Khushwant Singh died last week, after living an exciting life for almost a century. I consider myself lucky to have met the legendary Indian writer a couple of times back in the 90s, first at his longtime friend late Manzoor Qadir’s residence in Islamabad and then at his Sujan Singh Park flat in Delhi. Here I wish to share some personal memories of him.
Khushwant had come to Islamabad to attend a seminar on Kashmir in April 95. I published an interview with him in a Pakistani paper, with the same title as above. Altaf Gauhar, my former boss at another paper, got enraged after reading it, even though nowhere did I quote Khushwant as saying anything derogatory about him. Perhaps Mr Gauhar had some personal grudges against Khushwant dating back to Ayub Khan’s regime, during which he served as Information Secretary and Manzoor Qadir as Foreign Minister!
Mr Gauhar responded by writing a series of two newspaper articles, launching a venemous attack on not just Khushwant but also his wife Kaval Malik. The first one, I remember, began by accusing Khushwant of intruding into other peoples’ private sexual lives, not sparing even Indira Gandhi, and then suggesting that he should also have the courege to write about the good old times in the pre-Partition 40s, when his wife used to be the centre of attraction at Lahore’s literary circles.
Khuswant was deeply hurt. He wrote a letter of protest to his friend late MP Bandhara, pledging never to visit Pakistan again. The letter was also subsequently published by the paper.
A couple of weeks later, I happened to be in Delhi and visited Khushwant at his flat. He was still very angry. “I don’t know why Altaf Gauhar did this, he did not even spare this poor lady,” he said while pointing towards Kaval, as she eneterd the living room to serve me a glass of mango juice.
I tried to convince Khushwant to change his mind, as he had so many good friends and admirers in Pakistan. But he remained adamant, even though, for courtesy’s sake, citing old age and ailing health as a reason for not coming. I am not sure he ever came to Pakistan again.
However, as in Islamabad before, I found Khushwant’s conversation quite funny—and slightly racist when it came to lower caste Hindu leaders such as Kansi Ram. He talked about Mayawati, the Dalit leader of BSP who was then on her way to become the chief minister of UP. I remember him asking me: “Why don’t you send a muscular Pathan from Pakistan to ‘manage’ her?” Can’t narrate here how he elaborated this topic.
But let me share excerpts from my Islamabad interview with him before. Kashmir was his concern. As he argued, “We are morally bound to devise ways and means to fulfill Kashmiri aspirations. But, at the same time, we have to guard against the grave danger that any solution to Kashmir should not result in mass migration, which can spell disaster for both countries.”
Khushwant was a witness to the tragedy of Partition, a subject covered in his popular book Train to Pakistan. Perhaps that is why he appeared so obsessed with the phenomenon of mass migration.
The large-scale migration of Pundits form the Valley to Jammu and northern parts of India, Khushwant said, had already led to anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim feelings among Hindu fundamentalists, who wanted the status quo in Kashmir at any cost and believed that “if the Muslims of Kashmir want freedom from India to become a part of Pakistan, then why the rest of the Muslims should stay in India. Now one may ask them, India tere peo di jaedad ae?”
Khushwant was concerned that such feelings represented the popular mindset in India. “But I don’t think Pakistan appears to perceive the grave danger which the Muslims of India face today.” He was, therefore, quite pessimistic about the future of Indo-Pak relations: “I fear that another conflict may erupt and conflagrate, because neither side has leaders who are committed to future well-being of their people.”
Khushwant was of the view that the armies on both sides “are too powerful, although in the case of India, the army was somewhat” under civilian control…After all, a vaela soldier with a gun in his hands has no sense of responsibility.”
He openly opposed the Khalistan Movement, which, he argued, was the “biggest Sikh Joke.” “Imagine Hindus being driven out of Sikh areas and the same happening with Sikhs in Hindu areas. How many times can one absorb the shock of being uprooted from one’s hometown and get settled in an alien climate?”
Asked what kind of feelings the Indians in general had about him, Khushwant said, “they think aseen ik agent palia hoa ae…It’s though funny that many Indian Muslims who face problem in getting Pakistani visa often come to me for help. But the good thing is that whenever I refer such cases to Pakistani High Commission, it never disappoints me.”
Right wing Hindus called him “the last Pakistani living on Indian soil.” To him, coming to Pakistan “does not make the slightest of difference…Today, I am staying with the same people who used to say at may place before Partition; my room was allotted to late Manzur Qadir.” (Of course, his views changed after Mr. Gauhar wrote those nasty columns!)
Author of so many books, Khushwant had then finished his autobiography, which, he told me, was being reviewed by the publisher so that it should not face a libel suit. For allegedly making derogatory remarks about Jagjit Singh Chohan, the self-proclaimed leader of the Kahlistan Movement, in his two-volume book The History of Sikhs, he had already been sued twice. “Perhaps, my publisher does not want this to happen again,” he said. The autobiography titled Truth, Love and a Little Malice was later published in 2002.
Asked how he could manage to write so much—one book every six months and two-to-three newspaper columns a week—Khushwant smiled and said: “Well, nobody has yet invented a condom for a pen. Writing one page thrice a week is not a difficult job. You add them, in six months, they will make a book. Anyhow, whatever I write gets published, although it is mostly rubbish.”
He was also critical of growing vulgarity in Indian movies, something from which he said there was no escape now: “Not only Indian movies, our songs are also vulgar. Recently, you heard chholi ke peechae kiya hae, now you have meri pant bhi sexy…”
The basic difference between Indian and Pakistani societies, said Khushwant, was that the latter was far more conservative than the former, because religion had greater influence over Pakistani people. However, “ik hor cheez jede kolon tuseen hale tak bache hoe-o is that you don’t have scheduled and lower castes, as is the case in India.”
Khushwant drew yet another distinction between the two nations: “My feeling is that the privileged class in Pakistan has many more privileges than that of India. Although, in India, such people are a class in themselves; in Pakistan, they appear to be foreigners in their own country.”
Khushwant was India’s best author and tale teller. There was always some shararat in his writings. Reading him was as if listening to him in person. He wrote countless columns and more than 100 novels and short-story collections. He edited the Illustrated Weekly of India, and his column ‘With Maluce Towards One and All’ was syndicated by newspapers across India.
Back then, two of Khushwant’s best selling books were Not Nice to Know and Sex, Scotch and Punishment. This was in addition to a collection of jokes and a novel titled Delhi. After reading the latter, his grand-daughter is said to have remarked: “My grandpa is too vulgar.”
Khushwant was a fearless writer, and had an aptitude for raising controversies and exposing hypocrisies. He said and wrote what he wanted to, without caring about the consequence or criticism. He defended Indira’s Emergency Rule and mourned General Zia’s demise. He lived a life of passion and always appreciated beauty, especially of the female body.
He spent his evenings sipping Scotch with soda and ice, in the company of admirers from India and all around the world. For us to continue celebrating his life, he has left behind plenty of jokes and quotable quotes. The “dangerous man”, he said, "is one who doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink and doesn’t womanize!”