The Sunset Club, declares Khushwant Singh, is his last novel. One has heard this before, but he continues to release one book after another. And every time he does, it leads to traffic jams in Delhi. I remember how almost half of the capital turned up at the launch of his ‘last’ book at a Delhi hotel.
Usually, it’s someone of the stature of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s wife, Gursharan Kaur, who releases the books Singh authors. Ditto on Tuesday, November 30, when Kaur will release The Sunset Club — Singh’s last book, if he is to be believed. "For God’s sake, I am 96 (years)," he says.
On his part, Singh has lost count of the number of books he has written so far, "Maybe a hundred, maybe more... I don’t know. Once [people from] the American Centre asked a similar question and I said I did not know. They fed my name into the computer and the book list generated was two yards long. After that also I wrote a few more books," he says.
Sunset… Singh claims is his best book too; fantasies of octogenarians, as he puts it. "What they cannot do they imagine that they are doing," says Singh, summing up the novel as an "essay on love and lust". The protagonists are three men: a Sikh, a Muslim and a Hindu. The first and last are real life characters: Singh himself and his friend Prem Kirpal, respectively. The third, a Muslim, is a combination of several people Singh has known. The novel is based on notings from Singh’s dairy, which he has been meticulously maintaining for years. "I put down everything from a cold to constipation to who came to see me," Singh says.
Set in the backdrop of picturesque Lodi Gardens, the novel begins on January 26, 2009, a Monday. It ends exactly a year later. By then, two of the three friends are dead. “Both Baig and Sharma had had good innings… he is much the same age. His turn will come soon. When? No one knows,” Singh writes.
There is a passing reference to his telephone book and how against every second or third entry, he has written down the date of their deaths. “Against his own name he adds: D: date? month? year?”
That apart, there is an overdose of sex, vivid descriptions of lovemaking and Hindi equivalents of phallus, some clearly unmentionable. “In the case of males it is centred on the appendage in his middle. It goes through four stages of development all beginning with the letter L,” Singh writes. But to call it a ‘book about sex’ would be to oversimplify its intricate theme.
In fact, Singh extensively writes about the other most-read subjects: politics and politicians. Manmohan Singh, who “on his own... would not have won a panchayat election”; Maneka Gandhi’s launda (lad) Varun; Sonia Gandhi who knows “Indians won’t accept an Italian-born woman as prime minister”; her son Rahul who is “too young and inexperienced…,” and more.
While referring to Najma Heptullah, Singh hits hard. He describes her as “... that fat woman from Bombay who claims to be a niece of Maulana Azad… caught pedalling a false photograph… no one trusts her.” Then he writes about former Andhra Pradesh Governor ND Tiwari’s sexploits; he celebrating Christmas with three women in bed and about his “bastard son”. And, not to forget, about Singh’s lady friend who is a shia Muslim, westernised, enjoys whiskey and mild flirtation but come Muharram and she wears black and has a majlis in her home at Jamia, Delhi.
Sunset… has a bit of everything for everyone: religion, communal violence, the Babri masjid, our freedom struggle, Ghalib, Iqbal and even Tiger Woods and Nano. It’s, Singh believes, his best book, but the one which he did not intend to write: “I had turned ninety five and was not sure I would be able to finish it,” he writes at the outset.