Khushwant Singh . . . ‘the dirty old man’ we loved


Khushwant Singh’s friendship with Manzur Quader, the Pakistani lawyer and later Ayub Khan’s foreign minister, was an abiding one. As young students, they lived in Lahore till the vivisection of India in 1947. The friendship continued despite Partition. It did not matter that India and Pakistan did not have the best of relations, but Khushwant and Manzur kept up links, like so many others in a fractured land. Khushwant being Khushwant, he never let his humour take leave of him, even at the expense of his friends. Once he asked Manzur for his opinion on the Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen. Manzur, who amazingly had little idea of who Sun Yat-sen was, blandly responded, hoga koi Hindu Bangali (must be some Hindu Bengali)!

That was vintage Khushwant Singh. Humour, with a dash of the erotic, defined his approach to a long life which drew to an end five years ago. Early in February 2014, a very respectful L.K. Advani, himself all of eighty seven, turned up at the writer’s Delhi residence to pay homage to him on his 99th birthday. For Khushwant’s fans everywhere, the great hope was that he would live to finish a century. He didn’t, or couldn’t. But then, the prodigious and prolific amount of writing that defined his life is enough to put so many others to shame. He was into fiction, the most well-known one being the seminal Train to Pakistan. In later years, there was Delhi. And his understanding of heritage was nowhere more sensitively portrayed than in A History of the Sikhs.

There was a natural raconteur in Khushwant Singh. He knew that his love of erotica made readers refer to him as a dirty old man. He took that as a compliment and made fun of himself even as he constantly mocked others. His fans sent him copious jokes, which he duly collected and passed on to his innumerable readers. And then came the anecdotes he trawled out of his own experience. At Dubai airport once, a young woman came up to him, said hello and told him she was Shabana. A confused Khushwant asked her, “Shabana who?” to which the young woman replied, “Don’t you recognize me? I am Shabana Azmi.” Khushwant was happy. As he relates the story, he ran into the actress again later that evening at a reception hosted by the Indian ambassador. This time he was not ready to make a second mistake. He went up to Shabana Azmi, said a loud hello and gathered her in a big hug. And then he noticed all the other Indian women at the reception giving him dirty looks. He did the next best thing. He went up to them and gave each of them a big hug.

Khushwant Singh’s closeness to the Nehru-Gandhis caused consternation for his friends and much glee for his enemies, the latter missing little opportunity to berate him for his conduct during the Emergency. Khushwant was editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, saw little that was wrong with Sanjay Gandhi and publicly supported Indira Gandhi’s imposition of the Emergency. And yet he was outraged when Operation Bluestar was undertaken in 1984, not because it led to the end of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s terror tactics but because it caused all that bloodletting inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The murder of thousands of Sikhs in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination later that year revolted him, as it revolted others.

Early in his career, as a young man, Khushwant Singh landed up at the Indian high commission in London as press attaché. His misfortune was in having the very cantankerous Krishna Menon as high commissioner. The two men never got along, with Menon taking perverse pleasure in treating nearly everyone around him as dirt. Khushwant was forever interested in interesting people, Amrita Sher-Gil, for instance. His love of poetry was intense and so was his love of the bottle, not to say his fondness for beautiful women. Once, on his way to a women’s college in Lahore, where he would speak before the students, he was warned that the place was Pakistan and society was conservative and therefore he needed to be careful in what he said. The event turned out, though, as typical Khushwant. He regaled the girls with his wit and left them thrilled to bits.

Khushwant Singh left behind more than his fans and admirers and family. There are all his books --- Train to Pakistan; Why I Supported the Emergency; A History of the Sikhs; Not A Nice Man to Know; Khushwantnama; Women and Men in My Life; The Company of Women; Truth, Love and a Little Malice; The Portrait of a Lady; Sex, Scotch & Scholarship; Most Malicious Gossip; The Vintage Sardar and a whole range of others --- that have left indelible imprints on readers.

Life in our part of the world has never been the same without the ‘dirty old man’, for he gave it much needed hot chili, with plenty of black pepper.

  • Khushwant Singh . . . ‘the dirty old man’ we loved
  • Issue 39
  • Syed Badrul Ahsan
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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