Khushwant Singh is an institution. And the problem with institutions is that everyone has their own ideas about them. Singh, 96 in body and half that age in mind, has always had opinions and none so strong as those about himself.
His latest collection of essays, Absolute Khushwant, distills his thoughts to mark his precious territory: himself. Singh's writings — whether in his columns, works of fiction or non-fiction — have a stark simplicity to them that have often been dismissed as childish or naïve. But Singh’s talent for calling a spade a spade (and sometimes a shovel) in this you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours world is a stunning anomaly.
His sense of wearing his lightness seriously ("I have never taken anyone too seriously, least of all myself") and seriousness lightly ("I think of death very often but I don't lose sleep over it) make him stand out from the rest of us.
Hindustan Times asked its columnist and former editor ten questions. We got ten candid answers from the Sardar of Sujan Singh Park:
Are you afraid of death?
Yes and no. I enjoy life and wish to live forever. I am also aware that immortality is impossible and I have to go very soon as I am 96 and in poor health. All I pray for is a painless exit.
Have you been afraid of anyone or anything in life?
Not anyone living but of ghosts. I have been exposed to people dying since I was a child. I cannot get over my fear of ghosts and graveyards.
How does it feel to be an atheist among so many believers?
I regard believers in god to be insecure and looking for crutches to help them walk. I regard them mentally retarted and making up myths about god being the creator, preserver, destroyer, almighty, just and merciful. They lack the courage to admit that they do not know where we have come from, why, and where we go when we die.
You are writing your sixth novel. What is it about?
My sixth novel entitled The Sunset Club is about the sexual fantasies of those men in their late 80s. It is a mixture of fact and fiction.
You value your time with yourself. But have you ever felt lonely?
I have never felt lonely. I cherish my solitude and resent visitors wasting my time.
Is there any writer whom you consider has taken up your mantle as a journalist or writer?
I can't think of any youngsters combining journalism with fiction writing, history, understanding ancient and modern works. It may be due to my ignorance.
Which has been your favourite decade?
My years in England as a student and later as a diplomat.
Your loss of hearing is something you share with your late father. Do you see a bit of your father in you and bits of you in your children or grandchild?
I think I am the first in my family to use hearing aids. I have inherited longevity from my parents, the ability to work hard from my father and love for gossip from my mother. I can't detect any of those traits in my children or grand-daughter.
What would you like your epitaph to say?
Here lies one who spared neither
man nor god
Waste not your tears on him, he
was a sod
Writing nasty things he regarded
as great fun
Thank the lord he's dead, this son of a gun.