21.3.14

The Imagined Man: Khushwant Singh’s Malice

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

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Portions of this had appeared originally in the June 18, 1995 issue of Sunday Observer

21 comments:

  1. FV:". That is where the distortions begin. Where the real man comes to grasp the impermanence of truth and the immortality of a distorted image. "

    Hi Farzana, nicely put. "immortality" of one's image depends on what values the future has and how it may diverge from today's values. Churchill in UK, Nehru in India, Mao in China were "legendary" in their time -- but today's generations are a lot less kinder to both of them....and who really cares about the nuances of immortal figures anyway. I recall reading Khushwant Singh's "Illustrated weekly of India" which he edited for a long time I believe. Other than the slightly poor paper quality and large size (almost like a newspaper) I don't remember much of the contents for some reason. Unlike other less popular magazines like "Competition Success Review" or Chandamama (well, that's not really a magazine, but I was a kid).

    This whole quest for "immortality" (with a shelf life) seems rather pointless, but people go to war and kill others for that on this world. Best way is to create your own religion to be remembered for a little longer than usual, and pretend to be the "son of god" or a "messenger of god" or "prophet" or some such believers don't take kindly making claims to being god. (Just a minor tip, you can thank me later once you have achieved immortality).

    -Al

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  2. Hi FV, Correction, was being a politically incorrect and a MCP by not saying "son/daughter of god" -- would like to correct myself. FWIW, "daughter of god" title's not been taken by any religion yet (hint hint).

    Al

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  3. Hi FV, Not apropos Mr. K Singh, I noticed you have a copyscape notice on your page -- has some bonehead been copying your writing without giving you credit? Such things should not be surprising but still gets me how some people get their kicks from plagiarizing.
    -Al

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  4. Al:

    Immortality does not ensure kindness, therefore all the people you mention would be judged by different yardsticks not only after their lifetime, but during it too.

    KS made The Illustrated Weekly tabloidy. And, of course, the sales shot up.

    In other news, quite a few people are so miffed with this piece. I wish we figured out how hagiaographies are not the only way to pay tribute. I have not even been critical here, but who is to tell them...

    PS: Regarding possible halo, am too exhausted to start anything. Am ready to adopt, though, and be Mother of Goddess...

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  5. void *Al:

    Now, are you trying to camouflage identity??

    So you noticed the copyscape. There will be more. Reason for putting it up, after so many years:

    1. I see blogs etc that are merely reporting, or writing about how to change diapers, what to wear, have this 'do not copy' shit and wonder what is so precious?

    2. I did it for a lark, and see if it looks good on the page.

    3. Like hell. I have been plagiarised often in varied ways, even before this blog. It is more than people getting their kicks. Do read this...first para and go straight down to 'The stalker-plagiarist'. Am surprised that nobody had commented on it.

    http://farzana-versey.blogspot.in/2012/08/plagiarists-muses-and-stalk-home.html

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  6. FV:"Immortality does not ensure kindness, t. "

    Yes, agree that people in history will be judged by the standards of the future, rather than the standards of the present. Anonymity has its eternal rewards just like being "Famous" comes with its own "rewards", so the question everyone out there who wants to get famous needs to ask themselves is "will I be infamous rather than famous at some point in the future"? And if they can answer that question, they can set up shop and hawk their skills on the internet from "seemyfuture.com".

    "KS made The Illustrated Weekly tabloidy. And, of course, the sales shot up. "

    Now I remember why I can't remember anything about it -- it was all about what filmstars and politicians and other tools in Delhi and Bombay (as it was called then) were up to. Completely forgettable tabloid, like any other -- and now the man is dead and he is a "legend".

    "In other news, quite a few people are so miffed with this piece."

    It shouldn't surprise you given the kind of reactions you got for your rahul gandhi piece -- what gets people so bothered about things they shouldn't be bothered by (like RK or RG) and completey blase about things they should be bothered by (children growing up today without the skills to fend for themselves down the line, and even worse, without the essentials in life for a good childhood).

    "PS: Regarding possible halo, am too exhausted to start anything. Am ready to adopt, though, and be Mother of Goddess..."

    I am amenable to being your unpaid consultant in this regard because that's the kind of person I am -- always willing to lend a helping hand, whether it is for throwing stones or starting religions.

