This year witnessed the demise of one of the most prolific and legendary writers produced by India – Khushwant Singh. The author of more than 80 books, Singh was undoubtedly one of the most notable novelists of India.
A fearless soul, he was always in the center of controversy. His iconoclastic streak and his bold criticism of the hypocritical values prevalent in Indian society always set him apart from the crowd. His brutal honesty was feared by one and all, especially those in positions of authority.
Early Life and Education
Singh was born in 1915 in Hadali, part of Khushab District of what is now part of Pakistan, where he attended Government Boys High School. Later he was educated at Government College, Lahore; St. Stephens’ College, Delhi; and King’s College, London. He started his career as a lawyer practicing in the Lahore High Court for eight years, but soon after Partition, he joined the Indian Foreign Service and was posted in Toronto, Canada as an Information Officer.
As he described his professional switch in his own words: “I loathed the law. I thought I can’t waste my entire life living off other people’s quarrels.”
Singh married his childhood friend Kawal Malik and the two had a long comfortable unison. Later in 1956 after he turned away from law, he invested his energy in journalism. He was associated with The Illustrated Weekly of India for a considerable time whereby the readership of the publication grew colossally. He was also associated with the Hindustan Times and The National Herald.
Brutal Honesty and Fearless Writing
His columns over the course of his career were undoubtedly pieces of literary genius. “With Malice Towards One and All” is perhaps one of the most memorable editorial works of Singh, communicating his critical social and political analysis and his immaculate wit. “Khushwant Singh’s Big Book of Malice” was another one of his critical works. It appeared as if the word “malice” had become almost synonymous to him. His pinching honesty was all encompassing, no one was spared. In remembrance of the writing giant, Satwinder Bains, who is the director at the Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies at the University of Fraser Valley, says the brilliance in his work exists because he never bothered trying to please someone with it.
“I think his sense of malice is well placed because it comes from a place of honesty. He has never been afraid. His fearlessness is just so important in terms of literature. He has written about history, ex-pats and he has written it in a way that he has perceived it or he has understood it and been true to it factually, but at the same time he has given it his fearless stance. So his irreverence comes from his pure joy of writing,” she adds.
Renowned Indian-born American physicist Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany says Khushwant Singh was a wonderful confidant and an inspirational writer and will truly be missed.
While remembering him, he reflects with the following: “In my opinion, Khushwant was a harmless genius. He did not do negative things for anybody and was a genius in what he produced. Numerous books that he wrote on Sikhs are a major contribution to humanity. His humour was priceless. His book on the history of the Sikhs and on how the Sikhs lost their empire and ‘Train to Pakistan’ are just wonderful books that he wrote.”
This proclivity to writing the bitter truth and his own honest feelings was partly owed to his inner humility. Singh’s compassion and humble nature have been lauded by his friends and those who were close to him. His son, Rahul Singh in one of the interviews given during his father’s life, described him in these words:
“One of the reasons why he is such a popular writer is because of the fact that people think they can trust him. He has no axe to grind. He reacts from his heart. He has got a great sense of humour and is also a great communicator. One of his greatest virtues is that he can communicate to everyone – right from an illiterate villager to the Prime Minister. He speaks Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and English. At his house in Delhi, very simple people come to meet him apart from the crème de le crème, of course. I don’t think he is a great writer of books frankly and he will admit it himself. However, his books have a certain appeal.”
Perhaps Khushwant Singh’s philosophy towards life was best conveyed through his own words when he remarked: “Your principle should be to see everything and say nothing. The world changes so rapidly that if you want to get on you cannot afford to align yourself with any person or point of view.”
Religious or Agnostic?
His public persona was that of an agnostic, but he donned a turban and was not only well versed in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib and Gauri Sukhmani, but conducted in-depth philosophical analysis and research on the holy verses. Ajmer Rode, a renowned Punjabi poet and dramatist based in Vancouver, praised his contributions in bringing Sikh heritage to international attention.
“Khushwant Singh wrote ‘A History of Sikhs’ in English and in a lucid and accessible style. It is published by international publishers and thus has already informed the world about Sikhs and their heritage more than any other work. Although India now has several international literary stars, none surpasses Khushwant Singh in his myriad contributions to India’s wealth of learning. He has become an iconic figure; his bold personal and journalistic style will continue to inspire generations to come,” says Rode.
He also went on to pay tribute to his audacity and attributed Singh’s phenomenal success to fearlessness in the face of authority and a strong sense of impartiality.
“Khushwant Singh spoke what he felt, wrote what he liked and did what his conscience urged him to do. When he felt Sikhs were wronged by Operation Blue Star, he went to the President of India and returned the Padma Bhushan award conferred on him by the Indian government. This was one of his qualities that made him excel over other journalists,” he adds.
Rahul Singh, however in interviews with the press, has clarified that his father might be an agnostic nevertheless he had devoted a lot of his time in studying religions, perhaps his enmity was particularly with senseless superstitions and the opposition to rationality that the orthodox clergy purported.
“He is a Sikh, but never goes to the Gurdwara. But even though he is agnostic, he takes interest in all religions. He is moved by devotional songs from all religions. He hates any kind of ritual or religious superstition,” said Singh.
Lifestyle and Political Controversies
Singh never made any secret of the fact that he absolutely worshipped feminine beauty and company both. His evening darbars always had the most ravishing and talked about socialites of the city attending. Perhaps it was his candour and ability to make them feel comfortable that he was also a favourite among the ladies. Singh spoke openly about passion and love and asserted that life was meaningless if one did not live to satisfy their innate passions. However despite his public aura of being “a reckless Casanova,” he remained true and loyal to his wife throughout. During his lifetime, Singh spoke in his defense saying, “You are being dishonest if you are not writing about sex in your book. It is very natural and normal. Well, I have earned the name of ‘dirty old man,’ but there is not much sex in my books.”
