Book review: Khushwant Singh’s chick lit for 80-year-old men

Sunday, 19 December 2010 - 4:10am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Singh wrestles with our enigmatic national character, but despite this weighty subject-matter, his book isn’t pretentious.

The Sunset Club
Khushwant Singh
Penguin
232 pages
Rs399

My friends and I have a weekly ritual. We must meet for coffee and cathartic conversation at a trendy cafe. We’re all women in our mid-twenties and come from different religious backgrounds. Political scandals, gossip in the newspaper, concerns at work, our loves and desires (and those of others) provide the fodder for our conversation.

So I was surprised to read Khushwant Singh’s latest novel, The Sunset Club. The book chronicles a year in the lives of three octogenarian men, from different backgrounds and faiths, who gather for a chat every evening, as they watch the sunset over the Jami Masjid in Lodhi Gardens, a mosque whose dome (at least for the author) is shaped like the pert bosom of a young woman.

The more ribald subjects discussed (this is to be expected with Khushwant Singh) — sex, constipation and the infirmities of old age — isn’t what shocked me. What surprised me was the realisation that the concerns and discussions of three eighty-year-old men, weren’t that different from those of twenty-six-year-old women. The Sunset Club could even be described as “chick lit for eighty year old men.”

But there are also more serious concerns present in The Sunset Club. Singh chooses to begin his narrative on Republic Day, 2009. Singh writes, after describing the parade —“You may well ask why India, which prides itself as the land of Gandhi, the apostle of peace and non-violence, celebrates the national day with such a display of lethal arms and fighting prowess. The truth is, we Indians are full of contradictions: we preach peace to the world and prepare for war.”

This, in a nutshell, is the theme of The Sunset Club. The same tendency to contradiction lies at the heart of each character. Boota Singh (a stand-in for the author) describes himself as an ‘agnostic sybarite’ — but awakens at the un-sybaritic time of 4 am to engage in the un-agnostic activity of prayer. Pandit Preetam Sharma, an Oxford graduate and former secretary for education, is the most ignorant of the three and often betrays bigotry: he thinks, “Brahmins are the brainiest people”, but doesn’t know about menstruation.

But Singh’s observations aren’t novel. AK Ramanujam, in his influential essay ‘Is there any Indian way of thinking?’ describes his father — a man who was an astronomer, trained in a western, scientific manner, who was also an astrologer and a Sanskrit scholar.

Ramanujam notes —“I was troubled by his holding together in one brain both astronomy and astrology; I looked for consistency in him, a consistency he didn’t seem to care about, or even think about.”  Ramanujam observes that this inconsistency is characteristic of a society, where rules are not context-free. From a western, context-free perspective, inconsistency is abhorred: rules, values and principles are universal and apply regardless of context and circumstance. But in India, customs, codes and values are context-sensitive, predicated by class, thought, education and many other factors.

This tendency towards seeming contradiction and inconsistency is exasperating for so many of us — but Ramanjum’s essay provokes the realisation that this is what allows a complex, pluralistic society to function; that permits the existence of multiple, differing ways of being, traditions and thought. It’s this tendency to contradiction and inconsistency, although it leads to many problems, that allow the friendship between the author’s very different characters — Baig, Boota and Sharma — to flourish.

The Sunset Club is itself a contradiction — it’s light but serious, touching but funny. Singh wrestles with our enigmatic national character, but despite this weighty subject-matter, his book isn’t pretentious. And while The Sunset Club details the descent into old age and infirmity, much of the book is as likely to find common ground with the young as with the old.


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