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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 14, March 29, 2014

Khushwant Singh passes away at 99


Wednesday 2 April 2014, by Humra Quraishi



Sardar Khushwant Singh lived life at his own terms. He spoke fearlessly. He wrote along the same strain. No contradictions. Just no hypocrisy, no frills and none of the modern-day complications. Till date he hadn’t got himself a computer and nor a secretary and definitely not a mobile. ”Mere bas ka naheen hai yeh sab... I am happy writing on a note pad...“ And he‘d moaned when one of his friends had got him a mobile. Rejecting modern-day gadgets, keeping to the very basics.

In fact, the three decades I’d been interacting with him, there were those aspects that stood out. Khushwant was childlike and rather too spontaneous with his emotions; that probably explains why his eyes carried that boyish look. In fact, he need not have spoken a word, those emotions stared out from his eyes, from the expressions on his face. This when he proclaimed rather loud and clear that he wasn’t the emotional type!

Even at the cost of sounding cliched, he was ‘doston ka dost‘. Anything for a friend! Yes, he could do anything... Till about the time his close friend, Prem Kirpal, died, Khushwant did make it a point to visit him almost every week. Often, I ‘d accompanied him, and though Prem Kirpal was stone deaf, he would receive us with a smile and much hospitality followed. And when Khushwant would announce that it was time to go, Kirpal looked sullen. This when Khu-shwant had written some rather provo-cative passages on Kirpal’s chronic bachelor-hood. But, then, there was that rapport between the two.

There could be many whom Khushwant had helped out, though he had never ever dwelt on those details... In fact, several years back, theatre personality Balwant Gargi had told me of the acute financial strains that Gargi was under-going and how only one particular person in this Capital city helped him out. “Sardar Khushwant sahib had helped me out, paid my electricity bills... he did so without letting the sardarni know... did so very quietly, sardarni did not get to know.”

I’m certain that patients lying in the confines of the Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital in New Delhi wouldn’t have an inkling of Khushwant’s role in the building of a modern and well-equipped dharamshala for the caretakers accompanying these patients from far-flung sectors. This dharamshala is a ‘Sir Sobha Singh‘ project that came through because of Khushwant’s persis-tence and initiative. He seemed determined that this building come up as part of the hospital bandobast for the hapless patients, in tune with the Sikh philosophy that one-tenth of the ear-nings should go to the disadvantaged. A philos-ophy followed by his parents,” my father always gave one-tenth of his earnings to charity, now this trust in his name... In fact, whenever my father visited AIIMS he’d commented that there was no place for caretakers to stay, particularly as many may have travelled with their patients. Although he tried he couldn’t build one in his lifetime. So it was left for the family and to the Sir Sobha Singh Trust to build this one...”

In fact, all these years in my constant interactions with him I haven’t ever heard him raising his voice. On several occasions I‘d seen young enthusiastic writers barging in unanno-unced and he looking totally taken aback, saying that he doesn’t meet without a prior appoint-ment. The intruders still about lingering on. With that he looking upset, but somewhat relenting, “Okay sit, okay have a drink.” Yes, he could look upset or irritated, but, then, nothing beyond. Even if guests lingered on, that is, beyond 8 pm, he came up with rather gentle reminders, “bhai... aab tum jao.” There was that look of impatience in his eyes but, then, he was not the one who could ever get rude.

A Caring Man

Call it strange or call it by any other term, but all these years I have seen him sitting on the same chair and amidst the same settings. In fact, about fourteen years back when his spouse Kaval was battling with Alzheimer’s disorder, he’d be sitting on the sofa chair placed across to where she’d sat. His eyes moving from the notepad he’d be writing on, towards her. Had been seeing him in that role, mind you, not just one evening, but for months at a stretch. During that phase I used to visit him almost every day, as the two of us would walk towards the Lodi Gardens. Once there he’d walk for a while, before being surrounded by many of his admirers. In fact, once we’d reach the side gates to this garden, we’d part ways—in the sense I would take the full round, and he‘d walk along the stretch facing the ‘gumbad‘ situated in the very heart of these Gardens. The meeting-point, to walk back, was those steps leading to the ‘gumbad’. Invariably, I found him sitting on the steps leading to the ‘gumbad’ with at least a dozen fellow walkers also sitting on those steps. Chatting with him, asking him for his comments and views about the various political aspects and current happenings And along with them there’s to be a channa-seller who’d always come along to wish him. Not that Khushwant bought any of his wares but did make it a point to exchange a sentence or two, followed by polite nods...

“Don’t you get irritated with all these people coming up to you, not leaving you even whilst you‘re walking?” I couldn’t help asking him, and he’d smile, implying its all okay, part of everyday life... No, not once I‘d spotted rudeness or arrogance in his attitude.

