“So you’ve come to write my obituary?” That was the salty sardarji greeting me when, some years ago, I went up to his summer home in the hill station of Kasauli to record an interview. Khushwant Singh’s (b. 1915) preoccupation with death, sex and much of the daily business of life betwixt and between, makes him one of India’s most widely read columnists, a hugely successful editor in his heyday, and a notable fiction writer. In a long life crammed with incident and a phenomenal output, there is scarcely a genre of writing that he has not attempted: as biographer and memoirist, historian and chronicler of people and places, mass retailer of dirty jokes and ex-MP, his is the contrarian’s take on everything from the body politic to bodily functions.
Khushwant Singh is a life-enhancer, and spending an evening in his company, is an unmatched pleasure. Erudite and exhibitionist in equal measure, he is the bon vivant par excellence. Pouring Patiala pegs of single malt that evening in Kasauli, savouring every sip himself, he urged more libations on my crew and me. “Keep me company. Have another, there’s lots to go.”
Born in present-day Pakistan, Khushwant Singh, the son of a wealthy builder, was educated at Government College, Lahore, St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and King’s College, London, before reading for the Bar at the Inner Temple. But he practiced law only briefly; his true calling was writing and his first novel Train to Pakistan (1956) on Partition-torn Punjab, was an instant critical and commercial success. More fiction followed and a landmark two-volume A History of the Sikhs (1963) established his credentials in scholarship. But his rise to national prominence came during his editorship of The Illustrated Weekly of India (1969-78), a dowdy journal that he turned into a sparky, controversial magazine that pumped up circulation and set the course for With Malice Towards One and All, his immensely popular and ongoing column.
Khushwant Singh had a tangled relationship with the Gandhi family and Congress Party. He supported Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule in 1975 and was a champion of her son Sanjay Gandhi’s ill-starred politics. Nominated to the Rajya Sabha as MP (1980-86) he kept his seat but returned the Padma Bhushan after the Indian army’s siege of the Golden Temple in 1984. Later he fought a long and costly legal battle against Sanjay’s widow Maneka Gandhi to lift the restraining order on his autobiography Truth, Love and a Little Malice (2002).
I recorded more than one interview with Khushwant Singh for NDTV but the most complete, took place at his home in New Delhi after the publication of his anthology Why I Supported the Emergency: Essays and Profiles (2009). Subsequently he turned down all requests for TV interviews.
“Please do not ring the bell unless expected,” reads a neatly printed notice outside his flat. However, some days before the publication of his novel The Sunset Club in November 2010 I rang it, courtesy of his daughter Mala Dayal and our mutual friend Nandini Mehta. The Sunset Club is about three friends in their eighties—a Hindu, Muslim and Sikh—who meet on a Lodi Gardens bench each evening through a single year, 2009-010, to pick over their lives and events of the day: politics, scandal, sexual fantasy and their past; it is a valedictory rumination on friendship, old age, infirmity and changing India.
The author was in fine form. “Pour yourself a stiff one,” he said cheerfully, motioning towards the whisky. Conversation was stimulating and punctuated with laughter—Philip Roth’s new novel and constipation (“Why do Jews and Indians share the same problem?”), poetry (Ghalib and Hilare Belloc), crossword puzzles (“I finish three to four every morning), daydreams and nightmares (“I have a fear of having no money, of being unable to pay a restaurant bill”). A few questions from that evening are incorporated in this interview.
A new novel at 95 is pretty good going. How did you find the time and stamina to write it?
I can’t garden or do other work; the only thing I can do is scribble. Writing two columns a week plus book reviews is killing but I also keep a daily diary recording what I did that day, the weather and changing seasons. While going through a year’s diary I came across incidents like the Haryana politician Chander Mohan Bishnoi who became Chand Mohammed to marry his Hindu girlfriend who became Fiza. He then left her and reconverted to becoming a Hindu. I thought why not put stories in like that, mix public and personal events, as seen through eyes of three octogenarians.
Is Sardar Boota Singh in The Sunset Club a version of yourself?
My characters are a combination of fact and fantasy. I start with a character but then it begins to dominate. It won’t do things I want it to do and starts doing things on its own. The Sunset Club is mostly from my imagination. I have been going to the Lodi Gardens for years; I used to know every tree there. So I thought why not set it is a place I know so well?
You are one of Delhi’s great chroniclers. The city features again and again in your writing and you’ve even written a novel about it. Your father Sir Sobha Singh was also one of the builders of modern Delhi. How has the city changed in your lifetime?
