The Khushwant Singh Literary FestivalROOPINDER SINGH
Columnist, journalist, scholar, historian, diplomat and lawyer -- Khushwant Singh wears many hats, even as he seldom sports the turban these days while working away at writing at home.
But then, at 97, he can pretty much do what he wants to now, which is what he has done most of his life.
Hundreds of thousands of readers meet Khushwant Singh through his columns which are translated into many languages. His books have contributed substantially to the subcontinent’s literature and the study of Sikhism. He has raised controversies, lived life to the fullest, and now is one of the rare individuals having a literary event named after him -- The Khushwant Singh Literary Festival -- which gets off to a start today at his favourite hill station, Kasauli.
Khushwant Singh was one of the earliest students of Modern School, Delhi, after which he attended St Stephen’s College, Delhi, where he was more devoted to tennis than academics. He did clear his Intermediate Arts (“I.A.“) exam and went on to Government College, Lahore, Punjab, to study law, a pursuit that then took him to England, where he did his LLB at King’s College, London.
London introduced him to different shades of romance. He met his wife-to-be there: Kaval Kaur Malik, daughter of Sir Teja Singh Malik. He remembers her from then as a gawky schoolmate. By then she was a much-sought-after beauty. His earlier misadventures in the UK are faithfully documented in Truth, Love & A Little Malice, his autobiography, an engaging and candid account of his life.
After he returned to India, Khushwant Singh tried to make a living as a pleader, without notable success. He, however, put his time in Lahore to good use by spending as much of it as he could with many creative people and literary luminaries in the cultural capital of South Asia.
The Partition of Punjab and India made him move from Lahore to Delhi, the city that his father, Sir Sobha Singh, helped to build as a contractor. He also moved away from law and focused his energy on writing.
What he saw as he left Lahore became the subject of a story, Mano Majra, which won him a $1,000 prize from Grove Press. The story of Mano Majra village became the famous novel, Train to Pakistan (first published in January 1956), and established him as a creative writer.
Unlike many writers, Khushwant Singh’s scholarly work dominates the early period, when he translated parts of Sikh scriptural texts, worked for the Unesco and lived with his family, which now included his son Rahul and daughter Mala, in Paris. Two years later, he quit, without a job in hand. Earlier, he had served in Canada and the UK as an Indian diplomat, but left the service, much to his father’s disappointment.
An editorship of Yojana, a government publication, came his way in 1957, but he did not find it fulfilling.
With the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, he wrote A History of the Sikhs, followed by a biography of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and a book on the Anglo-Sikh wars -- all came out in the four years that Khushwant Singh spent on this project, during which period he also taught at the University of Rochester, Princeton University and University of Hawaii.
Lucidity and research define these volumes, and both point towards the disciplined person that the writer is, contrary to a carefully cultivated image of a bohemian and an epicurean, a persona most people are familiar with, and indeed identify with, somewhat erroneously.
Dinner has to be served at the proper time (by 8 p.m.) and he retires early, even if the party is at his home and the guest is the Prime Minister.
Khushwant Singh is a disciplined person. He gets up and writes every morning, takes his deadlines seriously. He is knowledgeable about birds, trees, flowers and various aspects of nature.
As his son Rahul Singh likes to point out, it was a case of father following the son into a profession. Rahul had been an Assistant Editor with The Times of India in Bombay for five years, when Khushwant Singh was offered the editorship of The Illustrated Weekly of India. Rahul left Bombay to become the first Indian editor of Reader’s Digest.
Since Kaval did not want to move from Delhi, Khushwant Singh moved into the PG accommodation that Rahul had previously occupied in Bombay.
STINT AS EDITOR
The Illustrated Weekly of India soon became the most sought-after magazine in the land. Its circulation grew from 100,000 to over 400,000 copies per week. Khushwant Singh mentored bright journalists who became successful editors later, including M J Akbar, Bachi Karkaria, Bikram Vohra, and even JIS (Jiggs) Kalra, the famous cook book writer and food critic.
Khushwant Singh was at the top of the world, till it all came crashing down with his abrupt removal, evidently upon political displeasure and intervention. The writer returned to Delhi where later he was to edit The National Herald and eventually The Hindustan Times, where he had a three-year stint.
