"Sardar Khushwant Singh dead"

This November 30, 2010 photo shows Khushwant Singh during the release of his last novel “The Sunset Club”, in New Delhi.  

This is the headline of an obituary that one of India’s most prolific writers chose to write for himself in his twenties. Khushwant Singh would have turned hundred next year in February. But he didn't care about that. He had long reconciled with the concept of death. He did not think about it. “I am ready when it comes,” he would say.

Mr. Singh was born in the Pakistan part of Punjab on February 2, 1915. His father was a contractor who built much of Lutyen’s Delhi, including the Modern School that Mr. Singh went to. He pursued a law degree in London and practised law successfully at the Lahore High Court.

After 1947, he joined the foreign services and served as a diplomat for a few years in London, Paris and Ottawa. He would later describe his years of law-practising and diplomacy as “wasted years of my life.”

In 1951, Mr. Singh began his career as journalist with the All India Radio.

He later edited two major dailies and the Illustrated Weekly of India that he joined in 1969 and turned it from an artsy, apolitical publication into a “noisy rumbustious, jet-propelled vehicle of information, controversy and amusement.”

Courted controversy

The last two words pretty much describe his life. Through his columns, novels and essays, Mr. Singh aimed at entertaining people, often courting controversy in the process.

He did not mince words while speaking his mind, even for personalities like Tagore whom he called a writer of “no great merit.” But it was he who offered a reality check on Rushdie’s Satanic Verses to the Penguin publishers as their literary advisor.

Perhaps the only shadow cast on Mr. Singh’s otherwise illustrious career was his support for Indira Gandhi and the period of Emergency. He remained unapologetic for it, though in 1984, he returned his Padma Bhushan in protest of the army operation in Amritsar’s Golden Temple.

In one of his meditations on death, Mr. Singh quoted a couplet from Iqbal: “You ask me about the signs of a man of faith? When death comes to him, he has a smile on his lips.” Though Mr. Singh remained an agnostic, his friends and fans would like to imagine a smile on his lips when his time finally came.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2021 2:16:13 AM |

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