We weren’t married yet when Alka (my wife) and I had a big argument over Khushwant Singh. I had just completed his autobiography Truth, Love and a Little Malice and I was quite smitten by the author, less by his writing prowess and more by his wild lifestyle – something in the way he had lived his life appealed to me a lot according to my frame of mind at that time. But at that time I also had a big crush on Arundhati Roy, you can easily make out how I used to think during those days.
My future wife on the other hand found them quite disgusting, with his attitude towards women and general morality. In the heat of the argument she said that he was not better than a thief, and if I liked him, I too were not better than a thief. If I remember, we didn’t speak for some time.
Before the age of the Internet we got plenty of time to read. My father used to get The Hindustan Times and there I used to come across Khushwant Singh’s regular column called With Malice Towards One and All with a cartoon of him sitting in a lightbulb. I remember I used to enjoy reading the column but I guess it didn’t make much of an impact on the preference of my newspaper when, when it had stopped mattering to my father which newspaper we got, I switched over to, first, The Indian Express, and then later on to The Pioneer. Not even once I missed the column and in fact, I recall reading it when one of my Facebook friends yesterday posted the title of the column as a tribute to the diseased author.
The first story I read of Khushwant Singh was The Portrait of a Lady, a short story that was in my English course book in eleventh class. One of my favorite stories in the compilation.
My wife is quite well read so obviously she knew more about Khushwant Singh than I did. She knew how he constantly had extramarital affairs and how he treated women around him. She knew how he took advantage of people and whatever plum postings that he had landed were basically the result of the various contacts and the ass licking he had done. Even in the autobiography he had mentioned his various affairs and how his wife was always in distress due to that and then how when she almost left him, he grew depressed and visited the Bangla Saheb Gurudwara to pray which, now I understand, is blatantly hypocritical. I didn’t know that he was a big Congress stooge, he was very close to the Gandhi family and he was among the few editors who openly supported the emergency Indira Gandhi imposed on the country. He always made sure that powerful people knew him and liked him.
This, I don’t particularly hold against him. I started disliking him when I found him to be in the same category of people I normally don’t respect – people who are secular not because they believe in secularism, but just in order to pander to a particular, I would call profitable, ideology. Khushwant Singh belongs to a band of intellectuals who have an illogically soft spot for Pakistan in general, and Muslims in particular. Now, before you throw up and call me names, I have nothing against Muslims and I consider them as much a part of India as a person from any other religion. That is not the point. I am among those who believe that the real problem in India is that we pay too much attention to which person belongs to which religion. People like Khushwant Singh constantly try to instill fear among Muslims against Hindus and keep the cauldrons of mutual suspicion boiling. Even if there is a problem, and even if the Muslims are at fault, they will always blame the Hindus. Not because they actually think that the Hindus are at fault, it’s just that since the Muslims are in minority and the vote bank suits their political masters, they should be given a longer rope compared to the majority community. Many of the country’s problems originate from exactly this mentality.
Then I came across this text by him, on none other than Arun Shourie:
“I stopped associating with Arun Shourie. I read of his rise to eminence as a cabinet minister and a member of the BJP’s think-tank. His book on Dr B.R. Ambedkar offended Dalits. He was roughed up by them while presiding over a meeting in Mumbai. Being hurt himself he wanted to hurt other people.
“He has taken every opportunity to display his disadvantaged son in his wheel chair. I feel very sorry for him but no longer admire him.”
Arun Shourie normally takes his son, Aditya, to various ceremonies and functions because one, he completely adores his son, and two, he takes him along because he wants to share every proud moment with his son. If people like Khushwant Singh cannot see a family with a disabled person beyond the disability, it is not the problem of the family, but the person judging them. Whatever political opinion Arun Shourie has and whatever acrimonious feelings Khushwant Singh may have developed because of that, it doesn’t mean that Arun Shourie’s sons disability has impacted his political views. This made me realise that he was not just an opportunist but he was also cheap person. Good that he never had a disabled son or a disabled daughter because he would have been a terrible father.
So as a writer I don’t have any problem with him, and in fact he wrote quite well, and more than that, he was consistent. No matter how screwed up his value system was, at the core of his heart he was a writer.
Then in the later years I found that his father, Shobha Singh, was responsible for the persecution of Sardar Bhagat Singh by testifying that he actually saw the young revolutionary throwing the bomb whereas from his position or from the timings it was not possible that he could have seen Bhagat Singh. Why hold this against Khushwant Singh? Well, knowing that his value system was not in the right place, you can excuse him. But the remaining respect was lost, not respect, rather, the remaining tolerance was lost. Never even once he wrote about his father in one of his books.
Anyway, undoubtedly he was one of the greatest writers in contemporary India and even if grudgingly, I have to accept that. His death is an end of an era. I don’t resent the way he lived his life surrounded by whiskey and women, my only problem with him was his skewed sense of secularism.