His greatest virtue was that he was no hypocrite in a country of prudes ruled by the pieties of hypocrites
“Here lies one
who spared neither man nor God
Waste not your tears on him,
he was a sod
Writing nasty things
he regarded as great fun
Thank the Lord he is dead,
this son of a gun.”
self-written obituary in advance.*
Just prior to the 1975 Emergency, while posted as Counsellor at the Indian embassy in Paris, one day Vijay Kumar, Second Secretary came rushing after a protocol visit to Orly airport. He said that by the Air India flight Sardar Khushwant Singh had also come and was checked in at the Hilton Hotel. I had read his masterly book ‘The History of the Sikhs’ and also a somewhat naughty book, by those times ‘A train to Pakistan.’ I used to wonder if it was the same person who wrote the two books.
I telephoned Khushwant Singh and said that I was happy he was in Paris and invited him for dinner. He responded that he had come to participate in a seminar against Indian government’s policy. I said India was a free country. Next day I drove over to the hotel and fetched him to my flat on Boulevard Suchet, just across the Bios de Boulogne. Vijay Kumar and wife of the defence adviser also joined us for dinner.
After we settled down with a whiskey each, I requested him not to write anything about our conversation in his travelogue or articles as it would inhibit free discussion. After some persuasion he grudgingly agreed. We talked about the political situation in France and in India a general way. I then complained to him that he need not have embarrassed in his article, Ambassador TN Kaul, whom he sighted at a London theatre screening, ‘I am curious (Yellow)’, a soft porn film of that era. He said that Kaul whom he knew well was trying to avoid him and deserved to be exposed. I then took up the other story he had written about Ramesh Sanghvi after his death that he would be having a premier brand Scotch with Angel Gabriel in heaven in a somewhat derogatory way. I insisted that it was unfair to write such things about a person who could not respond. He grudgingly saw my point.
Ramesh Sanghvi and I had become good friends after his visit for the non-aligned summit in October 1964 at Cairo, where I was posted as assistant press attaché. During my transit stay over at Bombay on return to Delhi from my post in Algiers in end 1965, he took me over to his well-equipped posh flat. He was a very prosperous and successful bar at law and wrote on foreign affairs for the very popular weekly Blitz. We also met with his sick wife and his young sickly looking boy.
At the dinner, in spite of our insistence Khushwant Singh took just two whiskeys. His usual quota as I would learn later his flat across New Delhi's Khan Market. I am convinced that it was brag that he could out drink, when young. This is typical of many who believe that an ability to out drink is a sign of virility or manliness. Unfortunately, those who can often imbibe more than a few drinks could end up as alcoholic’s. After the dinner, at Khushwant Singh’s insistence; Vijay Kumar drove him back to the Hilton.
A few weeks later, Air India‘s airport manager at Orly, who had just received the latest copy of the Illustrated Weekly of India by AI flight, telephoned me excitedly and said that in Khushwant Singh’s column he has very favorably wrote about my welcome hospitality from someone he did not know. But what he had written about Vijay Kumar was not flattering. Soon Vijay Kumar was in my office afraid that Ambassador DN Chatterjee would be annoyed when he reads this. Khushwant Singh had written that Vijay Kumar had intentionally driven him via Bois the Boulogne, where ladies of the night display their wares until sunrise for those interested in such pleasures. In fact, Khushwant Singh had insisted that he be taken via the Bois. I assured Vijay Kumar not to worry, I will explain it to the ambassador, which I did soon, at which the ambassador expressed hope that nothing had been written about him.
A few months later I had gone to collect a senior external affairs official and Minister YB Chavan’s private secretary for a quiet dinner at my flat. The two requested permission and Chavan agreed as there was no program that evening. But to my great surprise Chavan exclaimed, oh Gajendra Singh, his hospitality is very well known. Quite apparently while many denied but most read the travel notes and articles by Khushwant Singh. Later we went to Lido nightclub, a done thing in those days by almost all visitors to Paris.
I then met him at National Defence College in New Delhi in 1976 where he had come to deliver a lecture.
I later got in touch with him when posted in Ankara for some material on my article, ‘Influence of Turkic languages in the evolution and development of Hindustani languages’, because I agree with him that both Urdu and Hindi have emerged out of Hindustan’s main language Hindustani. He did not provide much material, but he was very appreciative of the article and wrote back.
“Thanks for your scholarly thesis.... I read with renewed interest your paper on the influence of Turkish on our language....... a lot of erudition has gone into it - we can discuss it when you come to Delhi..... “S. Khushwant Singh”. He also suggested that I go over to some US institute to do a scholarly book on the subject.
Khushwant Singh also requested for some jokes about a tall well-built sturdy community of Turkish citizens mostly resident along the Black Sea, but like the Sikhs of India have rustic sense of humor, are great builders, drinkers and dancers too. I did send him some material, which he used and thanked me.
As for Khuswant Singh’s travels around the world, when I sent him my ‘Travelogue to Timbuktu’, in 1990s he wrote back, as usual, a short hand written almost illegible note, “It exists! I thought it was a verbal expression.”
At the end of my diplomatic career in Ankara in 1996, I stayed abroad for almost 12 years as a freelance journalist. But sometimes during my visits to India, I went over to him for a drink or two and met with some of usual friends and others who visited him for publicity. He never took more than two drinks after a couple visits or so I would always carry a bottle of whiskey, otherwise he was quite capable of writing that I went over to drink his whiskey.
Apart from self-publicity, many who dropped at his flat were sure that he would write about them. That was okay, but then he even wrote about those who brought him butter, mangroves and other things. I wrote that this did not behove him. He did not reply, but I did not notice any such things later on.
Whatever else you might say about him, he was a real brave writer, calling a spade a spade, courageous, but not greatly gifted as most of his writings are of not of great literary value. Yes he was an excellent journalist who provided lot of discussion, gossip and entertainment. Like many of his generation, say Kuldip Nayar, he used to write his articles and the get them typed. All his replies to my letters were written by him in almost illegible hand.
Yes, there will be better writers and even journalists but the Lord will not send down another one like Khushwant Singh.
* In June 1983, with my children Bulbul and Tinoo, I visited in north Romania along the border with Ukraine, a Merry Cemetery at Sapantsa, a small town. In 1935 a local wood-carver Stan Ion Patras started writing funny epitaphs on crosses. So every grave in the cemetery has blue cross with colorful painting and several witty verses about the life of the deceased.