The Lion in Winter

Mark Tully 1

Khushwant Singh at 97, going on 98, is as gregarious as ever. He has lost none of his wit or his wisdom, and is as irreverent as ever, not hesitating to speak his mind. He revels in controversy and his weekly column is compulsory reading for millions. So, Khushwant’s company is still much sought after, and he has to be protected from the visitors who want to sit at his feet.

Khushwant Singh at 98

Khushwant Singh at 98

Gilly (Gillian Wright) and my visit had to be carefully negotiated with Khushwant’s son Rahul, and Khushwant’s daughter Mala was there to greet us in the garden outside his flat in Sujan Singh Park. The flat has old-fashioned thick walls and high ceilings. It’s one of the apartments in the first block of flats to be built in New Delhi. Khushwant Singh’s father, Sir Sobha Singh, was the builder. Inside the modest flat we found Khushwant sitting back in an armchair with his bare legs draped over a stool turned on its side. He was wearing a blue T-shirt and checked shorts. It was the first time I’d ever seen him without a Sikh turban covering his straggly white hair. There was a glass of whisky on the table beside him.

First, Khushwant insisted that a bottle of beer was opened for me and fresh-lime soda was brought for Gilly. “Here I live a very feudal life,” he told us. “I have three servants, old timers, my cook has been with me for 60 years. But I’ve spent my happiest days in your country, England. I wish I was living there now.” Then he paused and chuckled, “But if I was, I suppose I’d be in an old-man’s home and that might not be much fun.”

Khushwant studied at King’s College London and then he read for the bar. Later he served as a diplomat in India House, the Indian High Commission in London. He was the public relations officer. I had often wondered how the naturally non-conformist Khushwant survived, constrained by the straitjacket of diplomatic conventions. I wasn’t surprised when he told me he was not very happy with diplomacy. “I had to serve under that rascal Krishna Menon,” he explained. “My four years were unhappy except that I enjoyed living in London. I used to walk down the Strand every day from the Savoy Hotel to The Sherlock Holmes Pub for lunch.” The Strand leads from India House to Trafalgar Square and after lunch Khushwant would sit on the steps of the famous St Martin-in-the-Fields church watching Londoners and tourists feeding the flocks of pigeons there.

Although Khushwant had welcomed us warmly, I felt he might be a little bored at this stage in his life by yet another journalistic interview. We were slated to have a conversation, but that is really an interview by another name. When I suggested this to Khushwant he replied, “I don’t know why people want to come and interview me. I have always consciously tried to belittle myself. But only last week people came and gave me flowers, then they touched my feet, and gave me a cheque for a lakh of rupees. I couldn’t say ‘Don’t do this’, could I? They would have been hurt.” Laughing, Khushwant added, “Anyhow I never refuse money and a lakh means nothing now.”

But Khushwant does keep strict visiting hours and we were told we could only have half an hour with him. He has always lived a very disciplined life. Until he was 90, he regularly got up at four in the morning to play tennis at the Gymkhana Club. On getting home he would have a cold shower. He would also swim at the Golf Club in the summer and walk in Lodhi Gardens in the winter. If you invited Khushwant to dinner, he wouldn’t tolerate the usual Delhi practice of eating late. You had to serve food by eight and allow him to go home to be in bed by 9.30 p.m. Although he can no longer play tennis and told us he only goes out to attend board meetings of the Meridien Hotel, Khushwant still keeps regular hours. He breakfasts at 6.30, has lunch at 12, his whisky comes at seven and he eats dinner at eight, now preferring easily-digested South Indian idlis to heavier Punjabi food.

Khushwant misses his more active life. “I am decrepit now. I have to be helped to move around the place,” he said sadly. “I don’t know why I am still here. The time has come for me to go, and I want to go, but I can’t.” He then recited Walter Savage Landor’s poem in a firm voice,“I strive with none for none was worth my strife/ Nature I loved and next to nature art/ I warmed my hands before the fire of life/ It sinks and I am ready to depart.”

He then turned to Tennyson, one of his favourite English poets, “Sunset and evening star,/ And one clear call for me,/ And may there be no moaning of the bar/ When I put out to sea.” I was amazed by Khushwant’s memory. He gave the credit for it to his education at The Modern School.

Khushwant Singh is so well loved for his inimitable sense of humour, his outspoken journalism, and his very public enjoyment of wine, women and song that we are in danger of not taking him seriously. In fact his achievements as a novelist, historian and naturalist, as well of course, as his journalism, show that underneath the jovial exterior lies a deeply serious man whose work should be more widely acclaimed in India and abroad. Khushwant should be best known for his two volume History of the Sikhs, essential reading for any student of that community, and also for the classic novel Train to Pakistan, whichportrays the blood-stained tragedy of Partition. Khushwant himself said to us, “If only it had been done another way, without those bloody massacres, I would have been very happy to have stayed in Pakistan. They forced us out.”

Less well known than this or his other novels, but invaluable for anyone who wants to know about the natural life of Delhi, is Khushwant’s beautifully illustrated Nature Watch. But in the end it has to be admitted that he is best known as a journalist (particularly for his hugely-popular column, With Malice Towards One and All). When I asked whether he thought he was a great journalist, he replied, “I don’t think so. But any bullshit I write gets published. I am the most widely read journalist in English. I also had experience of journalism as an editor, eight years at The Illustrated Weekly of India when the circulation went from 80,000 to four million. Then there was the Hindustan Times for three years – very satisfying. There I fell foul of Mrs Gandhi. It was shameful, the proprietor K.K. Birla, asked Mrs Gandhi to nominate the editor to replace me. I have to say that Birla did ask me to continue with my column.”   

“But you were close to Indira Gandhi.”