And if you were to ask him what he’d utterly disliked, he’d said:

“I can’t stand arrogance, can’t stand rudeness and those who are fake... in seconds I can see through those flatterers...”

Then why so many have been taking advantage of him? So many trying to get close to him, by faking and super-faking? He did realise people taking advantage of him but what came in the way was his inability to say no. He couldn’t say no. And in one of those introspective moods he would offload details of the who’s who, who’d not just wasted his time but had even taken him to court. Looking upset he recounted the many times he has been let down by close friends, yet not one of those to have thought of revenge or avenging. “No, that’s not in me... I immediately withdraw, that’s about it.”

His Emotional Connect with his Place of Birth/his Roots

Not really bothered what others comment; some even calling him “Pakistani rundee kiaulad”, he kept his home open to anyone landing from the place of his roots, Pakistan. There was that smile ever widening on his face when he spoke with Pakistanis landing at his doorstep. In fact, tradition has been that High Commissioners of Pakistan coming on a posting to India, would call on him within the first few days of their reaching New Delhi. Many of the ordinary travellers from the neighbouring country making it a point to meet him.. And he’d be there asking details of his ancestral village in Pakistan, along with several of the basic queries. Yes, with them he’d break into Punjabi, with ample English and Hindustani words thrown in for our sake, the non-Punjabis sitting around, trying to grasp each word.

In fact, it’s in his home I‘d first met Minoo Bhandara—Bapsi Sidhwa’s brother, the owner of Murree Breweries and also a former Member of Pakistan’s National Assembly. That was almost nine years ago... Minoo had travelled to his village Hadali (in Pakistan‘s Sargodha district) and clicked pictures... there were tears in Khushwant’s eyes when he’d asked Minoo who was living in his ancestral home and more along the strain. And for what seemed minutes he’d kept looking at his home, in those photographs. Saying, “Last I had visited my village was several years back, when I was in Pakistan. It was a very emotional experience with a reception held for me and people coming to meet me... Ours was a huge haveli and today it lies occupied by three refugee families who had gone from Rohtak... It was touching to see the gurdwara in the village still intact. Even during the Partition chaos, nobody touched the gurdwara though the village population was 90 per cent Muslims and there were only a few Sikh and Hindu families. Then this village has the distinction of sending the largest number of men for World War I... Have several memories of my village—how my grandmother would take me along to the different families she’d visited in the village, and how she’d tell the time of the day; there was no clock or watch, during the day my grandmother would tell the time by the shadow of the sun on the wall and at night by the stars...”

A Loyal Friend

There were who’s who of this city who’d come to his home for advice. No, not at the usual slot —7 to 8 pm, but either an hour before that, or even earlier during the day, towards noon. Many confided in him and many more asked for advice. And, mind you, his advice was invariably along the conservative strain. Not just conser-vative but very conservative, if I may say so. It might come as some sort of surprise to hear this, but this is so.

Then why that image of him, sitting with women amidst those hackneyed frills around?

“All that is because I speak out, talk openly, write... if I like a woman’s looks I say so but say so right in front of her husband.” The basic reality is, as he himself proclaimd rather loud and clear, that no woman, however beautiful, can sit more than fifteen minutes, for by then she‘d had read the impatience in his eyes.

Though not a loner in the actual sense of the term but, then, he seemed to be at ease in solitude. On that one weekend I‘d visited him, whilst he was in Kasauli, he looked so relaxed being by himself, that I felt some sort of an intruder. For most part of the day, he‘d kept sitting on the front stretch, reading or writing. Keeping himself away from the lone landline and there seemed no trace of a television set. It’s only in the evenings that visitors had dropped in. There was something along the old world charm, as his neighbours and friends got together, discussing and chatting over dinner. Some of these included Churamanis, Prashers (if I am not mistaken Mrs Prasher has been India’s number one badminton player), Baljeet Virk, Anil and Sharda Kaushik, and the then Scottish Principal of the Lawrence Sanawar School, Andrew Gray.

And the next afternoon, as Khushwant and I had walked to the Kasauli market, he knew several of the shopkeepers. No, not mere formality-ridden sessions, but as though he’d cared, asking them about their children and work... Bringing to the fore his ability to be at ease with a cross-section. And, that, perhaps, came through because there’s nothing contrived or nothing that he wished to extract At the end of the day, he looked content sitting with a book clutched in his hands or with a pen in that condom-less state, scribbling away...

Known him for Thirty Years!

