Saturday 29 July 2017

My ear at his heart

Here's a beautiful article written by Khushwant Singh's son Rahul Singh on The Punch Magazine:

My father, Khushwant Singh, passed away just over a year ago, at the age of 99. He went peacefully, just as he had wanted, his mental faculties quite intact, though he had become rather deaf in the last couple of years of his life. He was doing a newspaper crossword puzzle on that last day — his daily morning routine — when he felt tired, and lay down on his bed. He did not get up again.

He had been somewhat physically frail towards the end of his life, which bothered him since he had prided himself on his fitness. He played tennis regularly till his mid-80s, and took long walks at the nearby Lodi Gardens. When up in the hills, he walked all over the Kasauli and Simla hills, sometimes walking from Simla to Kasauli and from Kasauli to Kalka, arduous treks. He also enjoyed his evening two “Patiala” pegs of single malt whisky and loved sea-food, particularly golden fried prawns.

In the evening, between 7 and 8, his living-room became an eclectic salon, drawing some of the best and brightest in India and abroad. Beautiful women would sit adoringly at his feet, which is how he got a reputation of being a “dirty old man”. Anybody who rang up to make an appointment was invited. Pakistanis were particularly welcome. There was stimulating talk, gossip, jokes, Urdu poetry, and much else, some of which found its way into his columns. And, needless to say, drinks flowed, since my father kept a well-stocked bar, most of the bottles gifted to him by his admirers. “Are you a drinking person?” my father would invariably ask the visitor. He would be visibly disappointed if the answer was in the negative. Despite his fondness for single malt, he rarely crossed his limit of two pegs and was never drunk. A soiree at Khushwant Singh's Sujan Singh Park flat or in his Kasauli “Raj Villa” bungalow in the Himalayas became much sought-after. But at 8 pm sharp, everybody was asked to depart (only a privileged few were asked to stay on for dinner). He was a stickler for punctuality and made his displeasure plain when anybody, however important, was late.

When I became Editor of the Reader’s Digest (my father had just been made Editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India), my Managing Director invited both of us for dinner to his home. He wanted to show off my father to some of his friends. We arrived at his home, at the appointed hour, 8 pm. The host was having a bath, the servant informed us. My father waited patiently for ten minutes. When no host appeared, he told me that I could stay on, but he was leaving.

“Where’s your father?” my MD asked me, when he finally appeared after his bath. “I’m afraid he left, as you had called us at 8,” I replied. He had a difficult time explaining to his friends why my father was not there.

The memorial plaque on the wall of the government school Khushwant Singh went to in Hadali, Pakistan. Photos: Rahul Singh

Lord Swraj Paul, a regular visitor, once told me that he always came a few minutes early to my father’s place, knowing the ways of Delhi traffic. He spent those minutes pacing up and down, outside the flat. Then, on the dot of 7, he would ring the bell. Once, a BBC TV team that had come to interview him, turned up half an hour late. My father was livid. “Tell them they are not welcome,” he ordered me. The BBC interviewer and cameraman pleaded with me, apologising for the delay. My father was adamant. The interview did not take place.

After his two drinks, he would have a light dinner at 8 (he rarely socialised outside his home, unless with close friends, or if he was travelling), watch some TV (Barkha Dutt was a favourite — her mother, Prabha Dutt, had been his chief reporter during his Hindustan Times days), do a little reading before going to sleep at 9. He would be up by 4, make his own tea and get to work. Then, tennis at the Delhi Gymkhana in the early morning, and back again to work. Lunch was usually a soup, followed by an hour-long snooze, and then yet more work, with a walk or a swim in-between.

Soon after he died, there was an amusing tweet on the Internet which went viral: “Iyengar (the famous Yoga guru) was a vegetarian and a strict teetotaler. He died at 84. Khushwant Singh ate meat and regularly drank alcohol. He died at 99.” Jokes aside, my father was a glutton for work. His output of around 150 books speaks for itself. He also wrote probably the longest running weekly column in India, probably in the world, “With Malice Towards One and All”. It was also hugely popular, read by tens of millions of people and being translated into several Indian languages. He first started it in the Illustrated Weekly, when he took over its editorship in 1969 and then moved it to Hindustan Times, where it continued till a few months before he passed away — a total of some 45 continuous years, every week! He started another weekly column for the Chandigarh Tribune, called “This Above All”, which ran for some 30 years and was also translated into other Indian languages.

The columns, even more than his books, made him a household name, not just in India, but in the rest of the sub-continent as well, particularly in Pakistan and Bangladesh. “Malice” was accompanied by an apt cartoon drawn by the late Mario Miranda, who had worked with my father. It depicted him in a light bulb, pen in hand, a glass of whisky in the other, with a pile of books nearby.

