Inder Malhotra recalls a story Khushwant Singh loved to tell. Seeing him return from law studies in England, to the presumably hectic and distracted social whirl of pre-Partition Lahore, folks would ask his iconic builder father, Sobha Singh, what course he’d actually done. “I don’t know what course he passed,” he would reply in Punjabi, “but he passed a lot of time.”
Sobha Singh was obviously being colloquially offhanded, but could he have known that he had composed the most apt epitaph for his son’s unlikely literary career? In decades spent excelling at making – mostly, making up – his profile sufficiently controversial to keep everyone interested, Khushwant Singh’s writing is a tutorial in how to pass time by being of one’s time and place.
The endeavour got him on the controversial side often, most notably in his fervent editorial support to the Emergency (and specifically to Sanjay Gandhi), but his writing career was an attempt to not look away from the present, and to employ all his guile to get readers to stay on the same page as him. To this end, he would spice up accounts of his exploits, pretending to be incorrigibly debauched and addicted to gossip, even though his highly disciplined schedule too was the stuff of legend (early morning to the writing perch, drink at seven, dinner at eight, and good night at nine).
He’d have time for anyone who’d come calling, and, in season, copious quantities of fresh phalsa juice, but only, by appointment, please. He would produce great scholarship, by way of fiction and non, but he’d remain the aam aadmi’s favourite weekend distraction, with columns (and later books) of “Khushwant jokes”. Why, he’d get all of India to try to compete with him, and there is an archival exercise awaiting sociologists in picking trends in the bagfuls of jokes that would arrive in the mail. He could be brilliant, and also not, but you could always find someone who liked a particular piece of writing. So, you had to say, he did pass his time well.
In his autobiography Truth, Love & A Little Malice, he pins the start of his writing career to his resolve to stop his friend, civil servant Mangat Rai, from showing off too much (importantly, also to Khushwant’s glamorous wife Kaval) at literary soirees in his Lahore flat.
But it would be Partition that would firmly detach him from Lahore and his legal ambitions, and towards writing. Singh, not incidentally to the symmetric arc of his life story, did not know the exact date of his birth in 1915 in Hadali in the shadow of the Khewra Salt Range. He decided on the date August 15 as the likely one, and went on to write a landmark novel about the social and political ruptures of Partition, Train to Pakistan. Malhotra, who’d discuss Saadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh with him, marvels at the “complexities of the relationship he foretold then”. (“It’s no good!” the kind lady who typed it out for him had said. “No one is going to publish it.” Singh had the foresight too to submit the book, pre-publication, for a literary prize under a pseudonym because Krishna Menon was a judge. He won.)
Along with the grand The History of the Sikhs and his fictional biography of the capital city, Delhi, Train to Pakistan claims Singh’s space as a pre-eminent figure in Indian letters. But as Malhotra remembers, that status is burnished enormously on account of Singh’s courage to stand up, real-time, to extremism of every sort – in fact, he stresses, Singh was the “only Sikh intellectual” to criticise Bhindranwale in his glory days.
Malhotra also remembers telling Singh that he would not like to pass away before him, given his way of listing both the good and the bad of the departed person in obituaries. Weighing him thus just on literary terms, it can be asked if Khushwant Singh wrote too much. Of course, he did. But if he didn’t, he would not have been the man was, a mentor to aspiring writers and publishers, a guide to anyone who sought him out, till the last, a grateful recipient of unsolicited jokes and an engaged reviewer of the next new thing in literature, and always counsel for the need to laugh a bit and not take oneself too seriously. All in all, time very well passed. And all this before you take into account his contribution to journalism.