In the year he would have turned 100, a collection of Khushwant Singh's forgotten works, as diverse as the man himself, have been put together by his daughter in the form of a book: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
Edited and compiled by Mala Dayal, the collection is a compilation of Singh’s varied writings; from his time reporting on stories for Planning Commission magazine Yojana, to his columns for newspapers after his retirement besides juicy tidbits of his time spent with celebrities.
The launch of the book in New Delhi on Friday evening served as an occasion for Singh's near and dear to indulge in some fond and some not-so-fond recollections of the beloved author, journalist, columnist, part-time writer of horoscopes and full-time writer of joke books.
For someone who has vivid memories of Khushwant, his granddaughter Naina Dayal recalled the times spent with the grand old man, from walks in the Lodhi Garden that would turn into impromptu quizzes on architecture of the Bada Gumbad, to drearily silent dinners at 8pm.
“In my early childhood, nana did some grandfatherly things. He would get me chocolates, ice-cream and Campa Cola. He also did some non-grandfatherly things. During our walks in Lodhi Garden, he identified plants and birds. He told me about the Lodhis and the architecture of the Bada Gumbad Masjid. And then proceeded to quiz me on things he had just spoken about. “By the age of three, I knew such things as the Latin name of Madhumalati and many more details about the first battle of Panipat that any three-year old should know,” she said.
“My mother tells me that he was a more indulgent grandfather than a father: she and her brother were lectured on much more than the flora and fauna of the Lodhi gardens,” she adds.
Striking a chord
Cutting across several time periods, the collection not only holds up a mirror to society across the ages, it also lends a glimpse into Singh’s uncanny gift of striking a chord with people from distant ends of socio-economic strata.
The book is divided into four sections – ‘Unforgettable People’, ‘Memorable Places’, ‘The Indian Way’ and ‘A Matter of Politics’.
‘Portrait of a Serial Killer’, a character sketch from which the novel takes its name, appears in the first section.
The essay recounts the tale of Raman Raghav who terrorised Bombay with a string of murders in the 1960s. Written in his trademark understated style, the write-up, a sparkling example of Singh’s narrative and journalistic nous, manages to send a chill down the spine. In the course of his travels up and down the country, as the editor of Yojana in the early 1950s, he was tasked with writing articles that reflected a changing, aspirational India.
His vivid encounters during his journeys make its way into the book under ‘Memorable Places’-- an American GM of Tata Steel plant in Bokaro who describes himself as a bricklayer, but then to Singh’s surprise, drives away in a chauffeur-driven car. Then there is the adivasi (tribal) who passes on some of his earthy knowledge to Singh while describing why the hills in Bokaro are hotter than the plains—‘The hills are made of iron’ he says, which ,incidentally, is not far from the truth because it is from those very hills that iron ore was extracted.
Fine man to know
No anthology of Singh’s writings would be complete without his humorous descriptions of brushing shoulders with the high and mighty. And true to form, the book is sprinkled with write-ups on Dev Anand and Lata Mangeshkar, among others. Singh is perhaps best summed up in the words his daughter Mala writes in the preface.
“As I was reading the essay, I was struck by the many facets of my father that I was aware of but had not given much thought to...he was not just an excellent writer and journalist, but a man of integrity with an unshakeable belief in doing what was right. An unusual human being, he was not a nice man to know, but a fine man to know.”