Son sketches contradictions of the Khushwant persona
I was in Washington and my deputy editor at Reader’s Digest took me to a dinner party. He did not mention to the hosts who he was bringing along. While I was there, a group of people got into a discussion about the emergency decree in India. Suddenly one gentleman said, ‘I wish somebody would shoot that bastard Khushwant Singh.’ At this point my deputy editor stood up and introduced me saying this is Rahul Singh, son of Khushwant Singh. The party froze!
While such things happened quite often, he was very unmoved by it. He liked to show people letters that he received with addresses like ‘Bastard Khushwant Singh, India’. ‘Look, I have got this letter. It arrived to me even with this address,’ he would often say proudly, taking a dig at how efficient the postal department was in India. That was the real Khushwant Singh, my father, who liked making fun of himself and never took offence to what people said about him. He never took himself or other people seriously because he felt people take themselves too seriously. He used to make fun of Girilal Jain, his senior, for his statement that he did not write for the public but for the government.
He was a great communicator. He could speak to a simple villager in thet (chaste) Punjabi and also talk to a prime minister or a Nobel laureate with equal ease. Once I was travelling in the southern part of India, sometime in 1971 or 1972, and my car broke down in a village. While the mechanic was fixing the car and we went chatting, somebody heard that I was Khushwant Singh’s son. The man, a retired army jawan, came to me and showed me the postcard that my father had written to him.
He used to keep a stack of postcards on his table and replied to everybody who wrote to him. He would write 40 to 50 postcards every day. This continued till a few months ago [before his death]. His handwriting had become a bit shaky but he still used to write. In fact, I received a call from Nirmala Makhan, a TV anchor based out of Bangalore, who said she had received a letter from him only two days before his death where he had expressed the desire to complete the century. He had also quoted a line from a Keats poem.
During my Cambridge days, he used to write long letters and was keen that I join the Indian Administrative Service. With half-hearted efforts, I took the exam. Though I cleared the written test, I did not make it through the interview. In any case I was not too keen on that. He then advised me to join one of the big MNCs, the like of Burma Shell, as that was the big thing to do then. And while I did get an offer from one of the firms, I decided not to take it up. I used to contribute to a couple of magazines in Cambridge and had realised that my interest lay in writing.
He was not a journalist at that time, except that he had worked for Yojana. But he accepted my decision to join The Times of India. The only problem was that I had to shift to the Mumbai office. This is when he told me: ‘I have paid for your education and I believe that once a father has paid for a son’s or daughter’s education they must be entirely on their own.’ But he decided to pay for my stay in a very cheap hotel for a month in Mumbai. After that he never paid for any of my expenses, except that once in one or two months he would send me a bottle of rum.
Those were dry days in Mumbai and drinking was not legal. But I had the drinking permit that was usually accompanied by a doctor’s certificate. I was 22 years then, and though he was quite a strict father, conservative in that sense, he was okay with alcohol as long as it was moderate drinking. In fact, I started drinking only after I joined The Times of India, and perhaps had the first drink with my dad. But I do not recall it very clearly now. Unlike what people thought, he always believed that one should drink moderately and never had more than two drinks in a day. He used to always criticise Morarji Desai for his anti-alcohol policy, particularly since Desai thought that anybody who drank alcohol was a drunkard.
But he was quite a strict father in many ways. I once came back very late at night in my college days. We had gone out for a party with girls and boys. We were all supposed to get back home by 10.30 pm but failed to do so. The girls’ fathers all rang up saying, ‘Your son went out with our daughters and our daughters have not come back yet.’ He was very angry but asked my mother to stay quiet and said he would speak to me. When I reached home, he gave me a dressing down. ‘You can’t do that. The girls have their reputation at stake.’ So, unlike the popular perception, he was quite a strict person, not as liberal as he was made out to be.
Friends and family members were also used to his being a stickler for time. In fact, Lord Swaraj Paul, whenever he visited, would reach Sujan Singh Park early and wait for the clock to turn seven before he rang the doorbell. Rajiv Gandhi, when he came to our home on my 50th birthday, also had a taste of it. My dad made a very moving speech after dinner. He said that every member of the Gandhi family had been to his house, including Rajiv’s mother and his brother. He was happy that Rajiv could make it for the first time and said he felt honoured. ‘However, it’s time for me to go to bed, so good night,’ he said and left. His public persona was quite different from his personal persona. He was a serious scholar but liked to put out this image of wine, women and song.
He was also a person of simple things. One of the things that he always told me was not to accept any hospitality, or anything from my rich friends unless I can repay them. ‘Never do something, or accept anything, that will make you beholden to anybody,’ was his strong advice, and he followed it in letter and spirit himself. During my five-year stint with The Times of India in Mumbai, I used to stay as a paying guest; and since I had got a job with the Reader’s Digest and was slated to leave for England for a one-year training programme, my father asked me if he can shift into the same room. My landlady was startled that a man who was joining as the editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India wanted to take up a PG accommodation. But he stayed there for almost a year till he was given an accommodation by the publishers. After he finished his Rockefeller Foundation project and was looking for something to do, he got an opportunity at The Illustrated Weekly of India. The weekly was without an editor for quite some time since its editor, AS Raman, had moved out and was looking for someone to take over. He applied for it and got the job. This was a very fulfilling period for him.
In the nine years between 1969 and 1978, when he was the editor of the magazine, he transformed Indian journalism in many ways. As he had himself written in the preface to a collection of
columns, called Khushwant Singh’s Editor’s Page, he tore up the unwritten norms of gentility, both visual and linguistic till the Illustrated became a weekly habit of the English-reading pseudo-elite of the country. ‘It became the most widely read journal in Asia (barring Japan) because it reflected all the contending points of view on every conceivable subject: politics, economics, religion, and the arts,’ he had written.
During his journey, he also nurtured a whole generation of young journalists who went on to become editors. There were Bachi Karkaria, M J Akbar, Bikram Vohra and also Jiggs Kalra whom he
nurtured. He recognised their talents and promoted them. After I came back from training in England I shifted to an accommodation provided by the Reader’s Digest in Mumbai. This was very close to the place where my father lived and that was the time we had a lot of interaction. My mother was also there, but then she did not like Mumbai and decided to return to Delhi.
While we seldom discussed journalism, he would hold up the Reader’s Digest as an example of very good, simple English. He used to advise people that if they wanted to learn how to write simple but powerful English they should read the Reader’s Digest. He used to say that Indians have a habit of writing very complicated long sentences. His mantra was to keep the sentences short and use simple words. His advice was that one should only write about things that one is passionate about.
(As told to Shubhendu Parth)