It turns out that the dirty old sardar wasn’t so dirty. Neither was he “Not a nice man to know” as he made a claim to be. He was quite an astute observer of his times and lived a remarkable life. Khushwant Singh was one of the most prolific writers to emerge from India post-independence, with over 40 plus books, short stories, articles leading to a long successful career spanning more than 60 years. He skillfully entertained his readers through various phases of his eventful life.
He was born in pre-independence India around 1914 (his exact date of birth is not known) to a relatively well-off family in Hadali, which now falls in Pakistan. He finished most of his autobiographical account by 1995, expecting to go senile or die soon but continued writing for almost another 20 years till his death in 2014 at the age of 99. In his memoirs, he walks us through various phases of his life intimately without any shyness or regret. He talks about his childhood, his closeness with his grandmother, puberty, first crush and also his disappointing first sexual encounter with a prostitute in Kamathipura which left him lustfully longing for more, his undistinguished achievements in education, his illustrious career as a writer, journalist, hobnobbing with politicians and famous people, failure at politics, and love with incredible candidness.
He honestly wrote that he was lucky to get a good education because of his privilege though he was mostly an average student. He studied at St Stephen’s college with the help of his father’s influence. Then he went on to do law in England and practiced in Lahore for seven years with everything from office to a flat laid for him, before realising that he didn’t have much of a talent for it. One has to be careful with his humility, as even after claiming he wasn’t good at law he was sure he could become a Supreme Court judge had he stuck to it and Jinnah also wanted to consider him for a high court judge position in Pakistan after partition, which he didn’t take up.
Part of Singh’s importance stems from the fact that he lived through some very important moments of Indian history being right in the middle of them either as a participant or at least as observer. He lived through the independence movement and partition, but wasn’t much involved in the freedom struggle. He remained a well-wisher of Pakistan throughout his life, which earned him the wrath of Indian media periodically. Post-Independence, he held a series of government positions, which started with a job as Information officer in the public relations department of India house in London. He left all his public jobs out of frustration with either his bosses or the work itself, then subsequently moving on to pursue a full time career as a writer, columnist and editor.
There is a touch of lightness with which he wrote about his life events, but at the same time he managed seriousness of thought and objectivity. He was disillusioned with powerful people and loved pointing out their hypocrisies. At the same time, he himself mingled at ease with power, though, also questionably at times, as with his support for Indira Gandhi and her family around emergency, which didn’t turn out well for his political career as he had hoped. But he did leave his readers wondering about his talents that made him reach a position to interact with the elite for so many decades. Stars were definitely aligned well for him and he made good use of his talent and opportunities.
As you go over his works, you get an interesting portrait of the different times he lived in, his friends, and the people he came across at different phases of life intertwined with Singh’s own personal and professional growth. He brought out the positive and negative personality quirks of many famous people and wrote about their lack of modesty and hypocrisies without reservation. A little pinch of malice was embedded in his personality which made his life more interesting.
He wanted to become a writer since childhood, but discovered his talent for writing when he accidentally became part of a literary circle where his friend, Mangat Rai, who later served as chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir, wanted to show-off as a man of letters and asked everyone to read something he/she had written during parties. It is here Khushwant chose to write about his disbelief in God and religion amongst other values which were considered morally important and impressed his audience, which got him into taking writing seriously.
He stuck with his disbelief in religion and God throughout his life. He had a seemingly paradoxical relation with Sikh religion and culture and how it moulded his identity, because even though he was an agnostic, he wore a turban and beard till his end as a way of associating with the Sikh people. He wrote a two volume History of Sikhs which were widely accepted as the authoritative historical account on Sikh history.
From his later novels and writings you get a sense that he wanted to be portrayed as a womanizer and a heavy drinker, and though he did enjoy his drinks, he actually lived a rather disciplined life. He wrote lustful books and articles, but was frank about his poor luck in getting his way with women. This did not stop him from being a charming flirt.
Khushwant loved his wife dearly going through all the quarrels that come with living with a person for your whole life and stayed loyal to her till the end (perhaps this needs to be verified). He also loved writing, which is obvious. And he loved people. He managed to enjoy the company of people and at the same time maintain healthy cynicism about them. He frankly observed that he enjoyed memories of his friends more than their actual company.
Adding a bit to the malice, one can easily get deceived with Khushwant Singh’s cleverness. He liked to craftily downplay his own perspective with his self-deprecating sense of humour. Opening his memoir, Truth, Love, and a Little Malice, he wrote, “All said and done, this autobiography is the child of ageing loins. Do not expect too much from it: gossip, titillation, some tearing up of reputations, some amusement — that is the best I can offer.” But this is not true. There is more to him, both right and a bit wrong, filled with truth, love, a little malice and more in his aptly named autobiographical account, which remains a fun and relevant read for a perspective in today’s chaotic times.