Friday, March 21, 2014

A tribute to India's most candid and loving writer - Khushwant Singh (Obituary)


One of India's most acerbic writers, astute columnist, inveterate journalist and acclaimed novelist Khushwant Singh passed away on March 20, 2014 at the age of 99 in New Delhi after almost seven decades of  literary brainstorming and wise-cracking across a gamut of mediums - news, books, poetry and "jokes". The iconic writer of the "Train To Pakistan", "The Mark of Vihsnu and Other Stories" "I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale", "A History of the Sikhs", The Sunset Club" and several other books of essays,short stories, history and fiction was known for "acid secularism", "sharp critical eye" and humour in his writing - as well as in life. Singh was a child of New Delhi - a city that his grandfather helped built at a time when the erstwhile British colonialists were looking for "efficient architects"to design the capital complex under the command of architect Edward Lutyens. The lineage coloured the writer-journalist's genes - seeped into his blood integrating his persona and intellect with the colonial and modern history of Delhi and India.  It is an occasion to mourn and look back in nostalgia for millions of Khushwant Singh's fans across the country - educated  middle class homes which he reached through his newspaper columns like the "With Malice Towards One and All"...

Here is the writer-journalist personal tryst with Khushwant Singh in course of her career. A homage.                      

The New Delhi that writer-columnist Khushwant Singh knew like the back of his hand has now become an alien city in which the 98-year-old thespian has lost his way, the writer says in his new volume of ruminations.
"It has grown out of all proportions, extending from Alipur to Faridabad, from Ghazibad and Noida across the Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh to Gurgaon in Haryana," Singh says in his just-published autobiographical account, "Khushwantnama: The Lessons of My Life".
Luytens had planned a city for a few thousand civil servants and staff; it now has a population of 16 million; he had planned roads for a few thousand cars, tongas and bicycles; now almost every family has a car or two or three and the roads are jammed from sunrise to sunset - and even after, Khushwant Singh says of the metropolis that his father Sobha Singh, a pioneer architect, had laid out with Lutyens and his crew.
"It is a city in which more than twice as many women get molested and raped than in Mumbai...I don't go out any more. The last time I had to step out to visit the doctor, I found the roads clogged," Khushwant Singh says.
The author's soul-searching of the city, where he lived and worked for most of his adult writing life, is steeped in memories, nostalgia and umbilical cords that tie him to the growth of modern Delhi with blood. There is a wistfulness about his reflections that borders on mourning - the blues of a man suspended on a thin thread between living and passing away.
But Khushwant Singh is nothing short of a marvel. His pen keeps painting his musings even as his body - confined to a wheel chair - could be falling apart slowly. He wants to give up, but his zest for life refuses to let him off the hook.
Death has been occupying Khushwant Singh for the last few years since he had published "The Sunset Club" - a novel about three 80-year-old men discussing about life, lust, politics and society.
"In my 98th year, I have little left to look forward to, but lots to reminisce about. To draw a balance sheet of my life and failures. On the credit side, I have over eighty books, novels and collections of short stories, biographies, histories, translations from Punjabi and Urdu, and many essays," he writes, looking inward.
One the debit side, the "reckless" sardar has "his character". "I spend many evenings going over my evil deeds I committed in my early years. With an airgun, I killed dozens of sparrows who had done me no harm," he discloses about his roster of heinous deeds.
Two years ago, the writer decided it was time for him to withdraw into himself at 96.
"Some people would describe it as retirement. I chose a hallowed Indian word, 'sanyas'," Khushwant Singh says with a hint of resignation.
For nearly seven decades, the author, a former editor of the now-defunct Illustrated Weekly of India and later the Hindustan Times, has remained on the top of the best-selling charts with classics like "The Train to Pakistan", "I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale" and "Delhi".
The pithy hard-bound book covers Khushwant Singh's orientation in pithy essays that explore "The State of the Nation", "The Importance of Gandhi", "What Religion Means to Me", "The Business of Writing", "Journalism Then and Now" and "Dealing With Death" - all subjects close to his heart.
"Thinking Aloud" devotes itself to the writer's views on partition, the English language paradox, sex and the qualities of a president.
The style is beguiling and, at intervals, shines with tongue-in-cheek self-analysis.
"I have always believed that sex is more important than romance. Romance is a waste of energy. It takes up time and loses it lustre soon... There is too much of sexual frustration in our country," Khushwant Singh says with his usual candour.
"I never rated myself very highly as a writer. At school, I was hopeless at all subjects. And although I was very keen on sports, I wasn't any good at games either. The only bright point was a comment from my English teacher in my report card," he recalls.
"Ms. Budden, who had come from England to teach at Modern School for two years, wrote that I had the possibility of making it as a writer," the writer says.
So typically Khushwant Singh that it makes you cry for the sheer humility of his "greatness".

(Madhusree Chatterjee for IANS on Khushwant Singh's 98th birthday)   

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