Goodbye ‘good fella’

Khushwant Singh (1915-2014). Photo: PTI

Khushwant Singh (1915-2014). Photo: PTI  

Good humans who we think are invested with values and virtues are usually loved by us all. But when a person of such upright stature cocoons himself in inverted hyperboles we call understatements, how do we respond then? The answer is simple: we tend to love that person even more. For, as social beings, we are all subservient to emotional effects, be they premeditated or casual. Khushwant Singh, who passed away in New Delhi this past week, was well on his way to grow into a hundred-year-old young “dirty old man”, a sobriquet he loved to refer to himself with, knowing exactly the reverse effect of word-play on his readers and well-wishers. He was one such “good fella”.

Having known him for the last 23 years, I consider myself competent enough to assert that the initial letter ‘d’ in the expression “dirty” of his self-imposed epithet in fact evokes in our mind an array of adjectives, such as decent, devoted, dependable, dedicated, detail-oriented, and diligent. And the ‘o’ of “old” leads us to think of him as being obligated, open-hearted and outspoken. Hence, with all senses pleased, this tag by Khushwant seemed to be carefully chosen, like all his words and deeds were.

It is not my motivation to precisely assess the genius of this unique, laidback doyen of qualified literary entertainment. But as a writer who appears to have loved result-oriented stagy outcomes, Khushwant had always seduced his readers into thinking of him as a lecher, a womaniser, a whiskey-soaked mongrel and a champion of derision, though in his real life he had been precisely the opposite. Despite the usual intellectual scepticism, I fail to think of him being any less than a man of principles, who had always inspired overall tolerance in contrast to stereotypes, always stood by what he believed in (including the Emergency!) and who had continued to spread joy through his penetrating stories and juicy columns, indulging at times even in calculative self-mockery. He was a profound gentleman who knew exactly how to extend the due respect his many woman friends deserved. Apropos his being a drunkard, no one had ever seen him drunk. He always had only two drinks of scotch beginning at 7 p.m. It used to be mostly Black Label earlier, though more recently his preference switched to a single malt.

Khushwant’s intellectual DNA was a cross between his many avatars. It incorporated a sense of judgement and the people skills of the lawyer he was by training; wit and suppleness of the diplomat that he used to be at the Indian High Commission in London and Canada; meticulousness of the academic he had been at Princeton; ingenuity and plausibility of the fiction writer; precision and engagement of the translator; penetrating vision and thick skin of the journalist; and fervour and alacrity of the columnist. Essentially, it is the latter — the columnist in him — that had brought him the widespread popularity he largely enjoyed. Although all through his writing career in the last 60 years or so, he had been upfront about his deeds and intentions, still there are times, when he looked to a bantering pleasure and dropped a clanger; such a moment was quite embarrassing for others, though not for him.

A born storyteller, he exactly knew how to induce his readers to crave for his vibrant and quirky columns. Their simple directness recounted with uncommon frankness and blithe disregard for social barriers did not aim to stir the imagination or the conscience of his readers. Nor did they set out to turn them thoughtful. Yet he dealt with these lighter, insightful themes with precision and lucidity. He could convey easily in an ephemeral story what a cameraman would have captured in a photograph. The diversity of themes of these short satirical squibs was designed to reflect upon a fine mixture of his re-picked past and fresh discoveries, piecing together human concerns and connections. These scintillating contents — often depicted in a purposely lampooning manner — were footnotes to persons, places, proceedings, parodies, entities, events and exaggerations displaying his keen understanding of the minds of readers, who had, over time, become die-hard Khushwant enthusiasts. His accumulated reading and experiences helped him understand various professional fields which equipped him for fresh and creative interpretations of events and actions. He was undoubtedly one of the ablest articulators and narrators of modern India.

Many casual facts, things and happenings, which a common person would otherwise overlook as ordinary, became the soul dish of this minute observant. An attempt at understanding what happened and why it happened was the cornerstone of all his writings. Whether he was writing about the ultra-turbulent times of the partition of India (“Train to Pakistan” in particular) or about the later halcyon days of post-independence, he showed in both an absolute technical as well as stylistic mastery. He kept things simple, which seemed to be his success mantra. He could make a story of everything he heard or thought.

It was not only his writings which attracted his readers toward him, but his very being, which was pure, direct and without malice. Even his mischievousness smacked of an aura of sanctity. A passionate ‘disciple’ of his self-induced ‘disciplinomania’, he was a man of ripe personal culture, who lived in a mental space where he didn’t have to pretend to be something he was not. He never detoured from the wants of the job at hand. Even when he made denigrating remarks about other writers, intellectuals or public servants, they were never meant to act as aspersions against their personalities. These ‘victims’ had attracted this sort of critique simply because his readers enjoyed his audaciously ‘professional slander’.

Khushwant’s construction of his juicy public persona — particularly of the sort the title of his autobiography “Not a Nice Man to Know” suggests, doesn’t imply his having any ambivalent relationship with his real self. Its negation, I believe, is to be understood as double negation of that Swiftian phrase, where he had opined that “a nice man is a man of nasty ideas”.

I have not had a very close relationship with him; still it was a rather forceful bond. All those moments I spent with him, both in India and in Germany, were itemised into my emotional as well as intellectual memory. Evenings with him at his Sujan Singh Park Apartment were quite convivial, though one could never be sure as to what version of your details you’re going to read in his next column, as the theme kept evolving with the growing evening. He wrote more than ten times about me in his columns, reflecting on our casual discussions. He borrowed the title of his newspaper column from Stephen B. Oates, a popular biographer of Martin Luther King, and William Faulker among others, who had named his very successful biography of Abraham Lincoln as “With Malice Toward None”, and personalised it.

Owing to his firm belief that ‘we are wiser today than we were yesterday,’ he was never ashamed to own that he was in the wrong. But men, as we know since Jonathan Swift, are content to be laughed at for their wit, but not for their folly. Khushwant, however, was different and laughed at himself, confessing once before his audience in Hamburg when I was presenting him and his novel “Delhi”, that his German editor at Doelling and Galitz Publications had found a number of factual mistakes he had made in it, and saved him.

Having accomplished a polygonal productive life, he was relaxing in the glory of a living legend towards the fag end of it. He would certainly remain the true and undisputed father of an intellectual entertainment of the literary-journalistic combine in India. Long may he live in our memory, this dear old fella!

(Rajvinder Singh, a Berlin-based multilingual poet-writer of Indian origin, was a National Fellow at IIAS, Shimla, 2011-13. His literary work was included by Khushwant Singh alongside those of Amrita Pritam and Shiv Kumar Batalvi in his book of his favourite poems titled “Declaring Love in Four Languages”.)

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2020 9:30:33 AM |

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