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Appetite for scandal

This definitive Khushwant Singh anthology will coincide with his 99th birth anniversary on August 15. An excerpt from David Davidar’s introduction

india Updated: Aug 02, 2014 00:50 IST

99: Unforgettable Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry & Humour
Khushwant Singh
Rs. 699 PP480

This definitive Khushwant Singh anthology will coincide with his 99th birth anniversary on August 15. An excerpt from David Davidar’s introduction.

When Khushwant Singh became the editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India in 1969 he changed the world of magazine journalism in India forever… In regard to his impact on the media, Khushwant Singh was Barkha Dutt before Barkha Dutt, Arnab Goswami before Arnab Goswami, MJ Akbar before MJ Akbar, Shobhaa De (the magazine editor as opposed to Shobhaa De the novelist) before Shobhaa De and Vinod Mehta before Vinod Mehta. He was, in short, the granddaddy of them all, a man before his time. When he took over as editor… he was fifty-four years old, and knew very little about either journalism or editing… He was exactly what the magazine needed. At the time, the media scene in the country was dire. Besides the daily newspapers, there was no interesting television or radio, there was no internet, and the Weekly… one of the few periodicals that existed, was dull, worthy and little read, although it was a favourite of maamis in Adyar, auntyjis in Karol Bagh and dentists everywhere. He wrote in a column, ‘The Weekly was a mixture of unrelated articles. Some of it consisted of the tittle tattle at cocktail parties given by Parsi dowagers with outlandish names… A few pages were devoted to “They Were Married” and consisted of photographs of newly married couples from different parts of India, all looking very tight-lipped, glum and unhappy.’…

Its new editor had three clear objectives. He would inform, amuse and irritate. He decided that he would use the magazine ‘to tell Indians about their own country’, and that he would try and provoke and amuse his readers by publishing controversial or humorous articles.

Soon, changes began to appear throughout the magazine. Gone were the grim studio portraits of middle-class newly-weds; in their place were topless photographs of pretty tribal women or semi-clad foreigners on the beaches of Goa. Besides titillating readers with pictures of scantily clad women, he began writing about subjects that he personally found fascinating, such as gods and godmen (whom he exposed), ‘the refined art of bottom pinching’, and ‘the joys of drink’. As with the subjects he chose to write about, so with the tone he adopted to write about them.

Readers were amused by what I wrote and asked for more.’ Circulation soared, and went from about 80,000 copies to a high of 400,000 copies.

Khushwant Singh became the most powerful editor in the country and was courted by political royalty, movie stars, sports heroes and celebrities of every stripe who would do anything to be featured in his magazine’s pages. He lapped up the attention, but continued to be his own man for the most part. He also began to write some of the finest journalism of his career…

In the first major stand that he took as editor, Khushwant Singh blundered. It was a mistake that would haunt him for decades. When Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister, declared a State of Emergency in 1975 that suspended civil liberties in the country, and imposed press censorship, Khushwant Singh offered the move his qualified support. He wrote in a much-discussed essay ‘Why I Supported the Emergency’ that he had an ambivalent attitude towards it. He supported the clamping down on law breakers (including Jayaprakash Narayan) but didn’t approve of censorship of the press. But his public support of Mrs Gandhi’s action after a cursory attempt at resistance affected him in more ways than one. He was now regarded as an Establishment stooge… more damagingly, as an unabashed supporter of Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi (whom he once described as ‘a lovable goonda’), when Mrs Gandhi was voted out of power, he fell out of favour with his employers at the Weekly. Shortly thereafter he was fired… He did rise again as a journalist and editor, going on to edit The National Herald, New Delhi magazine, and the Hindustan Times… When he left the Weekly and became editor of the Hindustan Times the light bulb travelled with him to grace his editor’s column; even after he quit the paper… he continued to write a weekly column for it; it would become widely syndicated and propel him to the position of India’s leading newspaper columnist...

Why did the column become so popular? Partly this was because of the lively interest of its author in current events, his astonishing erudition (he read constantly — often fifty or more books a year) that he wore lightly, his wit, his contrariness, but also because he treated the reader as an equal… He writes in an article about how he approached his job as a columnist. ‘One should never be pretentious… [one should] be honest and not show off by using difficult words. A writer’s responsibility… is to inform your reader while you provoke or entertain him… Don’t talk down to the reader; level with him.’