    The trick here is to produce some miracle and give it sufficient publicity that your motherhood of said goddess should be easily accepted without question. A historical case study of one Ms. Madgalene from Palestine comes to mind here -- M. Madgalene able execute such a plan quite successfully, and now own prime property in Italy and all of europe and south america, owns a small country, and is wealthy and famous the world over.

    I think we can take a fig leaf from that book and improvise/tailor it to this day and age -- the key is to use the interwebs and social media effectively. Please expect more details in your mailbox shortly.

    -void *Al()

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  7. void *Al() {}23/03/2014, 00:00

    Hi FV,
    Sheesh, the gall of "P"(lagiarist) to not admit fault when caught out, and what he calls "influence" is actually "memory" where he regurgitates your lines and pretends that it is all his. This is known to be a common phenomenon in people, where they forget that they remember entire portions of someone else's work and then pretend they own it. Even otherwise, courts views plagiarism as reproducing copyrighted material, so "P"'s claims are unlikely to stand up in court just like other more appropriate pseudonym for "P"(rhymes with slick).

    My new name void *Al() {} is a result of a project of mine where I am tranmogrifying mysef as a self-generating, fully digitized sentient lifeform, compilable by most compilers running on all OSes and platforms. Eventually I plan to run as free-form, self-replicating program that propagates itself over the interwebs.

    As my digital free-willed clones and I like to say "If I am with us, who can be against us?" Don't be surprised if I pop up on your Netbook screen one of these days and say hello when I am in one of the tata-skynet servers in your neighbourhood.

    - General Error: label Al not defined previously -- line 42. compile terminated.

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  8. void *Al() {}23/03/2014, 00:09

    Hi FV, just sucks that people stuck up for the plagiarist rather than the original author -- people suck in general.

    -Al

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  9. Hi Farzana,

    >>Am ready to adopt, though, and be Mother of Goddess...<<

    Just so. However, in that Al comes across as somewhat literal-minded, perhaps I might explain how I read your tongue-in-cheek response?

    Al, your comment on Farzana's . . . well, requiem, perhaps, on the one hand indirectly suggests KS as somehow helpless to manage his living memory, much less anno domini -- and this in keeping with Farzana's observations that (despite his "malice") his boosters, groupies, what-have-you, "felt that by elevating him . . . all that he said, including about them, would acquire a certain stature . . . Khushwant Singh too was a product . . . He had no control over anything," etc. That said, however, it strikes me as curious you won't extend the same . . . well, "benefit of the doubt," we'll call it, to certain others?

    You wrote:

    >> . . . Best way is to create your own religion to be remembered for a little longer than usual, and pretend to be the "son of god" or a "messenger of god" or "prophet" or some such believers don't take kindly making claims to being god.<<

    Your inference would seem to be that *unlike* KS, Churchill, Nehru-ji, and Mao, Jesus and/or Muhammad (pbuh) had absolute control over their followers, whereas -- "authorized" interpretation notwithstanding -- the record suggests quite differently. Case in point:

    And as he went, they spread their clothes in the way. And when he was come nigh, even now at the descent of the mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen; Saying, Blessed be the King that cometh in the name of the Lord: peace in heaven, and glory in the highest. And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples. And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out. (Luk 19:36-40)

    The "stones," perhaps, a reference to certain hagiographic block-heads?  :)

    Mark

    Ps. Farzana, elsewhere -- and perhaps indirectly apropos to Al's response -- there are these developments in Asia Minor:

    http://www.todayszaman.com/news-342743-gulen-offers-more-explanations-of-his-views-against-slanders.html

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  10. void *Al() {}23/03/2014, 19:38

    "Your inference would seem to be that *unlike* KS, Churchill, Nehru-ji, and Mao, Jesus and/or Muhammad (pbuh) had absolute control over their followers"

    mstaab: hah! of course, one has "Control" over the narrative, and even that partial, when one is alive, unless one is able to (intentionally or otherwise) create a narrative where the "followers" of your blithering find it in their best interest to give you a certain sheen the elongate your shelf life. True as much for "prophet" Mohammed as for Nehru, Mao or Jesus or .

