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The three lives of Khushwant Singh

Khuswant Singh with his feline friends.  

Some writers disappear into their work. Not Khushwant Singh. He was to be found everywhere in the books he wrote or translated, except perhaps the most scholarly. The great Colombian novelist, Gabriel García Márquez, who had a knack for the telling aphorism, once said to his biographer, Gerald Martin: “All human beings have three lives — public, private and secret.” These three lives of Khushwant infused every aspect of his writing. They gave it its honesty, originality, humour, immediacy, accessibility, pugnacity and brilliance. Heightening the impact of the content was the fact that quite early on in his career he decided to write clear, simple prose, abjuring flowery phrases, clever wordplay, or pretentious words. It was a combination of all this that made it impossible to mistake his work, whether good or ordinary, for that of any other writer.

Mala tells a story about the writing of his autobiography, one of the top half a dozen books in the genre published by Indian writers in the modern era. It has the breadth and depth of learning, prickliness and unorthodox views of Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian; the honesty and introspection of M.K. Gandhi’s The Story of My Experiments with Truth; the sheer love of India and knowledge of its people and culture of Jawaharlal Nehru’s An Autobiography and the forthrightness of Raj Thapar’s All These Years.

She says that when he began writing it he handed her an early chapter that showed her mother in a somewhat negative way, and said bluntly that he intended to write the book in as honest and uninhibited a way as he could manage. If she didn’t like it he would not continue, but if he was going to carry on, it would have to be done his way. Mala was unfazed. She’d been the one who had nagged him to write the book, and she said that she told him to write the book just the way he wanted to…

***

…Let us then take a look at how exactly the three lives of Khushwant Singh marked his work. First, his public self. From the days of his Weekly editorship onwards, his was a voice that was heard in the corridors of power and the councils of the mighty. He did not hesitate to use it. Sometimes he got things wrong, as with the Emergency, but mostly his was a strong, unafraid voice which refused to be silenced. Broadly, he had four main areas of focus — religion, religious intolerance, probity in public life and Sikh politics. His greatest contribution to public life was probably his courageous defence of secularism, and the unending war he waged against religious fundamentalism until the very end, in his writings, in his speeches, in his interventions. He wrote once, in a column ‘[One of the regrets in my life] is that I could have played a bigger role in my battle against the fundoos… My columns have a vast readership and I should have written more against fundamentalists. My battle is against fundoos from all communities. I have spoken out against Muslim religious fundamentalists, against Hindu fundamentalists… Today [fundamentalists] burn books they do not like; they beat up journalists who write against them; they attack cinema houses showing films they do not approve of; they pervert texts from history books; they foul-mouth everyone who disagrees with them… If we love our country, we have to save it from communal forces.’ For these beliefs, especially those he held against the brand of Sikh extremism promoted by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, he received death threats and assassins were dispatched to eliminate him. Khushwant refused to be cowed down…

***

…Khushwant Singh was probably India’s most famous agnostic in his lifetime, although he knew more about religion than most believers. We have already noted his deep appreciation of the Sikh religion and scriptures, but he was also well-versed in the teachings of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism…

***

The private life of Khushwant Singh should be familiar to anyone who has read his autobiography or his journalism. He belonged to a close-knit family which he delighted in — his wife Kaval Malik, his son Rahul, his daughter Mala and son-in-law, Ravi Dayal (the distinguished publisher), his granddaughter, Naina, as well as assorted cats and a beloved Alsatian (Simba, about whom he wrote eloquently). Some of his best writing had its roots in his private self — articles, and sections of his autobiography that deal with his grandmother, father, mother; the wooing of his wife; the disappointments and small victories in his life that pertain to his family (the big triumphs were usually played out in public). Khushwant took an enormous amount of pleasure from the everyday acts of living with his family that he would then share with his readers. His granddaughter told me about one such episode. An Order of Injunction in the Delhi High Court restrained the publication of his autobiography after he was taken to court by the politician (and erstwhile friend) Maneka Gandhi for his comments about her in the book; it languished for six years before the high court allowed it to be published. To celebrate, Naina said, her grandfather dispatched her to buy the family some Kwality ice cream. A simple man who enjoyed the simple pleasures of life that permeated his writing.