Among his great qualities, I think one of them was the way he managed to communicate with people of all kinds, from intellectuals to ordinary peasants. As Rudyard Kipling put it, he could walk with kings, yet had the common touch. He also made it a point of replying to everybody who wrote to him, even if the reply was a scrawled note on a post card. He would send dozens of such postcards every day. Once, I was taking a driving holiday, in south India, with my then English girl friend. My car broke down in a village. While it was being repaired by a local mechanic, I met some of the villagers, who asked about me. One of the villagers was a retired jawan, who asked me to wait a minute. He went back to his hut and produced a post card that my father had sent him and which he had treasured for many years!

Apart from humour and self-deprecation, one of the main secrets of his success and huge popularity as a columnist and writer was the intimate manner in which he interacted with his readers. He took them into his confidence. He never pontificated or preached, as a lot of journalists do. He just told his readers how he saw life and the people around him. He loved puncturing inflated egos and what he called humbug and hypocrisy, especially over sex. A journalist should entertain, inform and provoke his readers, he liked to say, and also be brutally frank. He did all that. Nothing was sacred to him. His irreverence often outraged many. He once criticised Rabindranath Tagore’s writings. There was a big demonstration when he arrived at Calcutta airport and he was reprimanded by the West Bengal legislative assembly. The prudes were also offended by his candour. The image he loved to create of himself as an admirer of good-looking women, even a lecher, was largely a put-on. And he made no secret of his fondness for alcohol.

His pet hates were superstition, rituals, astrologers, so-called “godmen” and their like, out to fool the gullible Indian public. Work is worship, worship is not work, he liked to say. Also among his aversions were fundamentalists of all kinds and from all religions, including his own, Sikhism (he derisively called them “fundoos”). He criticised Sikh preacher Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and had to have 24-hour-security, after he was threatened by militant Sikhs.

Though nominally a Sikh and deeply attached to Sikhism, he called himself an agnostic, and rarely went to gurudwaras. Yet, strangely, the two people he most admired (he had large pictures of them in his study in Kasauli) were persons of faith: Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Theresa. He wrote from the heart, with great emotion. And his readers adored him for it. They trusted him, because of his honesty, though quite a few were shocked and reviled him.

At the same time he was politically quite naive. Apart from his support for Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency”, he had made an earlier attempt to get into politics by becoming for a short while a kind of media spokesman and adviser of the Sikh leader, Master Tara Singh. That was also a disaster.

Going back to the secrets of my father’s success, I must add his simplicity of expression. He had the knack of turning the complex and profound into plain common sense. A good example are some tips to happiness that he penned down and which went viral on the Internet a couple of years ago:

“First and foremost is good health. If you do not enjoy good health, you can never be happy. Any ailment, however trivial, will deduct something from your happiness. Second, a healthy bank balance. It need not run into crores, but it should be enough to provide comforts and there should be something to spare for recreation — eating out, going to the movies, travel and holidays in the hills or by the sea. Shortage of money can be demoralising. Living on credit or borrowing is demeaning and lowers one in one's own eyes. Third, your own home. Rented places can never give you the comfort or security of a home that is yours for keeps. Fourth, an understanding companion, be it your spouse or a friend. If you have too many misunderstandings, it robs you of your peace of mind. It is better to be divorced than quarrel all the time. Fifth, stop envying those who have done better than you in life — risen higher or made more money, or earned more fame. Envy can be very corroding. Sixth, do not allow people to descend on you for gup-shup. By the time you get rid of them, you will feel exhausted and poisoned by the gossip-mongering. Seventh, cultivate a hobby or two that will fulfil you — gardening, reading, writing, painting, playing or listening to music. Going to clubs or parties to get free drinks is a criminal waste of time. Eighth, every morning and evening, devote 15 minutes to introspection. In the morning, ten minutes should be spent on keeping the mind absolutely still, and five minutes to listing the things you have to do that day. Ninth, don't lose your temper. Even when a friend has been rude, just move on.”

Government school in Hadali where Khushwant Singh went to school till 1920
Pakistan occupied a special place in my father’s heart. Indians who suffered from the 1947 Partition of the sub-continent can be divided into those who were so embittered that they developed an almost visceral hatred for Pakistan, even for Muslims. They were the large majority, particularly the north Indians. But there was a minority whose compassion overcame that terrible time and who made it their goal to try and promote amity between India and Pakistan and to further friendship between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. My father was one of that minority. His critics often said that he should go back to Pakistan! Indeed, he always said that he felt he belonged to Hadali, the village in Pakistan's Punjab, where he was born and went to school.

