The country is grieving the death of its celebrated Indo-Anglian novelist Khushwant Singh. He was 99 and passed away on March 20. Here’s a look at his story: On February 2, 1915, Khushal Sobha Singh was born in Delhi.
When boys his age would mock his name, Khushal Singh would grow frustrated. He finally decided to change his name to ‘Khushwant Singh’. As a young boy, Khushwant would often be thrown out of class for his mischief. He despised mathematics and did not follow much of English either.
After having terrible days at school, he would return home to find solace in his grandmother’s lap. It probably had something to do with the pro masculine society that India abides by, where the children are traditionally seen to be more emotionally connected to the women of the house rather than the men. His father Sobha Singh was a wealthy man. Having constructed huge villas in Delhi and other prominent areas, Sobha Singh had laid down a fairly comfortable future for his children.
Khushwant Singh, shifted to Lahore for his further studies. It was during this time that he fell in love with music. His drive to learn the Sitar, urged him to move to Kolkata. It was here that he met Rabindranath Tagore. He soon had to leave for London, where he would further pursue Law. When in London, he met his childhood friend Kawal Malik. She was a fair, carefree woman who soon caught his fancy. Before he knew it, they were courting and were married too. When he returned to India, he started practising law. The evil turn of events in India before Independence, took their toll on him.
He started despising the subject. He would often turn to Kasauli for a break from his saddening life. This is where his romance with creativity and writing started. Soon his heart was set. He finally bid farewell to Lahore and decided to settle down in Kasauli itself. Khushwant Singh was fortunate to have encapsulated the entire event of the Indian Independence. Soon after independence, he was called by Mohammad Ali Jinnah to Lahore. Jinnah promised to make him a judge at the court there but Khushwant Singh refused. He was provided a job to work with the Indian embassy at London.
However, some unfortunate incidents lead to him giving in his resignation. He soon became the mock of the country. His parents criticized him. He soon jumped jobs. He was given names, people also went to the extent of calling him a communist. However each time, his father was his saviour. He was also a member of the Rajya Sabha from 1980 to 1986. His work was largely inspired by his own life. It is said to have had so much spice, that Khushwant never felt the need to look elsewhere for inspirations. Times changed and Khushwant Singh started writing with vigour. His first book ‘Mark of Vishnu and other stories’ was published in London. His account of his grandmother in the book ‘Portrait of a lady’, remained his personal favourite. He also managed to write another influential book ‘Mano Majra’. This was a documentation of the Indo-Pakistan separation. It was later published as ‘A Train to Pakistan’. How much ever he would write, the monetary returns dissatisfied him.
His constant dependence on his family, depressed him further. This is when he took to Sikhism. His research on the community, laid the thesis for his books in the series ‘The History of Sikhs’. He turned into a scholar over night and universities all over the world started inviting him for delivering speeches and seminars. He later joined the Illustrated Weekly of India. It was during this tenure that the Weekly reached its peak. The circulations increased manifold. However, exactly a week before his retirement the weekly asked him to leave, thus terminating his employee-ship with the company He also worked with National Herald and The Hindustan Times. “Khushwant Singh may seem like a carefree man, but he was as conservative as his own ancestors,” says Rahul Singh, his son. He would not attend Gurudwaras or even chant his prayers.
He made fun of astrologers and superstitions too. However, he believed in his faith. He felt extremely responsible and attached to the Sikh community. He was a shy man, always trying to hide away his true colours from the society. Khushwant, often would be portrayed as a lover of wine and woman. However that was just a façade. Khushwant Singh was as rooted to his family, as he was to his passion. His love and respect for his wife was so intense that he vow to shun writing after his wife’s death. However, his romance with his pen was more intense than that with his wife. He continued to write and amuse the masses.
Today as the world mourns his death, we take a look at his masterpieces.
1. Mark of Vishnu and other stories: It was the first boom to be written by Khushwant Singh. It is an account of his childhood days and largely draws inspirations from his life.
2. The History of Sikhs: It was a series of two books which spoke of the Sikh religion like never before. He spent three years to write these books and is yet believed to be one of the best works of Khushwant Singh.
3. Train to Pakistan: It is a documentation of the Indo- Pakistan separation. It is one of his celebrated works.
4. The Company of Women: The Khushwant Singh novel “The Company of Women” was considered to be a work reeking with explicit sex, infidelity and questions of the trust and sensuality.
5. Delhi: A novel: This novel was probably the best reflection of Singh’s life as a writer. Though replete with fictional elements, one cannot help but draw heavy comparisons with his own. It traces the journey of a journalist in Delhi and his rendezvous with the city and its offerings.
Khushwant Singh is a story untold. His life remains just as interesting as his literary works. His jokes, his love for poetry and his magnificent style and splendour continues to captivate millions, yet making millions fall in love with a man named Khushwant Singh.
LIFE AND TIMES
1915: Born on 2nd February 1915 in Hadali District Khushab, Punjab (which now lies in Pakistan), in a Sikh family.
1934-1938: The Modern School, New Delhi; St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi; Government College, Lahore, B.A. 1934: King’s College, London, LL.B. 1938: Called to the bar, Inner Temple, London.
1938: He began his legal career on the eve of the Second World War and spent eight years practising law at the High Court of Lahore.
1939-47: Practicing lawyer, High Court, Lahore.
1947: In 1947 he entered the diplomatic service of a newly independent India and served his country for four years in London and Ottawa.
1947-51: Press attache, Indian Foreign Service, in London and Ottawa.
1951: He joined All India Radio in 1951 as a journalist.
1954-56: Staff member, Department of Mass Communications, Unesco, Paris.
1956-58: Editor, Yojna, an Indian government publication, New Delhi.
1956: His first novel, Train to Pakistan, has been in print since 1956.
1969-78: Editor, Illustrated Weekly of India, Bombay.
1974: In 1974 he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award, which he returned in 1984 in protest against the siege of the Golden Temple by the Indian Army.
1978-79: Editor-in-chief, National Herald, New Delhi.
1980-83: Editor-in-chief, Hindustan Times and Contour, both New Delhi.
1980: He was a member of the Rajya Sabha from 1980 to 1986.
1999: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lost the Lok Sabha election from South Delhi in 1999 but he immediately returned Rs.2 lakh he had taken from writer Khushwant Singh for hiring taxis saying he had not used it; This act of Dr. Singh’s integrity finds a mention in a new book “Absolute Khushwant: The Low-Down on Life, Death and Most things In-between” in 2010
2006: Punjab Rattan for Khushwant Singh by Government of Punjab.
2007: He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award.
2013: Khushwant Singh feted with lifetime achievement award by Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest.
2014: In recognition of his exceptional achievements in the fields of literature and journalism, King’s College London has awarded esteemed alumnus Khushwant Singh a Fellowship of the College, its highest honour. The award was given by Professor Sir Rick Trainor, Principal and President of King’s College London at a private ceremony at Mr Singh’s home in Delhi on January 12, also attended by Professor Sunil Khilnani.
2014: Died on March 20.