CONTROVERSIES & COURAGE
Khushwant Singh and controversies often went hand in hand. Be it the salacious details of gossip that make way into his columns and writing, his fondness for girls who gossip, he is a man of contrasts and has unfailingly waged a war against priggish mindsets.
He liked Indira Gandhi but opposed the Emergency. He was fond of Sanjay Gandhi and his wife Maneka, and paid the price for it when Indira Gandhi turned against Maneka, and Khushwant Singh refused to do so. On the other hand, it was Maneka Gandhi’s petition to the Supreme Court that held up the publication of the author’s autobiography for five years!
He was among the few who stood up to Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his followers, and wrote fearlessly against them. This earned him a place on the hit list of the militants who called him a Congress stooge. It was with that party’s support that he became a member of Rajya Sabha from 1980-1986. His returning the Padma Bhushan, awarded to him 10 years earlier, to protest against Operation Bluestar -- he ignominious army assault on the Darbar Sahib in 1984 -- earned him the wrath of Congress leaders and many others.
He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2007, a decoration he proudly accepted. However, controversies often arise because of what he writes. Bengalis were upset with him for his comments on Rabindranath Tagore, Marathas lambasted him for what he said about Shivaji, but he has managed to take it all in his stride
He is an ardent admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa, but the admiration comes with reservations.
His admirers come from all sections of society, and include some of the most prominent people, Indians and foreigners alike.
Millions of readers in India read Khushwant Singh’s columns. This Above All is syndicated weekly in umpteen newspapers in many languages. With Malice Towards One and All, is published in the Hindustan Times.
He has a unique ability to reach out to ordinary readers, inform and entertain them on contemporary issues. He gets a laugh, generates controversies, and comments daringly on issues. He engages his readers and they have made him South Asia’s most read columnist ever. He is generous in endorsing writers and in writing about their books in his columns.
Many readers write to him, and most are pleasantly surprised to get back a handwritten postcard reply from him. “I have always tried to reply to every letter that I get,” he says.
He played tennis at Delhi Gymkhana Club, as did his wife Kaval. Widely regarded as an independent person with strong likes and dislikes, she was the strength behind the success of the family to which she devoted her life. Kaval passed away in 2002, after battling Alzheimer’s disease.
The devotion with which her family -- Mala, now an author and an editor; Rahul and Khushwant Singh -- looked after her in those years is still talked about by those who know the family closely.
Everyone one who meets him has a Khushwant Singh story to tell, either something that has been read, or an interaction that became a memorable moment, or some inspiration that changed the direction of a person’s life. Such is the man who has lived life on his own terms and has never allowed the inkwell of his creativity to run dry.
- The Mark of Vishnu and Other Stories, 1950
- The History of Sikhs, 1953
- Train to Pakistan, 1956
- The Voice of God and Other Stories, 1957
- I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale, 1959
- The Sikhs Today, 1959
- The Fall of the Kingdom of the Punjab, 1962
- Ranjit Singh: The Maharajah of the Punjab, 1963
- Ghadar 1915: India's First Armed Revolution, 1966
- A Bride for the Sahib and Other Stories, 1967
- Black Jasmine, 1971
- Tragedy of Punjab, 1984
- Delhi: A Novel, 1990
- Sex, Scotch and Scholarship: Selected Writings, 1992
- Not a Nice Man to Know: The Best of Khushwant Singh, 1993
- We Indians, 1993
- Women and Men in My Life, 1995
- Declaring Love in Four Languages, by Khushwant Singh and Sharda Kaushik, 1997
- The Company of Women, 1999
- Truth, Love and a Little Malice (an autobiography), 2002
- The End of India, 2003
- Burial at the Sea, 2004