Fakir Aijazuddin, the distinguished Pakistani writer and art expert, developed a touching attachment to my father. He met him in Delhi only a few days before my father passed away. “You know that I am a Pakistani by birth and at heart,” he told Aijazuddin. “And I want to be buried in Hadali. That is where my roots are. I have nourished them with tears of nostalgia.”

Aijazuddin made my father’s wishes come true. He asked my sister to keep some of my father’s ashes for him. He then came to Delhi and took them back to Hadali. “Khushwant Singh’s final journey was by train, to Pakistan”, he wrote, echoing my father’s most famous novel. “Khushwant Singh did not require documents to cross the border — ashes do not need visas.”

Aijazuddin took a marble memorial plaque with him. The cement for the plaque was mixed with the ashes and the plaque was placed on the wall of the school. It read: “In memory of Sardar Khushwant Singh, a Sikh, a scholar, and a son of Hadali, Punjab.”

Actually, my father had visited the same school 60 years after he had left it in 1920. He got a huge welcome from the villagers. He had been so overcome with emotion that he had broken down, while addressing them. Last February, my sister and I were invited to the Lahore Literary Festival. One of the sessions was on my father and the large auditorium was overflowing. In my speech, I talked mainly about his sense of humour, his bluntness, his dislike of the fundamentalists of all faiths, and how he loved to make fun of himself. I related how he got a letter from one of his many detractors, which was simply addressed, “Khushwant Singh, Bastard, India”. Unbelievably, and to his obvious delight, it got to him. I also mentioned how he once got a formal letter from the Shirimoni Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC), the highest spiritual authority for the Sikhs, ordering him to desist from including Santa Banta Sikh jokes in his columns. He wrote back a reply to them on a postcard, “Go to hell!” He did not hear from them again. The Pakistan audience lapped it up. Later, I was literally mobbed and amazed to find that he had such a large following in Pakistan and that he was widely read there.

During that Lahore Literary Festival we thought we would try and visit my father’s village of Hadali, which we were told was about three hours — drive from Lahore. But thanks to the stupid visa regime that exists between India and Pakistan, whereby you are required to list every place that you intend to visit in your visa, Hadali was not listed there. So, we were advised not to try and go there. However, two months later, another invitation, this time from the Oxford University Press, came for another literary festival, this time in Islamabad. Luckily, we managed to get Hadali added to the places we wanted to visit in Pakistan. So, accompanied by Fakir Aijazuddin and his wife, Shahnaz, we drove down to Hadali. Word had got around that we would be coming and a huge reception awaited us. We were taken around the school where he had studied and shown his memorial plaque. A class was going on and the teacher asked the students (who had obviously been coached) about my father. They replied that he had been born in Hadali and studied in this school, but what really broke me up was when they said that he came from the same soil as them and his wish was friendship between the people of the two countries. I also met villagers who had originally belonged to the Indian side of the border and whose great desire was to see their earlier homes. We were then taken to my father’s home, which was in complete ruins, with only the bricks of the walls standing, a poignant reminder of the tragedy of Partition.

The remains of Khushwant Singh’s ancestral home in Hadali, the village in Pakistan where he was born
My father wore many hats in his lifetime: Lawyer, diplomat, broadcaster, historian, jester, academic, editor, Member of Parliament, columnist and author. He became arguably the most recognisable literary and journalistic figure in India in his bewilderingly varied career. Though he wrote several novels and a number of short stories, even he admitted that he was not a great writer. However, his Train to Pakistan, based on personal experience of the Partition, and his scholarly two-volume History of the Sikhs will live on for a long time to come. He practised law in Lahore and also taught it, but he became disillusioned with it and decided he did not want to be a lawyer. Five years as a diplomat and two years as a broadcaster in All India Radio was also enough for him. He eventually found his metier in writing and in communicating through his columns his values and his perspective on life to his readers. Somehow, he made an intimate connect with them which few writers have managed to do.

As I said earlier, he was an agnostic. Though he studied all the religions, he did not hesitate to criticise or make fun of some of their followers. Above all, his love for humanity shone through. Leigh Hunt’s poem, Abou Ben Adhem, sums up much of his feelings about religion:

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold: —
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
“What writest thou?” — The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”
        The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.

Abou Ben Adhem was my father, blessed by the Lord.

Note: Rahul Singh is a writer and journalist. A former editor of Reader’s Digest, Sunday Observer, The Indian Express and Khaleej Times (Dubai), he has also contributed to the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, Newsweek and Forbes. He has also written three books and has been involved with two NGOs.

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