D. S. Cheema
This book, which was published to coincide with Khushwant Singh’s birth anniversary on August 15 this year, is the result of collaborative efforts made by his daughter Mala Dayal and David Davidar, a well-known publisher, who was a founder-member of Penguin India. Both of them have skilfully selected his best writings, one from each year of the great writer’s unique life, as a diplomat, journalist, novelist and historian.
Since Khushwant is easily the most loved, read and admired Indian writer, picking up 99 of his best works must have been a challenge for the editors, who have tried to showcase his exceptional achievements as a writer of fiction, essays, history, experiences and jokes and as a translator, in one single volume. Introduction of about 25 pages by David Davidar opens a window to the great spectacle that is in store for the lucky reader.
Afterword by Mala Dayal, which is just about a page, is a matter-of-fact statement from a daughter about her famous father. Reviewing the work of one of our greatest and most entertaining writers, who was also one of the India’s most prominent public intellectuals, can only be a humbling experience for someone, who has been in love with every word the man wrote.
The wise and honest man was also known for his love for a daily dose of scotch and jokes, an image he deliberately cultivated. His thoughts on good living, old age, handling diversity, love and respect for nature, death and after life, are well-documented. His roots in Pakistan made him a life-long friend of Pakistanis. The Hanging of Bhutto is considered as an outstanding example of journalism in recent times.
He was also India’s most famous agonistic, but knew about religion more than any believer and wrote extensively on religion, godmen and religious hypocrisy. He once regretted that he could not play a greater role against the fundamentalists, the ‘fundoos’, as he famously called them. He never compromised on what he thought was right and getting on the wrong side of the most powerful did not stop him from showing them their real worth. If he was convinced about something, he would go all out to support it, even if it was the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi or decisions made by her son, Sanjay.
Train to Pakistan, one of his best works translated in many languages across the world, shows his pain at the trauma of 1947. His translations of Urdu poetry of his all-time favourites like Ghalib, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and works of Saadat Hasan Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Amrita Pritam make the reader admire his deep insight and love for literature. His love for Urdu poetry is obvious as he so often quoted many well-known poets extensively.
His modesty is reflected in his expression, ‘Self-praise is the utmost form of vulgarity’. He criticised his looks and never considered himself to be a great writer. He was indifferent to what others thought of his work. His reaction was no different when A History of the Sikhs, a book, which he considered the crowning achievement of his life, was criticised by Hew McLeod, an authority on religion. That is, perhaps, why he shines the brightest as a writer and as a man, who lived life on his own terms, even after he is gone.
Khushwant often quoted Hilaire Belloc, ‘When I am dead, I hope it will be said — His sins were scarlet, but his books were read’. Indeed, the books of one of India’s most celebrated writers will always be read. He would always live in the hearts of millions of his admirers and remembered for his enormous zest for life and generosity. He lived and died as a man, who will be looked up to by future generations, as a unique source of inspiration for journalists, editors, writers, translators and the common man, who admired the spunk in the regular columns, he wrote for The Tribune and Hindustan Times.
It may be said that the reader of this book will come to know a lot about Khushwant Singh, the man and the writer but not everything as it takes a lot to really know a man like him. Notes at the end of the book about the 15 sections are very useful in locating the original source from which the collections have been extracted. This is a book which must find a place in any personal collection or in a library anywhere.