An uncommon trait in Khushwant Singh

  • HK Manmohan Singh, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Oct 10, 2014 09:39 IST

Khushwant Singh was undoubtedly one of the most celebrated writers whose column in newspapers was looked forward to by all. He was a genius, not born but self made, cultured and well read. However, he did occasionally make slips that he acknowledged with thanks when brought to his notice. This adds to his stature.

In 1972, when he was the editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, in an article (perhaps on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) he referred to Christ Church at Oxford as Christ Church College. When I brought this error to his notice, he promptly acknowledged and wrote back: "Thanks for drawing my attention to the error."

Also, he did not know the correct spellings of eminent artist Amrita Sher-Gil. He wrote it with double 'l' (Sher-Gill). When I drew his attention to the fact that Amrita Sher-Gil wrote her name with a single 'l' and said that I had checked this with her sister, Indira Sundaram, he immediately corrected himself.

Both the letters are on postcards.

I met Khushwant Singh for the first time in 1965 when he came for a selection meeting in the department of Punjab historical studies at Punjabi University, which was headed by Dr Ganda Singh, one of the tallest historians of erstwhile Punjab. It was believed that Dr Kirpal Singh Narang, who as the vice-chancellor had to chair the meeting and was himself a noted historian, had set his heart on a particular candidate. Besides Khushwant Singh, there was Professor Hari Ram Gupta from Panjab University. I attended the meeting as the dean of the university's faculty of social sciences.

Before the meeting, Dr Ganda Singh made his position clear that he had an open mind and would be happy to accept any candidate who had adequate exposure to scientific historiography and working knowledge of Punjabi. There was only one candidate who fulfilled this requirement but he was not acceptable to the V-C, who repeatedly argued in favour of the candidate he had in mind. At this, Khushwant Singh told the V-C that he lacked the integrity expected of a person holding a high public office, forcing the meeting to adjourn.

In the course of the meeting, when he differed with Dr Ganda Singh on the latter's findings and interpretation of some important historical events, he was less than polite in his articulation of difference and had to be told by Dr Ganda Singh to redo some of his reading of history. He did make amends for his less than deferential comments during a meeting when a few years later the university brought out a festschrift in honour of Dr Ganda Singh.

This is what he wrote: "Wherever I deviated from his (Dr Ganda Singh's) findings I later learnt that he was right and I had gone wrong. In paying him tribute, I acknowledge my deep and abiding gratitude to him as a guru at whose feet I have never had the privilege to sit but whose spirit has always guided me."

In an obituary carried by The Economist, Khushwant Singh has been described as "the most unbuttoned voice in the whole English language press who seized India by the collar and shook it". There is hardly a topic on which he did not write. He was a fearless author who took as gospel the maxim: "There is probably no hell for authors in the next world - they suffer so much from critics and publishers in this."

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