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