Whether he was writing about history, nature or people, Khushwant Singh’s writing was profound, irreverent and almost always delightful

The other day at New Delhi railway station, a man in his early 20s sat engrossed in Delhi: A Novel. The Dehra Dun Express had arrived but he was oblivious to the melee. “Khushwant Singh died last week,” I said, trying to draw his attention. “I know,” he mumbled, refusing to take his eyes off what seemed a garish, pirated edition. Incidentally, almost the entire collection of Khushwant Singh was pirated in Pakistan, and some half a dozen here too. Khushwant would just sigh, “All the printing presses are in Nai Sarak” (Delhi’s book hub where a tiny lane often carries more books than a few fancy bookstores in malls combined).

“Didn’t Khushwant translate Allama Iqbal’s Shikwa, then Jawab-e-Shikwa,” I asked, trying to draw him into a debate on whether Khushwant was actually agnostic. But no response. Clearly, Khushwant’s novel had more substance than I could offer.

I thought back to the rare occasion when the irrepressible Khushwant seemed to have finally accepted the existence of God. Once at home, he fell and, unable to get up, wondered if he would have to call upon God to help. In that state of utter helplessness, Khushwant recalled Iqbal’s verse in which the poet tells the Lord that having banished him from Paradise, He will have to wait while he completed his commitments here. Khushwant too thought of his commitments and pulled himself up. He was back on his feet and at the desk where he wrote in long hand and read poetry, particularly Urdu poetry.

Khushwant was an agnostic and made no secret of it. Yet he translated Iqbal’s epochal lament to God with aplomb. There was a sparkling clarity to his words through Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa. He was against organised religion, yet came up with what is easily the best account of Sikh history. A History of the Sikhs will rank as the most scholarly, most erudite account ever to have been penned on the community. It was laden with pathos but self-pity was the farthest from the author’s pen. Just like his Train to Pakistan remains the benchmark for all successive writings on Partition. Indeed, talking of writings on Partition, only Manto’s short story “Toba Tek Singh” comes close, followed closely by “Aur Kitne Pakistan” by Kamleshwar. In English, there has been none even close to Train to Pakistan that carved out a first by covering a macro event with a micro lens.

On another note, despite his larger-than-life image of being given to ways of pleasure, of being fond of women’s company, he was a lover of nature, a man who bemoaned the disappearance of the house sparrow from Delhi, the fading away of the moth, the absence in recent years of the frog’s croak after the first shower of the season. Khushwant, who regarded journalism as essentially ephemeral in nature, once wrote a piece on the monsoon. It has since been published by a hundred newspapers. Such was the quality of his writing. He could be profound without being dense. He could be irreverent, trenchant but was almost always delightful. Unless of course, he was talking of the wounds of history; when he used his pen as a scalpel.

He had no patience for literary bodies or their honours. Once, in an interview, he challenged us to name one Sahitya Akademi awardwinner whose book was a bestseller, then went on to add that he did not care for bestsellers! He recalled his days at the Sahitya Akademi and spoke about how he was once approached by an author. He reported him and the man was disqualified. Next time, a woman author asked for his ‘help’. Again he reported the case. She won the award and went on to claim that, the next year, her husband would win, which is exactly how it turned out. Khushwant resigned. He was openly critical of Indian languages for not developing their vocabulary. “The only Hindi word I have come across for seagull is samundari kauva,” he said only half in jest.

While A Train to Pakistan and A History of the Sikhs are rightly acclaimed, it is in some of the lesser known works that his writing really shone. For instance, in a coffee-table book called Delhi: A Portrait with some wonderful photographs by Raghu Rai. Khushwant wove in the city’s history like never before even as he admired its flowers, chorizias, jacarandas, silk cotton, its birds, its roadside delicacies, golguppas, paan petiwalla, kulfi, falooda. Amid all this was Ghalib, Lutyens, Nehru! Only Khushwant could pull off a narrative with seemingly disparate elements in a story of the city without gloating about his ancestors who helped build its newest avatar.

As for the young man at the railway station, he refused to be nudged into a conversation. He had with him, I discovered, a copy of Death at my Doorstep too. Irrepressible, incorrigible, peerless Khushwant.