To mark 70 years of India’s independence, it is appropriate that not one but two publishing houses have seen fit to release books about India and Indians—from one of Indian literature’s foremost and most outspoken writers, the inimitable Khushwant Singh.
Extraordinary Indians: A Book of Profiles brings together biographical essays of 49 Indians (and Manzur Qadir, once foreign minister of Pakistan and a dear friend of Khushwant’s), while On India consists of thoughts, memoirs and insights into India.
Extraordinary Indians runs the gamut of personalities, from those long-dead (Amir Khusrau, Maharaja Ranjeet Singh and Guru Nanak, among others) to many who have been a part of Indian life—cultural, political, literary, artistic—till very recently.
Khushwant’s background (his father Sobha Singh was one of the contractors who helped build Lutyens’ Delhi) and his own extensive network of friends and acquaintances means that Khushwant knew just about everybody worth knowing. There are politicians here—from Indira Gandhi to Jayaprakash Narayan; artists and writers, including Ghalib, R K Narayan, R K Laxman, and (not an Indian, really) V S Naipaul. Actress Nargis Dutt, Khushwant’s parents and grandmother, and many others round off the lot.
These essays are eclectic in their style and length: they were, as editor (and Khushwant’s daughter) Mala Dayal notes, culled from typescripts for various publications. Some, like that of Jawaharlal Nehru or Kabir, are brief sketches. Others follow the more standard ‘biography’ style. All, however, have one thing in common, and that is Khushwant’s insights.
Each biography is peppered with anecdotes, with little-known facts about the person, and—most importantly—with Khushwant’s views on them. Some of these are iconoclastic: he writes of Mulk Raj Anand and Narayan, for instance, as “…prolific in their output but mediocre craftsmen”, and lambasts Qurratulain Hyder’s translation of her work Aag ka Darya. Among the most endearing and poignant profiles here is that of Khushwant’s grandmother, who comes alive in his essay.
On India is somewhat different in flavour. Khushwant writes on everything from the days of the maharajas, to the sadhus. There is a breathtakingly vivid description of the monsoon, and some interesting reminiscences of the Delhi that his father Sobha helped build.
There are the seven reasons why the writer loves Delhi, and the reason why he calls himself an Indian. There is depth of knowledge, sincerity, a liberality that marks the writer both a mirror of society and a no-holds-barred critic.
Both books are a reflection of Khushwant himself. The malice for which he was so notorious, the reputation of living life like a king—of all of that there is an occasional glimmer (Khushwant admits that his reputation as a hedonist of sorts is more fiction than fact, and propagated mainly by himself). What shines through most, though, is his sensitivity, his powers of observation, his wisdom, and his insight.
All too often, he comes across as almost prophetic.
This, for instance, was written in 1970, but rings uncannily true today as well: “As soon as you try to obliterate regional language in favour of one ‘national’ language or religion, in the name of one Indian credo, you will destroy the unity of the country… [In the wake of the Indo-China and Indo-Pak wars] We have proved that we are one nation. What then is this talk about Indianising people who are already Indian? And has anyone any right to arrogate to himself the right to decide who is and who is not a good Indian?’ Two excellent books from an excellent writer.