Dirty Old Man of Indian Journalism

Khushwant SinghEven 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!



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3 responses to “Dirty Old Man of Indian Journalism”

  1. अनूप शुक्ल Avatar

    अच्छा लिखा खुशवंत सिंह के बारे में.

  2. Sanjay Avatar

    Your Obit too ends with a joke making it more appropirate for KS. I know his writing has had a major influence on your own writng at least in initial stages. I would like to remember him for a wonderful article he wrote, ” The need for a new religion”. The suggestions were too ambitious, simplistic and theorretical but it had the potential of forcing you to think differently. His writing has always done that for me, forced me to look from a different point of view, so whether you agreed or dis-agreed with him you could never ignore him.

  3. Vinay Mohan Pandit Avatar
    Vinay Mohan Pandit

    Raman… Thanks for inviting me to read your well crafted lines. I read those nicely written words of obituary for the Grand Sardar of English Literature from India.
    Nice one.
    Like all others (including yourself) I was the fan of his column in The Hindustan Times and I for sure loved his juicy soft porn like command on the language, for pillow books were not easily available. So the Sardar could be read in drawing room without any inhibitions. Though there were instructions on couple of occasions at home that we must preferably read R K Narayanan or Mulk Raj Anand or ilk, yet I continued to admire Sardar. I am not much sure of his personal life but through the print media of those days (for electronic media had not yet taken the shape) I remember he was famous for three w’s (not the www of electronic media) that were spelt as wine, women and wealth. How far was that true either media only could say or Sardar could testify. But Sardar never denied it either.
    For his political connections, he being stamped as a stooge of grand old lady of Indian political field and the subsequent fallout with her post 1984 under the pressure of his community against his wishes, is all documented.
    Now about his writing skills, I admit that I have not read him much but one book that I read was titled ‘WE INDIANS” way back in 1984 or 1985. It had around 12 odd articles about we Indians acting snobs and hypocrites. Nice work. It did bear his trademark of soft porn language. Unfortunately, this book was stolen from my rack and I could never get a copy again. It did show me the mirrors that we Indians are the worst kind of snobs. I remember one particular quote in this book where he said sex happens everywhere in India yet it is considered a taboo (whatever reasons). Being a young man in Indian society I could never relate to his remark. Like all unmarried youngsters in India, I was tuned too to the theory of hypocrisy that sex before marriage is a crime and punishable act and this snobbish theory is more strictly enforced on fair sex whereas the masculine gender is treated liberally on the issue. So his remark was eye opener for me. Much later, in winter of 1994-95, when I was travelling from Surat to Mumbai, for some personal commitments towards hardships in the family, I could not afford to travel in reserved compartment for short of budget as well as short term planning because of the nature of the commitment. So I was travelling by unreserved compartment of Indian Railways where in it is literally Darwinian Theory of Survival of Fittest at its best. It was night journey. I occupied a corner of seat, barely managing to put my butts on a peg like support. As the journey progressed I saw a Guajarati couple on berth just above my head having sex under the quilt. They made all the sounds and moves. I do not remember if any other co-traveller had any arousal of desires but this act of the couple made me recollect the book of Sardar that I am discussing here. Every time when there is snobbish discussion on sex around me, I remember Sardar and this Gujarati Couple. And now with the advent of technology the three w’s being given new terminology of world-wide-web, I am amazed at the kick we snobs have received on our butts. On social networks (like facebook, etc.) when I scroll I suddenly see the real or digitised or photoshopped pictures of holy scriptures / holy places / holy faces / etc. / etc. Then next, when I scroll (up / down) I suddenly find the hard core porn pictures just below the pictures I have just stated. It is amazing that all gods of all religions have been getting beating in their arse. I am sure few generations from now they will be writing the holy scriptures on the pictures I mentioned later. Everything is available on click of mouse now. And I am really waiting for that day when they bring the Indian Temples alive again with wonderful angelic bodies having sex and carved in stone in the walls of the temple…. Amen….!
    Had Sardar dreamt the same as I do? Was Sardar ahead of his times…?

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