Khushwant Singh the agnostic often chatted on matters of spirituality

Right from when I first met him in 2004, when his corpus of written works was huge and his reputation huger, I found Khushwant Singh remarkably untouched by arrogance — never mind the scary sign outside his door warning uninvited visitors not to ring the bell. For a man with his formidable experience and scholarship of history, politics, current affairs, comparative religions, he was not in the least condescending to a journalist less than half his age. And for all the crass sexuality of some of his fictional passages, he turned out to be a gentlemanly conversationalist. Interestingly, the conversation with this self-declared agnostic often turned to matters of faith.

Although on the first occasion — when his novella “Burial at Sea” had just come out — he did mention that he didn’t “waste any time in prayer,” and that “spirituality is a lot of humbug,” admitting, he didn’t understand it, we still spent time on the topic. In 2005, after his collection of obituaries was published (“Death at my Doorstep”), perhaps it was only natural that the discussion veered towards the afterlife. Having decided that of the major belief systems — Hebraic, Judaic, Islamist on the one hand and Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh on the other — “there’s no basis for believing either,” he asked me what I thought of reincarnation. Giving my views on the karma theory a patient hearing, he dismissed me, just as genially, saying it was only because I was brought up a Hindu.

When his collection “Why I supported the Emergency: Essays and Profiles” was released in 2009, apart from the topic at hand, he reiterated his continuing agnosticism, saying he had an interest in all religions and that’s why he could “debunk them all.” Having taken a swipe at the standard of newspapers with their “mixture of Hindi-English-Urdu”, he complimented The Hindu as one he respected. But soon he added, “One thing I can’t read in The Hindu is the column on religion. Otherwise, it is like a reliable grandma.”

By 2010 when “The Sunset Club” — a closely kept diary of one year presented as a novel — came out, he was describing himself as having reached the “vanaprastha stage of life,” borrowing from scriptural terminology to denote his winding down. But his definition was not in the conventional mode of celibacy and abstinence. His protagonist Sardar Boota Singh was lustful, explicit and a hearty drinker, and the whole reason Singh chose the fiction format was, “You have to add mirch masala” to a factual life, or it would be “very dreary”.

And though no organised religion offered him “answers to questions like, where we come from, what happens to us when we die,” he admitted he wanted to withdraw from socialising — “a waste of time” — and attempt to bring peace of mind through the “daunting task” of doing nothing. Meanwhile, he quoted Ghalib, “Humko maaloom hai jannat ki haqeeqat, lekin dil ko khush rakhne ko Ghalib ye khayaal achcha hai (We know the truth about Paradise: it is a good idea to beguile the mind).”

Perhaps Khushwant Singh now knows the answers to the questions of life and death. We can’t ask him anymore. But just like he wrote his own obituary long before he died, he also left us a hint, courtesy Hilaire Belloc, on how he would like to be remembered: “When I am dead, I hope it may be said, ‘His sins were scarlet, but his books were read’.”