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Book Review: The Lessons of My Life

Friday, 21 March 2014 - 8:33am IST | Agency: dna

Extract with permission from "Khustwantnama: The Lessons of My Life" (Penguin/Viking, 2013)

Khustwantnama: The Lessons of My Life

In my ninety-eighth year, I have little left to look forward to, but lots to reminisce about. I draw a balance sheet of my achievements and failure. On the credit side I have over eighty books; novels, collections of short stories, biographies, histories, translations from Punjabi and Urdu, and many essays. On the debit side is my character. I spend many evenings going over the evil deeds I committed in my early years. With an airgun I killed dozens of sparrows who had done me no harm. I shot a dove sitting on its clutch of eggs. It flew up, scattering its feathers till it collapsed. When I was staying with my uncle in Mian Channu, when their cotton factory was closed for a month, every evening I shot rock pigeons by the score. They were picked up by the children to be eaten. I joined shikar parties and killed many innocent birds. At one organised shooting party in Bharatpur, I shot over a dozen ducks in two hours. No one told me it was a wrong thing to do and also a sin for which there will be no pardon. I am paying the price for my actions as the memory of those innocent creatures haunts me evening after evening.

I have also come to the sad conclusion that I have always been a bit of a lecher. From the tender age of four right to the present when I have completed ninety-seven, it has been lechery that has been uppermost in my mind. I have never been able to conform to the Indian ideal of regarding women as my mothers, sisters or daughters. Whatever their age, to me they were, and are, objects of lust.

Two years ago, I decided it was time for me to withdraw into myself. Some people would describe it as retirement. I chose a hallowed Indian word, sanyaas. But it was not sanyaas as it is commonly understood, as total withdrawal from the world — I wanted to stay in my comfortable home, enjoy delicious food and my single malt, hear good music and indulge my senses, whatever remains of them. I began with a partial withdrawal: I refused to appear on TV or radio programmes. The next step was to drastically cut down on the number of visitors. Here, I have not been successful. Though much reduced in comparison with the past, they continue to drop in. I welcome those I know well but beseech them not to bring their friends with them. They think I have become swollen-headed and think too much of myself. That is not true; I simply cannot take the strain of conversing with strangers. I no longer give interviews to newspapers and magazines. However, some manage to turn our conversations into interviews. I realise that when, at the end, I am asked, 'Do you have any regrets in life?' it is the stock last question. Instead of getting angry at the way I am manipulated to give an interview, the question makes me ponder: 'Do I really regret things I did or did not do?' Of course, I do!

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