THE SARDAR OF SEX, SCOTCH AND SCHOLARSHIP
The one- man word machine is gone. The man in the light bulb just switched it off.
Funny. There are some individuals you imagine will live forever and ever. They become such an intrinsic part of your life, you start taking their existence entirely for granted. Khushwant Singh was one such individual. Three generations of avid readers greedily devoured every word he wrote for public consumption. And suddenly the one-man word machine is gone. The man in the light bulb just switched it off.
I am not going to write a gush-gush obit on a man who never wrote a gush-gush one himself. How can I? And insult the great man himself? Khushwant Singh had almost single-handedly raised irreverence to an art form, in a country that is singularly lacking in irony. Had he to write his own obit, he wouldn’t have spared himself. So here goes. This one is for you, Khushwant, uncut and unsparing, just the way you would have liked it.
Let me start by busting one or two popular myths. Come on, Khushwant, you were no Lothario. You didn’t qualify as the Great Indian Lover. No way! You were not lecherous. You didn’t grope. You were disappointingly well behaved. What the world did not know was that you probably suffered from low self-worth. That much touted libido was all inside the turban. Your strike rate with all those lovely ladies in your dur- bar was verbal and non-intrusive. In that sense, you would never have had to ‘recuse’ or lacerate yourself. You, dear Khushwant, were an incurable romantic, mushy, sentimental and gullible. Women used you, your contacts, your influence, much more than you ever ‘used’ them. All you really ached for was to be surrounded by beauty, and lashings of female flattery. God was kind. You received both generously.
As a political commentator, you were far from astute. If anything, you were hopelessly naïve. In colloquial language, you were kaan ka kachcha. You were trusting enough of the Gandhi family, blindly supported all that they proposed and implemented, never once questioning their integrity. Your abject loyalty to Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay, during the notorious Emergency, cost you many fans. You lost credibility. But you refused to back down, obstinately defending the indefensible. This must have dismayed your contemporaries, who were far shrewder and politically better aware during this sensitive period. Despite your embarrassing subjugation to the Gandhis, you found yourself in the political wilderness soon after. However, the single most impressive act you performed was returning the Padma Bhushan after Operation Bluestar. That took courage and you won back the respect of several critics who had been
alarmed by your Gandhi family fixation.
As a man of letters, you never did reach the heights that were expected of you. Your Train to Pakistan remains a rather flimsy novel, that garnered attention at a time when there was no real literary competition. Most of the books that followed made millionaires out of the publishers, but were essentially packaging triumphs—being compilations of your columns. However, nobody can take away your glory from A History of the Sikhs. This is by far your most significant contribution.
Your obsession with sex was again, a careful construct. You made a sweeping statement in an interview where you said every single human being in the world is obsessed by sex. It was a real gem of a ‘Khushwantism’, and in keeping with the image you were trapped in—a bawdy, lecherous drunk. It was as brilliant as the other one: “Nobody has yet invented a condom for the pen.” Why you went along with this misleading positioning, we’ll never know. For those who love and adore you, insist nothing could be as far-fetched as that foolish branding.
Let’s talk about your branding. I wonder, were you a party to it? Or did it happen by default? Because, you know what, it may have sold zillions of books, but it did you enormous disservice. And you, dear Khushwant, were to the manor born. You were a rich man. You didn’t need the money. And how many people know how generous you were with the royalties you received? Or how many favours you doled out each time you heard a sob story? How many people know about your mentoring young writers—some with merit, but most without? How many people know about those lucky enough to learn the nuts and bolts of magazine publishing under your dynamic stewardship? Not many. And this is my big shikayat against you, Khushwant Singh. You played up and played into all the wrong things, when you could have highlighted your many achievements and qualities. Your legendary generosity–of spirit and spirits and more. And your blind trust in sycophants who flocked to your salon and took full advantage of your position.
Khushwant Singh, let’s face it, you were a sucker for praise, flattery, chamchagiri. Many great men fall into this very trap, much to the chagrin of their family. But what the hell—at least you lived your life Sardar size. No regrets, no explanations, no apologies.
Here’s to you, Khushwant Singh. The Patiala Peg of publishing is no more! But we will continue to raise our glasses and thank you for liberating us from our idiotic, hypocritical, fake, humourless lives, for making us laugh at ourselves, for ridding us of quaint sexual hang ups, for chucking old rules into the waste basket, for caring a damn. Jeena isi ka naam hai.
I am sure you are enjoying your evening chhota right now, with at least half-a-dozen celestial apsaras fawning over you. Heaven just got sexier. Thank you, Khushwant Singh.
APHOTO OFYOUNG KHUSHWANT (EXTREME RIGHT) WITH FAMILY