Even though I grew up reading Khushwant Singh’s columns in the 70s and 80s, for recent years I had not read much from or about him. For a short period I wondered if he was even alive — until my last trip to India in August when I laid my hands on what may have been one of his last books – “The Company of Women”. This book was a virtual “mastram” book, and even though he kept the reader hooked with his story telling, there were no pretensions of literary class. It looked like he had either lost his mojo in his 90s or had used a ghost writer. Khushwant Singh died today at the age of 99. He will be missed, for being part of my very early English reading, if for nothing else.
Khushwant Singh was famous for writing about his love of scotch, women and gossip. However, although he wrote a lot about these things, he was never in the news for excess of these things in his personal life. If he drank a lot of scotch, he was never in the news for it. His personal life seemed more like that of a regular family man than that of a casanova that he could have been.
The Illustrated Weekly edited by Khushwant Singh in the 70s was my first real exposure to English reading. Then in 80s his column “With Malice Towards One and All” in The Hindustan Times was my regular read. His column always ended with a joke, usually sent in by a reader. I used to send him (recycled) jokes sometimes, and he published mine once. Another time he sent me a handwritten postcard with the message “Mr. Kaul, I published a similar joke already”.
I believe the first time I heard the word “gay” being used for homosexuals was through his column. He wrote something about the Indian word for gay could be “Khush”, even though it pointed to his name and that he was far from being gay.
Even though Khushwant called himself an atheist, he seemed to maintain a close connection with his Sikh religion. He wrote several books on Sikhism, never gave up his Sikh headgear, and even returned his Padma Bhushan in protest against Operation Bluestar.
Even though I haven’t read too many of Khushwant Singh’s books, the “Train to Pakistan” is a memorable one and was also made into a feature film.
Here’s a little excerpt from his column from a few years ago:
I also got a lot of hate mail. It did not upset me. However, one letter from Canada became a memento. It had the foulest Punjabi abuse accusing me of all manners of incestuous relationships. They were in Gurmukhi. Only the address was in English and very brief: “Bastard Khush-want Singh, India”.
I was most impressed by the efficiency of the Indian Postal Service in locating the address of the one and only bastard in the country.
Good bye, Khush!