Last week, I was saddened to hear about the demise of one of India’s most prolific writers and editors, Mr Khushwant Singh. For many like me who grew up in India, he remained a larger than life figure who was known to be outspoken, firm on what he stood for (though not everyone may subscribe to his views) and often controversial. These perhaps hid another part of his life which was that he was a prolific writer who covered a variety of subjects over the decades by way of his published work. Some knew of him as a historian, with his History of the Sikhs being a top-notch contribution to the story of that illustrious race to which he himself belonged to. Others remember him for his novels, including that moving story, “The Last Train To Pakistan.” I read this decades ago but I still remember the story quite vividly. Yet others may remember him for his fund of jokes bordering on the risqué which he published in book form.
Khushwant Singh was born in 1915 in that part of the Punjab which went to Pakistan following the bitter Partition of India in 1947. The novel I just spoke of is set in those tumultuous times. He also later had a celebrated column called “With Malice Towards One and All” which was written in his inimitable style. For those of you who may wish to read his books which you might have missed, his Author Page at Amazon comes in handy.
So many tributes have been paid to him by those who knew him and worked with him. Geeta Doctor has been one of the many who shared their thoughts of the Dirty Old Man as he liked to call himself, creating an image of a colourful lech. I remember Khushwant Singh as the Editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, which was the most popular magazine in the India when I grew up. It was founded in 1880 and it was part of our lives. Many of us felt a personal sense of loss when the venerable magazine was shut down in 1993.
Khushwant was outspoken and didn’t hesitate to call a spade a spade. He supported Sanjay Gandhi, the second son of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when she declared the Emergency in India in 1975-77. Though some of the measures like seeking to control the population were commendable, the means to achieve them such as mass sterilisation were most dubious to say the least. Khushwant did not suffer fools gladly and lived life the way he liked. He was greatly upset when Indira Gandhi sent in the Indian Army into the Golden Temple in 1984 and returned the Padma Bhushan he had earlier been awarded. Here is an article he wrote decades later about those times.
I am sure the Old Man and we his fans would have been delighted if had lived to be 100 but it was not to be. Yet, we remember him for his zeal towards life, his colourful quotes as also his serious writing. Wherever you might be, Sardar Khushwant Singh, “khush raho.” Be Happy, because that is what you taught us to be.