Malavika’s Mumbaistan: The Spirit of Khushwant Singh

ByMalavika Sangghvi
Oct 29, 2022 12:15 AM IST

Everywhere one looked, there were instances of delightful anomalies, deviations and the breaking of stereotypes and pigeonholing that would have hugely pleased the celebrated media icon Khushwant Singh and appealed to his penchant for transcending clichés and conventions, writes Malavika Sangghvi in this week’s column…

He was known as a man who revelled in contradictions: An agnostic who authored esteemed tomes on religion; a self-professed hedonist who led a remarkably disciplined and hard-working life; someone who took very little in public life seriously, least of all himself, but who’d had the courage to stand up for his beliefs, returning his Padma Bhushan in protest of Operation Blue Star; a celebrated ladies’ man who through his life had cared deeply about the education of the girl child, and had championed his female colleagues, entrusting them with senior portfolios throughout his career; indeed (to paraphrase Kipling) a man who could walk with kings and prime ministers, but who never forgot his earthy roots, bawdy sense of humour or common touch.

Malavika’s Mumbaistan: The Spirit of Khushwant Singh
Malavika’s Mumbaistan: The Spirit of Khushwant Singh

And so, it was fitting that the 11th edition of the Khushwant Singh Lit Fest hosted earlier this month in the hill station cantonment town of Kasauli, by his son media maven Rahul Singh, and former TOI executive Niloufer Bilimoria reflected the syndrome of dichotomy that so defined the late editor and author.

We're now on WhatsApp. Click to join.

Everywhere one looked, there were instances of delightful anomalies, deviations and the breaking of stereotypes and pigeonholing that would have hugely pleased the celebrated media icon and appealed to his penchant for transcending clichés and conventions.


Take the case of Shazia Ilmi, a BJP spokesperson who’d conducted a couple of sessions. A former news anchor with a reputed channel who had quit her job in a fit of idealism to join Anna Hazare‘s anti-corruption movement in 2011; Ilmi, a woman from a traditional Sunni Muslim clan and once a card-holding member of Delhi’s so-called Lutyens’s set, now a member of the ruling regime, epitomised this breaking of stereotypes that Singh had so amply embodied and throughout her 3 days she was seen to be engaged in animated conversations with those who held opposing political views and were curious about her political choices.

Or take the case of dancer, actor and activist Mallika Sarabhai whose session I conducted: A formidable woman achiever, a graduate of IIM Ahmedabad and the daughter of a renowned scientist and a celebrated classical dancer, Sarabhais book ‘In Free Fall: Experiments with Life’, rather than a paean to her many towering accomplishments and achievements, is a searing, baring of her soul and her trysts with life’s challenges which had led to her deep dive into alternate therapies and healings -all the way from hypnotism, pranic healing, Ayurveda and colour therapy.

Usha Uthup the subject of the other session I conducted, was another lesson in demolishing preconceived notions: introducing herself as a ‘a nightclub singer’ Uthup who earned herself the sobriquet of ‘Queen of Pop’ ever since the Sixties when she had the nation bopping to her rousing ‘Ramba Ho’ and ‘Jambalaya‘, was a prime example of this breaking of stereotypes. Clad in her Kanjeevaram sari right down to her Kanjeevaram-covered sneakers, and mesmerising the gathering with her husky voice, her authorised biography by Vikas Kumar Jha revealed the deeply traditional values of family, respect for one’s parents and elders and a love for all things Indian, that has powered the iconic ‘nightclub singer’.


Erudite academician and historian Rajmohan Gandhi the grandson of not one but two national icons Mahatma Gandhi and Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, in conversation with Lok Sabha MP the scintillating Mahua Moitra on Gandhiji’s vision for India, was further evidence of this demolishing of preconceived notions. The 87-year-old statesman who has been part of some of the nation’s most epochal moments and whose presence never fails to evoke awe had in his impassioned session on fostering an atmosphere of peace and harmony (he broke down on a couple of occasions) suggested a delightfully simple and practical solution for bringing conflicting groups together: befriend your neighbours. Amidst the violence and carnage of Partition, he reminded audiences of the many acts of kindness that had arisen out of simple bonds of neighbourliness and a sense of community.

Another breaking of stereotypes was evident when the husband-wife team of Gautam Chikermane and Monika Halan, two of the country’s leading financial journalists participated in a session on their book ‘Sri Aurobindo: A Spiritual Renaissance’, proving that people noted for their empirical acuity who are steeped in the world of numbers, can be as deeply impassioned by matters spiritual, and what’s more are not afraid to wear these beliefs on their sleeve.

Again, actor Tusshar Kapoor, the progeny of a mainstream and successful Bollywood clan speaking about his book Bachelor Dad and his decision to be the single father of a surrogate child, was yet another example of this dismantling of preconceived notions. Soft-spoken, articulate and self-deprecating, his conversation with actor Divya Dutta was an eye opener to those who’d thought Bollywood was a breeding ground for patriarchy, entitlement and regressive values.


But of course, it was keynote speaker Amitav Ghosh who had set the tone for the festival‘s reaching across binaries and fostering an element of debate and dialogue in which opposing views could be expressed and received without A coming to blows..

In his keynote address on the festival’s theme ‘The Climate of Change’ the author and impassioned environmentalist spoke about the existential crisis the planet faced because of its ecological vulnerability. ‘War is the ultimate ecological disaster’ he’d said to a hall packed with distinguished members of the country’s defence services.

In fact, Ghosh’s keynote kick-off was ably and politely countered during the festival’s penultimate session by Col Anupam Sharma in his delivery on ‘Army in Ecology’, where through a series of photographs, statistics and videos he elaborated on how the army took ecology and conservation as seriously as it did the defence of the nation.

But the most significant evidence that the celebrated contrarian Khushwant Singh’s spirit was alive and well was the fact that in that mountainous cantonment town, so precariously close to the country’s fractious borders, where the army presence was palpable and the audience comprised many who had experienced the trials of battle at close quarters, the exchanges during the sessions that had received the most audience applause, were those that emphasised peace, harmony and a spirit of brotherhood and unity.

Indeed KSLF’ 22 was a delightful dismantling of preconceived notions and a validation that it is possible to reach across polarities, preconceived notions, binaries, stereotypes and clichés and arrive at those elusive things that makes gatherings such as these so worthwhile- and necessary: Genuine dialogue and an open mind, willing to listen to and learn from the other.

Certainly, old KS would have been happy…

"Exciting news! Hindustan Times is now on WhatsApp Channels Subscribe today by clicking the link and stay updated with the latest news!" Click here!
Story Saved
Live Score
Saved Articles
My Reads
My Offers
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Thursday, September 28, 2023
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Register Free and get Exciting Deals