With regard to politics, his liaison with the Gandhi’s earned him considerable criticism, particularly his support for Indira Gandhi when she called emergency in 1975. He later defended himself by saying that he was a believer in freedom of expression and democracy, but not at the cost of violence and bloodshed.
Some circles criticized his father Sobha Singh, a wealthy Delhi-based builder, for having supported the British in locating Bhagat Singh, one of the most well known revolutionaries against the British Raj. Khushwant Singh defended his father saying he spoke the truth and only identified Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt after they bombed the Delhi Assembly in 1929.
Sadhu Binining, a bilingual author and poet based in Vancouver, expressed his appreciation of Singh’s contribution to literature, “Singh is probably the best known man of letters of Independent India…His work on Sikh history is considered essential reading for serious students of Sikh history.”
However, Binning says he has a love and hate relationship with Singh and further explains, “I admired him for his rationalist approach to life and his courage to express himself. He was a man who knew how to live and love life. However, being influenced by the left and progressive ideas early in life, I have never been able to forget that he belonged to the rich and powerful of who supported the British before independence and the corrupt rulers of India since.”
‘Train to Pakistan’ was possibly Singh’s most celebrated work. It is a novel that captures the bloody and violent reality of the 1947 Partition. Satwinder Bains notes the book shed light on one of the most crucial topics in Indian history. ‘‘‘Train to Pakistan’ was my first book on literature around Partition. It brought to light so visibly a sense of communal conflict. I was a teenager then and had a lot of angst around reading the book at that time. For me, that book really resonated with me. It brought Partition, which was a silent topic at that time, as people didn’t talk about Partition, it’s still kind of silent, and so to read about Partition through his book, was a real eye opener. So I enjoyed that very much in the beginning.”
Ajmer Rode analyzes the underlying themes discussed in the novel regarding social norms and communal relations. “Perhaps the best work of fiction on the Partition. The writer is able to reveal complex and often conflicting nature of the Punjabi psyche when faced with chaos and a massive tragedy…The writer in this novel also debunks the well-known Sikh romance with martyrdom. Iqbal, a clean-shaven, intellectual, young man sees a crowd of revengeful Sikhs bent on murdering Muslims on a train going to Pakistan. He knows if he goes and tries to persuade them away from the madness he (mistaken as a Muslim) would certainly be lynched. But then his party is also certain to project him as a martyr, a hero who sacrificed his life for a great cause. Iqbal rejects this martyrdom saying, ‘The doer must do only when the receiver is ready to receive. Otherwise the act is wasted.’”
Singh was a vocal supporter of improved relations between India and Pakistan. Perhaps this stemmed from his unconditional love for his birthplace Hadali in Punjab. During his lifetime, he exclaimed that he would want to be buried in Hadali, which was always his real home in his heart. This wish was later honoured when emminent Pakistani writer Fakir Syed Aijazuddin arranged for a fistful of his ashes to be brought to Hadali, where they were laid to rest. In an interview with Pakistani media, Aijazuddin said Singh’s fan following was not hindered by national boundaries.
“Mr. Singh has as many admirers in Pakistan as he does in India. Perhaps this was another reason for his deep attachment to Pakistan and his origin,” he said.
In Rahul Singh’s words, “The only thing that he wished to see before his death was better relations between India and Pakistan.”
Death and Legacy
Khushwant Singh passed away at the age of 99 at his house in Sujan Singh Park in Delhi on March 20, 2014. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh led the nation in paying tribute to Singh and called him a “gifted author, candid commentator and a dear friend, who lived a truly creative life.” His death was also publicly acknowledged by politicians, including Indian President Pranab Mukherjee and Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari, and his funeral was attended by major political names such as L.K. Advani, Farooq Abdullah and Salman Khurshid.
He received numerous awards during his lifetime including the Padma Bhusham, which he returned to the Government in 1984 in protest of the Union Government’s blockade of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
He has left behind a magnanimous legacy of works, which will continue to inspire generations and only serve to increase his following posthumously.
His works are not only important to the populace based in South Asia but has a far bigger scope. As Satwinder Bains sums it up, “For every Indo-Canadian and for Punjabis especially, he’s a legend. His writings after his death will be more important even then when he was alive because we always live in hope that the person will produce another book that we will all read. And now that he has passed away, we have to look back to his writings and see what they were about and read them with a different eye, the legacy of his work.”
She goes on to say that some of his works, particularly ‘Train to Pakistan’ is a historical account that can familiarize new generations of ex-patriots with the reality of the Partition, which for them is a distant phenomenon but a significant one for their ancestors.
“This generation of Indo-Canadians, who are growing up in Canada right now, they are children of people who came here in the 1970s…They’ve heard of it but they haven’t really interacted with it, intellectually or even socially…It is one of those easy books to bring into the classroom because it juxtaposes so many areas of Indian life. It has the politics, the issue of communal violence, it has the issue of inter-faith marriage so to have young people read ‘Train to Pakistan’ is really good and to have them read about what seniors do in India and what their lives are about,” she added.
For all lovers of literature, humour and wit, Khushwant Singh will truly be missed. Singh’s grand-niece and renowned Actress Tisca Chopra remembered him on Twitter in these words: “Candour, humour and single malts, that’s what you brought to us. May you find it wherever you are. Will miss you Khushi uncle.”