Khushwant Singh, writer of exceptional intelligence
Published : Tuesday, 21 March, 2017 at 12:00 AM Count : 156
The author and journalist Khushwant Singh held a particular place in Indian life as a critic of the establishment and a challenger of hypocrisy. His ability to view matters from an outsider's perspective came out of the partition of the subcontinent in 1947: he belonged to a Sikh family, with roots in what became Pakistan, and the division into two countries led to his abandoning law and diplomacy for writing, as well as providing the subject-matter of his best-known novel, Train to Pakistan.
Though his mother tongue was Punjabi and his cultural language was Urdu - he loved the Urdu poets and knew the Persian script - he chose to write in English, and soaked himself in Punjabi, Urdu and English and other European literature. Intellectually independent, he never took himself too seriously, and despite his Sikh background was an unrepentant agnostic. He made quite a success out of poking fun at pomposity, self?righteousness, religiosity and his country's myriad gods.
His newspaper column With Malice Towards One and All was syndicated all over India, and his benign attitude towards Pakistan and Muslims in general infuriated many of India's nationalists, notably the rightwing Hindus who dubbed him "the last Pakistani living on Indian soil". His critics - and they were many - accused him of having been born with a whole set of silver cutlery in his mouth and so able to publish just what he liked in his countless columns and more than 100 novels and short-story collections, a freedom not so readily available to others. He also liked to cultivate a rakish reputation, and the sexual daring of some of his earlier work was regarded by some as scandalous.
For a time he was close to Indira Gandhi, prime minister in the 1960s and 70s, and again from 1980. Those who detested him as a member of her kitchen cabinet called him Khushamadi - "toady" - Singh. However, when Gandhi ordered the storming of the Golden Temple at Amritsar in 1984, he bade her farewell and returned the state honour she had bestowed upon him. Many years later, Gandhi's daughter-in-law Sonia gave him a higher honour.
More than 450 Sikhs were killed at Amritsar, and five months later Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh guards. The Sikhs of Delhi were set upon by furious Hindus, and Singh sought refuge in the Swedish embassy, noting: "I felt a refugee in my own country." However, he strongly opposed the notion of Khalistan, a separate homeland for Sikhs, and when he returned to his flat it was guarded by armed policemen. From 1980 to 1986 he was a member of the upper house of the Indian parliament.
Singh was born in the Muslim-majority village of Hadali in what is now the Punjab province of Pakistan. His family was involved in trade and large construction contracts for the New Delhi designed by Sir Edward Lutyens in the 1920s and 30s.
He was never a bookish boy and managed to scrape by with the minimum of work. After St Stephen's college, Delhi, he went to Government College, Lahore, where he gained a third-class degree. Singh then tried for a place at King's College London, since it sounded grander than University College or the London School of Economics, and in 1934 embarked on the sea journey to take it up. He also enrolled at the Inner Temple and was called to the bar. A move to enter the Indian civil service proved unsuccessful, and so he went back to Lahore, where he pursued a less than brilliant legal career at the high court.
In 1947 he joined India's ministry of external affairs and served as press officer in Ottawa and London. However, his relationship with politicians and bureaucrats was always an uneasy one. At the same time he was researching and writing on Sikh history, art and religion, and his two-volume History of the Sikhs, published in the early 1960s, became a standard work. He also wrote passionately about the environment and lovingly about flowers and birds: a cat-lover and rambler, he was also a dedicated birdwatcher, and a friend of the naturalist and conservationist Peter Scott.
When partition came, Singh was a witness to people being killed on both sides of the India-Pakistan border. Train to Pakistan reflects his accuracy and honesty, and was made into a 1998 Hindi film directed by Pamela Rooks. I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale (1959), Delhi: A Novel (1990) and The Company of Women (1999) remain landmarks in Indo-English fiction, while the title of his autobiography, Truth, Love and a Little Malice (2002), is exactly to the point. With Humra Quraishi he produced Absolute Khushwant: The Low-down on Life, Death and Most Things In-between (2010) and a book of biographical profiles, The Good, the Bad and the Ridiculous (2013). In his final novel, The Sunset Club (2010), a group of octogenarians discourse on politics, philosophy and the pleasures of the flesh.
Singh's love of Urdu poetry prompted him to translate a lot of it into English. At a literary festival held in Kasauli, in the Himalayan foothills, in 2012, Salima Hashmi, the daughter of his friend Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the great Urdu poet, travelled from Pakistan to acknowledge his work in this field.
As an editor of leading Indian publications, Singh encouraged many younger writers, including me. Professionally, he was always generous, open to ideas and innovations and, above all, big-hearted. Every evening from seven onwards his numerous friends, Indians and foreigners, would visit him. This was Johnnie Walker and talk time, presided over by a host who was endlessly interesting and witty.
March 20 marked the 3rd death anniversary of Khushwant Singh.
The writer is a freelance contributor.