King Leer Bows Out

Khush­want Singh en­light­ened and out­raged his read­ers in equal mea­sure with his sharp in­sights, bit­ing ob­ser­va­tions and raunchy hu­mor.

Southasia - - CONTENTS -

Most people who are fa­mil­iar with Khush­want Singh’s name know him as a bawdy racon­teur. The fa­mous In­dian writer, who passed away at the age of 99, was much more than that. In the words of In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Man­mo­han Singh, he was “a jour­nal­ist, edi­tor, his­to­rian and au­thor.” Singh also served as a diplo­mat. It is in­deed true that de­spite his many traits and a multi-faceted per­son­al­ity, his main claim to fame was his raunchy jokes that he’d crack with­out giv­ing two hoots about his sur­round­ings.

Singh was born in 1915 to a pros­per­ous busi­ness fam­ily in Hadali, a vil­lage in the Thar Desert which is now a part of Pak­istan. He was ed­u­cated in Delhi, La­hore and Lon­don. At the time of Par­ti­tion, Singh was work­ing as a lawyer in La­hore and chose In­dia as his new home­land.

But he al­ways re­mained his coun­try’s most strong critic. In one of his es­says, he wrote, “Why am I an In­dian? I did not have any choice: I was born one. If the good Lord had con­sulted me on the sub­ject I might have cho­sen a coun­try more af­flu­ent, less crowded, less cen­so­ri­ous in mat­ters of food and drink, un­con­cerned with per­sonal equa­tions and free of re­li­gious big­otry.”

In 1947, he en­tered the In­dian For­eign Ser­vice and started as the in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer of the govern­ment of In­dia in Toronto. He then served as press at­taché and pub­lic of­fi­cer for the In­dian High Com­mis­sion for four years in Lon­don and Ot­tawa. In 1951 he joined the All In­dia Ra­dio as a jour­nal­ist. Be­tween 1954 and 1956 he worked with UNESCO in Paris. From 1956, he turned to ed­i­to­rial ser­vices. He edited the newsweekly, The Il­lus­trated Weekly of In­dia and two ma­jor In­dian

news­pa­pers - The Na­tional Herald and the Hindustan Times.

In fact, Singh is cred­ited with turn­ing around The Il­lus­trated Weekly dur­ing his ten­ure and mak­ing it In­dia's most fa­mous weekly news mag­a­zine. He worked as the Weekly’s edi­tor for nine years and the mag­a­zine’s circulation suf­fered a huge drop in read­er­ship when he left it.

Al­though Singh wrote a num­ber of books, his most fa­mous and widely read book was ‘Train to Pak­istan’ –a chill­ing novel about the 1947 Par­ti­tion. He used the book to force In­di­ans into look­ing at the hor­rors of their past. De­scrib­ing the par­ti­tion as a “poi­son in­jected into the In­dian soul”, Singh be­lieved that “people should know this thing hap­pened.” “It did hap­pen. It can hap­pen again.”

He con­tin­ued to write about com­mu­nal vi­o­lence and re­li­gious big­otry. He protested against the 1984 pogrom against the Sikhs, the 1992 de­mo­li­tion of the Babri Mosque by Hindu ex­trem­ists and the 2002 Gu­jarat mas­sacre. He de­scribed In­dia’s his­tory of re­tal­ia­tory vi­o­lence as “you kill my dog, I kill your cat. It’s a child­ish and bloody game, and it can’t go on.”

But he took a U-turn when Indira Gandhi de­clared emer­gency rule in 1975, sus­pend­ing the con­sti­tu­tion, jail­ing po­lit­i­cal dis­si­dents and muz­zling the press. He sup­ported the emer­gency and said it would pro­vide a brief respite from the po­lit­i­cal tur­moil of the time. How­ever, when Indira Gandhi or­dered troops to storm the Golden Tem­ple, Sikhism’s holi­est shrine, Singh re­viewed his stance and re­turned a high govern­ment award, the Padma Bhushan, in protest.

Singh was a pro­lific writer and wrote more than 100 books and count­less news­pa­per col­umns, in­clud­ing the fa­mous col­umn ‘With Mal­ice To­wards One And All’. He was of­ten called a wom­an­izer and en­joyed his rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing a philanderer. But his phi­lan­der­ing fame was mainly self-cul­ti­vated and he looked af­ter his wife de­vot­edly un­til she died of Alzheimer's dis­ease in her mid-80s.

Al­though Singh called him­self an ag­nos­tic, he wrote bulky vol­umes on the his­tory of Sikhs, Ran­jit Singh and the Ghadarites. His ‘A His­tory of the

Sikhs’ is a truly re­mark­able vol­ume of work. He wasn't tra­di­tional but he was a true Sikh who em­pha­sized how cru­cial it is to know your past.

Af­ter his wife’s death, Khush­want Singh had be­come ob­sessed with the con­cept of death. He would of­ten talk about it and had even writ­ten his epi­taph. No one and noth­ing can sum­ma­rize Singh’s per­son­al­ity in a bet­ter man­ner than his own words:

Here lies one who spared nei­ther man nor 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.

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