NOT A NICE MAN TO LOSE
He had a heart as big as the Taj Mahal and a mind that could inform, entertain and provoke
With the passing of Khushwant Singh, the country has lost its clearest, sanest, most honest, liberal voice. All through his life, and I have known him for almost 30 years, he followed one credo—which was to tell the truth as clearly as he saw it or knew it. The second principle that he followed was to hurt no one. And finally, he was the most generous person I have ever known in the worlds of writing, publishing and journalism—this is not a trait people in these professions display.
I first met Khushwant when I worked with him at Penguin India as part of the founding team of that company almost three decades ago. I was in my mid-20s at the time and Khushwant was already at the height of his fame, having been the most successful editor of the most successful magazine in India, The Illustrated Weekly of India— which he took to extraordinary heights—and also as the editor of The Hindustan Times as well as the feted author of books like Train to Pakistan (that was first published in 1956, and has never been out of print since) and the magisterial two volume A History of the Sikhs.
Despite the vast gulf in the scale of achievement and the difference in age between us, he never once made me feel inferior or talked down to me. That was another one of his great gifts, he treated everyone he met or interacted in the same manner. There was no humbug about the man and he wore the vast knowledge that he had lightly.
I started out as an editorial colleague of Khushwant’s but over the years, I became his editor and in time, was honoured to be accepted as his friend. The first book of his that I worked on was Delhi which is still in print today and has sold tens of thousands of copies. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life to have edited one of his most significant books.
The reason I found it rewarding to work with him was because he thought clearly and wrote simply— both very rare qualities in a writer. This was true of his work as a novelist, short-story writer, memoirist and columnist. As a novelist, he wrote interestingly and well, about some of the great events of our time, and subjects that truly interested him such as the city of Delhi, and the history that invested it. Apart from his fiction, his other great literary passion was poetry, especially Urdu poetry, which he declaimed and translated with great felicity. Khushwant Singh was not simply the accomplished writer of fiction and non-fic-
tion books, he was also one of the greatest journalists this country produced. As he said over and over in interviews he gave, he saw his role as a journalist in the following way—he felt he was meant to inform, entertain and provoke. He ensured that everything in the course of his journalistic career was built on these three foundations.
However, his greatest fame came from the column he wrote weekly, With Malice Towards One and All, which had an enormous following. What people looked forward to in the columns, besides the humour, were his percipient and honest views on some of the most contentious issues of the day.
When he was editor of both The Illustrated Weekly of India as well as The Hindustan Times, unlike most editors, he was known to take off to do stories himself. This was because he was always full of curiosity about everything that surrounded him; this was reflected in his writing which was fresh and original.
He was also unafraid. I remember him once at a public function challenging BJP veteran L.K. Advani for being responsible for the demolition of the Babri Masjid. This was all the more remarkable because he was the one who ac- tually launched Mr Advani’s political career by signing his nomination form for his first Lok Sabha election.
Finally, there was Khushwant Singh the man. He rubbed shoulders with the rich and the famous and he came from an incredibly wealthy family. However, not once in the decades that I have known him, did any of this have the slightest bearing on the way in which he treated friends, acquaintances, and the dozens of people who importuned him at every turn. Whether you were high or low, exalted or humble, he treated you the same. He never turned you away. There are many who took advantage of this but there are many who benefitted from it as well. His passing leaves me personally bereft but I want to say that the life he lived was one to be celebrated.
I remember describing him once as a man who had a heart as big as the Taj Mahal. And just as that memorial will never fade from our lives, neither will Khushwant Singh.
David Davidar is Managing Director,
Aleph Book Company