In the once and forever glory days of journalism, there will only be one King and that man is now dead.
Khushwant Singh established his rule in the wild and wonderful days of the Illustrated Weekly of India of the 1970s, Mumbai. He wielded his pen with a yo-ho-ho and a bottle of Scotch and his unabashed love for beautiful women whom he drew to his side with a leer, but never more than that, for he was too much in love with life to let mere women take over his domain. His generosity was such that he made the careers and reputations of almost all the next generation of writers, artists, poets and people working in what eventually came to be called the media.
To enter his den at the height of his fame was to be in the presence of the Shahenshah of Indian journalism. You might meet a dry as a wheat stalk Norman Borlaug, the daddy of the wheat revolution in the Punjab, along with Protima Bedi, then at her sensuous best and be swept into a talk about the Indian women and the benefits to them of the Green Revolution. Or it could be the Nawab of Pataudi looking dashing despite his glass eye. Everyone who walked into the den was transformed into someone clever and utterly fascinating just by being under the scrutiny of the Sardar with the wicked pen.
Not that he dressed the part. He would most often be wearing a scruffy open-collared sports shirt and pants, just about to open his umbrella and take a walk to the Bombay Gymkhana waiting to cheer lustily at another game of cricket or of hockey. That is to say, after he had played a game of tennis and had a swim.
It was in the swimming pool at the Gymkhana that I met the man with whom I had sailed to London many years ago, with my family, on a ship called the Strathmore. It was in the heady post-Independence era, when Indians were being sent to various foreign postings in ships that sometimes took 21 days to sail from Bombay to Portsmouth.
Khushwant Singh, my parents recalled, was with his wife, Kawal Malik, and their two young children, while my younger sister and I made up the other two of the four Indian children on board. The others were all white Australians, since the Strathmore had been travelling from Australia and was staffed by brash young Australians. Before long Khushwant Singh realised that we were being discriminated against, being the only “Brownies”, and asked to sit separately at the dinner table and made to feel less than cherished!
“This led to an immediate melt-down by Khushwant Singh,” my mother used to recall, “our first war of Independence being fought on a ship by a fierce-looking Sardar. Of course we loved him for standing up for all our rights and order was soon restored in the children’s dining room.”
All those many years later when he heard the story, he roared with laughter and invited me to his editorial den for an assignment. I had been writing regularly for a Parsi magazine called Parsiana and he knew of it. But, almost immediately, realising I was from the “Dark South” as he called it, he sent me on an assignment to cover a community that I had till then frankly never heard of: the Nattukottai Chettiars. He had started what was then a path-breaking series of features with splendid photographs that showcased the fascinating variety of different communities, their culture, their history and the stories that made up the Indian masala box of individuals. In most cases, Khushwant Singh would get a member of the same community to explore these roots but such was his confidence in the abilities of every one of the persons he launched, he knew that I would have a wonderful time exploring the Chettiars in their habitat. And I did.
He was a wonderful raconteur, a novelist of brilliance in the memorable Train to Pakistan, a poet who could quote from his favourite Urdu poets, but most memorably, a dear and wonderful human being.
He may have hoped to live to be a hundred, but as he wrote in his novel, Delhi: “When you have counted eighty years and more, Time and Fate will batter your door, but if you should survive to be a hundred; your life will be death to the very core.”
1915: Born on February 2, 1915, in Hadali District Khushab, Punjab (now in Pakistan)
1939-47: Practising lawyer, High Court, Lahore
1951: Joined All India Radio in 1951 as a journalist
1956: Train to Pakistan published
1969-78: Editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India
1974: Awarded the Padma Bhushan
1980: Member of the Rajya Sabha till 1986
1984: Returned the Padma Bhushan in protest against the storming of the Golden Temple
2002: Autobiography Truth, Love and a Little Malice published
2007: Awarded the Padma Vibhushan