20th March, 2014 brought the curtains down on the long and eventful career that Khushwant Singh had. He passed away at the age of 99. Just one year short of making a century!
This man doesn’t need an introduction. But for the uninitiated, he was a gifted author, candid commentator, columnist, editor, journalist, historian, diplomat and a lot more. In his death India has lost one of its most iconic sons. He strode like a colossus into the literary scene in India and produced masterpieces like Train to Pakistan, The History of Sikhs, Delhi and Truth, Love and a Little Malice (an autobiography). He was the editor of literary and news magazines like Yogana and The Illustrated Weekly of India. His knowledge of language was profound. Not only in English, he had great command over Gurumukhi, Hindi and Urdu as well. Most of his works are interspersed with beautiful Urdu poetry of the masters. In fact his legacy is so vast that it can run into pages. I might as well use this space for something more personal.
As a teenager, I was forbidden to read him. My father believed I needed time to appreciate his work. But there was no stopping me. I would stay up at nights after everyone had gone to sleep, just to read his books from my father’s library. I finished his autobiography that way. Once when I had brought home his ‘Delhi’, my grandmother accidentally read some excerpts from it. That she was left appalled would be an understatement.
He was the object of fascination in my teens, of silent reverence in my youth. God has not created another Khushwant Singh after him and I doubt if there ever will be one. Many coffee table writers tried to be funny or scandalous like him but no one could beat the master at his own game. Indeed he was the grand old man of Indian Literature. He evoked extreme reactions in people. You can either love him for his unsparing wit or hate him for being a lecher. Some people might be appalled by reading me heaping praise on him. They might think what good was this irreverent man who mostly made nasty jokes! To all of you with this misgiving, I implore you to pick up any one of his books and I am sure you will appreciate his vast intellect and gift for the written word, if not anything else.
I don’t know whether one should mourn his death or celebrate the fact that he had a long and fulfilling life. This was a man who wrote his own eulogy at the age of 28! He was an agnostic, a person scared of death and beyond, and yet waiting for it to come! He was one who blatantly loved his scotch and his share of women. He could even make you laugh at his own death. This was what he had written on his own death years ago –
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.
So here’s to you Mr. Khushwant Singh. I don’t subscribe to your views nor do I oppose them. I don’t enjoy all your dirty jokes. But I surely worship you for your writing, your profound knowledge on myriad topics and your vicious wit which makes that knowledge fun. My Best Wishes on your journey beyond!
– Aradhana Das Adhikary