Khushwantnama is an interesting autobiographical account of Khushwant Singh’s life and beliefs
Khushwantnama - Nanna Badukina Paatagalu
Translated by M.S. Rudreshwara Swamy
Price: Rs. 110
Khushwantnama is both an autobiography and a retrospective account of the life and times of Khushwant Singh, a veteran writer-journalist who is one of the few surviving Nehruvian liberals and an untiring romantic liberal.
The book was written by him when he turned 98 years, which “according to traditional Hindu belief is time for the fourth and final stage of life, sanyaas.” This is the time when one is expected to meditate in solitude shedding “all attachments and all interest in worldly things”.
But Khushwant Singh’s commitment to and passion for life is so unyielding. The author confesses that “At 98, I count myself lucky that I still enjoy my single malt whiskey at 7 every evening. I relish tasty food and look forward to hearing the latest gossip and scandal. I tell people who drop in to see me, if you have nothing nice to say about anyone, come and sit beside me. I retain my curiosity about the world around me; I enjoy the company of beautiful women; I take joy in poetry and literature and in watching nature”.
It is this zeal and wisdom that radiates from every article in Khushwantnama. Even though the author says the book is about how “at 98, as I look back on my life, I think about what has enriched it, what’s been important to me, the mistakes I’ve made, and what my experiences have taught me,” the subjects are diverse. They encompass both the public and private, and the political and personal. Thus, there are illuminating and insightful articles on old age and the fear of death, the joy of sex, the pleasures of poetry and the importance of laughter. There are articles on coping with retirement and living a long, happy and healthy life too. There are also thought provoking, distilled and committed liberal reflections on politics, politicians and the future of India, on what it takes to be a writer and on what religion means to him.
Khushwant Singh’s personal and political thoughts are guided by Nehruvian Liberalism where unhindered personal freedom and individual choice overrides all other considerations. At a time when xenophobic and religious fascism is destroying the liberal spirit, Khushwant Singh laments how we have turned out to be a nation of intolerant people. He says that we are a “cowardly lot that burns books we don’t like, exile artists and vandalise their paintings. We take liberties and distort history textbooks to conform to our ideas and ideals; we ban films and beat up journalists who write against us. We are responsible for this growing intolerance, and we are party to it if we don’t do anything to prevent or stop it.” He also warns the nation that the idea of India will wither away if Savarkar-Golwalkar model of nation building takes over Gandhi-Nehru vision of India. For him, religion is at most a code of principles and another way of looking at cosmic life that evolved in a different space and time. He admires Old Testament of Bible and Granth Sahiba for its literary excellence alone.
Though this liberal commitment is very inspiring, the limitations of such liberalism which fails in opposing undercover illiberal politics taking over social life in the guise of democracy and development is also evident throughout the book. It becomes very glaring when he admits that he is still an unrepentant lecher as far as women are concerned. He is also an unapologetic admirer of the late Sanjay Gandhi and his autocratic attitude towards governance because he declares use of state force is required for development so that people “work more and talk less”. He thinks China’s “growth-par-excellence” can only be attributed to it. These are not personal limitations of Khushwant Singh but the inherent myopia of liberal thinking.
Except “Train to Pakistan”, hardly any works of Khushwant Singh are translated into Kannada. M.S. Rudreshwara Swamy has done a good job in translating the prose of the veteran journalist. But the same cannot be said of the Urdu and Punjabi poems that are so dear to Khushwant Singh and are quoted extensively in the articles.