Ninety-nine — not out

Published March 27, 2014

TO get a measure of Khushwant Singh’s life (he died on March 20, 2014 at the age of 99), one needs to remember that when he was born in 1915, the First World War had just begun. If one goes back another 99 years, to 1816, Maharaja Ranjit Singh was still on the throne of Lahore. Khushwant Singh managed to telescope through his writings that 200-year gap into one seamless narrative of Punjabiat.

Throughout his life he regarded his birth village of Hadali (now part of Pakistan’s Punjab) with inordinate affection. He felt it qualified him to be a Pakistani. When we last met on March 4, a fortnight before he died, he said: “You know that I am a Pakistani by birth and at heart.” I replied: “You are a better Pakistani than most of us.” He laughed: “I have told them I want to be buried in Hadali.”

I had gone to see him, as I tried to do whenever I was in New Delhi, in his ground-floor flat in Sujan Singh Park, near Lodhi Gardens. This time, it was to present him with a copy of my latest book The Resourceful Fakirs: Three Muslim brothers at the Sikh Court of Lahore. His attendant Bahadur told me Khushwant was resting but if I was to leave my telephone number, he would call me and let me know if Khushwant could receive me.

The next day, rather than waiting for his call, I went to the flat of his daughter Mala Dayal (she lives in one opposite) and had coffee with her. Just after midday, Bahadur rang. Mala led me across the hallway into Khushwant’s flat, through the dining room into the rear verandah. Khushwant sat in a wicker chair, his legs outstretched in the sun, the rest of his body in the shade. He wore a grey track suit and had a black woollen cap on his head. I noticed some biscuit crumbs caught in his beard.

Mala reminded him who I was. He recognised me within a second. I gave him my book. “Inscribe it for me,” he said, adding after I had done so: “Now write it in Urdu.”

He demonstrated (as if I could ever forget) his mastery of Urdu and Persian by reciting a couplet of Iqbal’s. “You know that I am 99 years old.” I replied: “May my years be added to yours.” He looked up at me with the softest expression, and said: “No, but may you live as long as I have.”

I held his hand, the hand that had spent a lifetime writing books and inimitable articles, and kissed it. He brushed his cheek with mine. Both of us knew that it was a farewell. I left and stood on the gravel outside, recalling our first meeting on Aug 21, 1978.

I had gone to show him my first book — Pahari Paintings and Sikh Portraits in the Lahore Museum — which had just been published, and to discuss my second Sikh Portraits by European Artists, still in the press. Khushwant Singh gave me his study on The Fall of the Kingdom of the Punjab which covered the same period. He inscribed it “with much affection”. That affection remained undiluted and undiminished throughout the ensuing 35 years of our association.

For me as a student of Sikh history, Khushwant Singh’s academic achievements stand like some Uluru/Ayers Rock in the landscape of his life. His more popular works — his articles, short stories, novels, compendia of jokes — gained him more fame, hopefully fortune, certainly notoriety, but none yielded him the stature that I believe he deserved as a serious writer.

The opening lines of arguably his most famous novel — Train to Pakistan — reveal Khushwant’s Singh’s formidable powers of description and at another level the intensity of his feeling for rural roots. This bonding revealed itself in many ways, often unexpectedly.

On one occasion, he stunned his Pakistani audience during a Manzur Qadir Memorial lecture at Lahore in 1989 by declaring that before Mohammad Ali Jinnah became the Father of Pakistan, he was the Son of India. No one but Khushwant Singh would have shown such provocative mischievousness, and no one else would have been able to calm and then conciliate his audience with the fire-extinguishing speech that followed.

After my last meeting with Khushwant Singh, Mala called to say that he wanted to write on my book in his next column. That explains why many mourners noticed the copy I had given him lying by his bedside.

He has been cremated in New Delhi. His family has agreed that some of his ashes may be brought to Pakistan, for burial as he wished in his birth village Hadali. The son of Punjab will be returned to its soil.

The writer is an author and art historian.

www.fsaijazuddin.pk

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