Remembering Khushwant Singh, provocative but honest : The Tribune India

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Remembering Khushwant Singh, provocative but honest

Remembering Khushwant Singh, provocative but honest

Khushwant Singh’s ‘Train to Pakistan’ speaks to all who have experienced such partitions.

GJV Prasad

I must be one of the few academics living in Delhi and interested in Indian English writing who never met Khushwant Singh. And to think that we lived quite close to each other for a long time, and that later in life, I would have an office in-charge who used to type for Khushwant Singh in the olden days! I promptly began to type all my writing myself instead of leaving me open to comparison with the great man!

Make no mistake, Khushwant Singh was a good writer, even if he is known to a majority of his readers for his collections of jokes and his popular newspaper columns. According to official records, he was born in Hadali (now in Pakistan) on February 2, 1915, though he always claimed August 15 as his birthday. This column is because I am going with the official birthday and celebrating his birth anniversary, even if about 10 days late!

Khushwant Singh was, perhaps, the most well-known Indian English writer of his day, his columns read religiously by people who would look for jokes submitted by them or people known to them. He was appreciated both for his humour, which could be directed against himself or his community, as well for the interactive nature of his column. He was read for his views on sex, politics and religion. He was seen as the genial sardar, one who was provocative but honest.

His stint as editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India is the stuff of legends. He turned a staid magazine into one of the most-read weeklies, with his collectible issues on various communities of India, even while others read him for the freedom he brought to his discussion of various orthodoxies and social mores. He was an agnostic who was fascinated by faith, a scholar of Sikhism, one who also translated the scriptures. He also had a lasting interest in Urdu poetry and has some significant translations into English. I must add that his career as editor of the Illustrated Weekly also saw his fondness for Sanjay Gandhi expressed during the Emergency. He did not distance himself from the Gandhis when the Congress lost the elections after the Emergency was lifted and paid the price for it.

Mentioning the Emergency brings me to notice that his life spanned World War II (he once said that his village provided more soldiers to the Imperial forces in terms of percentage of population than any other village!), Partition and Independence, Emergency, the Khalistan movement, Operation Bluestar, Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the many Hindu-Muslim riots, and the rise of religious fundamentalism (which he abhorred and wrote against, warning his readers about those he called ‘fundoos’).

Khushwant Singh published more than a dozen literary works but even if he had not published any after his first novel, ‘Train to Pakistan’ (1956), his place in our literary canon would have been pucka. This is a modern classic, one which depicts the events leading to Partition and Independence, simply one of the best novels on the period. His understanding of the place and time, of societal forces, of the contingent nature of order, the nature of human beings, allows him to write a taut, well-paced narrative. The novel illustrates one of Khushwant Singh’s life-long beliefs that only love and sex can bring communities together, that love was what we needed, not tolerance. This novel speaks to all who have experienced such partitions — I once spoke on the novel (and showed the film version) to a packed hall in the buffer zone between Greek and Turkish Cyprus where people from both sides congregate for cultural events. The audience was hugely appreciative of the book and people spoke of their own experiences of such a divide.

Khushwant Singh died on March 20, 2014, but he had already written an obituary for himself in 1943! He also wrote an epitaph that read, “Here lies one that 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.” This man who laughed at himself thus also wrote he had nourished his Hadali roots “with tears of nostalgia”, and his ashes were taken to his birthplace and a plaque memorialises this son of undivided, non-fundoo India. 

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