In death, he has turned the “malice” to himself. “Thank the Lord he is dead the son of a Gun”, says the epitaph Khushwant Singh had written in his book “Death at my Doorstep”. It’s an epitaph Pope Alexander would envy and probably endorse. In death, like in life, Singh has had the last laugh by describing himself as the man who spared “neither man nor God”. “Writing nasty things he regarded as fun”. India’s noted journalist, author, and columnist, the self-confessed “sod”, the “lecher” in his own admission, Singh, 99, breathed his last at his Sujan Singh Park residence in Delhi.
The founder-editor of Yojana, the editor of Illustrated Weekly of India, the National Herald and the Hindustan Times, Singh upheld his pride and expressed his pain and agony during the Sikh Massacre in 1984 through his words and actions. To express his outrage at the Anti-Sikh riots, Singh returned the second highest civilian award to then president Gyani Zail Singh, also a Sikh.
Singh’s contemporary, noted writer and friend “for 50 years” Ajit Caur says, “Uska Gussa kabhi aisa nahin thha ki aasmaan phat jaye (he wouldn’t tear the skies apart with his anger). But in 1984, it was a mix of anger, agony and pain. His ideology didn’t hurt anyone. But he knew how to express his anger. No one has known and written the history of Sikhism like Khushwant. The fact that his father (Sir Soba Singh) and grandfather left behind so much material wealth for him didn’t affect him or his values. He continued to earn his living through his writings, through his pen. This is very commendable.”
Literature began at his door step. “Please do not ring the bell if you are not expected,” read a note hung at the door. Surrounded by walls of books in his room, the veteran writer used to sit on cushioned chair, like a king on a throne, his feet covered with a shawl, resting on a cane seat.
Age was his favourite adversary. “So many times young woman journalists call me to ask what my New Year resolution is. I am going to be 90. What do I tell them about life? I am not an interesting person. Call someone else, I tell them,” he would say. “Uske sense of humour ka to jawaab nahin thha. Illustrated Weekly parcha usne laakhon tak pahunchaa diya (his work tremendously increased the readership ofIllustrated Weekly),” adds Ajit Caur.
Death was his muse. The author who relived the horror of Partition in his work Train to Pakistan, published in 1956, said in his essay Prepare for Death While Alive, published as part of the collection of essays Not a Nice Man to Know, “All I hope is that when death comes to me, it comes swiftly, without much pain, like fading away in sound slumber. Till that time I will strive to live as full as I did in my younger days.”
Controversies and crossword puzzles kept him busy. He supported the Emergency and late Sanjay Gandhi. He spoke about his stand in detail when he published the collection of essays “Why I supported The Emergency.” “With some resrvations, I support the Emergency..” he said. An open admirer of Sanjay Gandhi he even accused Menaka Gandhi and her mother of “settling scores.” On Sanjay Gandhi’s campaign he said, “I admired Sanjay because he got things done… It was a vastly exaggerated story. What he had in mind was right. This country needs compulsory family planning. It won’t respond to advertisement of humare do aur tumharey do.”
In 2004, while commenting on a shorty story he had written about lesbian love, he told this writer, “Women love beautifully,” after a long pause. Singh had known malice, death, horror, love, lust and affection very closely. Did this give him the strength to write a profound epitaph to self? His next column, or an Epistle could tell.