I WANT TO hang on but I know it’s close,’’ the grand old sardar had said of death – four years ago. In a rare moment then, he had discussed death for over an hour and, looking out of the window, had said, “I often look at that tree and wonder how long I’ll be able to see it. I’ve seen it grow with me. I’d like to hang on but I question what will remain of me — some memory, some book. I’m mentally fit but am losing my strength. I saw my wife lose her mind and then I saw her become a vegetable. I have to prepare for that possibility.”
He may be preparing for it, but Khushwant Singh, the raunchy raconteur and author of 30 books, is firmly focussed on life. Ask his son, Rahul Singh, what keeps his father going and the reply is quick: “Two shots of whisky every evening and all his women friends who drop in to seek his advice on their romantic lives.’’ Every evening — without fail — the former editor of The Illustrated Weekly puts his feet up on a stool (by the same window) in his living room and plays host to a select crowd of visitors between 7-8 pm. The bar at this elite central Delhi address has strict happy hours and there is a board at the main entrance that says, “Do not ring the bell, unless you are expected.”
Save for that one hour, Khushwant follows a strict regimen. He wakes up at 4 am before the crack of dawn and does all the crosswords in the daily newspapers, writes his column, takes a two-hour nap at noon, looks forward to the ‘happy hour,’ finishes his dinner by 8.30 pm and is fast asleep by 9.
He’s up again at 4 am the next day, and though he needs the support of a wall to walk and though he often picks up the landline at home only to say, “I am deaf, I can’t hear you, please send me a letter,’’ Khushwant is of perfect mental health and it’s not just his female friends who boost his energy. Urdu poetry and humour are steady, everyday companions and he needs them in equal doses.
Sikhs are known to be able to laugh at themselves, and recently when the grand old sardar found he was “bleeding from his bottom’’, as his son Rahul put it, Khushwant laughed about it, just as he now jokes about his inability to have sex. In the same interview four years ago, when asked what he misses most, he’d said, “Good sex. I already miss good sex and it’s been missing for some time. The day you can’t have sex is really the time for a man to go. But yes, I fantasise.”
Irreverence is one principle he’s measured his own life through, even writing his own obituary when he was in his 20s. His weekly column, ‘With Malice Towards One And All’ bears testimony to the fact that he is still in love with life. And life is what he’s focussed on, having already shed what he calls, “emotional baggage.’’ He has given everything away and says, “I have not a penny with me.” He has much more to share, and that he does, week after week, even if it is with malice!