“I was close to her. But she had a very petty side to her. She was very vindictive and went out of her way to take revenge, especially after the Emergency. But she certainly had her plus points. There was the Bangladesh War. She won that more than anyone else. The way she manoeuvred it, making Pakistani planes fly via Sri Lanka and it was all over in 10 days; 93,000 Pakistani soldiers laying down their arms. I met the officers and the men we had captured. I said, ‘You didn’t even put up a fight’. They replied ‘Don’t rub salt in our wounds’. It hurt me that they were humiliated.”

Khushwant then told us about one particular soldier he met – a young man who couldn’t even read or write. When he discovered that the soldier came from his ancestral village, Khushwant asked him what he had heard about the Sikhs who used to live there. The young man replied, “I was told they were a cruel community. If they caught you they would kill you.” Khushwant then pointed out that the soldier had been captured by the Sikh regiment and asked what they had done to him. “Nothing,” he replied.

The Emergency was one of the very rare times when Khushwant’s genial image suffered, and he faced considerable hostility. But he remains unapologetic about his decision to support the declaration of a State of Emergency. “Indira’s opponents went too far,” he explained. “They crossed all limits. I wasn’t alone in welcoming the Emergency. So did Vinoba Bhave. But it was misused, mainly by the family.”

“What about politics today?” “I have never seen politicians so low. They just run each other down, and I never heard them using the sort of language about each other that they use today. Nowadays when I read the paper I first look at the temperature, then go through the obituaries to see if any of my buddies have died. I don’t read stories of politicians running each other down. But Manmohan (Singh) is a good man – honest, able, and above all humble, which is a rare phenomenon. He’s doing the best he can, but this is an ungovernable country.”

There is one aspect of politics in which Khushwant does still take a great interest. “I am very bothered about the rise of religious fundamentalism in this country,” he said. “For example (L. K.) Advani. I never forgave him for the Babri Mosque. I have written more against him than anyone else. When he was Home Minister I was asked to preside over a meeting where he was present. I said, ‘I proposed your name for the New Delhi Parliamentary seat because I thought you were clean, honest, and not a womaniser’ – there was much laughter at that. Then I said ‘after what you have done I will not spare you.’”

I started to explain to Khushwant that I was also opposed to secular fundamentalists who refused to accept there could be any good in religion but Khushwant cut me short, “There is no such thing as secular fundamentalism,” he said firmly. “Unless I am one!” he added, with a hearty laugh. “But look at the Indo-Pakistan question. There is prejudice against Pakistan in this country. They have been unfair to us and we have been unfair to them. There is no hope of change because it is all basically religious. We are not secular enough.”

So we came to the question of the future and what it held for Khushwant. He said, “I haven’t a clue about what is going to happen after I go, but all this business of reincarnation is utter bullshit. I am an agnostic.”

I asked, “What then is your attitude towards Sikhism? After all, you do publicly appear to profess it by keeping your beard and wearing a turban.” Khushwant replied, “I spent all my life working on the Sikhs. Perhaps I have written more on them than anyone writing in English and so people think I am religious. But I am not. I have a beard and wear a turban because it gives me a feeling of belonging and I’m too old to change now.”

I couldn’t end without asking Khushwant about the admiration for beautiful women that he has so often expressed. I reminded him that he had sometimes been called ‘a dirty old man.’ Khushwant laughed: “I prefer women to men and I admire beauty, so if that makes me a dirty old man, I am one. I have some very good-looking women living near me and they like to spend time with me. I have a very good memory for (Mirza) Ghalib who has a lot of very fetching couplets about women and wine, and they like to listen to them.” He paused and then recited,“Jab mekada chhuta to phir ab kya jagah ki qai/ masjid ho, madrasa ho, koi khanqah ho” (When we’ve left the wine-house, then what other place can hold us/ Whether it be a mosque, or madrassa or some Sufi cell?)

The 19th century poet’s humour and irreverence obviously appealed to Khushwant. From the superiority of the wine-house, he turned to a famous ghazal where Ghalib, in his distinctive style, defied anyone to stop the Lover from expressing the pain he feels at the poor treatment he gets from his Beloved.“Dil hi to hai na sang o khisht dard se bhar na aye kyun/ roenge ham hazaar bar koi hamen sataye kyun.”(My heart is not of stone or brick, why should it not fill with pain/ I will cry a thousand times, why should anyone torment me? And then, “Dair nahin, haram nahin, dar nahin, aastan nahin/ baithe hain reh-guzar pe ham ghair hamen utaye kyun.” (Neither temple, nor Ka’bah, nor door, nor threshold/ I sit on the roadside – why should anyone disturb me?)

“Why Ghalib above all Urdu poets?” asked Gilly. “I was the only student of Urdu at Modern School in my class,” Khushwant replied. “Then I continued it at college. I first got very involved with Iqbal, I translated his Shikva and the Jawab-e-Shikwa, which has gone into over 20 editions in India and Pakistan. But I can’t stomach religious fundamentalism and in the end he was the spirit behind the Pakistan movement, although I can understand that Muslims would have felt insecure in a country dominated by Hindus. I then turned to Ghalib – more my cup of tea…. Ishq se tabiyat ne zist ka maza paya/ dard ki dava payee dard-e-be-dava paya.” (Through love I found the taste of life/ I found a cure for pain, and a pain without cure.)

“For me, that is his best line.” So although Khushwant is not physically strong, mentally he is sharp as ever and his memory is remarkable. We had been given half an hour but had spent nearly an hour. When we apologised to Khushwant he said, “Don’t worry, come again.” We both very much hope we will.

Photography by Dayanita Singh

One Comment

  1. Nisbeth Ahmed March 20, 2014 at 3:04 pm - Reply

    I found the photograph taken by Dayanita Singh to be reminiscent of the style of Yousuf Karsh.

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