Litterati recalls times with Khushwant

New Delhi: He is a man of all seasons, one who still enjoys an occasional peg, a plate of piping hot kebabs and stimulating social dos. At 95, writer-columnist Khushwant Singh still means many things to many people.

He has touched the lives of many with his wit, honesty, intelligence and flair for the gab and words.

For former minister of state for external affairs Shashi Tharoor, Khushwant Singh is "the man from the Illustrated Weekly in the late 1960s" while for Rajya Sabha member Mani Shankar Aiyar, Khushwant Singh was the reason to smile.

"It is not Khushwant Singh but what I discovered through him (homour) that matters the most to me," Aiyer said at the glittering launch of Khushwant Singh`s biography, "Absolute Khushwant" in the capital. The book has been published by Penguin-India.

Going down the memory lane, Aiyar said: "He encouraged a young female writer, Suneet Vir Singh, to co-author `Homage to Guru Gobind Singh`. I decided that the girl, Suneet Vir Singh who co-authored the volume with Khushwant Singh, was the right girl to get married to."

That book was published by Jaico Publishing House in 1966. And Mani Shankar Aiyar married Suneet Vir Singh Jan 4, 1973.

"The three qualities that sets him apart from the rest are fearlessness, the spirit of `ekla chalo re` (walk alone) and penetrating intelligence," Aiyar added.

Shashi Tharoor`s first brush with the genial writer came at the "age of 13".

"I started reading `The Illustrated Weekly of India` every week in 1969. But I met him 20 years later as an adult," Tharoor recalled.

"He wrote a generous review of my first book `The Great Indian Story`. I went to thank him -- and since then I dropped at his place off and on, enjoyed a drink or two and an occasional meal. He is an extraordinary man," Tharoor said.

Co-author of "Absolute Khushwant", Humra Quraishi said she was approached by Penguin-India to write the biography two years ago.

"I used to meet him once a week and he used to speak for at least half-an-hour in each session. We struck a rapport, he is a compassionate man. Once I took him to Lodhi Garden and he came across a poor man. The pain in his eyes was unbearable. Honesty and determination to complete a mission are his strengths," Quraishi said. She met the writer in the early 1980s.

Editor MJ Akbar, the astute journalist who built at least two media edifices, says he owes his career to Khushwant Singh.

"He picked me up as a trainee for The Times of India in 1970. He was a Gandhian. He opened fresh thought in the dead attic. He was a man with least malice," Akbar said.

For writer Leila Seth, mother of novelist Vikram Seth, "praise for son Vikram`s book `The Golden Gate` brought the two together".

"He phoned me after reading `The Golden Gate` and wanted to come over. He wanted to know the meaning of a particular word in the book -- an Americanism that I too did not know. That was in the `80s. Vikram is a fan of Khushwant Singh and vice versa...," she said.

Singh is optimistic at 95. "I have been fortunate that at 95 I am only just beginning to feel what Guru Nanak has written about (tired). ...These days I find that I need to rest more often...," he muses in his book.

Thoughts of death preoccupy his mind. "But I am not afraid to die," he is emphatic.

Born Feb 2, 1915, at Hadali (now in Pakistan), Khushwant Singh published his first book "Train to Pakistan" followed by "I shall Not Hear the Nightingale", "Delhi", "The Company of Women" and "Burial at Sea".

His non-fictional works include "A History of the Sikhs" and the autobiography, "Truth, Love and a Little Malice". He has also served as a member of parliament 1980-1986.



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