October Issue 2014
Book Review: Khushwant Singh: The Legend Lives On
By Zahra Chughtai | Published 5 years ago
Larger than life personalities like Khushwant Singh should be celebrated, and anecdotes about their life and persona recorded for posterity. Diplomat, writer, editor, member of parliament, known for his acerbic wit and unforgiving pen, Singh enjoyed an aura that he cultivated by his no-holds-barred and often bawdy style of comment.
Khushwant Singh: The Legend Lives On is a compilation of obituaries for this formidable personality, edited by his son Rahul Singh, as homage to arguably India’s most widely-read columnist. But perhaps this was not the wisest approach since obituaries tend to become repetitive, especially when several write-ups by the same author, albeit for different publications, are included. Such is the case with Shobhaa De. In her first piece, she celebrates Singh as a friend and human being, while also pointing out his failings in a blunt yet affectionate epitaph. But it taxes the reader’s patience to follow this up with four more pieces with little variation in style or content.
However, after having perused several of the articles here, one does come away with a vivid picture of Singh: his career at the Illustrated Weekly, his ribaldry, his love of women and single malt scotch, and the open house he maintained till the end of his days. The most interesting obituaries are those which recount personal anecdotes or singular experiences shared with the old sardar.
Khushwant Singh shot to prominence when he became editor of Illustrated Weekly and transformed the stodgy journal into an exciting magazine filled with racy and biting writing. During his stint at the magazine, he groomed a slew of young journalists who went on to become some of the most respected names in the field. But perhaps his academic work, which brought him less fame, is even more impressive. His History of the Sikhs in two volumes, translations of Iqbal’s Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa and Sikh religious books are valuable contributions to the scholarship of the region.
We also learn that Singh was deeply enamoured of Urdu poetry and had a soft spot for Pakistan and Pakistanis. Born in the village of Hadali, in what is now Khushab district in Pakistan, he never severed his emotional ties with the land of his birth. In fact, he wanted some of his ashes to be interred here, a wish that was carried out by Fakir Aijazuddin, as recounted by him in one of the more moving pieces in the book.
From a Pakistani perspective, Singh was a well-wisher and friend and it is only fitting that several Pakistani voices are heard in this compilation. From Aijazuddin to Aitzaz Ahsan and Ayaz Amir (the latter must surely have felt a kindred spirit in the old sardar), they remember him with affection and admiration.
Indians have many more reasons to celebrate him. In an increasingly right-wing environment, Khushwant Singh was a staunch secularist. Although he was a self-proclaimed agnostic, he had deep cultural affinity with his fellow Sikhs as evidenced by his beard and turban. Yet he carried the cheeky Santa Banta Sikh jokes in his column and resisted Sikh nationalist movements. He electrified Indian journalism by openly writing and talking about sex, which was his way of addressing hypocrisy about the subject in Indian society. He revelled in his colourful image of a hard-drinking, womanising cavalier sort of man, but as his friends reveal, this was a highly exaggerated ruse for public consumption.
Ironically or fortunately, for someone who had a reputation for writing ruthless obituaries himself, Khushwant has been spared any overdose of honesty or vitriol. His famed column tilted ‘With Malice to One and All’ spared few as the title suggests, and he received flak for some hard-hitting obituaries.
Yet with all his desire for objectivity and even-handedness, Singh often picked sides which he later regretted. His closeness to the Gandhis, especially Sanjay and Maneka Gandhi, brought him a lot of criticism. He first fell out with Indira Gandhi and even returned the prestigious state honour she had bestowed upon him after the storming of the Golden Temple. He and Maneka parted ways after the death of Sanjay Gandhi.
Similarly, with all his secular views, he was once close to the BJP’s L.K. Advani. In fact, it was Singh who signed his nomination papers for the Lok Sabha. Later, although he was scathing in his criticism of Advani in the wake of the Babri Masjid violence, he harboured no personal dislike for him.
However, with some 50 obituaries included in this slim volume, the reader finds oneself coming across similar information and descriptions several times, making this tedious reading after a point. This is unfortunate, since a more colourful yet erudite character than Singh would be hard to find. Perhaps, the effort would have been better served by a more select group of writers discussing different aspects of his life, personality and career.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s October 2014 issue under the headline, “Sardar For All Seasons.”
Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications including Newsline, the Herald and Dawn. She continues to write freelance.