It was a fine winter afternoon of Delhi when I met Khushwant Singh at his home in a posh Delhi locality – Sujan Singh Park built by his wealthy contractor father Sir Sobha Singh - only to be shocked by a note pasted outside his house.
Though I don’t remember the words exactly, it said something to the effect that only friends or those who have prior appointments would be welcome and the rest should buzz off because they won’t be entertained.
Thankfully, we had an appointment and were politely shown into his spacious living room that had walls lined up with voluminous tomes and novels.
Reminiscing about our tete-e-tete years later, I remember how different Khushwant Singh turned out to be from what I had perceived him to be.
An absolutely thorough gentleman with a grandfatherly warmth, he had retained his good humour and spark despite his astonishingly vast breadth of knowledge and scale of work that he managed to produce in his 99 years.
With nearly 100 books under his belt, Khushwant Singh equally loved his weekly columns which cheekily spared none from his intentional “malice”. Appearing first in Illustrated Weekly and then Hindustan Times, both the papers whose Editor he had been at some time, these columns were widely followed and kicked up quite a few controversies.
A Times of India Editor had once told him that he had made “bullshit into an art form”, to which Khushwant Singh challenged him to try and emulate the same.
After meeting him one felt that some bit of his image as the “dirty old man,” who loved wine and women, was cultivated. Singh seemed to me to be straight forward and a well read person, who spoke his mind but enjoyed a dose of mischievous notoriety.
“I have never offended any woman in my life by giving her a compliment on her face and in front of her parents and husband,” he defended.
“Yes, I would like to be looked upon as a saintly figure....But I enjoy my drink, and as Ghalib said, he would have been a saint if he didn’t drink,” he had laughed.
There was also a very serious aspect to Khushwant Singh. Despite openly proclaiming to be a non-follower of any religious ceremony, he has written more about the history of Sikhs and translated more Sikh scriptures than any other Sikh author.
His dual personality, in a sense, went hand in hand. For example, it is a remarkable for a man who felt that his “History of Sikhs” would live on after him to have told his family not to have any religious ceremony after his death.
Khushwant Singh took his being a Sikh seriously though. He was, in his own words, “deeply hurt” when his son cut his hair, but openly told us that in the 21st century the community has no justification in continuing these symbols except for the fact that they bring a “sense of belonging” towards the community.
In equal measure, he felt that he did manage to make an impact on Sikhs and they listened to his advice, only because of the symbols he maintained.
“I am the only Sikh who openly criticised Bhindranwale at the zenith of his power....”
“I told Sikhs, Khalistan will be your funeral. Our future lies in this country. There can be no Khalistan. Khalistan over our dead bodies.... they listened to me because they felt I was one of them.”
Khushwant Singh banned journos in Hindustan Times from writing ‘Sant’ in front of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s name and called him “rustic and uncouth”.
Obviously, Bhindranwale took strong exception to this and had vowed to wipe out Khushwant Singh and his family.
On the other hand, his beliefs did not prevent him from returning his Padma Bhushan after Operation Bluestar.
“Mrs Indira Gandhi made a blunder of immense magnitude when she gave the go ahead of storming the Golden Temple and that too on the martyrdom day of the Sikh Guru associated with building the shrine.”
“She did so after giving an assurance in Parliament that she had no intention of moving in troops. I quoted an Urdu couplet in my speech – Wo waqt bhi dekha tariq ki ghadiyon ne, lamho ne khata ki thi, sadiyo ne saza payi. I warned that the country would pay a price for the mistake that Mrs Gandhi made in a few minutes. I was proved right,” he told us.
The second mistake, the author of ‘Train to Pakistan’ felt was the rioting that took places 1984. “It was not the people of Delhi who were the rioters. They were brought from outside with the singular objective of looting Sikhs. The police stood around doing nothing because they had instructions not to intervene.... this could have been nipped in the bud and controlled within 6 hours had the Army been called in.”
He then touched on the subject of how he had called up the then President Giani Zail Singh as mobs moved towards his home. “First the President refused to take my call as he was with people. Then his secretary came on phone and told me that Giani ji is advising you to take refuge in some Hindu friend’s house!..... As if I could not have done that myself.”
Despite these sore points and difference of opinion with the Gandhi family, Khushwant Singh remained very fond of Sanjay Gandhi. “He was young and had the vision but did not know how to carry through his agenda.”
Singh maintained till the last that Sanjay’s ideas like slum clearing and population control had his full endorsement, even if some measures could have been carried out differently.
Whether it was his candid opinions or deep knowledge, Khushwant Singh was a man who knew how to market himself well and not take himself too seriously... both at the same time.
Khushwant Singh woke up at 4:30 am and worked till 7:30 pm every day, after which he enjoyed the company of his friends and family and, of course, his Patiala peg.
He told us that he had absorbed the immense capacity of hard work from his father and sense of light heartedness from his mother.
Probably listening to his parents and imbibing the best of their traits was his mantra of success and long life.
May he enjoy the cheer that he spread in the world with his famous jokes, and be Khushwant(full of joy) wherever he may be...