***

And, finally, the secret life of Khushwant, the last major strand that invested his work. Most writers tend to hide or disguise their secret lives and fantasies. This was not true of Khushwant. He once wrote: ‘If you write fearlessly and candidly you have to be prepared to pay the price. And there’s no point writing if you’re not honest… I’ve always written what I felt and believed to be true…there’s no secret I kept to myself… At times this has upset people [but] I’ve never been bothered.’ He wrote candidly about his marriage — ‘It wasn’t a happy marriage’ — and goes on to explain why. He talked about the affairs he’d had in one of his pieces on sex: ‘I’ve been with many women over the years… I’ve had affairs that I have used as material for my writing. They contributed to the love-making scenes and passages in my stories and novels.’ He was frank about his fantasies and was uninhibited about the failings of his body as he aged — rather like Philip Roth in his last couple of novels, but then the American writer is also one of those who has been unafraid to tap his secret life in his novels.

***

Norman Mailer, the American novelist, whom Khushwant Singh met as a young man (he writes in typical fashion that he met many writers when he decided to become a writer himself, before he realized that you didn’t become one by meeting your peers but by writing), had an excellent insight into writing style (which he mentioned in an interview to the Paris Review), which I believe explains why Khushwant became so popular with readers...

‘A really good style comes only when a man has become as good as he can be… A good style is a matter of rendering out of yourself all the cupidities, all the cripplings, all the velleities…’

…The fact that Khushwant let his three selves flow into his writing without dissimulation or coyness is what gave it its forcefulness, its bounce. That honesty drew readers in, enabled them to connect with the writer.

***

REQUIEM

The great ones shine the brightest at the moment of their passing. And so it was with Khushwant Singh. The outpouring of grief when he died on 20 March 2014 was unprecedented, no writer or journalist before him was mourned as he was. From the highest in the land to those who cast a more humble shadow, they spoke about how much he had meant to them, how deeply he had touched their hearts with his writing and his presence.

Before I began writing this tribute to the man I loved and admired, I wanted to take one last look at the room that he had worked in over the last decades of his life. Naina took me across. Outside, Delhi drowsed in the summer heat. Chauffeurs gossiped by parked cars, stray dogs lay panting in the thin shade of trees. Within, everything was more or less as I remembered it. As I looked at his empty chair, a line from one of my favourite novels, The Great Gatsby, came to me. ‘In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.’ I thought of the crowds who had assembled in this room almost every evening, to drink his whisky, and eat the delicious mushroom vol-au-vents that were made in his kitchen, and just be part of his force-field even for a little while.

What made Khushwant Khushwant? What was it that drew people to him, long after he had given up all his powerful positions, long after new stars had emerged on the media scene, long after his best work was behind him? I’d say two things. The first was his enormous zest for life, which stayed with him almost to the end. The passion for the world and everything in it burned so brightly in him that it made him irresistible. The second reason was his generosity. He gave so much of himself, both in his writing and in his life, that people couldn’t get enough of him. Writers are not noted for this trait, but in this, as with many things about his personality, Khushwant was unique…

***

Towards the end, as his body began to give way, as his thoughts turned towards death, he shut himself away and the evening soirees stopped. Miraculously, the column continued. He was, by now, a very old man. He grew frail, the blaze of his life dimmed. The only thing that remained to the very end was the amused look in his eye. It was the look of a man who was unafraid to die now that he had dealt with everything that he had been handed by life. When he went, in typical fashion, he gave even that away, by donating his eyes. To the end, he was singularly Khushwant Singh.

(This excerpt from  99: Unforgettable Fiction, Non-fiction, Poetry & Humour by Khushwant Singh edited by Mala Dayal & David Davidar is reprinted by permission of Aleph Book Company.)


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