- Paradise and Other Stories, 2004
- Death at My Doorstep, 2005
- The Illustrated History of the Sikhs, 2006
- Why I Supported the Emergency: Essays and Profiles, 2009
- The Sunset Club, 2010
- Agnostic Khushwant Singh, There is no GOD, 2012
- The Freethinker's Prayerbook, 2012
Venue: Kasauli Club
Friday, October 12, 2012
5 p.m: Welcome address by Ashok Chopra
5.05 to 6.30 p.m: "Till the pen drops", a film
Launch of ‘The Free Thinkers Prayer Book’
Panelists: Mani Shankar Aiyer, Lord Meghnad Desai, Shobhaa De, Bachi Karkaria, Rahul Singh
6.30 to 7.30 p.m: Books 2 Movies and Beyond
Panellists: Rahul Bose, Madhu Jain, Bhaichand Patel
Saturday, October 13, 2012
9.30 to 10.20 a.m: Train to Pakistan
Panellists: Mani Shankar Aiyar, Lord Meghnad Desai, Bachi Karkaria, Rahul Singh
10.40 to 11.20 a.m: Art in the Mountains
Panellists: Yashodhara Dalmia, Dr B N Goswami
11.20 a.m to 12:10 p.m: Making of a Dream: Sanawar and Kasauli
Panellists: Dr Harish Dhillon, Mandeep Rai, Raaja Bhasin
12.10 to 1 p.m: The Hills are Alive
Panellists: Ruskin Bond, Ganesh Saili
2 to 2.50 p.m: Shobhaa and Khushwant: where Mars and Venus meet
Panellists: Shobhaa De, Satish Jacob
2.50 to 3.30 p.m: Many Partitions, Many Legacies: Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Panelist: Salima Hashmi
3:45 to 4:35 p.m: A Passion Unchained: Dagshai & its Jail Museum
Panelist: Anand Sethi
4.35 to 5.25 p.m: A Home in Himachal
Panellists: Romi Khosla, Raaja Bhasin
5.25 to 6.15 p.m: Translations from the Hindi Heartland
Panelist: Gillian Wright
Sunday, October 14, 2012
9.30 to 10.20 a.m: Holidays in Kasauli
Panellists: Deepti Naval, Navtej Sarna, Inderjit Badhwar, Minakshi Chaudhury
11.25 a.m to 12.15 p.m: History of the Sikhs
Panellists: Navtej Sarna, Suneet Aiyar
12.15 to 1.10 p.m: The Terrorist
Panellists: Juggie Bhasin, Lt Gen (Retd) Kamal Davar
[Courtesy: Tribune. Edited for sikhchic.com]
October 12, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), October 12, 2012, 8:36 AM.
Khushwant Singh has put Delhi on the literary map.
2: Manjeet Shergill (Singapore), October 12, 2012, 2:38 PM.
Khushwant Singh drove me to the Delhi National Art Gallery some years ago - he wanted me to view Amrita Shergill's works for the first time - just because I paint and I have 'Shergill' as part of my name. I suggest when you meet Khushwant Singh - don't speak, ask smart or dumb questions - do what I did - sit on his lap - at his party and let people stare unbelievingly at you both. It made Khushwant and I totally comfortable with all that attention.
3: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 12, 2012, 2:39 PM.
Here is a self portrait of a man who is both detested and loved at the same time. His self-perpetuated image of a drinking man and his imaginary sexual escapades are deliberately nurtured because they sell in the Indian market. How many of us can answer Sheikh Farid's call? "Fareeda jay too akal lateef kaalay likh na laykh / aapnahay gireeban meh sir neeaava jar daykeh" [GGS:1378.4] - 'Fareed, if you have a keen understanding, then do not write black marks against anyone else. Look underneath your own collar instead.' Before we pick up a stone to throw, remember that even the so-called god-men are not free of hypocrisy. They regularly gulp cough mixture by the gallon that has alcohol in it. Let's instead look at the good work done by Khushwant Singh. How many of us could return a prestigious national award/medal as a protest over 1984 ... he remains the sole one. His opus, "History of Sikhs", remains an outstanding work and so do his renderings of gurbani into chaste English. His Sikhi should not be questioned, when we don't even understand what we say in our daily ardaas: "dekh key unditth kita". I know for sure that the lessons he learnt in the lap of his mother would never have gone awry. I remember when an eminent visiting preacher said of his village, "What can I preach here?" when he saw a poor Sikh labourer goading on his khota (donkey) loaded with bricks and reciting Sukhmani Sahib in a melodious voice while doing so. Like him, we too should simply learn from others, instead of finding fault. May Khushwant Singh live another hundred years.
