A legend in his lifetime: Khushwant Singh
THE 'Grand Young-at-heart Man of Indian Literature and Journalism' passed away on 20th March at the age of 99. .A towering personality whose sugar and spice life-story is that of the man and not any myth is probably India's most widely known literary personality of the twentieth century. Khushwant Singh was born in 1915 in Hadali, Punjab in today's Pakistan, migrated to New Delhi and died in the same city in 2014; in a city where he lived life to the hilt and which he loved to bits. Testimony lies in the number of books penned by him on Delhi. He was also a master of the Urdu language; its rich repository of poetry and prose. Accolades to the man are many. Here is my tribute to the man whom I met on a number of occasions and his many literary legacies that I encountered in the course of working on my book 'India: Beyond the Taj and the Raj.' Excerpts within quotation marks appear below from various chapters in the book. My comments for this article appear within brackets.
(Snap-shots of Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh and Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi paying condolence visits to the residence of Khushwant Singh in the Sujan Singh complex in central New Delhi appeared on NDTV India).
“Sunjan Singh was built in the new British-built capital as a modern block of premium flats by Sobha Singh, a Punjabi Sikh contractor who left Lahore and arrived in the 'yet to be built New Delhi.' The most famous resident at this address is Khushwant Singh, Sobha Singh's son. The Grand Young Man of Indian Journalism is today in his nineties. His fame/notoriety is indicative by the fact that a postcard addressed to 'Khushwant Singh, Bastard, India' reached him within two weeks of being posted. Taking leave of him after my meeting him in early 2006, he stood up to bid me farewell. I protested and requested him to remain seated. His retort was 'Young lady, do not teach me manners.' I reckon he has always had the last word.”
“For Khushwant Singh, the iconic Delhiite commentator “Delhi is essentially the city of babus and politicians. You are judged by your status in the civil service: steno, upper division clerk, under secretary, deputy secretary, joint secretary, additional secretary, full secretary.” City Improbable: An Anthology of Writings on Delhi (2001) edited by Khushwant Singh is one of his works dedicated to his favourite city.”
“For many of us, the finely – tuned Indian period film 'Umrao Jan' (1981) directed by Muzaffar Ali and starring Rekha, Farukh Shaikh and Naseerudin Shah has contributed much to our image of the city of Lucknow and provided us with a glimpse of its mores. The Urdu novel by Mirza Mohammad Hadi Ruswa (1857-1931) Umrao Jan Ada was published in 1905. Some regard him as the first true novelist in Urdu. An English translation by Khushwant Singh and M.A. Husaini appeared in 1998. In the preface to their book, they write: “In the novel 'Umrao Jan Ada' we get a flavor of all that was Lucknow – its language, its poetry and music, and the way of life of its citizens…We have already said that Ruswa is one of the best Urdu prose writers of all time. It is not surprising that the locale of his stories is Lucknow because it was the people of Lucknow who spoke the most elegant Urdu and gave that language the eminence it enjoys to this day amongst the hundreds of others spoken in the sub-continent of India and Pakistan. The refine repartee of the people of Lucknow made other people's speech sound rustic; their polished manners made those of others appear oafish. It was the same with their way of living – their food, drink and smoke. The delicacies of Lucknow made the mouths of the rest of India water. Only the 'Lucknawi' knew how to roll the pan leaf properly and the gestures with which it was accepted from a lady, how it was to be chewed and how to spat out in the silver spittoons. All these excellent virtues were seen at their best in the establishments of courtesans where young aristocrats were sent to learn how to deport themselves – and incidentally also learn the facts of life…“The culture of Lucknow centered around poetry and music: other arts were largely neglected. Everyone who aspired to being called cultured took on a teacher and learnt how to compose poetry. (If the muse did not favour him, he plagiarized rather than admit inability to rhyme). The most important cultural event was the Mushaira or poetic symposium where famous bards recited their compositions to vast audiences amid thunderous cries of “Wah, Wah! Irshad!”… Whenever a few friends gathered together their parties tended to turn into small Mushairas.”
