where the distortions begin. Where the real man comes to grasp the impermanence of truth and the immortality of a distorted image. Khushwant Singh got the opportunity to make a career of it.
© Farzana Versey
Portions of this had appeared originally in the June 18, 1995 issue of Sunday Observer