I must have been 20 when the Hindustan Times launched its special Saturday edition. My editor was Namita Bhandare, one of the finest and most inspiring people I've worked with. This was also the time when Khushwant Singh's famous column, With Malice Towards One and All, along with the 'Sardar in the light bulb' logo, began to feature on Saturday instead of the Sunday paper. As most of you would recollect, Singh was once the prized editor of HT and his columns have been in wide circulation for almost twice the years I've been alive.
It was common knowledge that whenever he would take a break from his weekly musings, and would head off to the hills for holiday, our office would be inundated with letters from readers across the country, inquiring why he had stopped writing, or if, god forbid, we had forgotten to print his column. It was standard practice that the office help would cycle down once a week to his apartment in Sujan Singh Park, opposite Khan Market, and pick up the freshly typewritten onion-skin paper found lodged on the grill of a window.
Rumour had it that Singh would write down the column first by hand, which would then be transcribed on a typewriter, and finally proofed by him with a pen. There was a certain allure to his writing, which I was quite oblivious and impervious to then. (It was part of my job to edit his columns, and flow it on the page. I would often grumble while doing it, and ask why we had to put up with the old sod's bickering and archaic sexual escapades.)
It only dawned on me much later when I became a writer myself, the full extent of his candour and spirit, the barriers this master storyteller had to break to be loved and appreciated. His ability to freely write on sex, booze and religion for more than a half century in a country suffering strange cultural amnesia, and possessing a queasy stomach for tolerance and expression, which he had inherited, and was liberally passing on to us.
"I compliment all women I meet. I compliment the beautiful ones, even the ugly ones," he told me one winter afternoon in his drawing room, with a wink. "All my life I have loved women and drank whiskey. I can't change this about me; no, not even now. But I have lived on because I maintained a strict discipline; not a single day has gone by that I don't write, or miss my morning walks when I am not ill."
It had taken me weeks to arrange this interview with Khushwant Singh. Every time I would call his home, he would pick up the phone and holler, "Hello, I can't hear you. Please don't call me. Forgive me, I am deaf! Can you hear me? I am DEAF!!" God knows why no else in the house would ever answer his phone.
When I was just about to give up hope of meeting him, I decided one day I would drop by and see if I would get kicked out. Namita was keen I do a profile on Singh because he had won a prestigious lifetime award for his contribution to arts and letters, one of the many, no doubt.
Last week, Khushwant Singh wrote perhaps one of his last few columns in the HT titled 'Desire to die' (it now appears on Monday and I no longer edit them). He said chances of continuing his fortnightly column (he writes a weekly) appear bleaker by the day given his debilitating health condition.
"The truth is I want to die. I have lived long enough and am fed up of life." I felt instantly depressed when I read it. He is 98, or so he claims, and doesn't want to hang on to life anymore. But then again, I know better not to write him off so soon, he has made such noises in the past as well.
In the summer of 2005, a year after I had left school and somehow stumbled into journalism, I was handed my first visiting card, which meant more to me than the one I carry today that reads editor. The card announced to the world I was a reporter with the HT, and along with that joy, there came the rarest of opportunity when I got to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
If I remember correctly, it was the posthumous launch of veteran Marxist leader and economist Dr Biplab Dasgupta's book Globalisation: India's Adjustment Experience at 7 Race Course Road. I arrived earlier than expected, and found myself waiting for the longest time for some sombre-looking journalists to arrive. After a thorough security check, and being asked to switch off our mobile phones and leave them at the entrance with the guards, we were then solemnly led into a sprawling bungalow stealing quick glances at a beautiful garden.
Once in, I remember being mind-numbingly bored and stupendously nervous at the same time. Dasgupta had died shortly before the release of his book, so everyone from the PM to Communist leaders came forward to pay their obeisance and tribute, rather than talk about the book.
I knew I was way out of my depth; I had not even made a distinction between Karl Marx and Groucho Marx. The brief of the book, too, was heavy: "a comprehensive appraisal of Indian economic reforms, and how they unfolded in stages since 1991". Everything that was spoken, or discussed, went quite over my head.
Consolation finally appeared in the form of a pakoda after an hour or so, when the screens from the conference room were lifted, and waiters poured in to serve hot tea and delicious snacks. I remember awkwardly hanging around, ashamed of my boarding school appetite, when I almost bumped into the prime minister. He seemed rather nice, grand-fatherly, sipping tea, and standing aloof. Like me, he too was very new to office, and we were both politely shuffling about the room with a smile, trying to be most discreet, least intrusive.
When we finally came face-to-face, we shook hands. I told him I was a reporter. He didn't seem convinced. So I slipped him my card, which he held onto. I said I was truly honoured to meet him, and then paused to take a deep breath and wonder how I could manage to get a scoop out of him, which would seal my double promotion. Then suddenly someone came over from across the room and started speaking to him. I stood there for quite some time, feeling ignored, and not knowing if it was appropriate to leave, because I hadn't said bye. At some point, he gently tapped me on the shoulder. I took the cue, and made a swift exit.
I remember that day vividly.
Last Friday, the PM made perhaps his strongest and evocative speech to the nation. He said he has had to take hard decisions on reforms for India to move forward. He asked the people to trust him and give his government a fair chance, and promised to deliver. In recent times, a lot of fun has been made at Manmohan Singh's expense and his no-good government.
But, in my opinion, it would be too presumptive of us, if our prime minister is to be solely remembered by the present gloom that shadows our country. In retrospect, I know it was rather silly of me to have given him my visiting card, but it would have been nice if the PM had once dropped me a line, if not called.
For the past two years, my best friend Arjan Vir Singh from Mayo College, Ajmer, has been battling leukemia (blood cancer) with such courage, strength, resilience, and will to live, that it has put my entire life, my fears and decisions, in perspective. We have practically grown up together, his parents call me their third son, and we have played, prayed and partied together since we were in Class 9.
One December afternoon, he called me over, and said he had been diagnosed with cancer. He was breathing heavily those days, looking frail, frightened and forlorn. The enormity of sadness had not fully taken form, or toll, but the sea of chaos had risen and was about to sweep over our lives.
Looking back at how he has dealt with life and death since, it makes me wonder how much we take our body, soul and fate for granted. How often we push our limits without realising the limits. What is life and death?
The other day I asked Arjan what I could do for him. I have not seen him for months because he was in the US for treatment and now he's in a hospital in Gurgaon, highly prone and vulnerable to illness and infection.
"Pray for me," he said.
I have to say though, and he too would agree, if it had not been for the unequivocal love, happiness, support and protection I have seen his family provide for him in these desperate times of despair and disillusionment, he would have had little resolve or desire to hang on. He is truly blessed to have such a caring family. I pray for the life of me he gets well.
Three Sardars walk into a bar. They have drinks, eat food, share memories, and go back home laughing.