“He (Ruskin Bond) received us at his home 'Ivy Cottage' of which he has written in his delightfully humorous book Roads to Mussoorie (2005). Bond had me chuckling away in his anecdotes on people's perception of him as a writer and their expectations – particularly in reference to two outstanding and different contemporary writers; Khushwant Singh and William Dalrymple – both of whom I have met in New Delhi. “Many people are under the impression that I live in splendour in a large mansion, surrounded by secretaries and servants. They are disappointed to find that I live in a tiny bedroom-cum-study and that my living-room is so full of books that there is hardly space for more than three or four visitors at a time.” On our part, there was no question of 'disappointment' – we went to meet the man who has made Mussoorie the setting for so much of his writings and we were only 'two visitors.' The rest of the above statement is correct. We took photographs in his “tiny bedroom-cum-study” that overlooks the beauty of Mussoorie. When I mentioned my impression of the further deterioration of the town over the four years that we have been coming to Mussoorie, he replied: “When I look out of this window, I see God's blue sky, God's green mountains and Man's garbage below.” At the close of a memorable meeting, I requested Mr. Bond to sign his latest book that I had bought at the Cambridge Book Depot on the Mall Road in Mussoorie – Roads to Mussoorie.
“Margaret MacMillan (in (1988) puts an intriguing twist to British imperial administration in India. “The Mutiny might never have happened if the British had not started taking their responsibilities seriously. India must be ruled efficiently and justly; it must have railways and telegraphs…Whereas the Mughals built palaces and mosques and gardens, the British in India left a legacy of railways, roads and hill-stations.” Here we find an imperial input that exists to this day and forms an intrinsic element in the infrastructure and fabric of India.”
“Today, millions of passengers constitute daily passengers over India's 65,000 kms. of rail track – one of Britain's greatest and most useful legacies in India. The crisscross of broad-gauge railway lines became the new lifeline of old India. The grandfather and father of Khushwant Singh, the journalist and writer and a second-generation resident of Kasauli laid part of the small-gauge rail track and tunnels of the Kalka-Simla railway. The family was also a major building contractor for New Delhi – the new British imperial capital founded in 1911.“
“The atmosphere so conducive at Kasauli has penned the hand of a number of writers, the most famous resident writer being Khushwant Singh. Knowing that he was occupying his cottage in Kasauli, we sought an appointment to meet him. My husband, myself and our host friend drove to his home, well in advance, since it is common knowledge that the man has no regard for visitors who disregard time. We bid our time outside and entered on time, the gate of Raj Villa, his beloved retreat that has been the environs for much of his prolific writing. We were escorted to a patio where was seated in a cane chair - the legendary literary figure. I humbly gave him a copy of my book Parisian Portraits (2000), a travel memoir on Paris: the City of Light. He had spent some years in Paris with UNESCO in the 1950s. He gave me a copy of Kashmir: The Untold Story (2004) by Humra Quraishi, a common friend. Later on, I found scribbled in fine small writing some notes made by him in his copy of the book. The sequel to this meeting took place inadvertently some three weeks later. A telephone conversation to a third person in New Delhi innocently revealed that Mr. Khushwant Singh had written about my book in his weekly column 'This Above All' that is syndicated widely in India and abroad. I was entirely flattered that he had actually read my labour of love on Paris and totally flattered that he took the trouble to write about it. We subsequently met him at the launch of Khushwant Singh: In the Name of the Father (2004) a loving and frank pictorial biography by his son, Rahul Singh.”
“The invitation (since a board on the door reads: 'Please do not ring the bell unless you are expected.') to meet him at his Sujan Singh residence in New Delhi for his famous Seven O'clock Drink Hour had us once again, cooling our heels in the driveway. After all, as the son has written of his father and that is Common Knowledge: “But he hates unpunctuality. If anybody comes later than expected, they are roundly ticked off. If they come very late, they are told that he cannot see them. Once, the TV crew of a leading channel showed about half an hour late. Despite their entreaties, he refused to let them in.” Never do I want to find us mentioned in any article among 'Late Arrivals' in his other syndicated column 'With Malice towards One and All'. He has declared in this column: 'I am Time's slave; my pocket watch is my slave-driver.' My husband asked Khushwant Singh – to what factors would he attribute his long and productive life? My husband, having recently retired in New Delhi from a long diplomatic career found it a meaningful query to make of such a man who lives his life to the hilt. The reply: 'prize the value of time.'”
