A portion of the ashes of the 99 year-old Khushwant Singh (who crossed the newly carved border in 1947), was brought by train from a crematorium in Delhi to Pakistan early this year, by one of his many Pakistani friends — scholar and art historian Faqir Aijazuddin.

It was a return trip for the most renowned columnist of the subcontinent to his birth place, the village Hadali in district Khushab. His ashes were cemented on a wall of his school.

If Hadali is known only for the great son of its soil, so is Kasauli, at least for us Pakistanis. It was at this hill station in Himachal Pradesh, that Khushwant wrote most of his amusing, provocative and, most often, informative columns.

But to think of Khushwant Singh only as a widely read columnist is like remembering his favourite poet, Mirza Ghalib, only for his Urdu ghazals, ignoring in the process his polished verse in Persian and the delectable flavour of the letters that he wrote to his friends and pupils.

Also read: Khushwant Singh dies at 99

Khushwant (as everyone called him) was an outstanding novelist (his Train to Pakistan ranks among the finest English novels written in South Asia); a scholar who authored the highly acclaimed History of Sikhs in two volumes; and a celebrity journalist who turned the sinking Illustrated Weekly of India into a mass circulated magazine.

I would add two more points. He was a humanist to the core. To him, religious and political backgrounds of people he interacted with or even met once or twice didn’t matter at all. Also, I have yet to find a more gifted translator of Urdu poetry. He was fully alive to the sensibilities of both languages, Urdu and English. If only someone could go through his columns, which were often laced with translations of Urdu verses, and present them in a single volume.

If you wish to know more about this larger-than-life figure and his multifaceted genius, I would recommend getting a copy of his son Rahul Singh’s Khushwant Singh: The Legend Lives On. It’s a compilation of obituaries written by friends, relatives and even acquaintances.

It also features the epitaph that Khushwant wrote for himself:

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.

The introduction by Rahul Singh, an accomplished writer himself, is informative and readable alike; mentioning for instance, how he did favours to people, at least two of them turned out to be ungrateful.

Rahul recalls a number of interesting events, one of which was related to his father’s birth date. Sobha Singh, Khushwant’s father entered February 2 as the date of his birth but his mother thought that it was August 15 when she gave birth to her son. That was well before the date became the Independence Day of India.

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A photo from the book showing Khushwant with his only grandchild Naina, daughter of Mala.
A photo from the book showing Khushwant with his only grandchild Naina, daughter of Mala.

Rahul reveals that Zeenat, a lawyer and the wife of his friend Soli Sorabjee, had convinced his father to leave a will saying his last rites were to be performed according to the Bahai faith, which the lady followed.

But when the time came, Rahul and his sister Mala found out that the conditions laid by the priests were too complicated and time-consuming.

So they decided to confine his mortal remains to an electric cremation.

Their father was opposed to the conventional rites where logs of wood are burnt to cremate the body. He had always ‘felt that it was a criminal waste of natural resources and contributed to deforestation’.

Faqir Syed Aijazuddin’s obit Train to Pakistan (2014) also recalls some interesting episodes.

Throughout his life, says Aijazuddin, Khushwant talked about Hadoli, with much affection and a fortnight before his death he told his younger friend:

“You know that I am a Pakistani by birth and at heart.”

Rahul has included as many as eight obits written by Pakistanis. I felt ten feet tall when I discovered that a piece which I wrote for Dawn.com at an hour’s notice also found place in the volume.

The prolific Shobhaa De — who gave Rahul the idea of collecting and editing the obits — has not one, not two, but four in the slim volume. They were written for different Indian publications.

Sadia Dehlvi, a print and electronic media person, narrated how difficult it was to make Khushwant change clothes for a TV show Not a Nice Man to Know, which was anchored by him and no less difficult to convince him to accept payment for his participation.

Writing about the crowd of well-known people who had gathered at his flat when he passed away, Sadia, to whom he had dedicated one of his many books, writes:

“He would have loved that scene…He liked attention. He liked controversy. He used to advise me ‘When you write, inform, provoke, abuse’…He thrived. He enjoyed the abuse more than the adulation of his fans.”

Once Vinod Mehta, one of his pupils, jokingly suggested that Khushwant’s columns should carry a statutory warning — ‘Can be dangerous’.

Sadia was one of the many obituarists who said that he was far from the image that he created of himself – ‘a dirty old man, a drunk and a lecherous womaniser’. Shobhaa De labelled him a henpecked husband. True or not, he certainly was a loving husband, who grieved at the sight of his beloved wife Kaval losing her battle against Alzheimer’s disease.

  Khushwant and his bride Kaval, photographed shortly after their marriage. The clipping is from the November 6, 1939 issue of The Statesman.
Khushwant and his bride Kaval, photographed shortly after their marriage. The clipping is from the November 6, 1939 issue of The Statesman.

Read on: Shobhaa De can’t be wrong

Among Khushwant’s many assistants cum disciples, if I may use the word, was journalist Bachi Karkaria, who summed up her mentor’s attitude to his work by quoting his advice: “You must take your work seriously and your own self lightly.’

Raju Bharatan, one of his senior Assistant Editors at the Illustrated Weekly of India, recalling the nine years that he spent under Khushwant’s wing, said: “Maybe he had his failings. Yet he never knew failure. He worshipped success and swore by it.”

Khushwant was against extremism of all kinds. He wrote against Bhindranwale for engineering Sikh militancy in the Punjab, and had to be provided security by the Indian government against Sikh hardliners. But when Indira Gandhi authorised the attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar — the Vatican of Sikhs — according to Kuldip Nayar, he returned the Padma Bhushan award. Khushwant may have been an agnostic but he respected all creeds.

He condemned the killing of Sikhs in Delhi as vehemently as he denounced the anti-Muslim riots that erupted after the demolition of Babri Masjid and more recently, in Gujarat. He showed no mercy to fundamentalists of any religion.

Of all the 48 obituaries in Khushwant Singh: The Legend Lives On, it is the one published by New York Times which carries howlers. It mentions that Khushwant ‘was born in Hadali, in Thar Desert of what is now Baluchistan Province of Pakistan’. There are three errors here: Hadali is in Punjab, Thar Desert is not in Balochistan and finally the province’s name has been misspelt. What is surprising is that the byline Somini Sengupta sounds subcontinental, and yet such mistakes!

A month or so ago, this reviewer had written in a letter to Dawn that neither of the two Indians, Morarji Desai and Dilip Kumar, who were given this country’s highest civilian award, Nishan-e-Pakistan, deserved it more than Khushwant Singh did. He was indeed a bridge between the two countries — ‘the last Pakistani on the Indian soil’ as one of his detractors mentioned.

(Khushwant Singh: The Legend Lives On can be ordered on line at Liberty Books in Pakistan and Penguin India, New Delhi).

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