When I met Khushwant Singh

Published March 26, 2014
“He really stuck his neck out to get the Pakistani POWs released,"A.G. Noorani said.
“He really stuck his neck out to get the Pakistani POWs released,"A.G. Noorani said.

I had never spoken to a Sikh. Strangely, there were no Sikh students in the Christian missionary school, where I studied in Bombay. There was an assortment of Hindus, Muslims and Christians but not a single Sikh in the school. By the way, my best friend was Subhas Thorat, a Maharashtrian Hindu.

Having listened to one-sided stories of Sikhs slaughtering Muslims in East Punjab at the time of Partition, I was scared of them. Their turbans and beards made them appear all the more fearsome.

However, on migrating to Lahore in 1950, I was struck by the names of Hindus and Sikhs etched on rectangular marble slabs, embedded on the gates of bungalows, which they left behind, when they crossed the newly carved border. That was in the upscale locality of Model Town. For the first time, I realised that the Muslims were no less to be blamed for the riots.

It was much later in 1964 that I first spoke to a Sikh. That was when I was visiting what was then Bombay. He was a taxi driver from Gujranwala, a town I remembered only for its mouth-watering tikkas. I spoke to him in broken Punjabi. The man became emotional. I told him that I was from the other side of the Great Divide and had been to Gujranwala once. He spoke warmly of his native town and downgraded mine in comparison. He was so excited that most of the time he looked back at me as I was sitting on the backseat. Death in a traffic accident was what has always scared me so I moved hastily to the front seat when the cab halted at a traffic signal. He refused to accept the fare when we reached my destination.

By that time, I had read a lot of Partition literature and one of the gems that moved me was Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan. Unlike now when there are so many well-known subcontinental novelists, with or without true literary merits, who write in English, in the mid-50s there were only four – R.K. Narayan, Raja Rao, Dr Mulkraj Anand and Prof Ahmed Ali.

Khushwant, as he preferred to be called, joined the ranks after he had made a name for himself as a scholar, who had written the widely-acclaimed The History of Sikhs in 1953.

Train to Pakistan was published in 1956 and I read it three years later. Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Ice Candy Man, on the same theme, was to appear at least three decades later.

Listen to Khushwant Singh read from his novel, Train to Pakistan

A cousin of mine who was a civilian POW at Roorkee returned to Karachi sometime in late 1972 with a trunk full of copies of The Illustrated Weekly of India, a magazine I saw after years because the import of journals and newspapers from the two countries ceased after the 1965 war. It was a far cry from the dull and drab magazine that it had become before Khushwant took over.

In 1976, I visited Bombay (read India) after 11 years and phoned Raju Bharatan, the man who wrote knowledgably on film music and was in this field my ideal. He was in those days working as the senior assistant editor of The Weekly, as it was commonly called. One of his colleagues was Fatima Zakaria, the wife of Dr Rafiq Zakaria and mother of Fareed Zakaria, who was in those days a student. Much to my disappointment, I learnt that Qurratulain Hyder had resigned from The Weekly. He and Khushwant, as I was to learn later, weren’t on the best of terms, though Urdu was a common bondage between the two persons of letters.

Raju got me an appointment with Khushwant one afternoon.

As I entered the room I was greeted with a loud “Assalam--Elekum”. He pointed out the poster he had designed to back his campaign to get the Pakistani POWs released. “He really stuck his neck out to get the POWs released,” said noted Indian lawyer and columnist A.G. Noorani, whose very limited list of friends included Khushwant in those days. I won’t blame my surname sake for Khushwant made fun of his love life, or rather the absence of it in his book.

I tried to talk about Train to Pakistan but Khushwant was more interested to know my comments on the last few issues of The Weekly.

“On one occasion you write about the dancing girl, singing “Mera lal dupatta malmal ka”. But there was the problem of timing. Your novel was set in 1947, while the song from the film Barsaat wasn’t released until 1950,” I tried to draw his attention to his novel.

“Oh, is that so? Next time I will consult you when I refer to a film song,” he smiled evasively and switched back to his passion. I told him I loved the issue where the focus was on Indo-Pak relations.

“My mother hasn’t forgotten the Partition riots. She was fearful of my frequent visits to Pakistan. She warns me that the Musalmans would kill me … I have great friends there and the greatest is Manzur Qadir, who was once your foreign minister,” he said.

Khushwant asked me to do a piece on music, which I did promptly. It was on Runa Laila, who had made her presence felt in India. My focus was on Runa’s early years in Pakistan and the uneasy relations she had with Noor Jehan.

I told Khushwant that I enjoyed his column “The Editor’s Page”, which was published every week and was particularly impressed with his knowledge of Urdu poetry. When he fell out with the management of the publishing group, the column was renamed “With Malice to One and All”.

I don’t remember how the subject of our conversation changed to cuisine, but I do remember his telling me that every Ramazan, at the time of iftar, Fatima took him to Mohammed Ali Road, where he enjoyed the goodies immensely.

  Mario Miranda’s caricature of Khushwant Singh went with his weekly column.
Mario Miranda’s caricature of Khushwant Singh went with his weekly column.

Under Khushwant’s editorship The Weekly touched soaring heights. The issue which featured Pakistan’s cricket team tour of India, under the captaincy of swashbuckling Asif Iqbal, broke all records. The print order was to the tune of 400,000 and Raju who had worked so hard on it was unhappy that the printing had to be stopped after 370,000 copies because it was proving to be uneconomical for the publishing house. The advertising revenue of the issue did not increase with the soaring circulation.

Before Khushwant took over the stewardship of The Weekly, its circulation was in the vicinity of 70,000, which was a poor figure considering that the publication enjoyed a monopoly. M J Akbar’s Sunday and Aroon Puri’s India Today were nowhere in sight.

A few minutes before I was to leave Khushwant’s office, a former Indian Test captain, Ajit Wadekar walked in. The two began to talk about the politics in Bombay Gymkhana, a place I was to visit in the 90s.

I didn’t meet Khushwant Singh after that. Saadia Dehlvi, a close friend of his, promised to take me to his home in Delhi, when he had left active journalism and confined himself to column writing. His columns were syndicated and were widely read and commented upon. As bad luck would have it, Khushwant had gone to Kasauli, a hill station, where he spent his summers until two years before his death.

Also read: I decided to die just for fun: Khushwant Singh

The last time I was in Delhi, it was in 2011. My host was his nephew Preminder Singh, Pami to his friends. He and his sister Geeta were very hospitable. Pami said he would try to seek an appointment with his uncle, but somehow he couldn't. But I did meet Pami’s mother, who remembered Sargodha very fondly, though her recent memory was badly affected. Her accent is unmistakably one of West Punjab. That’s one reason she sounds endearing. She is a nonagenarian too. May she complete her century.

I won’t say may Khushwant rest in peace, for I feel he was not cut out to take rest, anywhere – here or in the next world. At least, his spirit was not.


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