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Age Cannot Whither Khushwant Singh
|by Humra Quraishi|
Khushwant Singh is, of course, a well-known name. But what makes him unique is that, today, he is possibly India’s oldest working journalist. At 95 he works as if he is still in his forties, producing two weekly columns, an assortment of book reviews, and books at regular intervals. Recently, I co-authored a book with him entitled, ‘Absolute Khushwant’. But that’s not all. His next novel is expected to hit the stands before the year ends. Here is a man who continues to engage with the world: Read, write, and speak out.
The first time I met Khushwant was in the early eighties, when he was the editor-in-chief of ‘The Hindustan Times’ in Delhi. I was looking for a job. Polite as always, he offered me tea and cookies. The job, however, was not forthcoming! Much later, we were to meet again. This time I had a job – and I had been assigned to do a feature on celebrity bedrooms. Without taking a prior appointment, I went over to Khushwant’s apartment situated at Sujan Singh Park, just a short distance from Delhi’s India Gate which, incidentally, was constructed by his grandfather, Sir Sobha Singh. Introducing me to his wife, Kaval, he took me on a tour of his home. Every little detail was carefully recounted, each piece of furniture - each chair, sofa, bed - accounted for. So honest and evocative was this account, that I began to see the home in a new light and came to realise the central role it played in his life. There are, as a teenager may put it, good vibes about the place that you can sense the moment you enter the front door.
That encounter was the beginning of a friendship. In moments of crisis, I have always turned to him and he has never failed to help. Although he has a lot to say, Khushwant never lectures anybody. Nor does he lay down lists of dos and don’ts. But he relays – in a very subtle way – the significance of loyalty in any given relationship and friendship, the value of time, and the value of hard work, or “slogging”, as he puts it. Besides this, he has the courage to bare the stark reality. He has never believed in pulling his punches in his writing, and there is no contradiction between what he thinks and what he writes. In fact, this courage, I believe, is his central attribute, a quality that is rare to find in today’s times.
There are other aspects about Khushwant that get forgotten in the general aura of his distinguished career as a journalist. The man is child-like, often even a little too spontaneous, in his reactions. This probably explains that impish look about him that is still discernible. He is frank without being rude. He may write a weekly column entitled, ‘With Malice Towards One and All’, but he displays no malice in real life. In all these years I have never heard him being rude to, or aggressive with, anyone. No not even to those who barge into his home uninvited and linger much beyond 8 pm, the ‘bottoms-up’ time at his place! If someone says anything hurtful, he could look upset, but he responds by just withdrawing into himself or simply moving away. In fact, I have heard him have arguments with guests but never does he utter a word in anger, or take on an aggressive stance.
The treatment one accords to those to whom one is not required to be deferential is really the hallmark of a person. Khushwant has unfailingly been polite and gentle with his staff. In all these years, he and Kaval have never sacked a domestic help. To this day, his elderly cook, Chandan Singh, continues to be around as a part of the family. A few years ago, when Kaval was struck by the Alzheimer’s disease, a nurse was employed to help the family care for her. Khushwant would always make sure that the nurse, who happened to be a Muslim, was given snacks and fruits when she broke her ‘roza’ (fast) during the month of Ramazan and he would always ensure that she ate well at ‘sehri’ (the pre-dawn meal before the ‘roza’ began).
Even at his home in Kasauli (Himachal Pradesh) I have seen him interact not just with the cook and gardener but their families as well in an extremely gentle and caring way. This explains, I suppose, why they in turn are so much at ease while interacting with him. On the two or three occasions when we had walked to the Kasauli market together, the shopkeepers were always delighted to see him he would make sure that he dropped in at each of their shops to exchange pleasantries. Even in Delhi I have had occasion to accompany to Khan market, which is in the neighbourhood. Both shoppers and shopkeepers alike would stop to greet him and exchange a word or two. It was the same at the Lodi gardens, where Khushwant used to walk regularly. The other walkers would invariably mill around him on these occasions, but he would never loose his cool or look impatient.
Khushwant does not come across as a particularly emotional man, but in fact he is emotional. Some years ago when Minoo Bhandara – a former member of Pakistan’s National Assembly and brother of writer, Bapsi Sidhwa, visited his Delhi home carrying some recent photographs of his ancestral home in village Hadali, now in Pakistan, tears welled up in his eyes as he gazed at those pictures. Similarly, news of the death of old friends make him visibly upset. Two years ago, Bhandara died in a tragic car accident. It took Khushwant a long while to get over it. In an obituary he wrote on Bhandara, he noted that “Minoo’s death has been a personal loss”. He then added, “With all my Pakistani friends from my Lahore days now resting in their graves, he was my last remaining link with a country I call my ‘watan’ — my homeland. That link has been snapped.”
But that is Khushwant. If he is a friend he will always be there for you, even beyond the grave. For instance, he always made it a point to visit the home of an old friend, Prem Kirpal, almost on a weekly basis. When the late theatre personality, Balwant Gargi, was going through a particularly difficult time financially, Khushwant made sure that he was around to help. Gargi once told me about how “Sardar sahib” had helped him financially for several years.
Khushwant may be a self-proclaimed atheist but he has, perhaps, done more for the Sikh community than any other Sikh of this century. He has written extensively on the Sikh faith and community, volumes upon volumes. About nine years ago, while we were in the midst of a discussion, he asked me whether I had been inside a ‘gurdwara’ (Sikh temple). When I answered that I had not, he exclaimed, “You haven’t been inside a gurdwara!” The very next week he made arrangements for me to visit one. At the same time, Khushwant has little patience with religious fundamentalists, or “fundoos”, as he calls them. He regards rising communal tensions as one of the biggest dangers facing India today.
Khushwant continues to “slog”, following a very strict routine of waking up early and working through the day. In fact, most of his waking hours are spent in writing or reading, with just an hour’s break – between 7 pm to 8pm – when he delights in the company of friends. Today, at 95, he continues to be the picture of grit, fearlessness, determination, celebrating life in a manner that only he can.
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