One of India’s best-known authors and journalists, Khushwant Singh elevated English writing in India with uninhibited wit and humour and was equally facile with his pen on serious issues like partition in the classic ‘Train to Pakistan’.
He ruled the literary pages with his satirical take on contemporary issues but attracted controversy over what his critics called his obsession with writing on sex.
Easily switching roles between author, commentator and journalist, Singh wrote on as diverse issues as poetry and politics.
He began his dealings with media as information officer of the Government of India in Toronto and Canada and was Press attaché and public officer for the High Commission in the United Kingdom and the Embassy in Ireland in 1948-50.
Later he started his writing career with Yojana, the Planning Commission’s journal which he founded and edited.
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Singh left a mark in the field of journalism, working as editor of the now-defunct Illustrated Weekly of India, the National Herald and the Hindustan Times. His weekly column ‘With Malice Towards One and All’ was so popular that it was syndicated in many dailies till a few years ago when failing health checked his prolific writing.
Son of Sir Sobha Singh, a civil contractor and a prominent builder of Lutyens’ Delhi, Khushwant was born on February 2, 1915 in Hadali (now in Pakistan).
Singh, an outstanding novelist and a forthright political commentator, was nominated to Rajya Sabha by the government under late Indira Gandhi. He was a Member of Parliament from 1980 to 1986.
He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1974 but returned the decoration in 1984 in protest against the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar by the Army. In 2007, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian award in India.
Book lovers remember him for classics like “Train to Pakistan”, “I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale” and “Delhi – A Novel”. Singh kept on writing virtually till the end and at 95, he wrote the novel “The Sunset Club”.
Singh was known to wake up at 4 am each day and write his columns by hand. His works range from political commentary and contemporary satire to outstanding translations of Sikh religious texts and Urdu poetry.
His non-fiction includes the classic two-volume ‘A History of the Sikhs’, a number of translations and works on Sikh religion and culture, Delhi, nature, current affairs and Urdu poetry. His autobiography, ‘Truth, Love and a Little Malice’ was published by Penguin Books in 2002.
Singh had done his schooling from Modern School in Delhi and later studied at St Stephen’s College here before moving to the Government College in Lahore. He also studied at King’s College in Cambridge University.
He practiced law at the Lahore High Court for several years before joining the Ministry of External Affairs in 1947. He had married Kawal Malik in 1939 and has son Rahul and daughter Mala. Malik had died in 2001.
Besides being honoured with the Padma Vibhushan, he received the Punjab Ratan, the Sulabh International award for the most honest Indian of the year, and honorary doctorates from several universities.