I’m not sure if I’m equipped to do an obit of the mighty Khushwant Singh because he was senior by more than three decades. Nor was he a ‘friend’ in the real sense. But I had loads of reverence for the 99-year-old institution called Sardar Khushwant Singh, which fell on Thursday in normal course.
I’d like to think we had a lot in common — national pride was certainly one. Also, our love for scotch and humour, vulgarity was no taboo at all. I’d often get a postcard from him, “Pl come and have a drink only if your dirty jokes are aplenty and fresh.”
Apparently, he was doing crossword on Thursday just before leaving his abode in Sujaan Singh Park. What a lovely way to go just one short of a ton. Once I told him a story of a rich man who expressed a weird last wish of serving two larges of deluxe scotch to all before and after his funeral. The wish was granted. But before he died, the dying man asked for his share of four larges.
Khushwant Singh was in peals. I was tempted to ask his son Rahul if his sire had any such wish. Only to be told that doctors were removing his eyes to be donated as per his will.
On another occasion in Bombay in the mid-1970s, I was going into the steam/sauna of the good old Taj and Khuswant Singh was coming out. “What is the latest Bedi saab?” Luckily, I had a good one up my sleeve and let him have it. He just couldn’t stop laughing.
After about an hour, Khushwant Singh walked into the sauna. “Please tell me the gist of the story again Bedi saab!” I repeated the joke saying he could carry it in the editorial of the Illustrated Weekly if he so desired. He accepted the challenge and carried it with relevant alteration! “The original is unprintable and was told to me by none other than the captain of Indian cricket,” he wrote. I was impressed with his bravado and became an unadulterated fan.
He was an authority on Maharaja Ranjit Singh. There was a do at Vigyan Bhavan in honour of the great Punjab ruler. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister, too was there. Prominent leaders from Lahore were also present. Maharaja Ranjit Singh was an illiterate ruler from all accounts. But he was blessed with meaningful intuition to handle the French and British staff in his Darbar. And once the Punjab ruler was convinced of all deliberations he would then go ahead and scribble ‘sahi’ in urdu, which meant the treaty was as good as signed.
Now, while explaining all this to a very interested audience (house full) at Vigyan Bhavan, Khushwant turned towards Mr. Vajpayee and asked: “Mr. Prime Minister, when are you going to learn to write the word ‘sahi?’ The whole house came down, I vividly remember.
My early introduction to the great literary Sardar was through his widely appreciated book A Train to Pakistan. As a young impressionable Punjabi, I quite enjoyed the interpretation of some of the choicest Punjabi swearing by Khushwant Singh.
I reckon Khushwant Singh derived huge pleasure from snubbing the clergy of all faiths and beliefs. He would claim to be an agnostic and yet did a great job of History of the Sikhs. He detested religious movements on roads. Not many in Parliament would agree with him publicly. That’s when he would tear into his opponents ruthlessly.
Well, he may have left the world but I doubt if he’ll ever leave our thoughts and book- shelves. We, as a nation, need to celebrate the life of a man who was a constant reminder of Indianism at its best. RIP.