Iam reminded of Antony’s words in Julius Caesar: “Here was a Caesar! When comes such another?” Yes, here was a Khushwant. When comes such another? A literary monarch who literally held sway over the literary scene of India for more than three quarters of a century decided not to complete a century and bowed out a month after he had completed 99 years.
The journey that Khushwant Singh started on February 2, 1915, in Hadali, now in Pakistan’s Punjab reached its destination on March 20, in Lutyens’ Delhi in the making of which Khushwant’s father had a great role. Khushwant Singh will be missed by everyone who loves a good reading. A prolific writer, he wrote dozens of novels and short story collections.
He also edited several magazines and newspapers in the 1970s and 80s. Unstoppable even at 95, he wrote the novel “The Sunset Club” about a group of pensioners. Here was a man who churned out all kinds of literary pieces- from serious novels to satirical writings of immense wit and infectious humor. His classics, such as ‘Train to Pakistan’ and ‘I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale’ will remind the coming generations of the literary art of this grand old man of Indian literature.
Nor can the coming generations remain unaffected by the wit and saucy humor of the man that readers so hungrily savored in his column “With Malice towards One and All”. His novel “Train to Pakistan” on the heartrending bloody situation at the time of partition of India in 1947 was made in to a film. Khushwant Singh was conferred the third highest civilian award of the nation- Padma Bhushan in 1974 which he returned in 1984, in protest against the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar by the Indian Army ( Operation Bluestar) under the then prime minister Indira Gandhi.
Ironically, earlier, he had defended Indira Gandhi’s Emergency of 1975-77, when opposition leaders were jailed or punished, saying protest had to be suppressed if it turned violent. Khushwant was nominated to Rajya Sabha and was a Member of Parliament from 1980 to 1986. He was awarded the second highest civilian award of the nation- Padma Vibhushan- in 2007. “He liked to call a spade a spade. He hated hypocrisy, fundamentalism, and was a gentle person,” son Rahul Singh said of his father.
Author Vikram Seth described him as “a fearless writer; a man of great discipline yet full of zest for life; a great Indian who embodied our national values of affection, tolerance and understanding; and a true friend.” And Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, in his tribute to the great author, wrote on Twitter, “A gifted author, candid commentator and a dear friend. He lived a truly creative life.” For me, it is a personal loss.
Back in 1995 when I launched a monthly English magazine “Punjab Beat” from Ludhiana, Punjab, I went to his Sujan Singh Park residence to seek his blessings. I vividly recall when I requested him to contribute to the magazine, he asked me to get back to him with dummies for 6 months and he would then consider whether or not to contribute. I learnt a lesson then that in the world of journalism you have to look beyond the present edition. Surely, the lesson learnt has stood me in good stead. Thank you, Khushwant for that lesson. I will miss you. Rest in peace, monarch of literature.