This was essentially city of refined Muslim culture. Then it was suddenly invaded by Punjabis, Hindus and Sikhs, and that completely changed its character. When my father built this block of flats it was beyond the cemetery, that is, beyond what were then the city’s limits. He built the Ambassador Hotel and rented it for Rs 10,000 a month. Today I am told each flat in this block rents for two and half lakh rupees.
I used to love Delhi but now I find it uninhabitable. I can’t find my way around. I wish I could go out and once again and see the moon and the stars but even the joy of darkness has been robbed. The frogs, sparrows and owls have all gone. The corruption and extravagance are unbelievable. Diwali is just over and I am amazed at the gifts people send. I shouldn’t complain too much, though. I had a lovely haul of whisky, 14 or 15 bottles I think. But I find living here a pain in the arse.
You started out as a lawyer and then became a diplomat. You took to writing later in life. Would you say you became a writer accidentally?
Completely. I flopped at everything I did in my early years. I threw up job after job. I became a writer because my generous and remarkable father stood by me. I lived off his bounty for years.
Many regard Train to Pakistan as your best novel. But looking back on all these years of writing—fiction, histories of the Sikhs and many other books—is there one work you are especially proud of?
Train to Pakistan was the most popular and later made into a film. But I think my novel on Delhi is quite good. Also some of my other fiction, for example, I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale is probably better and more filmable. But you can’t really tell with books. As for my histories, I seem to have become some sort of a guru for the Sikhs. But they don’t realise that I am an agnostic.
Your first moment of success in journalism came when you became editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India in the 1960s, staying on for nine years. Did you have a formula in mind to turn it around?
I was fortunate that I had no boss at the magazine. I was free to do what I liked. The Weekly was full of silly stuff like pictures of newly-marrieds and Aunty Wendy’s column for children. I had a three-pronged formula: inform, amuse and provoke. It worked because a stagnation circulation of 80,000 rise to 400,000. Also there was no competition.
But in the end, the Jains who owned the company, managed to retrieve it from the government. They couldn’t take me anymore and fired me. That was fine because I had had three or four extensions. So I wrote a small tribute to the Weekly’s readers, wishing the magazine well. They wouldn’t allow it to be published and wanted me to leave before my contract was up. I thought that was very discourteous; I just picked up my umbrella and left. My letter was published in other papers afterwards. The owners lacked breeding.
Do you have another book in mind?
I don’t know. According to the Hindu sages I have reached the fourth stage of my life—vanapratha, the final retreat to the forest or wilderness. I plan to see no one and I must learn how to do nothing. The English poet Hilare Belloc’s lines keep turning in my head: “When I am dead/ I hope it will be said/ His sins were scarlet/ But his books were read.”
You supported the Emergency though you say you were a reluctant supporter. You told Indira Gandhi that you opposed press censorship but you were quite partial to her son Sanjay Gandhi.
Yes, that’s quite correct but let me explain why I supported the Emergency when it was imposed. In every democracy there are rules for the government and there are rules for the opposition which they must not break. The government was under severe criticism for what Sanjay Gandhi was doing but the opposition was just enjoying seeing the whole law and order system collapse—no buses running, no trains running on time, planes not running on time, schools closed, colleges closed, huge processions smashing private and public property and no action being taken. The last straw was when Jayaprakash Narayan himself endorsed stopping elected members of the legislature from performing their functions.
He called for a total revolution…
Yes. In Gujarat students gheraoed the Vidhan Sabha and then threatened parliament here. Narayan then called for almost a revolt—exhorting people to not pay taxes, for army and police to revolt. No democratic government in the world can really support that kind of breaking of rules by the opposition. I wrote to Jayaprakash Narayan protesting. I said you can go so far but you can’t stop people who have been elected from doing their jobs. He wrote back to me, a very lengthy letter that I published in full in The Illustrated Weekly of India.
I remember the day on which the Emergency was imposed—hundreds of our leaders were put in jail but there was not a squeak of protest, in fact there was a sense of relief that law and order had been returned; apart from people like George Fernandes who went underground there was no protest and it was generally welcomed. Amongst the people who supported the step was Acharya Vinobha Bhave.
What went wrong was the misuse of power. Mrs Gandhi set a bad example by settling personal scores to get two women, who were organizing farm labour, to be arrested and put in jail; the Rajmata of Gwalior and Gayatri Devi of Jaipur were put in jail, and then members of her family followed suit. Mohd. Yunus was settling his scores, Maneka Gandhi and her mother were settling their scores, anyone who said anything against them was promptly locked up.
