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Illustrious sardar of India

Thursday, 3 April 2014 - 6:00am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Here lies one who spared neither man or God/ Waste not your tears on him, he was a sod/ Writing nasty things he regarded as great fun/ Thank the Lord he is dead, this son of a gun.' Years ago, Khushwant Singh wrote this self-epitaph that need not be expunged for its self-deprecation, now that the old sod is finally gone. Singh himself believed that death ought to be celebrated. And when the news came around that he had passed away just like he wished — "swiftly, without much pain, like fading away in sound slumber" at the ripe old age of 99, one felt like harking back to Roald Dahl's memorable and sassy take in My Uncle Oswald. One might be condoned for thinking that Singh was no other than the libidinally-charged Oswald, "the greatest fornicator of all time," who having discovered the aphrodisiac powers of the Sudanese blister beetle, the palpable seductiveness of the lovely Yasmin Howcomely, and the scientific know-how of Professor AR Woresley became a literal sperm broker, flimflamming crowned heads, great artists, and eccentric geniuses into making 'donations'.

There was no dearth of Yasmin Howcomelys in his life, Singh himself was bugged by the blister beetle that, in a politically incorrect, old-world, kind of way, made him see women as "objects of lust" and people willingly joined in a "festival of bad taste" in a never-ending joke-telling session that was at heart so innocent that they soon forgave it and enjoyed themselves.One might as well compare Singh to the narrator of his novel Delhi who pronounces: "I return to Delhi as I return to my mistress Bhagmati when I have had my fill of whoring in foreign lands…", who having lived nearly a century and travelling through time, space and history to 'discover' his beloved city, meets a myriad of people — poets and princes, saints and sultans, temptresses and traitors, emperors and eunuchs — who have shaped and endowed Delhi with its very special mystique and shaped him.The self-epitaph on Manto's tombstone once used to read:

"Here lies buried Saadat Hasan Manto in whose bosom are enshrined all the secrets and art of short story writing. Buried under mounds of earth, even now he is contemplating whether he is a greater short story writer or God." Singh and Manto are as different as country liquor is from premium Scotch. But there are some striking similarities as well. Both were endowed with a ballistic literary power — with Singh's Train to Pakistan, I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale and Delhi in contention — capable to deal with topics as diverse as the socio-economic injustices prevailing in pre- and post- colonial subcontinent, to the more controversial topics of love, sex, incest, prostitution and the typical hypocrisy of a traditional sub-continental male. Both lived with a truncated soul divided between India and Pakistan and it bears recall that right-wing Hindus once dubbed Singh as 'the last Pakistani living on Indian soil'.Art Buchwald might well have been called the Khushwant of America, besides being called "Wit of Washington" but somehow, one cannot help concurring with one of Buchwald's famous witticisms: "If you attack the establishment long enough and hard enough, they will make you a member of it."

Mind you, Singh failed in the established professions of a civil servant, a lawyer, a diplomat and even a politician and took to the malice of his pen to attack so many holy cows, that he became a legend in his lifetime.First, take his reminiscences of his days with Krishna Menon in the early 1950s when Singh was the Information Officer for India's first High Commissioner in London. Singh was indeed the "megalomaniacal boss's hatchet man" but later became his scathing critic: "Menon…considered truth to be a monopoly of fools who did not have the wits to tell a convincing falsehood." He devotes many pages of his autobiography to say what an unpleasant, unscrupulous and horrible man Menon was. In his autobiography, he is most unkind to Indira Gandhi, blaming her for all the ills that afflicted India and going about to describe her as India's worst Prime Minister, petty, arrogant and rude to her subordinates. As was Singh's wont, he dropped a not-so-subtle insinuation about Nehru's relationship with Lady Mountbatten.

Singh stirred a hornet's nest, notably, by making light of two national icons — Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray. Mulk Raj Anand "completely lacks a sense of humour", Singh once wrote. Eminent journalist Prem Bhatia "did not make his mark as a writer of felicitous prose", Singh wrote after Bhatia died. About the deceased movie gossip queen Devyani Chaubal, Singh reflected how "eminently bedworthy" she was!Singh, at one point, became close to Sanjay and Maneka Gandhi, and went on to publish the most glowing account of Sanjay's misadventures and to present him as a hero of national liberation during the Emergency years. The quid pro quo did come, as his friend Rafiq Zakaria reminisced, when Sanjay got him nominated to the Rajya Sabha and persuaded KK Birla to appoint him editor of the Hindustan Times.

But Indira Gandhi was sceptical of Singh's loyalty and shy of giving him a ministerial berth. Zakaria also mentioned how he, as a minister in the Maharashtra government in charge of the protocol, was once instrumental in persuading Indira Gandhi, to award the Padma Bhushan to Singh. He warned Gandhi that Singh, being denied the award, might be vindictive: "And Madam, once he is hurt his fury can take any form".Would posterity remember him as a jester caricatured by Mario Miranda in a light bulb surrounded by books, 'girlie' magazines and a bottle of liquor? There are many binaries on him — the jesting columnist alongside the novelist and short story writer, the probing journalist alongside an erudite scholar of Sikh history; a magazine editor who made "randiness his USP". Then there is his lust for women and wine, not to speak of his being a falsifier, propagandist and sycophant at times. All of it might be partly or wholly true. His was a life lived in full and he died young at heart. Singh once quoted a Urdu poet: "Iss say barh kar waqt kya dhaayega sitam/ Jism boorha kar diya, dil javaan rahney diya" (What more cruelty can time inflict/ Than age the body and let the heart stay young?), and that sums it all up.

The author is a teacher and social commentator

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