Khushwant Singh tells how his latest book “Absolute Khushwant” came about

Is there a universally accepted definition of absolute truth? Just as change is the only constant, the quality of being human militates against the very idea of an absolute. Maybe that's why Gandhiji, whose status as the epitome of truth earned him the epithet Mahatma, only got as far as “experiments with truth”. Seemingly at the other end of the spectrum from the ascetic Mahatma is the irrepressible Khushwant Singh, who states that Gandhiji is his icon, and that in moments of quandary he does as he thinks Gandhiji would have.

This dichotomy, among the many puzzling paradoxes that characterise India's “grand old man of letters”, is what makes the title of his latest book so apt: “Absolute Khushwant”, a Penguin publication, released this week. But surely the chief of these paradoxes is that Singh, after half a century as a journalist, authoring over two dozen books, being an editor of leading national journals and dailies, and continuing to write two columns a week, should need a co-author. The cover of “Absolute Khushwant” tells us the book is by “Khushwant Singh with Humra Quraishi”.

One wonders if it could be because he is closer to 100 than 90 and needed a hand. But that is obviously not so. Singh, though tired the day after the launch and (honestly, as always) admitting he couldn't hear much of the proceedings as his hearing aid was not efficient enough, has certainly not ceded his command over the pen. This book was not his idea at all, he states simply. It was Penguin's.

“She (Humra, a freelance journalist and friend) asked me questions. I don't know how she formed them,” he explains, adding, “A verbal answer and a written text are a different thing. The ideas are mine. The writing is hers.”

Many incarnations

Summing up his many “incarnations”, the veteran recalls his father wanted him to be a lawyer “because I talk too much.” This he says, he “did duly” but didn't achieve much success and also realised “they make a living on the quarrels of different people.” After the Partition, he worked in the foreign service, but “being called Excellency and getting free liquor and a CD plate on your car” wasn't all he aspired for. Then he joined UNESCO, “where also the salary was good and the liquor was flowing,” but he left that too. That was when he joined the Illustrated Weekly of India as editor.

That was when he became known as a journalist, but fate had other twists in store. Today, he says with a soft laugh, “I could possibly be described as having arrived.”

He has seen — also participated in — journalism's rise in independent India, and then watched it frequently teeter on the pedestal of the fourth estate. “They think they are free,” he comments. “They are not. It's their bosses. Since they are the paymasters, they are under the illusion they are the bosses. They are not. That's why if you write anything controversial they say these are the views of the writer.”

Finally, everything is driven by what ensures circulation and advertisements. Does this state of affairs not bother him? “I've never compromised,” he states. Sometimes, he says, when he submits his column, he is told, “We can't publish this.” His response is, “Stop my column.” But, he continues calmly, “They never stopped it.”

Obviously he is not going to stop taking on the establishment, in his own manner. So while he sees India throttled by corruption — “Every day we hear something new” — and seems personally offended by Kalmadi's escapades — “Kalmadi I knew, I befriended…” — he also thinks India's current Prime Minister is a man of outstanding integrity. Then, is the leader incapable of controlling his pack? It is an endless debate, one we can't trouble the nonagenarian with now. Perhaps this is another dichotomy from the one upright journalist who also supported the Emergency. But then, he has already written “Why I Supported the Emergency”. Khushwant's experiments with truth continue.

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