By: Neelima Dalmia Adhar
His mockery of death and devil-may-care handling of matters of life and god warrant only celebration.
It’s a large room filled with hundreds of books and artifacts, a pile of the day’s newspapers is stacked in a corner, a few scattered chairs, an old coffee table, a weathered recliner, a rocking chair, a red-brick fireplace with a crackling logwood fire and a man sitting beside it, sipping scotch and soda in a tall ice-filled glass. There’s a large oil canvas of a bare-breasted woman on the wall facing him.
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She has spent many winters looking upon the man who watches and admires her.
And that is the last memory I have of Khushwant Singh, that larger-than-life man, who worshipped female beauty, who was an ardent devotee of the sensuousness of the female body form, and who never shied away from proclaiming that life was meaningless unless you lived it with love and passion.
Singh was erudite, accomplished and perhaps the most read author India has known. Passionate about his work to a level of challenging perfection, he broke every rule in the book and lived up to his metaphor, unmindful of social mores, for he was a man who feared none. A staunch agnostic, he wrote his mind and spoke with a rare candour that defined his very being. Loved and abhorred with equal passion, his life reads like an open, racy novel that needs no elucidation.
Of the many evenings I spent in his living room at Sujan Singh Park while he nursed his scotch and soda, jibing me for being a useless teetotaler, I remember absorbing a wealth of knowledge merely by being there.
Singh and I had a peculiar connect. He had been the editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, the much-read magazine of my growing-up days when he had had many hilarious encounters with my father, R.K. Dalmia, the then owner of The Times of India.
Singh knew my father well. He often joked about his crazy encounters with “Sethji”, sprawled on a mattress on the floor in one of his three-acre mansions in Lutyens’ Delhi, engrossed in his hour-long oil massage by two skilled masseurs, holding meetings with his officers and visitors, dismissive about protocol. He regaled me with tales, not least of which was the story of my eldest stepbrother wooing his daughter with truckloads of roses and biscuits manufactured by a biscuit company owned by my father, and how chillingly close he came to becoming his samdhee before good sense prevailed and the romance, albeit one-sided, extinguished.
The first time I went to meet Singh in the winter of 2000 was with my unpublished manuscript of Father Dearest, which had been commissioned by my dear friend and mentor Namita Gokhale to be published by Roli Books. He scanned me through his bifocals with amused scrutiny and said, “Interesting! The life of Ramkrishna Dalmia? By his own daughter? Well well! I hope you haven’t deified him girl! Syrupy stories about loving fathers of spoilt children make me ill. That’s such a stupid Indian malaise. We just can’t break out of that holy grail. But, let me read it. I’ll call you when I’m done.”
Needless to say, I went home that day bursting with trepidation. Two days later, there was still no news from him. “He’s trashed it,” I panicked. I waited another agonising 24 hours before I picked up the phone to call.
His deep voice boomed. “Wait girl. I’m engrossed in the stock market just now.” (There is a detailed chapter on the rollercoaster experiences of RKD at the stock market in my book.) My heart raced. “But do you like it?” “Stop fishing, young lady. I’m totally gripped!”
As those much-coveted words sank in, I experienced the most euphoric moment of my life. For me, a fledgling writer, he had validated my work and my spirit, and I knew I had a bestseller on hand. He went on to write a blurb for my book, which he also mentioned in his widely read column in the Hindustan Times, “With Malice Towards One And All”.
Khushwant Singh was the man who wrote his own obituary some 30 years ago. His blatant mockery of death and his devil-may-care handling of all matters pertaining to life and god warrant only celebration. His passing on is no cessation of his omniscience.
To mourn his death at the glorious age of 99 years, a life that he lived giant-size, is indeed being irreverent to him.
A couplet by Allama Iqbal that he often recited is my tribute to his memory: Bagh-e-bahisht say mujhe hukme-safar diya tha kyon/ Kare jahan daraz hai, ab mera intezaar kar. Only the inimitable Singh could have held his chin petulantly up to the almighty and retorted, “Why did you send me out from the garden of paradise?/ I have work to finish, now you will have to wait for me!”
Adhar is author of the books ‘Father Dearest’ and ‘Merchants of Death’