“This region has nurtured countless other writers and actors – all of them household names in the realm of creative arts. Ruskin Bond, the 'writer of the hills' was born in Kasauli. A forest fire in the Kasauli hills provided Anita Desai with the inspiration for her novel Fire on the Mountain. The author M.M. Kaye of the India-based epic love story The Far Pavilions was born in Simla in 1908; to a long-time India-resident family. She grew up in Simla and Delhi and married a British army officer serving in India. Parts of the film 'Shakespeare Wallah' was shot in Simla. It featured the highly productive partnership of Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, Ruth Prawar Jhabvala and starred Shashi Kapoor and his sister-in-law Felicity Kendal. In her memoirs White Cargo (1998) actress Kendal writes of her eighteenth birthday celebrations in Kasauli. “We were staying in a small hotel in Kasauli, a tiny hill station below Simla that still retained its old British Raj retirement home charm. There were villas named 'Stratford Cottage, and 'Honeysuckle Home' and 'Kismet' along the lanes, and the old club house still had Colonel this and Major that listed as members in the dusty billiard room.” Shashi Kapoor and his wife Jennifer Kendal were to act in the Merchant-Ivory film production of Khushwant Singh's novel Train to Pakistan. The project, however, never came to pass. The same Jennifer Kendal who succumbed to cancer at an early age has left us a memorable performance in '36 Chowringhee Lane.' “
“Close to Mashobra is 'Rose Cottage' that featured in the 'Raj Quartet' books: The Jewel in the Crown, The Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence and A Division of the Spoils - Paul Scott's contemporary classics. Living in London in the late 1970s, I followed this televised serial with immense diligence. Thus it was with considerable satisfaction that I came to know that 'Sunderban' was the original name of the televised 'Rose Cottage' and that the property belonged to Brigadier Gurbaksh Singh, brother of Khushwant Singh. Originally built in 1879 for one Ellen Tawelle, it was named 'North View.' In 1939 Sobha Singh, father of Khushwant Singh and one of the six Sikh contractors of Lutyen's New Delhi bought the cottage. Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Lady Vanessa Redgrave lived in the cottage for the shooting of the television film.”
“In my copy of Towers of Silence (bought in London in 1980), I discovered the following description of 'Rose Cottage'. “Built in the old Anglo-Indian style, Rose Cottage was a large rectangular structure with cream stucco walls and colonnaded verandahs at front, back and sides. There were two main bedrooms and a third which was called the little spare. There were a dining room and a living room. Central to the rooms was a square entrance hall which had been panelled in the twenties by its former owner…Dining-and living room also interconnected. In all but the cold weather these doors were left open to give extra air. Behind the dining-room lay the kitchen and storeroom…The general servants' quarters were reached by a path from the kitchen but were screened from the garden by a hedge.”
Grand Trunk Road
“The five-hour car journey from New Delhi to Aligarh – much of it on a National Highway - was distinguished mainly by its many pot-holes and dread of the Mother of all Potholes – a crater. The same roadway varied from being a two-lane road, to a single lane thoroughfare to a pot-holed dirt road that was hazardous to anyone suffering from lumbar discomfort. Much of the traveling time saw us descending and ascending the ups and downs of the waves of ridges while clinging on to the car seat and riding the once-upon-a-time-grand roadway that was the legendary Grand Trunk Road (GTR) – an enduring relic and today - a challenging stretch of National Highway 1.”
“Khushwant Singh in his autobiography Truth, love & a little malice (2002) reveals his racy spirit when he tells us, “I drove to Lahore on my A.J.S. motorcycle and did the 300 miles on the Grand Trunk Road from Delhi to Lahore in eight hours. In those days there was very little traffic on this highway.” In the 1930s, he must have been the original Indian Hell's Angel on two wheels.”
“Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was born in Delhi in 1817 and was buried in Aligarh in 1898. A renowned educationist, writer and orator, he was elected Honorary Member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain in 1864. He advocated the translation into Urdu of large number of English-written scientific books in order to reach a wider audience in India and is the founding father of Aligarh Muslim University – modeled as a 'Muslim Cambridge.' According to Khushwant Singh in India: An Introduction (2003) “His Azar al Sanadid is to this day regarded as the most reliable account of the history and monuments of Delhi.”
“The idyllic purity of the symbol of royal romance has been immortalised in eloquent phrases: 'That bubble in marble', 'That dream in marble.' Not far-fetched is the following accolade: “A temple of white ivory, wrapped in exquisite white Brussels' lace.” Tavernier is attributed to have made this remark. Even the loquacious writer Khushwant Singh who is never at a loss for words was stumped when he saw the Taj Mahal for the first time as a child. Writing in his autobiography Truth, love and a little malice (2002), he reveals 'The Taj burst into view. I was stupefied by its gigantic magnificence and stood gaping at it with my mouth wide open. I didn't want to go any further. I just sat on the steps of the gates and took it all in.”
(In order to ensure that there never would be any misjudgment or inadequacy, Khushwant Singh coined his singular epitaph – in his twenties).
“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”
In 'Death at my doorpost.' Roli Books, 2005
Excerpts taken from 'India: Beyond the Taj and the Raj' (2013) by Raana Haider. Copyright permission from the publisher University Press Limited (UPL) Dhaka