Many of the Emergency’s excesses were allegedly committed at the behest of Sanjay Gandhi whom you were fond of. You called him a “loveable goonda” (ruffian). You were quite infatuated by him, weren’t you ?
Well I admired him because he got things done though he made a mess of the Maruti car project no doubt. I liked him because he was a man of action who said kaam zaida baatein kam (work more, talk less) and he didn’t shoot his mouth off over unnecessary issues. You owe a lot to him, for instance clearing up slums and planting trees…
But he also promoted the forced sterilization campaign which made the Congress Party lose the 1977 election…
I think that was a vastly exaggerated story. What he had in mind was right. This country needs compulsory family planning. It won’t respond to these advertisements of hum do, hamare do (We Two, Our Two). They don’t cut ice. The population problem is a priority problem in this country and Sanjay had it right. The stories of compulsory sterilizations, of picking up people from bus stands and cinemas, are not true. There were some excesses but there were no numbered targets of vasectomies. It was totally exaggerated but it paid the political opposition a dividend.
You were also very fond of Sanjay’s wife Maneka Gandhi. After all you helped her with her magazine Surya during those days…
Yes I did, I was not particularly fond of them, but they came to me and later Maneka’s mother came to see me in Bombay…
Yes, Maneka’s mother asked me if I could help them because they had no experience. So I got permission from my employers who dared not say no because of the Emergency. I used to come almost once a week to Delhi and spend the weekend here and the first few issues of Surya were entirely organized me.
And what was your friendship with Maneka like?
It was working relationship and nothing more. I saw a lot of them in their home, also members of their family and others whom I perforce got to know. And they were in and out of this house all the time.
Maneka Gandhi and you had a bad falling out later when she took an injunction against your memoirs and hauled you over the coals for writing about the way she quit Mrs Gandhi’s house after Sanjay Gandhi’s death.
Yes, she did. A judge of the high court gave them the injunction. It took me ten years in an appeal to get injunction removed and that hurt me in more ways than one. We were not in talking terms. But now the injunction is over, my autobiography is in the market, and I have forgotten all of that.
What’s your opinion of Maneka Gandhi now?
Anyone who switches parties like she does and takes her son round to the BJP, which I regard as a fundu (fundamentalist) party, basically based on suspicion and prejudice against Muslims, to make way her into parliament from Pilibhit, where the substantial population voting also Sikh, is without principles of any kind. Well, that’s up to her. But I give her credit for one thing—she is the only one who speaks for animals. For the rest I don’t think she abides with principles of any kind.
You recently called Maneka Gandhi a liar and you said that Varun Gandhi probably inherits this lying streak from her. What do you think of Varun’s speeches of hate against Muslims [during the 2009 general election] and do you believe it was right to jail him under the National Security Act?
I think the National Security Act should not have been used in this case but Varun Gandhi should have been taken to task. The Election Commission censured him for what he said. I censured him personally because I can’t take any words of hatred against Muslims. He went further and slurred the entire Sikh community saying, Inke bara baja dunga (I’ll settle them). You may say those things in your home but you don’t speak them on election platforms. He did that and I think it was unpardonable.
But you also said that Varun Gandhi was a very personable young man when he brought his book of poetry to you…
His anti-Muslim speeches came as a very unpleasant surprise to me. I thought the man was into poetry. He couldn’t be doing anything wrong and his writing was generally good poetry. I thought, thank God, at least one member of the family is out of the dirty business of politics but I didn’t know this would happen. When I heard what he said in his mother’s constituency, and the words he used, I was very deeply disappointed.
You’ve had a complex, often contradictory, relationship with the Gandhi family and the Congress Party. You returned the Padma Bhushan after Operation Blue Star but you stayed on as a member of Rajya Sabha. And you never really came out in strong condemnation of Rajiv Gandhi statement’s about the killing of Sikhs when he said, “When a great tree falls, the earth shakes.”
I did. I protested I thought that what he said was unfortunate. I mentioned it several times in my articles that he should not have used those words. I am glad that, after all these years, the Congress Party itself felt that it did badly because it was the principal mover in the massacre of Sikhs. Manmohan Singh gave a public apology in parliament. I think to some extent that softened the hard feelings of Sikhs.
Three thousand Sikhs were killed in those terrible weeks following Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. You yourself had to leave your home and seek sanctuary with friends. Yet it is only in recent days when a Sikh journalist hurled a shoe at the Home Minister that Congress Party candidates for parliament like Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar were made to withdraw. Don’t you consider that too little, too late?
