‘His name would sell a phone book’

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Photo: Courtesy Sanjay Austa
Photo: Courtesy Sanjay Austa

What do smart sardars and UFOs have in common?
You hear a lot about them but no one’s actually met one.
(Politically incorrect joke found on the internet.)

I don’t know where you’d go to meet a UFO, but the polar opposite of the conventional sardar joke lives in Sujan Singh Park, New Delhi. Make an appointment, dodge a clowder of friendly cats, eyeball the legendary sign that advises you not to ring doorbell if you don’t have the said appointment, and spend an hour with Khushwant Singh. Who is, as the old joke has it, still “a surd among intellectuals, an intellectual among surds”.

Khushwant Singh, at 89, has more books behind him than Delhi has new authors launched in the course of a year. (As his trademark line goes: “Any rubbish I write gets published.”) The Library of Congress logged 99 books about or by Khushwant – and this was in 2002, before he added more (he’s lost count himself). “[This is] my swansong penned in the evening of my life,” he wrote at the age of 87, in the Prologue to his autobiography, Truth, Love & a Little Malice, “I am fast running out of writer’s ink.”

Three years later, he told Outlook, “No one has yet invented a condom for the writer’s pen.” His most recent novel, Burial At Sea, is simultaneously receiving its last rites from reviewers and making the bestseller charts courtesy his fans. He has finished revising his authoritative History of the Sikhs, a collection of stories is due out, he’s contemplating another novel. And that’s not counting the bits and pieces that feed the awesome Khushwant industry.

His two weekly columns draw postcards by the hundreds and are syndicated in over twelve different Indian languages. I’ve seen tired army jawans reading it near the Indo-China border: “Dekh, Sardarji kya keha raha hai.” Years later, on a trip to Kanyakumari, the stall owners on the beach discuss his column in Malayalam. I ask the taxi driver to translate. “They like the Banta Singh jokes very much.” There is no better homage to Khushwant than to start off a profile on him with the genre of joke he dragged out of the racist closet and made an art form.

The remarkably prolific career of India’s best-known and most beloved sardar began with a book that stopped dead after five pages or so. It was called Sheilla, because he thought that two ‘l’s sounded more impressive than one, and he scribbled the title in bold, flowing letters across the front of the notebook. “You put your name on it,” he says wryly, “and hoped it would be in all the bookstores.” Sheilla never saw the light of day. His second attempt featured a train that arrived in a small village in Punjab during Partition, bearing a terrible cargo. Train to Pakistan was first published in 1956; it’s never been out of print since. The village in the novel, Mano Majra, was modelled on Hadali, where Khushwant grew up.

Visitors testify that the standards of hospitality in his household remain Hadali-high – provided you respect his limits. Khushwant maintains an iron schedule. He’s up by 5 am and straight to work – “No wasting of time on prayers or anything, my only wasteful hobby is crossword puzzles”. Then he compiles material for his columns (“I slog for them – two a week, and I never miss a deadline”), edits, writes, strolls around the garden, and entertains a regulated stream of guests until 9 pm, when he summarily throws everyone out. Pakistani writer Bapsi Sidhwa once showed up late: “He saw me get out of the taxi, clapped to draw my attention and shouted: ‘You are exactly an hour late. But I forgive you because Crow Eaters is a first class book.’”

In between, he answers mail. Says writer, Manjula Padmanabhan, “I am told that he answers everyone, even if it’s only with a line on a postcard. I love that story. That tells me more about him than all the tasteless anecdotes that have occasionally trailed his name.” And it’s true. He politely turns away authors who want him to read their manuscripts – even so, he has three to peruse at present; gleefully collects the abusive letters (“I challenge you to read this one out loud,” he says of a postcard where the writer packs a wealth of anatomically impossible suggestions into that small yellow space); and offers advice, quotations, commentary to the rest. The man and the legend are inextricable, enduring. But what of the work? That’s what a writer leaves behind him; that’s what will outlast the anecdotes, the warmth, the controversies, the “dirty old man” tag. Don’t knock the “dirty old man” business; I still remember the 50-year-old man who announced drunkenly at a party after Company of Women came out: “Khushwant writes for ME! He knows what I am GOING through! He is in the skin of the North Indian MALE!” Writer and journalist, Suketu Mehta offers, “As a teenager, I read Khushwant’s novels for the dirty bits. [They] were terrific, and very rooted – the rustic Punjabi sex in A Train to Pakistan must have gotten an entire generation through college. It was a revelation at the time, because the other dirty bits we had access to occurred in English gardens and Parisian bordellos; here was sex we could identify with, had a hope of enjoying in our own lifetimes, in our own fields. It was only later that I realised there was real and lasting literary value to the book. But perhaps that’s how many of us were first exposed to the great masters, such as Lawrence – through the dirty bits.”

