Ocean of Knowledge
THE OBIT p>
Khushwant Singh, my
mentor: A Tribute
By Satya Pal Singh
An afternoon siesta gave me tantrums of a child when I woke up after the "darshan" of that prodigy of intellect and the ocean of knowledge, who created an aura of exclusivity and exception in areas that promise an outreach impossible and too labyrinthine. You got it right, I am talking of that furrower of musical words, charmer of souls, called Khushwant Singh, who at 99 left for his heavenly abode last Thursday. Having been too busy with pressing home assignments for three days, I am feeling guilty for I could not express my pain over the loss of this unique mentor who taught me, as he taught hundreds of others, to be bold and fearless in this thankless profession, called journalism. Here, you write hundred things that please and mesmerize the readers and bring you accolades, but just one that whirls menacingly through the junction of their emotional spread kills your spirited run and turns you a villain.
I believe luck smiled on me when I saw in my dream the passing image of this grand old man slumped in a sofa within 24 hours of his demise. Maybe, I had been discussing with friends the mercurial side of this intellectual wizard who became inspiration for millions, lifting them from their morose, listless existence of inactivity at home on entering their sixties and seventies. At 95, he wrote : "All that I hope for is that when death comes to me, it comes swiftly, without much pain, like fading away in sound slumber. Till then I’ll keep working and living each day as it comes. There’s so much left to do." He quoted Iqbal: “Baagh-e-bahisht se mujhe hukm-e-safar diya tha kyon? Kaar-e-Jahaan daraaz hai, ab mera intezaar kar.." (Why did you order me out of the garden of paradise? I have a lot left to do; now you wait for me)... And a lot he has left behind !
His son Rahul Singh, former Editor of Reader's Digest, says : While my father might have touched upon the subject of mortality in his book 'Train to Pakistan, in his last days, the issue of death or mortality did not perturb him. He led a very full life...Last evening, he took his much-loved glass of single malt scotch, as was his daily routine. He even chatted with us a little and went off to sleep at his usual time. All seemed fine in the morning as well. He finished his usual crossword and got up from his chair to take a nap. He never woke up."
Not many would quite have enjoyed life 24x7 as he did. It's a contradiction then, that he looked so obsessed with the thought of death. He wrote at 95 : "Death is rarely spoken about in our homes. I wonder why. Especially when each one of us knows that death has to come, has to strike. It’s inevitable.... And one must prepare oneself to face it... I think of death very often, but I don’t lose sleep over it. I think of those gone; keep wondering where they are. Where have they gone? Where will they be? I don’t know the answers: where you go, what happens next... I once asked the Dalai Lama how one should face death and he had advised meditation. I’m not scared of death; I do not fear it. Death is inevitable. While I have thought about it a lot, I don’t brood about it. I’m prepared for it"... "Never say die," was his usual refrain.
As a writer, he had guts to puncture anybody's inflated ego. His sense of humour was a class of his own. This self-acclaimed "dirtiest old man", more often called "sadistic pen-holder" and "womanizer lying in wait" were the characteristic shreds of lore that lent spontaneous verve to his writings. He despised hypocrisy built on fake morals. His disdain for rituals and superstitions verged on the practical side of human thought and behaviour. For him only work was worship. He detested eulogy and loved sabre-rattling if that was used to hound the wayward back into the right track. We would hardly find an ascending, self-assertive politico of his times who ran amuck without being blocked by the sharp tip of his pen. He explored even heady, tough issues with ease, using his sensuous fingers.
Khushwant's son claims his father favoured no particular political party or any ideology. Then, was he politically naive and simply spoke from the heart ? How come, he came close to Indira Gandhi who imposed Emergency, and also championed the cause of Maneka after the death of Sanjay Gandhi? Later, he fell out with Maneka too. He strongly defended Sanjay, the extra-Constitutional authority of the Emergency period. He treated RSS, BJP, Akali Dal and Shiv Sena with reservation, believing that religion-based parties could not do any good to the country. Few agreed on this, but his writings truly spared none whom he saw going ‘astray'. He admired Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for honesty, but chose to ignore chastising him for his weaknesses. He saw 2002 Gujarat riots, tragedy of Graham Staines and his children, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and killings by terrorists as the result of "extreme corruption of religion" that has made the country most brutal on earth.
