Khushwant Singh has always been true to his belief in justice and secularism. — File

Now in his ninth decade, writer, editor, translator, activist and bon vivant Khushwant Singh was born in Hadali, a Muslim majority village a few miles west of the river Jhelum. His was a wealthy family (his father was made a Knight of the British Empire) and with money come useful connections and a certain self confidence.

After St. Stephen's in Delhi he decided on Government College, Lahore. Later, at King's College, London and the Inner Temple he did not shine but managed to pass his examinations. He couldn't get into the Indian Civil Service, then the favourite destination of those destined for heaven on earth. But that was just as well. For we would have been deprived of an enfant terrible, who, even in his advanced years, continues to deflate the pompous and expose the evil doers. The statement that it is only the rich who can afford to be generous certainly rings true in his case.

But he is more than generous, especially to writers, actors and artists. I speak from personal experience; to me he has been the very soul of kindness.

In his life as an activist and journalist he has been true to himself and his belief in democracy, justice, secularism, friendship, decency and fair play has never wavered; not even in the darkest days of mutual slaughter in 1947. He is an avowed agnostic who ought really to be proclaimed an iconic Pir by his fellow agnostics the world over.

He recognises that he's far from the first flush of youth but continues to fight the good fight for insaf and insanyat; not with the kirpan of his ancestors but with the pen. His widely syndicated column With Malice Towards One and All has for many years disturbed the slumbers of hundreds of corrupt Indian politicians, policemen, bureaucrats and others who labour under the impression that they are above the law.

The day after the old warhorse has named names, the named ones spend sleepless nights tossing and turning wondering when the fraud squad armed with arrest warrants is likely to pay them an unfriendly visit. Many catch the first plane out of the country to 'consult medical opinion' about some rare ailment that has suddenly afflicted them. The foolish ones threaten libel action but soon learn the error of their ways.

 It was when he edited The Illustrated Weekly of India that he really set the cat amongst the pigeons. He hired the likes of Qurratulain Hyder, already a well known Urdu novelist, and M.J. Akbar who rose to the top of the profession of journalism. They and their bloodhounds wrote investigative, highly charged pieces that lambasted hypocrisy, humbug and corruption.

The magazine was ailing when Singh took over but soon circulation soared; within five years it quadrupled. The very people who savoured the juicy, sexed up offerings each week called it a pornographic publication. Singh and his team sat back and smiled. It was, they claimed, yet another example of the hypocrisy that pervaded the country.
In May 1975 Mrs Gandhi imposed the notorious Emergency. Journalists were jailed and many went into hiding but Singh managed to survive the clampdown. Apparently he flattered, coaxed and charmed the prime minister and miraculously circumvented the draconian censorship ordinances.

Others were not so fortunate. They couldn't take the tension. His friend Kishan Chand scribbled a short defiant note in Urdu (Zillat say maut acchi hai) and threw himself into a well. Scores of intellectuals, many upstanding men, were incarcerated. 'One thing Mrs Gandhi did not suffer from was compassion,' records Singh.

Later, at the Hindustan Times which was once headed by the Mahatma's youngest son Devdas Gandhi, he continued the crusade. He was consulted by the great, the good and the not so good and had access to Mrs Gandhi. Those who envied him started calling him 'Khushamadi Singh'.

Conspiracy theorists claimed that he was a member of 'Madam's kitchen cabinet'. During this time he was also a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament, and counselled the powers in Delhi on the explosive situation in the Punjab.

At the same time he had nothing but scorn for the likes of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, who demanded an independent Sikh state, and the Akali Party whom he branded 'a bunch of narrow-minded bigots'.

The defining moment came when on June 5, 1984, 'Madam' ordered the army to storm the Golden Temple. Many moderate Sikhs threw up their hands in horror and lamented that even the tyrant Aurangzeb never went that far.

Singh immediately returned the state honour bestowed on him and wrote a string of tirades against the Amritsar massacre. And after Mrs Gandhi's assassination when the Sikhs of Delhi were butchered he sought sanctuary in the Swedish Embassy.

He said that he was reduced to becoming a refugee in his own country. It is no wonder that he is passionately in love with the poetry of Faiz.

He makes no secret of his admiration for many Islamic ideals. His translations of Urdu poetry (especially Iqbal's Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa) are widely read and his autobiography is punctuated with telling quotations from Farsi and Urdu. Always on the side of the underdog, he takes up cudgels for all minority interests.

A couple of years ago I drew his attention to the fact that though Dalits in India (formerly the Untouchables) received preferential treatment with regard to government jobs and admissions to medical colleges, Christians from Dalit families were denied such treatment.

He immediately crafted a well-argued article that went thus A man who changes his religious beliefs (purely his personal choice) does not change his socio-economic-educational status, hence the spirit of the Indian constitution expected that he be afforded as much assistance as his depressed and exploited fellow citizens.

Khushwant Singh is a notable naturalist and has often warned about environmental disaster resulting from pollution caused by massive unplanned industrial development. He has written lovingly about birds, flowers, trees and wild animals. Among his good friends were Sir Peter Scott (son of Scott of the Antarctic and founder of the Severn Wildlife Trust) and Dr Salim Ali, the celebrated ornithologist known as the 'Birdman of India'.

His genuine friendship with Muslims on both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border is the reason why some consider him soft towards Pakistan. A few even accuse him of being a Pakistani spy living in the heart of New Delhi. He revels in these descriptions and with a glint in his eye downs another Scotch. His visits to Pakistan were reported in detail but few are aware of the critical comments about Pakistan that he made while on Pakistani soil.

He was the only Indian journalist present in Islamabad when Z.A. Bhutto was hanged. He spoke bluntly with General Tikka Khan about the core reasons why Bangladesh came into being. His meeting with General Zia, a fellow Stephenian, was frank.

It was most probably after interviewing Zia that he observed 'In my entire life I have never encountered another people as reckless in their generosity as Punjabi Mussalmans.

'Their logic is simple Punjabis are the world's elite; Islam is the best of all religions. Put the two together and you get the best people in the world. When puritanical, they can be insufferably narrow-minded and fanatical.

'A call to jihad brings out their macho, militant zeal to do or die. Then it is best to keep out of their way. I have a simple rule avoid making friends with a Punjabi Pakistani who prays five times a day, fasts during Ramadan — and does not drink.'
Singh's History of the Sikhs, in two volumes, is vastly readable, dispassionate and reliable while his novel Train to Pakistan, which was made into a film, is an honest account of the holocaust that engulfed the Punjab during the Partition.

The story is soaked in turmoil and tragedy; several passages in it are reminiscent of Manto and Amrita Pritam. The Company of Women, I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale and Delhi are his other significant contributions to literature from the subcontinent.

When he was approaching 90 he published his autobiography titled Truth, Love and a Little Malice. In it he says that when his time comes he would like to go as Iqbal exhorted strong men to go Nishaan-i-mard-i-Momin ba too goyam?

Choon marg aayad, tabassum bar lab-i-ost (You ask me for the signs of a man of faith? / When death comes to him he has a smile on his lips) In the meantime he holds court every evening in his flat in Sujan Singh Park, a huge complex in the centre of Delhi which is owned by his family trust.

The best minds congregate there to exchange news and views. Sujan Singh Park is, in fact, a world class think tank. And it was here that the saintly President Abdul Kalam came to invest Khushwant Singh with an award higher even than the one he had returned many years ago.

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