He always strikes the write note
As Khushwant Singh turns 92, the ‘Punjab Rattan’ continues to work at the pace he always has. Humra Quraishi talks to the man who has written with malice about one and all, and even been unsparing about himself.

I follow a slavish routine
Khushwant Singh: “I follow a slavish routine.” — Photo by Mukesh Aggarwal

If you believe that the pair of eyes relay all, then do look at Khushwant Singh’s eyes and you will know what I’m trying to convey. Even at 92, his eyes are that of a schoolboy’s. There seems to be no contradiction between what he says and what he thinks. A few years back when I was convinced that the hackneyed wine-and-women image did not tally with Khushwant’s conservative way of living I had asked him why that image when he is not only rather conservative but so involved with reading and writing. To that he’d said "That’s because I’m outspoken. I talk very openly and praise the quality of wine or the looks of a woman. I have been candid in my writings and speech."

He is open about the routine he keeps and about his philosophy of life. "I follow a slavish routine. You have to train yourself to be alone for writing is a solitary profession. You cannot write in the midst of people. On an average, I read and write the entire day—right from 5 am onwards. It is only from 7 pm to 8 pm that I meet friends. Emotionally I am very strong. I have never cultivated a close friend or lover, for relationships and love affairs consume too much of time and I have never wasted a single minute in the so-called affairs. Even the prettiest woman doesn’t stay here for more than 15 minutes, for, by then, she can read the impatience in my eyes. And I could be dropped by friends but I am least bothered."

During the course of an interview, he said in the same strain, "Yes I do have women friends. I do keep in touch with women whom I’d earlier made love to. I do fantasise about women. But I cannot stand women who are not animated. She could be the most beautiful woman but if she is not animated then it is wholly finished for me. I also feel that most marriages continue because most spouses don’t have the energy to fight a divorce battle."

When I’d asked him that how does he deal with those low phases that each of us faces at some point, he said, "I used to go to the cremation ground. It had a cleansing effect and was almost a therapy. I rarely get angry or hassled. No matter what happens, I try to keep my routine and see that whatever I have planned for the day is met with. In the morning, I jot down the list of deadlines to be met and I don’t retire till I have finished the day’s work. One has to slog, there is no other way ."

Though he took to writing after practising as a lawyer for seven long years at the Lahore High Court, till date he has written more than any Indian writer. He has been a witness to the Partition, Emergency and Operation Blue Star. Even though he had been awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1974, he returned it in 1984 "in protest against the Union Government’s siege of the Golden Temple."

In the two volumes of A History of the Sikhs (which are going to hold out for generations to come), he has detailed each and every aspect related to the Sikhs. In keeping with Sikh philosophy, he leads a simple life. None of the meals have more than two dishes and there are no frills.

There’s this incident tucked in his book Death At My Doorstep "In my third year as Editor of Hindustan Times, when my contract was due for renewal my (provider) K.K. Birla asked me ‘Sardar sahib aap ka retire honay kaa kya vichar hai? (aren’t you thinking of retiring ?). I was then 69. I replied ‘Birlaji, retire to main Nigambodh ghaat mein honga (I will retire when I’m taken to the cremation grounds."

He quotes poet Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s particular verse which re-stresses that death is inevitable, Rau mein hai raksh-e-umar kahaan deykheeye thammey? / Nai haath baag par hai nah pa hai rakaab mein (age travels at a galloping pace /who knows where will it stop/ we do not have the reins in our hands/ we do not have our feet in the stirrups)

He quotes Allama Iqbal’s Persian couplet to put across that when comes the time to depart a man should go without any bitterness or regret or carry grievances. "You ask me about the signs of a man of faith? When death comes to him he has a smile on his lips." Though Khushwant Singh has bared the different aspects of his life and times in his autobiography, Truth, Love and A Little Malice, its title holds out what lies in those pages. In another book, The End of India, he writes about his concern about what’s been happening in the country in the last few years. In an interview given to me shortly after the book was published, he sounded anguished at the build-up of communal forces and the religious divide. He strongly feels that as citizens of this country we should not sit like mute spectators and "if we love our country we have to save it from communal forces .And though the liberal class is shrinking, I do hope that the present generation totally rejects the communal and fascist policies." He speaks out and not in a bitter way but with logic and passion.

Even today he looks emotional at the mention of his birthplace—village Hadali (in Pakistan’s Sargodha district). About two years back, Minoo Bhandara—the well-known Parliamentarian of Pakistan, writer Bapsi Sidhwa’s brother, had brought photographs of Khushwant’s ancestral home. Seeing them, Khushwant spoke nostalgically, "Last I had visited the village was several years back when I was visiting Pakistan. It was an emotional experience, with a reception held for me and people coming to meet me. Ours was a large haveli. It is occupied by three refugee families who had gone from Rohtak. It was touching to see the gurdwara in the village still intact. Even during the Partition nobody touched the gurdwara though the village population was 90 per cent of Muslims. There were few Sikh and Hindu families."

Khushwant did not let the bitterness of the Partition affect him. He has done his bit to better Sikh Muslim ties. "I always wanted to bridge the gap between Sikhs and Muslims." When he was awarded the Rockefeller Fellowship, he decided to write the two volumes on the history of the Sikhs under the auspices of the Aligarh Muslim University. He says, "No, never did I develop any anti-Muslim feeling. Two persons have left a deep impact on me, one was my Urdu teacher Maulvi Shafiuddin Nayar at the Modern School and the other was Manzoor Qadir, my lawyer friend in Lahore, one of the finest human beings ever. They both left a deep impression on me."