His boldness as a writer was simply matchless. A Sikh intellectual, Singh had the temerity to rap Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, sending tremors within the community. He enjoyed his whisky fearlessly after receiving the hate mail "Khushwant Singh, Bas***d, India" from extremists at a time when Bhindranwale stoked bloody terror. Khushwant as a surveyor of human follies and foibles was as admired as he was hated. A fine scholar of Sikh history, Singh swung between two extremes, of finery and absurdity, but with a very sharp mind and bold idiom. When a group of Sikhs obliquely advised him against cutting Santa-Banta type jokes, berating the community, he simply told them, "Go to hell." He would speak disdainfully of people, but all without malice. It was his perennially evolving mind, free of prejudices, that won him widespread acclaim as a writer.
Renowned lawyer, scholar, author, novelist, historian, politician, journalist and poet, Khushwant authored dozens of books on history and social issues, besides novels and stories. He was known for his brilliance, strong sense of humour and secular credentials. His illustrious professional career spans over 70 years that began as a practising lawyer in 1938. He entered Indian Foreign Service for independent India, doing several foreign assignments abroad. He joined All India Radio as a journalist before turning to editorial services. He edited 'Yojana', The Illustrated Weekly of India and two major newspapers, National Herald and The Hindustan Times. He saved a dying Illustrated Weekly, the country's pre-eminent newsweekly in the seventies, sending its circulation soaring from 65,000 to 4,00,000. He edited this century-old journal for nine years and, after his departure in 1978, its readership plunged sharply and ultimately went defunct in 1993.
I was not privileged to work under him, but had been in touch with him on professional matters of mutual interest. Every time I met him, he handed me a baton of light that served to quench my thirst for professional excellence. I edited his "Malice" column for 'Weekend Review' for more than a year. Once I took liberty to cut six lines from his piece and added one ; I got a wondrous "shabash" promptly from him. Thereafter, I became almost his blue-eyed boy. He even asked me to assist him in some of his projects. But since I had departed to public sector soon thereafter, I could not find time to do that. May I regret it now ? He regaled in promoting young journalists, who learned a lot from his audacious, spicy comments interspersed with strong streaks of humour.
Sometime people talk derisively about him, but I found him a very lively, loving person. I went to invite him for my daughter's marriage in 1998.."Sorry S.P., I am almost immobile now, can't really make it. Please bring your daughter and son-in-law here after marriage. My blessings would be always with them." Saying so, he walked up to a cupboard, lifted a beautifully wrapped token of love and blessings for the new-weds and gave me. That's how he welcomed and treated people.
Here is also how educated people felt floored even after he trudged on the absurd. On a wintry morning decades back, a university professor came knocking at my place, as if in a huff. I was amazed to sense his restlessness. I asked him if anything had gone wrong at home....He quipped, "Oh no, tell me what is this Khushwant of a dragging mass. You call him a giant, if he is really so, why does he insult people ? All that is troubling me a lot. I met him at a public function last night. In the midst of a brief exchange, he gave me an unkind cut, called a great, dedicated leader I admire, an 'arsehole'. I admit he is a great thinker, but someone certainly not at peace with himself." I said, "Never mind, friend. Khushwant is a hero fabled to be the offspring of a god and a mortal." Years later, this professor eulogized Kushwant in a masterpiece in which he quoted my broken words and sought to put this legend in great perspective which many may not consume. He described him as a "living legend on earth."
The grand old man has passed too far into the firmament as someone who amazingly touched and flirted with each tiny gap within human thought that gives breathing space to life of both the king and the commoner.
Khushwant had bemoaned, reflecting on his.advancing age:
“When you have counted eighty years and more,
Time and Fate will batter at your door;
But if you should survive to be a hundred,
Your life will be death to the very core."
And he wrote his own epitaph, as he had written for innumerable of his contemporaries:
“Here lies one who spared neither man nor God
Waste not your tears on him, he was a sod
Writing nasty things he regarded as great fun
Thank the Lord he is dead, this son of a gun.”