    Followers of the religions founded by the above worthies just hijack the image of their "dear leaders" usually as a means of consolidating political power with control of a large populace as the goal. Once they are dead or no longer in control of their own creation -- the image that is sold to the future generations is but a innaccurate caricature of the person in question, and none of it is by accident. Usually some set of shrewd followers figure that texts can be manipulated effectively to "herd the faithful" and it also helps that whatever they write can be sold as the "word of god" to avoid any skeptical questioning (that could get you killed if you are among the faithful).

    Was not being literal minded, but pointing out that no matter who you are, some set of people in the future could find it in their interests to present you in a different light, and you are not going to have a say in it for obvious reasons.

    -Al

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  11. void *Al() {}23/03/2014, 19:50


    "As long as I live, I am a loyal subject of the Quran and the dust on the foot of Prophet Muhammad. If anybody attributes any other quality to me, I would reject it."

    good find, mstaab. very relevant to this thread :-) Clearly, the man understands that, if you want to start a branch of islam, crossing certain lines drawn by followers of mohammed as the last prophet is unlikely to win him friends, especially if his quest is to start his own following. He should do a ron hubbard and just start something not based on any existing religions -- that is just a recipe for having to overcome the hubris of the "faithful" of that religion before you can attract others and increase market share/ bank balance (of a select few).
    -Al

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  12. void *Al() {}23/03/2014, 19:56

    "The "stones," perhaps, a reference to certain hagiographic block-heads? :)"

    mstaab, well, maybe, but given the context of the kind of faith the person who wrote this, even inanimate objects would protest the cessation of praise of the almighty. Can't see any reason why such prose meant for "people with strong faith" would have to be so obtuse about saying something...but then I can't see a lot of things.
    Al

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  13. void *Al() {}23/03/2014, 22:19

    mstaab, maybe being famous as an artist/scientist is the best -- no one can mess with your legacy as the work speaks for itself for all generations to come. Struck by this thought as I was listening to Billie Holiday (and her tortured life) and her legacy...though you never know what the boneheads of future generation may do...maybe overlook her artistry for the mundane details of her life...but then again, we have the not-so-black-and-white "legacy" of saliegri...so maybe not.

    Al

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  14. Al,

    Well, in many ways you anticipated me (must be that pesky tata-skynet server, lol), but . . .

    >>Was not being literal minded, but pointing out . . .<<

    And I was just tugging on your lungi, Al, much as you were on mine.  :)

    Mark

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  15. You should understand ks because you too have made a career out of whining.

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  16. void *Al {return NULL;}*24/03/2014, 21:37

    mstaab:"And I was just tugging on your lungi, Al, much as you were on mine. :)"

    but of course :) cheers.
    Al

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  17. Al:

    {so the question everyone out there who wants to get famous needs to ask themselves is "will I be infamous rather than famous at some point in the future"?}

    Both fame and infamy are matters of perception, by the subject as well as observer. Also, the definition and perception alters over a period of time.

    I have no problems with KS being referred to as a "legend"; that would be a narrow view to stick to or diss.

    PS: Your Net life seems awfully interesting. Am sure you will be of great help to promote a new 'religion'...

    PPS: The plagiarist was smartly using the memory card. Other people's memories can only be recollection, not internalised. There was more to it, and it is all there.

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  18. Mark:

    Indeed, it was tongue-in-cheek. Operative word was 'adopt', and you an Al have covered a great distance without me. Calls for canonisation :-)

    Thanks for the link...that's another long story.

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  19. Anon:

    {You should understand ks because you too have made a career out of whining.}

    You assume to understand me rather well...so, it follows? Get the drift?

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  20. void *Al {return NULL;}25/03/2014, 20:23

    FV:"Your Net life seems awfully interesting. Am sure you will be of great help to promote a new 'religion'..."

    I am glad that my net life sounds awfully interesting, as opposed to my real life, which usually involves watching imaginary figures formed by splashes of paint on unfinished building walls.

    Also, That was a one-time offer only for you, FV, coz u be special, but clearly you are done with being supreme deity of all and sundry for now and need a break. Maybe you will feel upto it after a some R&R :)

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  21. Al:

    I referred to your Net life coz I don't know about the real one...

    And thank you for the "special" offer. Not sure if I am done with it, but there are so many delusions to deal with!

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