As editor, Khushwant Singh indulged in irreverent humour | india | Hindustan Times
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As editor, Khushwant Singh indulged in irreverent humour

india Updated: Mar 21, 2014 02:23 IST
Minhaz Merchant
Minhaz Merchant
Hindustan Times
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A trainee journalist at a newspaper is tossed around from department to department. You begin doing daily night shift reporting, move to the Sunday edition, writing features, and then finally the group's magazines.

Khushwant Singh was the presiding deity at The Illustrated Weekly of India. He was a disarming boss. He treated all of us equally. Just outside his editor's room sat a formidable trio of assistant editors — Fatma Zakaria, R Gopalkrishnan and Raju Bharatan — facing four rows of sub-editors. We trainees sat in the last row and no one much bothered about us. Except Khushwant.

He would greet us cheerfully as he walked in early every morning in his trademark, rumpled T-shirt, and wave goodbye as he trundled off in the evening, walking all the way back to his Colaba home from the Weekly's office. It kept him fit, he said, this morning and evening commute on foot. He never took a cab and had no use for cars.

One week his edit was cringeworthily pro-British, reeking of a colonial hangover. Having experienced the British close up at my public school in England, I thought the edit needed a rebut. But could a 22-year-old trainee reporter write a letter to his editor dissing him?

Not wise, I thought — it could cost me my job. So I wrote to him using my name spelt backwards thinking he'd never find out. Khushwant published the letter in the magazine. It called him a colonial relic among other nice epithets with my name spelt backwards (Zahnim).

That evening, on his way out, he stopped at my last-row desk and smiled mischievously: "Nice letter, Minhaz". And off he went, waving his customary cheerful goodbye. If the earth had swallowed me up that moment, it wouldn't have been enough.

Once he left the Weekly, which eventually closed, Khushwant's irreverent humour lit up the pages of The Hindustan Times (which he edited briefly) through his column With Malice Towards One And All.

Khushwant Singh was born 99 years ago in Hadali village, Khushab diststrict, in what is today Pakistan Punjab. His father, Sir Sobha Singh, made his fortune as a builder. Khushwant studied at St. Stephens and Kings College, London, and read for the bar at Inner Temple. He was an undiplomatic misfit at the ministry for external affairs and eventually settled down to a career in writing and journalism.

Khushwant's politics leant towards the Congress. He supported the Emergency. But he was honest about it and the charge of sycophancy bounced lightly off him.

Apart from writing dozens of books, including his landmark Train To Pakistan, Khushwant was a scholar of Sikh history. His multi-volume A History of the Sikhs is among the most authoritative works on the subject. Though he had returned his Padma Bhushan to protest the government's attack on the Golden Temple, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2007 and served as a Rajya Sabha member in 1980-86.

When David Davidar was picked by Peter Mayer, then global chairman of Penguin, to launch Penguin in India, Khushwant was appointed consulting editor. David was executive editor of Gentleman, one of the six magazines in my media firm Sterling Newspapers. I'd sent David, who'd been with us for five years, to Harvard University for a six-week publishing course where he met Peter Mayer and got the Penguin offer. In Delhi, Khushwant and David formed a formidable team and laid the foundation for what is today India's largest book publishing house.

The two edited my biography of Rajiv Gandhi. I ended up spending several months in a Delhi hotel suite while we wrapped up the book for Penguin. In the evenings, Khushwant would invite us for a drink to his Sujan Singh Park house where an eclectic bunch of writers, artists and politicians congregated daily. Khushwant would retire to bed at 10pm sharp, allowing the rest of us to carry on with his favourite bottle of scotch and a hearty dinner prepared by his charming wife, the late Kaval Malik.

His son Rahul, a fine journalist himself, has always kept a low profile but it would be entirely fitting if Khushwant Singh's legacy is kept alive by him through a foundation celebrating his scholarship, literature and journalism.

Minhaz Merchant's latest book, The New Clash of Civilizations: How the Contest Between America, China, India and Islam Will Shape Our Century, was published in February 2014 by Rupa.