Khushwant Singh is arguably the most prolific Indian writer of the twentieth century. A master raconteur and agent provocateur, he is definitely the best-known columnist India has produced. Published in 2013 when he turned 98 on India’s Independence Day, Khushwantnama – The Lessons of my Life is an enlightening and entertaining (last?) treatise by the Grand Old Man of Indian journalism; his famed wit and wisdom on full display in this brief but insightful book.
Khushwantnama is part autobiography and part commentary on Khushwant’s favourite subjects such as politics, religion, society and India’s future. Secularism, the pain of partition, the joys of sex, the pleasures of poetry and the significance of laughter in life all find their way into this slim volume. Having lived a long and full life, Khushwant is ideally suited to writing on subjects such as old age and fear of death, how to cope with retirement and tips for a long, happy and healthy life.
“In my 98th year I have little left to look forward to but lots to reminisce about. I draw a balance sheet of my achievements and failures. On the credit side I have over 80 books: novels, collections of short stories, biographies, histories, translations from Punjabi and Urdu, and many essays. On the debit side is my character…” Khushwant reflects at the start of his book. Writing with unmatched candour Khushwant counts himself lucky that at this age he still enjoys his evening drink daily, relishes tasty food, looks forward to listening to latest gossip and scandal, openly confesses that he is a bit of a lech and feels sad that he has always looked at women as objects of lust. He also expresses regret that, in his early years, he committed “evil deeds” like shooting sparrows, doves and rock pigeons.
Born in February 1915 at Hadali, in Sargodha district of Punjab, Khushwant Singh has led a very eventful and privileged life. His father, Sir Sobha Singh, was one of the leading and wealthiest contractors and real estate developers who made his fortune in New Delhi’s construction business after the British decided to make it their capital in 1911; most of the landmark buildings and famous residential/shopping areas in New Delhi such as Connaught Place, South Block, Khan Market etc. were built by his father’s company. Khushwant went to Government College Lahore and St.Stephen’s College New Delhi before qualifying as a barrister from London. He practiced as a lawyer at the Lahore High Court for years before partition. In 1947, he joined India’s Foreign Service and served as a diplomat for nearly a decade in London, Ottawa and Paris.
Reflecting on his law education and early years as a lawyer and diplomat, Khushwant concludes that those were wasted years of his life; he hated law as a subject but pursued it as his father wanted him to become a lawyer; although he enjoyed his years in the foreign service he took to writing as a result of not having much work to do as a diplomat. He believes that his real life began when he took up reading and writing and embarked upon his journalistic career in which he went on to edit prestigious publications like The Illustrated Weekly of India, National Herald and the Hindustan Times. In his stellar career as a writer, he also authored many famous works of fiction and non-fiction.
Those who have followed Khushwant’s writings regularly might find the current volume repetitive as most of this stuff has appeared in his earlier writings. Even then the most insightful three chapters in his book are ‘The Business of Writing’, ‘What it Takes to be a Writer’ and ‘Journalism, Then and Now’. He believes that one is born as a writer and no formal training can teach you to become one. Over the years, Khushwant, due to his provocative, candid, and, at times, outrageous writing has caused both headlines and headaches, probably why his advice to inspiring writers is to be candid and not to dress up their thoughts or writings with fancy words or euphemisms.
Khushwant claims a writer’s main responsibility is to inform his reader while he provokes and entertains. An editor once criticized Khushwant for having “turned bullshit into an art form”. His response was: “You try it – it is very hard work.” About journalism, he laments that these days it is the proprietor or the proprietor’s children who run newspapers or magazines whereas in his days it was the editor who was the real boss.
He mentions Aldous Huxley and Somerset Maugham as the two most formative influences on his writing style in addition to reading the Bible over and over again. Khushwant is known for his English translation of Iqbal’s Shikwah and Jawab e Shikwah but in this book he declares that his role model is Mirza Ghalib, whose penchant for humour perhaps reflects in Singh’s own appetite for jokes.
At one point Khushwant also dabbled in politics and was a member of the upper house of the Indian parliament from 1980-86. Politically, he is viewed as being close to the Congress party and even supported Indira Gandhi’s infamous emergency rule in 1975. Although he returned his Padma Bushan, India’s third highest award to a civilian, in 1984 when Indira’s forces stormed the Golden Temple, Sikh’s holiest shrine, Khushwant has been labeled by his critics as an establishment liberal. The book is dedicated to his old friend and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s wife, Gursharan Kaur, who was presented the first copy at a private ceremony at Khushwant’s birthday party this year.
Khushwant has led a very disciplined life: even at this advanced age, he wakes up at four in the morning, does his reading and writing in the early hours, dozes off for a couple of hours at noon, enjoys his happy hour daily between 7-8 pm, finishes his dinner by 8:30 pm and is fast asleep by nine.
The highlight of his day is a daily evening soiree, between 7 and 8 pm, to which only a select crowd of Delhi’s literati and glitterati are invited. His son, Rahul, was once asked as to what made his father tick all these years, he replied: “Two shots of whisky every evening and all his women friends who drop in to seek his advice on their love lives.”
A few years back in an interview, when asked what he misses most, Khushwant remarked “Good sex. I miss good sex and it’s been missing for some time. The day you can’t have sex is really the time for a man to go. But yes, I fantasise.”