I had first met him in the early eighties, that is thirty years back at the Hindustan Times office. He was editor of HT and I was looking for a job. He offered only chai and cookies but no job... But we were to meet again. Several years later and this time through my daughter, Sarah, and his granddaughter Naina. They were learning dance at a particular dance school and became friends. And so I met Khushwant again and by this time I was working as an independent journalist. And what took me to his home was a feature I was doing on celebrity bedrooms. What celebrities do and undo in their bedrooms! Unlike the others I had interviewed (for this bedroom feature) he was forthcoming and not just took me around his home but spoke out. Pointing out that most of his bedroom furniture was gifted to his wife by her father. Wasn’t much of it (furniture) bearing some sort of rese-mblance to what one’s seen at the Rashtrapati Bhavan?

‘Not an incorrect observation.’ Because his late father-in-law was the one who’d designed furniture for the President’s House.

That afternoon we spoke about other related aspects. Rather, he spoke and I was taken aback hearing his rather traditional views. Short of pinching myself to believe that this was the same Khushwant Singh who writes about sex and those heady frills to it, talking along a conservative strain. Pointing out the lows in his own marriage yet had kept it going for over six decades, highlighting his firm viewpoint that a marriage had to be pulled along for the so many sakes. Primarily for the sake of children and also for the sake of a semblance of a home. He’d even elaborated that he‘d had no time for love affairs, ”such a waste of time... end result is the same... kept away from relationships... never get emotionally dependent on anyone... it’s only work that keeps you going, nothing else.”

I had liked the spontaneity with which he spoke. A rarity in India, where most speak in those contrived tones and undertones. I looked for occasions to visit him more often and hear him talk in that forthright and honest sort of way... And then when his wife was diagnosed to be stricken with Alzheimer’s disorder we had something common to talk and discuss. A few years back my own father had been stricken by the same disorder and succumbed to it.

Khushwants Comments on Some of these Crucial Aspects...

I couldn’t help asking him whether the Partitioning years affected his attitude towards the Muslims.

And this is what he had to say: “On the contrary, I have always tried to bridge the gap between Muslims and Sikhs... and two Muslims have left a deep impact on me—one was Manzur Qadir and the other my Urdu teacher in Modern School. He was Maulvi Shafiuddin Nayar. Both good honest and finest men I have met... made me do away with all prejudices against Muslims...”

His Views on Death?

“I’m not scared of death, there are no fears... death is inevitable, no brooding about it, be prepared for it, as Asadullah Khan Ghalib has too aptly put across—‘rau mein hai raksh-e-umar kahaan deykheeye thammey/nai haath baag par hai nah pa hai rakaab mein (age travels at a galloping pace / who knows where will it stop/ we do not have the reins in our hands/ we do not have our feet in the stirrups)’.

“I see death as nothing to be worried or scared about. In fact I believe in the Jain philosophy that death ought to be celebrated. Earlier whenever I‘d feel upset or low I used to go to the cremation grounds. It has a cleansing effect, worked as a therapy for me...

“In fact, I had written my own epitaph years back—‘Here lies one who spared neither man or 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.’

“Had even written my own obit in 1943...

“Above all, when the time comes to go, go like a man without any regret or grievance against anyone. Allama Iqbal expressed it beautifully in a couplet in Persian—‘You ask me about the signs of a man of faith/ when death comes to him, he has a smile on his lips.’

“Yes, I do think of death... No, don’t believe in the Hindu rebirth theories... Often I tell Bade Mian (meaning God) referring to him in a jovial manner, address him in a jovial manner that he‘s got to wait for me as I still have work to complete...

“Yes, I do fear incapacitated by old age—high blood pressure, prostrate, deafness, loss of vision... What I dread is the thought of if I go blind or stone deaf or end up with a stroke... As of now I have these partial dentures. Had to have them fitted because I like to eat wholesome food. No, I can’t cope with Punjabi or Mughlai food, but, two or three times a week order Thai or Italian or French cuisine...

“Why I was keen for burial, because with that you give back to the earth what you have taken... now it will be the electric crematorium...

“I am preparing myself. I only hope it isn’t very painful. And since I have no faith in God, nor in the day of Judgement, and nor in the theory of Reincarnation, so I have to make terms with a complete full stop...

Worries, if Any?

“Today, my only worry is the rise in Right -wing fascist parties in the country... the young, the present generation should be aware of the rise in communal politics and the dangers involved...”

(In an interview given to me shortly after the book The End of India was published in the spring of 2003 he had said) “If we love our country we have to save it from communal forces. And though the liberal class is shrinking, I do hope that the present generation rejects the communal and fascist policies...”

There was Something so Diffrent in Khushwant...

What would you say to a man who wrote for hours day! There were never sermons. Only subtle relays—that is, no wasting of time in gossip or in those useless wanderings. No facades, no communal tilts, no Right-wing poisoning, no lies and no deceit.

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