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I decided to die just for fun: Khushwant Singh

"I am now over 90 years old and am aware that the hour of my tryst with destiny is drawing near," writes Khushwant Singh. Read edited excerpts from his Death at My Doorstep: Obituaries.

ht view Updated: Mar 21, 2014 08:05 IST
Khushwant Singh
Khushwant Singh

We do not talk of death lightly — it is regarded as tasteless, ill-mannered and depressing. This is the wrong way to look upon an essential fact of life which makes no exceptions: It comes to kings as well as beggars, to the rich and the poor, to saints as well as sinners, the aged and the young. You simply cannot turn a blind eye to it and fool yourself into believing that death comes to other people but will spare you.

I am now over 90 years old and am aware that the hour of my tryst with destiny is drawing near. I have given a lot of thought to it. Being a rationalist, I do not accept irrational, unproven theories of life-death-rebirth in different forms as an unending process till our beings mingle with God and we attain nirvana.

As far as I am concerned, I accept the finality of death; we do not know what happens to us after we die.

I have never subscribed to the belief that nothing bad should be said about the dead. If people were evil in their lifetimes, death does not convert them into saints. Such falsehoods may be condoned when inscribed on tombstones but not in obituaries which should be without bias, and truthful. I have written lots of obituaries about people I admired and loved; I have also written about people I detested and loathed. I have written obituaries of myself. The first entitled Posthumous was written when I was still in my twenties. (Here are some excerpts from Posthumous)

‘I am in bed with fever. It is not serious. In fact, it is not serious at all, as I have been left alone to look after myself. I wonder what would happen if the temperature suddenly shot up. Perhaps I would die. That would be really hard on my friends. I have so many and am so popular. I wonder what the paper would have to say about it. They couldn’t just ignore me. The headline would read ‘Sardar Khushwant Singh Dead’ — and then in somewhat smaller print: ‘We regret to announce the sudden death of Sardar Khushwant Singh at 6 pm last evening. He leaves behind a young widow, two infant children and a large number of friends and admirers to mourn his loss. It will be recalled that the Sardar came to settle in Lahore some five years ago from his hometown, Delhi. Within these years he rose to a position of eminence in the Bar and in politics. His loss will be mourned generally throughout the province.’

I feel very sorry for myself and for all my friends. With difficulty I check the tears which want to express sorrow at my own death. But I also feel elated and want people to mourn me. So I decide to die — just for the fun of it as it were. In the evening, giving enough time for the press to hear of my death, I give up the ghost. Having emerged from my corpse, I come down and sit on the cool marble steps at the entrance to wallow in posthumous glory.

At 10 o’clock a little crowd had collected in front of the open space beneath my flat. It consisted mainly of people I did not expect to see. There were some lawyers in their court dress, and a number of sightseers who wanted to find out what was happening. Two friends of mine also turned up, but they stood apart from the crowd.

A little later, a hearse, drawn by a bony brown horse arrived and pulled up in front of my doorstep. The horse and his master were completely oblivious of the solemnity of the occasion. The crowd did not have to wait very long. My corpse was brought down all tied up in white linen and placed inside the hearse. A few flowers were ceremoniously placed on me. The procession was ready to start.

I was in front, uncomfortably laid within the glass hearse, with half a dozen people walking behind. It went down towards the river.

By the time it had passed the main street, I found myself in solitude. I began to feel a little small. Lesser men than myself had larger crowds.

The route to the cremation ground is marked with an infinite variety of offensive smells. The climax is reached when one has to branch off the main road towards the crematorium along a narrow path which runs beside the city’s one and only sewer. It is a stream of dull, black fluid with bubbles bursting on its surface all the time.

Fortunately for me, I was given some time to ruminate over my miscalculated posthumous importance.

By now I was thoroughly fed up. There were three ways open to me. One was to take the route to the cremation ground and, like the others that went there, give myself up to scorching flames, perhaps to be born again into a better world, but probably to be extinguished into nothingness. There was another road which forked off to the right towards the city. There lived harlots and other people of ill-repute. They drank and gambled and fornicated. Theirs was a world of sensation and they crammed their lives with all the varieties which the senses were capable of registering. The third one was to take the way back. It was difficult to make up one’s mind. In situations like these the toss of a coin frequently helps. So I decided to toss the coin; heads and I hazard the world beyond; tails and I go to join the throng of sensation seekers in the city; if it is neither heads nor tails and the coin stands on its edge, I retrace my steps to a humdrum existence bereft of the spirit of adventure and denuded of the lust of living.

(The original was published by Roli Books in 2005)

First Published: Mar 21, 2014 02:24 IST