By Ira Pande
He was almost 100 years old and in the last few years had started ageing before one’s eyes. His hearing was almost gone and his movements restricted. Yet that mind and that wit remained as sharp as ever. All of us who loved and admired him knew that he had little time left but even now, it is difficult to believe that he will not be there in his favourite armchair, a ‘modha’ tucked under his legs, a glass of whisky in hand listening to and enjoying the conversation that friends brought to him between 7 and 8 each evening. On his last day on earth, Khushwant Singh still got up long before sunrise, followed the regimen he had charted out decades ago, did his crossword, took a nap and never woke up.
Khushwant Singh has chronicled his life in his writing so there is nothing that any of us can say of his personality that is not known already but it is equally true that he deliberately created a persona for himself immortalised by the logo that illustrated his newspaper columns: a ‘sardar’ with a pen, surrounded by books and a glass of whisky by his side. He took a perverse delight in perpetuating the myth of a dirty old man, a dedicated tippler, a miser and a fierce iconoclast.
The truth is that, contrary to all these self-made portraits, he was as disciplined a writer as I have ever known, a moderate and responsible drinker who loved sharing his evening with friends with a drink to loosen the tongue, who lived an austere — almost Gandhian — life, despite being born into one of Delhi’s most prosperous families and a man who lived by a personal faith that was far more rigorous than an orthodox religion. Above all, he was the most generous man I have ever known: whether it was the help he rendered to aspiring writers or whether it was his quiet philanthropy and support for causes that he cared about. He hated speaking of this publicly because it delighted him that people thought he was a curmudgeon.
I got to know him when he summoned me to his darbar after he read a memoir of my mother that I had written. My publishers had sent it to Kasauli (where he liked spending his summers) and he wrote a very generous account of it in his weekly column. Writers used to kill to be featured there as it was the Indian equivalent of being discussed at an Oprah Winfrey book club. After all, Khushwant’s were the most widely read columns in India, translated into God knows how many Indian languages. So I arrived dutifully at 7 pm at his Sujan Singh Park flat and was ushered in. I am a near-teetotaller but when he said to me, ‘Pour yourself a drink and get one for me,’ I did not dare to say that I had no idea how to open the seal of a bottle of whisky he pointed out to! We got along like a house on fire from that day on and I remained completely smitten by him.
Khushwant was the most wonderful listener I have ever known and since I am a very poor one, I admired this quality in him above all. He encouraged one to unwind and confess and I found that an evening spent with him lightened and clarified my mind. He had the marvellous capacity to go to the heart of a problem and make one confront one’s deepest fears. This quality is probably what made him such a great mentor: he took the time to read, comment and critique one’s work and gave it his fullest attention.
Another quality that he had — and one that I struggle to emulate — is the lucidity of his prose. I remember a conversation once with him when we were discussing the prose styles of Gandhi and Nehru. As children, we were fascinated and seduced by Nehru’s prose: schoolchildren of my generation knew by heart his ‘tryst with destiny’ speech and his last will and testament. Few of us were encouraged to read or memorise Gandhi’s writings because they did not have the drama that came naturally to Nehru. Yet today, Nehru’s writings have lost some of their pull for me and it is to Gandhi’s clear and artless prose that I turn.
I will always remember how Khushwant spoke of his love for Gandhi and how he came under Gandhi’s spell from the first time he met him as a schoolboy when Bapu asked him to wear homespun cloth. Apart from Gandhi’s personal food fads and his intolerance of liquor, Khushwant followed every lesson he learnt from Gandhi. This included writing in the idiom of the common man, and leaching himself of every vestige of self-importance. His eyes welled up as he recalled an occasion when Gandhi was on a fast protesting to support the release of fair funds to Pakistan. Gandhi had undertaken this because a few weeks ago, people had protested against his demand before the Indian government. When it became apparent that Gandhi was too weak to go on, the very people who had hurled abuses at him came to beg him to break his fast. ‘Tell me,’ Khushwant asked, ‘can you think of anyone today who would evoke such public feelings?’ He was silent for a while and then spoke, almost as if he was speaking to himself, ‘We have only heard of our prophets, of characters like Jesus or Rama. God knows whether they existed at all. But here was a man who embodied purity of spirit: why should I not place him higher than a god I have never seen?’
As always, Khushwant had taught me a lesson that evening that I will never forget. (Courtesy The Tribune)