As another edition of the literature festival named after Khushwant Singh gets underway today, my mind is assailed by random thoughts on the man. My earliest memory of him is of reading his short story, ‘Portrait of a Lady’, in school, where he recounts his relationship with his grandmother, who teaches him the alphabet and accompanies him to school. She feeds sparrows daily and the poignant ending where the sparrows refuse to touch the food crumbs the day she passes away, has stayed with me to this day.
Then I laid my hands on ‘Train to Pakistan’ and was drawn by its simplicity and the redemptive sacrifice by the protagonist at the end. Next was the turn of the scholarly ‘A History of the Sikhs’. For someone wanting to know more about the community, it is considered standard text.
In one of the many columns he wrote for the papers, Khushwant sits inside a bulb in the logo and pours invective on one and all before ending it with a joke. Small publications were not anathema to him as his articles made way even into nondescript publications.
His self-deprecating humour was a class apart. He once wrote that some of his readers loathed him so much that in case the postal department received a letter addressed, ‘Bas***d, India’, he was sure it would be delivered at his doorstep. This coming from someone who revelled in calling himself ‘son of a gun’ was no surprise.
He writes that film star Nargis would request him to let her stay at his Kasauli house whenever she visited son Sanjay Dutt at the Sanawar school. He told his Rajya Sabha colleague that he would happily oblige her provided she let him boast that the great Nargis had slept in his bed.
Once while he was visiting Panjab University, Chandigarh, and the head of the English department wanted to know the secret of his success, the writer gave the credit to his reading of Shakespeare and the Bible.
I had the privilege to meet him in the nineties at a Chandigarh bookshop, where dressed in his trademark salwar-kurta he signed my copy of ‘Train to Pakistan’. When asked which of his books he thought was his favourite, he replied that like a mother cared for her sick child the most, he considered ‘I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale Again’, which critics had taken apart, as his best work. With his passing on last year, I also let the autographed book to pass into other hands.
His indomitable spirit could put much younger writers to shame as probably no one in their late eighties would attempt a novel almost bordering on porn. But then Khushwant Singh was made of sterner stuff.
A few lines from poet Walter Landor, with which he had once ended his column, would be a fitting tribute to the irreverent Sardar and the life he lived for almost a century.
‘I strove with none for none was worth my strife,
Nature I loved and next to Nature Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of Life,
It sinks and I am ready to depart.’
The writer is assistant news editor, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh