Delhi’s prominent citizens famously “need no introduction” — these being the words prefacing elaborate introductions at every public function.
Khushwant Singh, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 99, did one better — he needed no obituary.
He had written one for himself well in advance: “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.” (Death at my Doorstep, Roli Books).
Until he stopped his column ‘With Malice to One and All’ two years ago, Khushwant Singh had served as the obituarist of his generation too. Notices and personal reminiscences about the good, the bad and the ridiculous who were departing this world sat unselfconsciously among the regular fare of pointed political and social criticism, engaging trivia, plugs for India’s wandering bands of artists and writers on the make and the latest thigh-slapping, hand-shaking ethnic humour from Delhi’s clubs and bars.
Widely syndicated, collected in book form and read by lakhs of people, the column was perhaps more influential than Singh’s other work. He will certainly be remembered for academic and creative writing like a History of the Sikhs (OUP, 1963) and Train to Pakistan (Chatto & Windus, 1956), but he loved the reach of media and used jokes to soften up the reader for a dose of subversive commentary.
But Singh is now identified as a writer first and a journalist afterwards. Perhaps because the Illustrated Weekly of India is long defunct and his contribution to the remaking of Indian media forgotten.
During Singh’s tenure at the helm of the magazine, its circulation is said to have increased seven times over to 400,000 and it became prominently visible in English-reading homes. Among Singh’s innovations was a page of jokes, cartoons and a glamour photograph which looked like it belonged in The Sun.
Paradoxically, in the same period, the Weekly remained a venue noted for publishing quality contemporary poetry, fiction, essays and photography. Singh clearly saw no conflict in this paradox. Neither did readers, and they voted with their subscriptions.
In 1981, Singh wrote of the change wrought in his tenure, 1969-1978: “What was a four-wheeled Victoria taking well-draped ladies out to eat the Indian air I made a noisy, rumbustious, jet-propelled vehicle of information, controversy and amusement…till the Illustrated did become a weekly habit of the English-reading pseudo-elite of the country.” Note the barb in the tail, coined a decade before “pseudo-secular”.
Indeed, Singh was a creature of paradox. Along with his brassy humour — which he celebrated by proclaiming that condoms are not designed to fit a pen — his hallmark was the gift of self-deprecation.
In one of his most memorable columns, he wrote of hate mail received from an irate Punjabi in Canada. The letter, written in Gurmukhi, accused him of various incestuous excesses. The envelope bore his address in English, though: “Bastard Khushwant Singh, India”. In the column, Singh applauded the postal service for the indefatigable diligence with which it had delivered this letter to his address in Sujan Singh Park, Delhi.
Khushwant Singh lived in an estate named after his grandfather and built by his father Sobha Singh, who was a prominent landowner and one of the contractors who built Lutyens’ Delhi, but that never went to his head. Perhaps he had become an anachronism in the world of modern opinion-makers, who take themselves in deadly earnest and are sedulously mindful of their stature. But he helped to create the constantly shifting opinion cloud that is the mark of modern media, lit by the heat-lightning of tweets and posts.
In real life, Khushwant Singh was nothing like Mario Miranda’s caricature that went with his column, a man whose creature comforts were a bottle of Scotch, a girlie magazine and a pile of books. He had sided immoderately with Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency, yet returned his Padma Bhushan in protest against the armed assault on the Golden Temple in 1984, and castigated L K Advani for sowing hatred with the Rathyatra.
A devastating loose cannon, he needed a persona that played harmless, like that caricature. Finally, it was the delicate art of self-deprecation that let him say almost anything and get away unscathed, all his charmed life.