The Suhel Seth column : With lots of love and no malice

Wednesday, 23 April 2014 - 7:25am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Khushwant Singh was the last of the titans. A man who was principled and yet enjoyed skirting the thin edge of life. There were many compromises he made but only on very trivial issues. That apart he remained the uncompromised Sardar. Generations grew up on his columns: pleased with punch as he went about the risqué but then there were many who found solace in his scholarships.

He was someone I admired with abundance. Not for just his scholastic intensity but equally for his fine character. Authors normally live through their books. In Khushwant's case, the way he lived was reflective of his wife. For all his utterances on sex and women, I haven't seen a more devoted husband and no matter what any one might say, Khushwant lost a bit of himself when Kanwal passed on many years before he did.

I first met him in 1982: the sign outside his house in Sujan Singh Park said 'Do not ring the bell unless you are expected': a sing of the man's utter contempt for people who'd call on him without an appointment. But I was clever enough to make an appointment. And no I didn't need an autograph or for that matter a photograph: all I wanted him to do was to come and see my play Bhutto written by a friend of his I S Johar. Johar had auditioned me for the role of Zulkifar Ali Bhutto himself and then we began getting on with the production but by the time the play was staged, I S Johar had passed on. Khushwant was the one man who knew both Johar and Bhutto personally and therefore it was fitting to invite him to the premiere of the play in Delhi.

As always, Khushwant came to the play well before time; sat through; applauding all the while and then gave the play and me glowing reviews, Many years later I was delighted when he mentioned this performance in his autobiography saying it was the finest performance he had seen by an actor in India. But then times moved on. Our friendship developed and then he, R K Laxman and I began work on two books on Calcutta for the Manjushree Foundation. He was the one who then asked me to go and meet R K Laxman, the cartoonist: and that was yet another defining point in my life. Laxman became one of my dearest friends and we became business partners: thereafter it was this troika of Khushwant, Laxman and I who would meet so very often; go on trips together (disguised as book launches) and so on. And then sadly Laxman fell very ill and our soirees stopped but I would always call on Khushwant: seeking the help of his (and my) dear friend Reeta Dev Varma who runs this brilliant trust called Ila Trust which provides medical care to thousands of poor people every day in Old Delhi. Khushwant was the Chairman of the Trust and he and Reeta invited me to sit on the Trust and then we kept meeting for that purpose.

Last year, when I turned 50, it was only fitting that I shared this milestone with Khushwant and I went off to his home: we drank some fine Scotch and cut some cake. That was the last time I met him.

But then I never needed to meet Khushwant in order to be part of him or for that matter him being part of me. He was an invaluable friend; someone who always had a soft corner for me and a person who laughed with me. In fact, I still remember Rahul Singh, Khushwant son and Reeta telling me that I should come more often because Khushwant always ends up laughing because I would relate anecdotes around all his favourite topics: sex and politics.

Khushwant Singh never believed in the after-life. And gladly so. He is still around though not physically. And the bulb of affection glows eternally.

That was the elixir of his life.

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