The Khushwant Singh I knew
Despite Khushwant's reputation as an agent provocateur, many who had read his various writings knew him to be a sensitive and skilful historian with great insights, writes Mangalam Srinivasan.Updated: Apr 06, 2014 10:40 IST
Khushwant Singh was a friend of mine and I knew him going back decades and even more during my two years of stay in New Delhi where I was engaged in advising Mrs Indira Gandhi and her government on matters related to science, technology and development in the early Eighties. I first met Khushwant when he was serving as the editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India revamping it and giving it new exciting garbs, some of which were radical, avant garde and ground-breaking. I went to his office in Bombay to protest against the categorisation of women in his series on 'five most beautiful women' from each of the selected communities in India, including my own. He received me graciously and gave a 'vintage' Khushwant reply: "I apologise for the list which was made before I met you"!
Despite Khushwant's reputation as an agent provocateur, many who had read his various writings knew him to be a sensitive and skilful historian with great insights, especially when it came to his accounts of the histories of his beloved Punjab, the formation of Pakistan and of movements such as the Akali Dal. In his introduction to a translation of Muhammed Iqbal's Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa, Khushwant wrote that he regarded Shikwa "as the first manifesto of the two-nation theory which was later elaborated and accepted as the basis of the foundation of a separate state for the Muslims (Pakistan) by Mohammad Ali Jinnah."
Similarly, on the demand for a Sikh homeland, according to Mark Tully and Satish Jacob, Khushwant wrote in his History of the Sikhs that the demand, initially, was nothing more than an attempt to prevent the creation of Pakistan. In both, he has shown how divisive ideas however small or deserving can take on wings of their own to create cleavages between nations and peoples.
Khushwant, behind all the projections he had carefully cultivated for himself as an outlier and a radical orbiting the outer fringes of "respectable" society, was really a decent and honourable person. He lived in an unostentatious apartment sparsely furnished with understated and utilitarian wooden furniture in Sujan Singh Park built by his father, who also built many of the iconic government buildings and residences of New Delhi during the last years of British rule in India. Decorative drapes, carpets and other collectors' items were conspicuously absent around his abode. He gave simple dinners and each time would have just four or five guests who sat around a little table and would share a simple, mostly vegetarian, meal. His family never sat at the table. Dinners would start around 7.30 pm or so and around 10 pm, Mrs Khushwant Singh would arrive to announce that the dinner was about to conclude and that the guests could leave at their early convenience!
He wrote about women, sex and relationships, often deeply offensive taboo subjects and bizarre happenings so freely and uneuphemistically that his readers came to expect escalating levels of shock value from his columns; he never disappointed them. In private conversations, he would try to push the boundaries: When we both were speakers at a conference in Seoul, South Korea, I introduced him to my friend Soon-il Hong, managing editor of the Korea Times. Among other topics, Khushwant asked Hong whether in the Korean language, the obscenities they used to scold, denigrate and demean were the same as in the Indian. The two men delighted in exchanging notes on the 'profound' subject and then left to visit a geisha house. Within a couple of hours, Khushwant returned to the hotel complaining that it was disgusting and the women were all over him. On another occasion when a young Punjabi bridegroom came to Khushwant seeking his advice and blessings, Khushwant told the blushing young man to always honour the woman and "be sure to keep her on top".
Khushwant habitually introduced me to his guests as a "great friend of Mrs. Gandhi (to my knowledge neither Mrs. Gandhi nor I had told him anything of that sort) and a 'proper Madras/Boston Brahmin'. His good standing with the Gandhi government seemed to have ended when he wrote a column, upon his return from a visit to Pakistan at the invitation of the Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq. Khushwant's column talked about how well the Hindus in Pakistan were being treated in contrast to the plight of Muslims in India. His close relationship with Maneka Gandhi, Mrs Gandhi's estranged daughter-in-law, did not help the situation either.
The rift between Khushwant and Mrs. Gandhi and her government took a new turn when the Indian army stormed the sacred Golden Temple at Amritsar to cleanse the complex of terrorists. Like most Sikhs, Khushwant too was deeply offended, despite his stand against militancy and the terror tactics of Sikh separatists, in particular, of Bhindranwale. He returned his much coveted civilian award of Padma Bhushan back to the government. I asked him, his non-religious persona notwithstanding, was he really not a closet Sikh, especially given his appearance. He responded by saying that he had written so much on Sikhs and Sikhism that he needed to keep up the appearance. Despite his best efforts, Khushwant was in much trouble with believers in his own community on his stands and for his pronouncements.
Early in February of 1983, I received an invitation from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to a luncheon at the Rashtrapati Bhavan during the Non-Aligned Summit. I had no idea how exclusive an invitation that was until I arrived at the magnificent venue. The entire guest list consisted of 16 heads of states, Mrs Gandhi, Dr A S Paintal and I. Khushwant was most amused that Fidel Castro remarked to me on American attempts to rid him of his beard but did not mention the assassination attempts on him. But what tickled Khushwant most was the prolonged conversation on 'bananas' with Castro reminding the leaders of the grief the banana had brought to the many countries in Latin America by the activities of the US trying to gain control of the banana market. He asked to interview me for an entire column on "leaders meet to talk bananas".
Despite his every effort to portray himself as a renegade at the low end of the cultural spectrum, and behind the banter, the biting satire, the irreverence and humour, one discovered in Khushwant a deep appreciation for the confluence of ideas and faiths that India has been for thousands of years. In his writings, one meets a scholar of great sensitivity with a deep love of nature and language. Here is a passage from a collection first published in 1969, The Haunted Simla Road:
"On the right is the Koti Valley with its stream glistening like quick-silver and the soft glow of lamps that come on unnoticed in distant farmsteads. There is something which makes you keep looking back over your shoulder. You hear the stamp of rickshaw pullers' feet and whiffs of perfume and cigar smell steal mysteriously across the moon-flecked road- and your heart is too full for words."
A few weeks ago, I had promised HT that I would send my 'recollections' of the one and only Khushwant Singh before his time so he could read them as well. If one believed that he lived his life dishing out malice toward one and all, he did so inimitably. He set out on a journey to heal the wounds on either side of the continental divide, no matter who started it, who flamed it, who nurtured it and for how long they had gone on. He will be deeply missed.
The author is an academic and a resident of Cambridge, USA