Khushwant Singh: Merry Sardar who Glows at 97

Florine Roche
Daijiworld Media Network

Nov 20: In the first week of October this year fans of India’s most loved, admired, envied and even most imitated journalist, Khushwant Singh, were in for a shock as he had hung up his pen. Known as the dirty old man of journalism Khushwant Singh, “KS” now 97, who still remains the most widely read columnist of India, had stopped writing without saying a formal goodbye to his countless readers.

It shocked the fans of ‘KS’ for whom the initials fit aptly, for, every week he used to ’brew’ a column mixing witticism with liberal dose of sex thrown in to intoxicate the readers and also titillate them. He did it for almost 7 decades and his fan following ranged from oldies to the teenagers, a rare feat which no other columnist in India can boast of. This grand old man of Indian Journalism is widely credited for changing the face of Indian journalism in ways more than one.

Those who mourned the death of KS’s weekly column had much to celebrate when within a month the bearded Sardar in the iconic ‘light bulb’ with his companions of books, whisky bottle and girlie magazine, made a comeback to fill the ‘Saturday vacuum’ created by his four-week absence from the newspapers which syndicated his columns for years. It means that KS fans can once again heave a sigh of relief and continue to relish his weekly dose of their nourishment, for none can foretell when the ‘Dirty Sardar’ will decide to hang up his pen once again as he is on ‘borrowed time’ to put it in his own words.

It is true that KS weekly column “With Malice towards One and All” appealed everyone and the generation gap did not matter. The sardar is gifted with a tremendous memory and age has not wizened the sharpness of his remembrance.

As a student of journalism I used to remember reading KS columns from bottom to top because his columns always ended with witty jokes (credited to others) and that was the inspiration for me to read it in the initial stages. But as I got used to read or rather addicted to his column, I began to appreciate them from top to bottom not only for the lucid and appetizing writing style which was almost like narrating a story but also for the vast knowledge he gave through his columns. Like me for most of his readers this association with ‘KS’ through his columns continues and will continue till the Sardar decides to call it a day.
 

Sarcasm and Wit – the Deadly Combo

Known for his acidic wit it has to be agreed that there is more to Khushwant Singh than mere drollness. So, it would be a blasphemous to categorize K S only with these aspects about which he himself made bones about and for many KS’s name is inseparable from the three well known vices of wine women and sex. But regular readers of his columns would certainly vouch that there was more to his columns than these three.

KS was a prolific writer, known for his spicy, amusing, humorous, acerbic, amorous and knowledgeable writing. He was a columnist, whose contents ranged from any subject under the sun, a forthright political commentator, a diplomat, a great historian and novelist far excellence, a social critic and a keen observer who kept a close association with nature and also a close watch on the people and the issues surrounding them. Starting from his first book “The Mark of Vishnu and Other Stories” published in London in 1950, K S has written many novels, short stories, biographies, translations, poetry and also some balderdash, gossip and also trifling stuff.

More importantly, he never projected a holier-than- thou attitude and wrote truthfully about himself and also about his so called ‘numerous’ encounters or liaisons with some of the well known and glamorous women from all walks of life. He also made no bones about his fondness for whiskey, something which he continues even now along with his habit of writing. It can be said these two remain the inseparable part of Khushwanth Singh’s life. His frankness has been misconstrued by many and he has been nicknamed as a ‘merry sardar’ with a weakness for the bottle and for the fair sex. Any one in his place would would considered it as an affront but KS relished it and continues to carry on with the tag even now, old age notwithstanding. I don’t think there is any other writer in India who can say what they say and get away with the audience roaring in laughter, as K S did.

In one of the rare public appearances in Delhi during a television conversation K S had said “I have a dirty mind. Each time I see a woman I have dirty thoughts about what she would be like in bed”. The group included a select audience including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s wife. What most people thought in their minds, Khushwant was frank enough to speak openly and even put it in black and white for his readers and that has been his biggest attribute! This attribute of KS has landed many of his friends and other icons revered by people in a big soup.


Keeping Women in Good Humour

From what I have deduced K S had his ways with women, and that too women who matter in the social circles. He was very generous or rather lavish in his praise of women and was not parsimonious when it comes to complimenting them. This was something which endeared him to women whom he came across in the course of his innumerable working assignments and tours both within the country and abroad.

There have been many women who craved for his company and also for that ‘compliment’. This dealing with women and his wide travelling has given him enough knowledge to write extensively about Indian women and decimate the popular myths surrounding them. His books like ‘Men and Women in my life’, ‘The Company of Women’, or the edited book “Uncertain Liaisons” along with Sohbha De, where he also wrote a chapter “The Indian Woman”, giving us his insight on issues related to women. In these writings he has debunked many myths surrounding Indian women.

Despite needling or tantalizing readers for 7 decades, K S never seems to be tired of writing. In an interview to an English magazine recently he said “I can die any time now” where he even says “I don’t know how to sit and do nothing”. That is why he keeps reading and writing, with whiskey keeping him company. At 96, beset with all diseases leading to old age he comes out with a book “Sunset Club” and in September this year Penguin released his other book “Not a Nice Man to Know: The Best of Khushwant Singh”, though K S was not present at the release. This is a rare feat, which only Khushwant Singh could pull off.


A Little for Everyone

It has been a long and fulfilling journalistic journey for KS who took to writing out of boredom beginning with writing book reviews and profiles under the byline ‘KS’ for the “Tribune”. From then on he has donned many roles including his stint with All India Radio, with UNESCO, as lecturer in American Universities and as editor of Government run “Yojana”.

He changed the face of Indian journalism when he took over as the editor of “the Illustrated Weekly of India” and it was in this magazine he introduced his weekly column Editor’s page which later was rechristened as Malice… All”. With that KS had arrived to provide what he famously said “some gossip, some titillation, some tearing up of reputations and some amusement”. After being at helm at the weekly for 9 years he went on to be the editor of Hindustan Times. The syndication of his columns began with the Sunday Observer becoming the first one to buy the rights in 1981. But way back in 1956 KS had written his widely acclaimed historical novel “A Train to Pakistan”, which dealt with the partition of India, bringing him international acclaim. His book in two volumes “A history of Sikhs” remains even now a well researched and scholarly work.

K S has also written many novels both fiction and non-fiction and is the author of more than 80 books and his widely read columns which are translated into 17 languages and syndicated in over 40 publications. True to the image he has his autobiography published in 2002 has been titled “Truth, Love and a little Malice”.

A self styled agnostic/atheist KS had the vivifying capacity to see and describe the colourful Indian way of life. Yet, this self proclaimed wrote a commentary on Bhagavad Gita and translated Sikh scriptures, thus demonstrating his secular and spiritual side to an extent.

Controversies and KS always went together as he had a penchant for creating some of them including his tacit support for imposition of emergency in 1975.

Whatever said and done KS remain etched in the memory of his readers with his appetizing writing, his inimitable style and spoonfuls of wit and sarcasm. The combination of serious and not so serious stuff was something new to Indians who were not exposed to that kind of writing before especially on the subject of sex which is considered taboo in Indian society. Nevertheless the readers were hooked and continue to do so as is evident from the success of his column.

For his ardent fan’s sake let us hope KS keeps writing and continue to entertain and titillate and completes a century of his eventful life. But he is sure to leave the journalistic world poorer if he puts a full stop.