The writer remembers the man who was an intrinsic part of her life.
The text message that I received announcing Khushwant Singh’s passing away was unambiguous and direct, as momentous events in one’s life are. I phoned David to ask if it were true and he confirmed it. There didn’t seem too much else to say and both of us retreated into our private memories of a man who was a tremendously important and benevolent presence in our lives for decades.
It seems to me that I have always known Khushwant Singh. He was a frequent visitor to my bookstore. Then when I married David he became family. Indeed, he hosted our wedding reception at his Sujan Singh Park home — it is the one occasion I know of where he allowed guests to carry on partying beyond his famous 8.00 p.m. curfew; he even deigned to stay on, although being Khushwant he retreated to his bedroom long before the party broke up.
Khushwant was ageless, all through the time he was an intrinsic part of my life. This enabled me to deal with him simultaneously on several levels — as a friend, parent, and provider of wise counsel. Repeatedly, I was struck by the fact that he was one of the very few people I knew who was absolutely himself, no matter who he was with or what the situation. He spoke his mind to prince and pauper alike, and he was incredibly generous to anyone who turned to him for help and advice. When we lived in Canada, on our annual visits home, he would tell us to return as soon as possible. On one such occasion, he rebuked me and said he’d heard that I didn’t want to come back to India; this was untrue but I could never convince him otherwise and he would express his disappointment every time we met until I got back for good.
I remember when Aleph produced its first catalogue of books, we presented Khushwant with a copy. His delight and pride in the fledgling company’s first offering was clearly visible. He said to me that The Book Of Aleph was so beautiful and special that he would need to wash his hands before he could leaf through it. Over the past year our conversations were mostly about death. And his longing for it. He told me that he was done; that he really had nothing left to look forward to in life. He was nostalgic about his time in London as a young man; he said he dreamed a lot about those days. At every meeting there would be a snatch or two of Urdu poetry that he would recite (recitation done, he would say that it was pitiful that I didn’t know any Urdu; I didn’t dare confess to him that, let alone Urdu, even my Punjabi was practically non-existent). His mental alertness and curiosity never left him, although latterly those of us who gathered from time to time at his legendary durbars would spend the evening bellowing at him — he was stubborn about not using his hearing aid. He read everyday. He wrote his weekly column almost to the very end. And he would never let me leave his house before I finished every last drop of my whiskey. No wasting.
Khushwant Singh was always there for me, a fixed, infinitely uplifting part of my universe. Curiously enough, even though he is gone, I know that he will continue to be in my corner, and that is comforting in ways that defy understanding.