Now, at 96 plus, Khuswant Singh appears to have had enough and wants to call it quits. Otherwise, what else can explain his abrupt decision to stop writing — his lifelong passion and the elixir (besides a glass of scotch every evening) that have kept him surprisingly agile, robust and remarkably productive for all these years?
The legendary Indian writer and journalist made the decision public in an interview with Outlook magazine early this month. The news came somewhat as a blow to me and I’m sure legions of Khuswant fans (I count myself as one of the most ardent) felt the same way.
I fell in love with his writings (when I was in my early ‘20s) after reading a column in “The Illustrated Weekly of India”, which he then edited. I do not remember what the column was about but what hooked me on were his lucid, enchanting prose and his mastery over the English language.
Ever since, I became an avid reader of Khuswant, especially his weekly column “Malice towards all”, which for years, appeared first in the Hindustan Times and then, in the Telegraph of Kolkata. The column with the trademark logo showing the Sardarji in-cased in a light bulb became so popular that the newspapers’ circulation surged phenomenally.
I do not know of any other non-native English writer who can handle the language with such ease and aplomb. And that perhaps explains why he has established himself as the preeminent author in India who has written extensively on a variety of subjects ranging from history to novel to short stories.
He has written so much that he himself has lost count. The American Centre in Delhi sent him a list of his books in the Library of Congress which was two yards long, and this was more than 10 years and 20 books ago!
His detractors would, of course, dismiss him as a sex-obsessed nut. It is true you won’t perhaps find any of his writings that do not have some libidinous, racy content even when he writes about serious, historical episodes.
Take for instance, his latest novel “Sunset Club”, published last month. I haven’t read the book yet but according to the Outlook review, it is a historical novel set in Delhi’s Lodi gardens. In describing the main dome inside the gardens built in 1494, Khuswant writes, ‘it’s an exact replica of a young woman’s bosom including the areola and the nipple’. Not sure what ‘areola’ means? Well, it’s the round-shaped pigmented portion surrounding the nipple.
Even his epic novel ‘Train to Pakistan’, one of the finest books I’ve ever read on the gory aftermath of the partition of the Indian sub continent in 1947 in which more than a million were slaughtered, there is no dearth of such steamy stuff. Just last month, he wrote a column in Outlook in which he questioned why the Indian magazines do not devote any space to rate the best night clubs and brothels in India.
No wonder, the preponderance of sexual contents in his writings has earned him the sobriquet “India’s dirty old man”. And surprisingly, Khuswant seems to relish that title.
“I don’t give a damn to what others say about my work”, he told me when I met him in his Delhi apartment in Sujan Singh Park in the 1980s. He said the success of a writer lies in his/her ability to drag the reader down to the last sentence and one should be at liberty to use any means to keep the reader engaged. And for him, it is sex and a lot of it.
But if you’re not prudish and have the patience to get past the salacious part, you’ll be amply rewarded with the richness of his style and the broader messages of Khuswant’s books devoted to the causes of humanity, secularism and above all, the joy of life.
Another admirable quality of Khuswant is his straightforwardness and the ability to make fun of himself. In most of his books, readers discover the author cast in the role of a boorish character, invariably a Sikh. In one such instance, he wrote about a young Sardarji visiting France on his maiden trip which ended in a hilarious disaster. Excited and impatient to taste the capital’s famous night life, he headed straight to a Paris bordello after stepping off the airplane. Predictably, he picked up a voluptuous white girl from there and sheepishly followed her to her private room. As he undressed, the girl made some comments about the miniscule size of his ‘thing’. Her comments made such profound impact that the ‘thing’ went instantly into hibernation and refused to rise to the occasion ever after.
I asked Khuswant whether he was embarrassed given the fact that his children would read him too. “Of course, they do,” he shot back. They’re all adults”. His only son, Rahul, is also a famous journalist. As we parted, Khuswant gave me the last copy of ‘Mark of Vishnu’, a delectable collection of short stories he wrote when he was just 26. And his parting advice for a rookie journalist — “keep writing and never stop.”
It is perhaps habit that has kept Khuswant going for so long. He has been writing for over 70 years now. And how did he do it when most of his peers are gone or have long retired?
“I’ve gone on because there’s nothing else I can do,” he tells Outlook. He has no idea, he says, why other writers give up after a certain age. “Perhaps they get involved in writers’ politics, organisations and societies as they get older.” Or perhaps they simply give up the struggle. “It’s a daunting thing to face an empty page and fill it up without getting up from your chair. Perhaps they find it too much and give up. And if you give up writing even for a while, it becomes very difficult to resume it.” Which is why he continues to write, Khushwant says, “every single day of my life”. It could be anything, even answering his mail. “I answer every single letter that keeps my pen going.” (He doesn’t use a computer).
And even his cook, Chandan, who has served him loyally for almost 60 years now, knows that his Sahib wouldn’t be able to live a day without writing. “He gets up even earlier these days,” Chandan tells Outlook, “around 3 am, and starts writing. His pen keeps moving till he gets tired; then he leans back in his chair and takes a nap, then goes on writing again.”
So is he really going to give it all up: his teasing and infuriating readers, his see-how-easy-this-is writing that he slaved a lifetime to master?” “Enough is enough,” he says firmly. “I think I should now learn to do nothing. I owe it to myself. Besides, when I’m not doing anything, I feel relaxed.” Then adds with that honesty that has won over his readers: “Except my mind keeps bothering me. I am confused: am I writing because of the celebrity status that it gives me? Then I say to myself: I’m becoming a narcissist. I can’t do without praise and flattery, and these are minus points. I must get over them. I must tell myself that my life is almost over. And therefore I must learn to live entirely by myself till the last day and not depend on other people for anything, neither their approval nor disapproval.”
Arshad Mahmud is a senior editor and Washington Correspondent for bdnews24.com.