Writer and critic, Amit Chaudhuri suggests that with the rise of Indian writing in English, Khushwant Singh – never taken seriously as a political commentator, was reinvented as “a sort of national literary mandarin”. “In a dormant literary culture as lacking in generosity as ours,” he says, “any sign of unprejudiced or unjaundiced receptivity is welcome.” But Chaudhuri also sees in Khushwant’s tendency to praise writers in exaggerated terms a symptom of a deeper malaise: “Singh has deemed that Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy are ‘Nobel-prize material’, as if the Nobel Prize were… something you could put on your CV. It’s an instance of the familial language with which we’ve come to speak of culture, books, or writers in India, as we do of our children or our children’s prospective spouses – as safe or unsafe investments.”

Khushwant Singh’s absence from two of the better-known anthologies of recent times – Rushdie’s controversial Mirrorwork and Chaudhuri’s own anthology of modern Indian literature – is telling.

Subtract the joke books, the flotsam and jetsam, and you’re left with far less than you might expect from a writer who’s been working for over five decades. (This approach has its risks, as writer Pankaj Mishra gently points out: “We are expected to consider our writers as very serious people doing only very serious things. Otherwise it would be easy to see Khushwant as a writer who can do many things well – even things that are probably not worth doing at all, like the joke books.”)

The work that Khushwant would most like to be remembered by is his definitive history of the Sikhs – into its sixth edition now. “I was determined to do that,” he says. He names Train to Pakistan as the novel he thinks will continue to last, calls his short stories “underrated”, but singles out I Shall Not Hear The Nightingale, his second novel, for comment. “It’s a better book.” He’s phlegmatic about The Company of Women and Burial at Sea: elsewhere, he’s said that he never made great literary claims for the former. “They sell,” is what he says. “They get panned, but they sell.”

“I toast his individuality,” says Manjula, “He is a good middle-of-the-road writer. If there were many more of him, India could justifiably claim a healthy literary world. Sadly, there are so few of him, and so very many beneath him, that he is forced to occupy a higher status than he would if our literary milieu were a little more balanced. He is at least coherent, easy to read, mildly amusing and (oh rare! oh unusual!) literate in the old sense — meaning, he has actually read and enjoyed the classics.”

Bapsi Sidhwa touches a nerve when she suggests that “writers are seldom candid about who really influenced them – they trot out the usual ‘accepted’ names”. She continues: “But you can be sure he has influenced South Asian writers… Like the man, his writing is clear, perceptive and unpretentious, and like him it is also uninhibited.”

The shortlist for Khushwant is short to the point of abruptness: two novels, three if you count Delhi; the histories; the short stories. At bookshops, I talk to the people who actually sell the products of the Khushwant industry. One says, “This is the Eng Lit list. The columns will keep selling, so will the joke books. It doesn’t matter. You could append his name to a phone book and he will still sell.”

One of Khushwant’s most memorable creations no longer exists: the legendary Illustrated Weekly. For Pankaj Mishra, it was “the first real magazine” he encountered; later, Khushwant’s columns “if you were living in very small and isolated places, as I was, opened a window onto the larger world”. For Padmanabhan, it was the magazine that “ALL OF INDIA used to read”.

It was a nondescript cocktail party paper; Khushwant turned it into the journal you couldn’t ignore. Nothing was beneath his notice – he was never, says the man who notoriously pleaded Sanjay Gandhi’s cause, wrote with such passion on the Golden Temple affair and such clarity on Khalistan, interested in politics, so he wrote about books, nature, gossip. “I asked questions that touched a chord, even if it was why monkeys had red bottoms,” he says. “Hadn’t you ever wondered? It took a lot of research to find out.”

Khushwant never talks down to people. He’s curious, relentlessly curious. He’s candid, sometimes with devastating consequences in a culture used to polite hagiography and the veiled attack. He has, even in his near-nonagenarian years, the cheerful smuttiness of a schoolboy who never got over being a bosom man (“All men are bosom men”). And as generations of writers and editors will testify, he’s generous, even as he’s sceptical of greatness (“I have never met great men who don’t have feet of clay.”)

It’s impossible to project Khushwant Singh as just a sales phenomenon; he is no cynical publishing creation. Nor is he, despite the stunning mediocrity of some of his work, a failed writer – just a writer who never had much need to live up to that early promise.

Look at him again; the figure in the light-bulb, the whisky drinker who retires at nine, the man who candidly admits to lusting after women in his heart, which, however, belonged completely to his late wife; the quiet historian, the writer whose proudest boast is this: “I always meet my deadlines.” And the great secret of his success is simple. Underneath the scotch-and-scholarship hide, behind the mask of mentor or destroyer of reputations, there’s the person who, when someone writes to him, always writes back.

I’ve tired him out; it’s time to leave. I ask what lines he’d like to be remembered by, expecting him to choose something from his own books. But Khushwant Singh’s eyes light up and he quotes Walter Savage Landor’s Dying Speech of An Old Philosopher: “I strove with none, for none was worth my strife:/ Nature was my love, and, next to Nature, Art:/ I warm’d both hands at the fire of Life;/ It sinks; and I am ready to depart.”

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