4: Bhai Harbans Lal (Dallas, USA), October 13, 2012, 2:55 AM.
Words in any length are not enough to pay compliments to our very senior journalist, thinker, scholar ... What society will remember of Sardar Khushwant Singh most is that he often wrote on very controversial topics of the time without any fear of fatwa from anyone. He was not afraid of drowning in storms that would thunder over his views and on his life style. His practice of his religion is a way that often looks to be outlandish. Similar is the case when he critiqued the political leadership. If there were some storms, he would boldly sail through. When I lived in Bombay, I remember of us getting into arguments with him on his prediction that recognizable Sikhs would be history by the end of century. In spite of our arguments against his hypothesis he always remained adamant on his concerns. We used to tell him that we would accept his warning as a challenge and make it sure that it never came to that. He was a bitter critic of the clergy in every religion, particularly in his own professed religion. He often writes against current traditions of morality either imposed by his religion or by the Indian culture of the time. He is never afraid. I have fond memories of spending some time with him in Hong Kong. Also I continued to visit him in Delhi. He was somewhat pleasantly surprised to learn that the Sikh community would love me for my contributions as an activist and as a Sikh scholar. He thought that the community leadership that was supporting extreme views had nothing to do with me. The next day after he expressed his astonishment to me he wrote on our conversation in his column in The Tribune. Another apparent anomaly, one cannot help but notice that a scholar who described himself an agnostic would be so fond of the Guru Granth and its message. He often searched gurbani for the love of the doctrines that it promoted and the peace of mind and contentment that it offered. But he was not fond of the concocted rules that were imposed by the new masands. I was there when he honored Huge McLeod for his translation of the rehatnamas. Khushwant praised Prof McLeod for his courage and dedication in bringing to light the truth of the early Sikh writings. We are pleased that he continues to serve the community through his often entertaining but very bold observations of the world around.
5: Ari Singh (Sofia, Bulgaria), October 13, 2012, 11:09 AM.
I met him several times in Bombay when he was editor of The Illustrated Weekly.He always had time for discussion. One of the topics was when I said to him that I met a Hindu Bollywood actor who insisted that he was a Hindu Pathan ... and a Punjabi! Khushwant's reponse was always witty. He seemed to know personally most of the parents of the Bollywood stars then. He has been a most influential person in my life.
6: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 13, 2012, 5:44 PM.
I met the vintage Sardar three times. The first time it was in the early 60s when he was in Malaysia researching for his book, "The Sikhs". I was the occasional translator for Punjabi heavily laced with Malay language from the first generation veterans. The second and third meetings were more social when he regaled us with his engaging and sparkling observations. I will share one such: Soon after "Operation Bluestar" and when he himself was put on the hit list by the Bhinderwala Taksal and was declared a tankhaiyya and summoned to explain his conduct: with a bit of trepidation, he presented himself to answer the charges, if any. The taksalis welcomed him and read out the first charge: "Khushwant Singh ji: we want you to do something forthwith - stop dyeing your beard." That was the main complaint and then: "Kee chhakko gaye?" - What would you like to eat? Case dismissed and go and live for a 100 years and more!
7: Harinder Singh 1469 (New Delhi, India), October 14, 2012, 3:23 PM.
My wife Kirandeep and I were part of the program for all 3 days. Power ... energy ... discipline. Such a response! I spoke to his daughter, Mala Singh, later about the event ... she said she too felt the synergy and that it would elevate her father's spirits!
8: Jaspreet (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), October 15, 2012, 4:20 AM.
The man is smart, no doubt. He is also candid. However, we should not start thinking of him as some sort of larger than life. I like to think that whatever else he may be, he also must think to make money and to maintain the power and influence he has in India in spite of being from a minority that isn't well liked by the majority.
9: Rosalia (Baltimore, Maryland, USA), October 15, 2012, 9:33 PM.
Enjoyed this piece a great deal. Thank you to Roopinder Singh for writing it. I have not met S. Khushwant Singh, nor read much of his work, but his life trajectory offers a primer for any budding writer: work hard, be honest and authentic in that work, and be disciplined, regardless of the party, or its guests. May be continue to inspire and energize those of us who follow him as scribes.