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Do I have regrets in life?

However, my greatest regret is that I did not have more to do with women I admired — but didn’t have the courage to have an affair with, writes Khushwant Singh.

india Updated: Apr 12, 2008 01:39 IST

Two years ago, I decided it was time for me to withdraw into myself. Some people would describe it as retirement. I chose a hallowed Indian word, sanyaas. But it was not sanyaas as it is commonly understood as total withdrawal from the world, as I wanted to stay in my comfortable home, enjoy tasty food and vintage wine, hear good music and indulge my senses in whatever remains of them. I began with a partial withdrawal: I refused to appear on TV or radio programmes. The next step was to drastically cut down on the number of visitors. I have not been successful in that.

Though much reduced in comparison with the past, they continue to drop in. I welcome those I know well but beseech them not to bring their friends with them. They think I have become swollen-headed and think too much of myself. That is not true; I simply cannot take the strain of conversing with strangers. I no longer give interviews to newspapers. However, some manage to turn dialogues into interviews. I realise that when, at the end, I am asked: “Do you have any regrets in life?” It is the stock last question. Instead of getting angry at the way I was manoeuvred to give an interview, the question makes me ponder: “Do I really regret things I did or did not do?” Of course, I do! I wasted many years studying and practising law which I hated. I also regret years spent serving the government abroad and at home and the years with Unesco in Paris. Although I saw places and enjoyed life, and having little to do, also started writing, I could have done a lot more of what I was best at. However, my greatest regret is that I did not have more to do with women I admired — but didn’t have the courage to have an affair with. So it was six on one side, half-a-dozen on the other. Rewards for some, regrets for others. I am reminded of a couplet by Ghalib:

“Na karda gunaaohhon kee bhee hasrat kee miley daad/Ya Rab! agar in karda gunahon kee zazaa hai”. (For sins I wanted to commit but did not, give me credit/O God, if you must punish me for those I did commit.)

Since I can’t relive lost years, the best I can do is to forget them — why cry over spilt milk? As for lost opportunities in cultivating ladies, there are Whittier’s lines:

For all the sad words of tongue and pen
The saddest are the “it might have been”.

Wheel of Fortune

I knew of a family distantly related to mine which lost three of its members within 15 days. Though getting on in years, they were in good health. So we were at the cremation ground every few days and then the bhog and antim ardas (last prayers) for a fortnight. I wondered if this was a mere coincidence or if there was a hidden hand in it of which we know nothing. However, between the three they had only one heir. For him, the wheel of fortune turned: from being a man of modest means he became lakhpati – a millionaire.

I know other families where the wheel of fortune took a downward turn: from being on top with a lot more to look forward to, they suffered a series of setbacks which made their lives miserable. Two who readily come to mind are Natwar Singh and the Nandas. Both have been front-page news off and on for a couple of years.

Natwar Singh is from a Jat family in Bharatpur. He had aristocratic pretensions — hence the prefix ‘K’ for Kanwar (prince) to his name. He was, and is, ambitious and self-promoting. He joined St Stephen’s college. He was good at studies as well as sports. He went on to Cambridge, got into the Foreign Service and served in many countries, including the United States and Pakistan. He married a beautiful and wealthy Patiala princess. He could afford to quit his job and enter politics. He joined the Congress party, won his way to the Lok Sabha from Bharatpur and in due course of time became Foreign Minister. He was bitten by the leadership bug. Wherever he was, he wanted to be the Chaudhary: president of the Gymkhana Club, head of several academic bodies (he had a couple of books under his belt). He enjoyed Sonia Gandhi’s patronage. The world was his oyster. His decline and downfall was rapid. First came the suicides of two women closely related to him. Then there was the scandal of his son Jagat and his buddy making illegal gains in the Food for Oil deal with Saddam Hussain’s Iraq. Much as he pretended his innocence and that of his son, he was forced to resign. His attempts to stay in Sonia Gandhi’s favour failed. He turned bitter, joined the Samajwadi Party, then the BJP — but is now party-less and jobless. No one is willing to support him to get to the Rajya Sabha. The wheel of fortune has come to a standstill with him at the bottom.

The Nandas, father, son and grandson, have suffered the same fate. Nanda senior came from a lower middle class family, living in an island facing Karachi harbour. The sea and boats were in his blood. He joined the Indian Navy and rose to become Admiral of the Fleet. During the 1970 War with Pakistan, his frigates stealthily sailed into Pakistan waters and bombed oil tanks in Karachi port. He wrote about his daring exploits. At my suggestion he entitled them Man Who Bombed Karachi. He retired with a wealth of information on what the Indian Navy and the Army needed to modernise. His son set up a company to provide the equipment, which was worth thousands of crores; his commission earned him hundreds of crores. They became rich beyond their wildest dreams. Then the wheel of fortune took a downward turn. The Admiral’s grandson driving a BMW ran over six people sleeping on the pavement. They paid off their dependants. Some people came forward claiming they had witnessed the incident. We are not sure if they were extortioners perjuring themselves to get a share of the Nandas’ millions or telling the truth. Finally, son and grandson were arrested trying to wriggle out of charges of acquiring unaccounted wealth. Both are in jail awaiting trial. No one envies their ill-gotten wealth, no one has much sympathy for them. What a turn of the wheel of fortune can do is beyond comprehension.

Holi Hai!

Explaining her aversion to Holi, a woman said: “My boss is purple with rage at me for coming late to office; my bank balance shows I am green with envy at our neighours; the rising prices give me the blues; life looks black. Do you think I need more colour in my life?

(Contributed by Swaran Kaur, New Delhi)