He had a heart as big as the Taj Ma­hal and a mind that could in­form, en­ter­tain and pro­voke

India Today - - OBITUARY - By David Davi­dar

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

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