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Brunch recommends a new anthology of essays by Khushwant Singh

Hitherto unknown facets of the Sardar of sex, Scotch and scholarship.

brunch Updated: Jan 23, 2016 21:44 IST
Aasheesh Sharma
Phoy
Phoy

Portrait of a Serial Killer: Uncollected Writings by Khushwant Singh

Publisher: Aleph

Price: Rs 379. Pages: 256

This year, Khushwant Singh would have turned 100. To use a cricket metaphor, the celebrated author-journalist would have completed a century, although nobody who ever knew him can accuse Singh of being a victim of the nervous 90s.

The book, Portrait Of A Serial Killer: Uncollected Writings, edited by his daughter Mala Dayal, reveals some unknown facets of the Sardar of sex, Scotch and scholarship: as a sharp, sensitive chronicler of people and places, with an eye for the idiosyncratic.

His portrait of psychopath Raman Raghav, for instance, gives us a peek into the way the killer’s mind worked: twisted, with his own notions of right and wrong.

The ‘People’ section of the writings makes for some engaging anecdotes, such as the time when a young Khushwant was assigned the task of taking Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru book shopping in London. When he asked Panditji the kind of bookshops he’d like to visit, the erudite leader replied, “Shops which have books in them”. Singh was snubbed, he writes, “But I persisted with my enquiry – largely to show off my own knowledge of the variety of London’s bookstores.”

During his encounter with English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, Singh plies him with riesling wine to extract gossip about his dalliance with iconic Indo-Hungarian artist Amrita Sher-Gil. Muggeridge goes on to confess about a week of passion spent at the painter’s home near Shimla at the end of which he was ‘thoroughly exhausted, like a wet rag which has been put through a wringer’.

Singh’s eye for detail shines through in pieces on Dev Anand (“The garishly coloured shirt, broad silver buckled belt and tight-fitting powder-blue jeans appear a little too mod for a man of his years”), and Lata Mangeshkar (“By the sideboard are two Oscars – statuettes of a female figure in ebony black. Mini silk saris are draped round them to cover their nakedness... Once again Lata blushes ... as she bows us out”).

In one chapter, Singh finds a fellow connoisseur of skin magazines in distinguished novelist RK Narayan. Another surprise awaits us in ‘JP – the Man they Mourned before his Death.’ During the Bihar famine of 1967, Singh volunteered to work as socalist leader Jai Prakash Narayan’s secretary. “He was embarrassed. He... did not really know how to make use of me. However I stuck to him, saw him every day in his modest house in Kadam Kuan... Ultimately he decided that I could see things for myself, write about them and thereby generate sympathy for the work his organisation was doing.”

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From HT Brunch, October 11

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