Who doesn’t love gossip especially when it comes from Khushwant Singh, the widely read and much celebrated columnist and author who carries credibility? You can hate him or love him but you can neither ignore his uncensored opinions or his statutory warning: “I am a voyeur and a gossip. I have never been discreet and am also very opinionated.”
His age and experience put him at an advantage. True to his style, much of what he writes in ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ridiculous’ is unflattering. The book, presumably his last, compiles the pen portraits of 35 known personalities based on his interactions and relations with them.
They are all well known and as well as lesser known from the field of politics and arts. If any of them happens to be your role model, be prepared for the shock as you read about the other side of them. Yet, you will continue to read and also believe because it is coming from someone who has been with them all and seen it all. That is the treat in here, like in several previous books of KS.
KS obviously has no fear for criticism. “If what is good in a person can be written about, why not the bad? I cannot cheat myself or my readers,” is his candid introduction. KS is criticised for writing uncomplimentary things but has anybody ever disagreed with him?
The self-proclaimed loner with a penchant for gossip in his writing offers, in this compilation, a heady potion of sexual liaisons and scandals of the rich, the famous and the intellectuals.
Each chapter is short with distinctive candour, wit and insight. Innately honest opinions and descriptions make the read engaging. Once you have read the first few chapters or randomly chosen the people you know about, it is easy to get a sense of foreboding on what is possibly written about the next person or the rest. And that holds on to your interest to dig a little deeper and find the truth.
At the same time, if the names do not strike a chord, then their sketchy outlines may not really mean much unless you are a diehard gossip-lover keen to acquaint yourself with little known things about these people, many of whom belong to our father’s or grandfather’s generation.
It does not help to give away what KS, with his passion for people, poetry and politics, says about Amrita Sher-Gil, Mother Teresa, Sanjay Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, George Fernandes, Chetan Anand, Dhirendra Brahmachari, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Dom Moraes, Giani Zail Singh, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Protima Bedi, Krishna Menon, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Phoolan Devi, Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and many more. He virtually throws open a closet of facts that are not so widely known other than by the ‘inner circles’ of these personalities.
KS just writes for the ‘aam’ reader. In simple words and few pages, he conveys exactly what he wants to. That’s the power of his pen. He is quite blunt in showing his animosity to certain people like L.K. Advani and veils his inclination towards some like Indira Gandhi. The most hard-hitting piece, and also the longest chapter, is on his boss Krishna Menon who was the Indian High Commissioner in London when KS was posted as an Information Officer with the PR Department of India House. He rejects Menon’s epithet ‘great son of India’, as acclaimed by leftists and says he did “not detect any signs of genius” in the sour-tempered barrister. Among the various provocative tittle-tattles, he quotes one from General Shiv Varma to sum up Menon: He was a bachelor, the same as his father.
Giani Zail Singh follows a close second for whom he uses a Hindi couplet to encapsulate his political career: “It was the bruises on my lips that made me comprehend,/With what thoughtlessness I had kissed the rose.”
The book can be described both intimate and irreverent. To sample a blurb from the chapter on Mahatma Gandhi, KS writes: “He took a vow of celibacy in his prime, but without consulting his wife, which I think was grossly unfair. He would sleep naked beside young girls to test his brahmacharya. He could be very odd.”
Or about Indira Gandhi, he says: “She was a very good-looking woman — not the pin-up kind but an indescribable aristocratic type…I have been asked if I ever wanted to get close to her in the physical sense. The answer is no. There was something cold and haughty about her. Not my type at all … But she had her set of admirers ... and never forgave anyone who said anything against her.”
There is enough in this book to inform, entertain and shock the reader. The dead may turn in their graves, as the saying goes. If anything, KS is only scared of long dragging court cases and therefore regrets not naming the large lady politician who told him of her passion for Rajiv Gandhi and hatred of Sonia for having cheated her of Rajiv’s love. Or the Indian president who pulled out a bottle of premium whisky from under his bed and shared a drink with him. Or what he has heard about a central minister’s love of al fresco sex or a right-wing leader’s dealings with an underworld don. All this and more, he says, will have to wait till his death and a suicidal publisher who decides to print it!
For now, know the good, bad and ridiculous people KS has known for almost a century. On a lazy Sunday afternoon, the book can make a good back-to-back breezy read.
With KS having announced his retirement following the publication of this book, many of his fans and followers may be eager to read it. But do not curse the author, publisher, reviewer or yourself if you are left wondering what purpose this book serves.