Life of sex, scotch and scholarship ends at 99

One of India’s best known scribe, whose keen and astute gossip was scathing cultural commentary on one hand and stellar pieces of genuine literary warmth on the other, Singh’s best-known column ‘With Malice Towards One and All’ was syndicated across newspapers.

Wit and irreverence were his second nature, and throughout his scintillating career as the country’s most loved journalist, diplomat, historian and columnist, Singh edited a number of prestigious publications, including The Illustrated Weekly of India, the National Herald and the Hindustan Times, as well as Yojana, the Indian government journal.

Born on 2 February 1915 in Hadali, now in Pakistan’s Punjab province, Singh evoked the pain of Partition in his novels like no other. His foray into literature was punctuated by spurts of brilliance in a long and chequered career spanning several decades, but Train to Pakistan (1956) remains one of his best works. Graphic and unsparing, yet pitiless and unsentimental, the novel acted as collective catharsis for Indians at a time when the trauma of Partition was still fresh and as yet unspoken about. His equally celebrated later works, I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale (1959), The Company of Women, Delhi: A Novel, as well as his much-touted autobiography Truth, Love and a Little Malice (2002) have been international bestsellers. However, historians say his biggest contribution has been the detailed and engrossing History of Sikhs (1963), a magnificent work of erudition and love, scholarship and scrounging for identity that assumed particular relevance in the post-1984 splintered landscape of nationwide anti-Sikh sentiments.

Singh’s satirical take on contemporary issues, as well as his much talked about ‘obsession’ with women have been, in common parlance, the ‘stuff of legends.’ Even as the man continued to mentor younger writers and artists, leading, as his son, journalist Rahul Singh puts it ‘a full life’, he steered clear of ideological trappings, in most times but one. The one inglorious chapter in Khushwant Singh’s otherwise luminous life was his malexperiment with Sanjay Gandhi in the heyday of Emergency. Essays, articles and interviews which appeared in the Illustrated Weekly in favour of Sanjay, whom Singh posited as the ‘Man Who Gets Things Done’ (reminiscent of the current admiration for a leader who is lauded for his efficiency and governance), endorsed every move of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s younger son. Even as critics challenged Sanjay’s extra-constitutional powers, Singh’s blindness towards Sanjay was somewhat rectified after the Gandhi scion’s violent death in a plane crash in June 1980. Among his admirers, and there are too many, it is customary to talk about his pre-Sanjay days in hushed tones, while eulogising the later, happier and more politically unaffected Khushwant Singh.

In fact, his leafy Sujan Singh Park house, where he breathed last, has its share in Lutyens’ Delhi’s architectural history. Named after Singh’s grandfather, Sir Sujan Singh, the apartment is a landmark for Capital’s old guard. Khushwant Singh’s life, sprinkled with awards national and international, prominent among them the Padma Bhushan in 1974 which he returned to protest the ’84 riots and Padma Vibhushan in 2007, as well as his tenure at Rajya Sabha (1980-86), were all embellishments that fell inadequately short of describing his ready wit and humungous magnanimity. He held his Sikh identity dear, even though one of his greatest moments came when he vehemently opposed the June 1984 storming of Golden Temple by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, even though the government’s Operation Blue Star came under heavy criticism later.

For a man who penned his epitaph at 28, and whose one-liners are as famously quoted till date as his legendary love of whiskey and self-proclaimed ‘lust for women’, Singh was the epitome of ingenuous ribaldry that defied boundaries, generic or political, religious or linguistic. India, not just Delhi, has been orphaned, but contemporary writers can continue to draw solace from Singh’s immortal words: ‘There is no condom for a pen.’
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