I go along with all that you say. This should have happened much earlier. It’s been too late and the people who were the criminals, including those in the Delhi government and in the police, should have been punished long ago. So far, to the best of my knowledge, only 13 people have been convicted. But there is also a positive side that people tend to forget—the number of Hindus who came to help the Sikhs during that period. I remember that 72 gurudwaras were destroyed in a few days but it was a Hindu industrialist family which undertook to rebuild them all.
You have written at length in your new collection about the working of the Justice Nanavati commission which investigated the targeting and killing of the Sikhs in 1984 but do you believe that the government inquiry or the many other informal inquiries conducted ever really gave the Sikh community justice?
That’s a very large question. At least the Nanavati Commission indicated that Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler had much to answer for and so did some of the others. There was an independent report published titled Who Are the Guilty? that listed their names. Tytler came to see me once soon after and gave me his safai (justification). I said “Jagdish, if you allow me to cross-examine you and you prove to me that you had nothing to do with it I will write in your support”. He never came back. So there it is. He should have been punished. He should have withdrawn his candidature himself. That would have been a more gentlemanly thing to do rather than embarrass the Congress party.
Nearly 70 years or more of writing that includes a vast and varied output of fiction, history, memoir, journalism, biography and a weekly column brimming with malice. What makes you so prolific?
Somebody asked me how I was so prolific and out came my answer without a second thought: “Because no one has yet created a condom for the pen.”
Also you have never missed a single deadline or column in 60 years…
Never, even if I am sick, or I have to keep up all night, I meet my undertaking. I have given my word it will be there at this time it will always be there.
Does it come from a strong sense of discipline and commitment—of waking at four o’ clock every morning and getting down to work?
Yes I get up at 4 am. I lead a very disciplined life. It’s regulated by the stopwatch not the ordinary watch. I have also learnt how to be ill-mannered. People don’t drop in. I don’t see them without an appointment and when I invite them it’s strictly between 7 and 8 pm. I can be very rude to anyone who stays even a minute after eight.
And at seven o’clock the good Scotch comes out…
That’s the one luxury I have never denied myself. I don’t have any other bad habits.
You tell a marvellous story of your mother who at the age of 94, ill and dying in hospital, was barely conscious but still asked for a little whisky.
That’s right, those were the last words she spoke before she went into a coma. She said “whisky”. I taught her how to drink and enjoy it.
One of the reasons for your wide readership is your sense of humour. Amongst all your serious writing is a bestselling pile of Khushwant Singh joke books and your columns are peppered with corny jokes, ribald jokes and bad jokes. What is it that keeps you laughing at your own community and at fellow Indians? Is it your belief that by and large Indians lack a sense of humour?
I’m a born joker. I don’t take myself seriously and I don’t take anyone else very seriously either. Everyone has a laughable side, including oneself and I look for that. I meet a lot of politicians and when they start bragging that’s good material for me. It’s an Indian habit to talk about oneself. A favourite topic is what they did and how important they are. Well, that’s excellent material for a malicious man like me.
You are also malicious about yourself. One funny piece in the present collection is called On Being Buggered about a doctor examining you for piles.
Yes, that thing was ticking inside my bottom and I was in pain, when the doctor asked me to fart to bring some relief. I thought it was too funny to be forgotten so I immediately thought of writing about it.
At a more elevated level, one of your abiding passions has been your love of Urdu poetry. Before I end this special interview, will you recite a verse by Ghalib, another denizen of Delhi, who too lived in turbulent times?
Ghalib is my favourite and my favourite lines are about himself, Asadullah Khan, ageing and the joy of life ebbing from him. I find these lines apply to me very much:
Woh badah-e-shabana ki sarmastiyan kahan
Uthiye, ke bas ab ki lazzat-e-khwab-e-sehar gayi
Maara zamaane ne Asadullah Khan tumhe
Woh walwale kahan, woh jawani kidhar gayi?
(What happened to those nights of intoxicated ecstasy?
Arise, for the sweet dream of morning has gone.
Time and age have beaten you Asadullah Khan,
Where has the effervescence of youth gone?)
One of your recent collections was called Death at My Doorstep, a collection of obituaries you have written. Are you tempted to write one of your own?
I have already done so. I have written my obituary two or three times. In Death at My Doorstep I have put them all in.
How would you liked to be remembered?
As somebody who brought a smile to people’s lips.
November, 2010 & April, 2009