Growing up in my cantonment town, it was Khushwant Singh’s weekly column that revealed the world to me. I was seven years of age when my father started passing on the newspaper to me with the instruction that I read his column, it would improve my English. Same with the Illustrated Weekly of India – that cheeky, salty newsmagazine with its defining cartoons that was helmed by Khushwant Singh for several years – the reading of which was prescribed to hone English language skills. Over the years I was to discover his other avatars…
I came late to ‘Train to Pakistan’ – the historical novel published in 1956 which tells the monumental story of India’s division through the lives of residents of Mano Majra, a village located on the border between India and Pakistan – during a career sabbatical in early 2001. It taught me more about the partition of the subcontinent than my cumulative history lessons. His ‘Train to Pakistan’ inspired me to write my own ode to that land of shifting alluvium and loyalties. Over the seven years that I wrestled with The Long Walk Home, the first fictional examination of the 20th century history of Punjab, his 2-volume ‘A History of the Sikhs’ was my constant companion.
The narrative arc of The Long Walk Home starts pre-Partition and comes all the way to the present. The research took me deep into an understanding of the Sikh faith, its origin and growth, where his ‘A History of the Sikhs’ was my veritable Bible.
Upon the book’s publication in July 2009, I was very keen to meet with Khushwant Singh and my editor tried to arrange a meeting. However, as luck would have it, Mr Singh had retreated to Simla as he did habitually to avoid the summer heat. I rued that missed opportunity to meet the man who had strongly influenced my writing. When a week later, I chanced upon his review of my book in his weekly column – Literary star on the horizon – I collapsed with disbelief! After Mr Singh’s review, could any other really matter?
Come 2012 and my third novel, The Taj Conspiracy, was released in June. The book’s cover carries a blurb from Khushwant Singh: a gifted writer of great promise. The Delhi launch was scheduled for 7 June. Once again, I was seeking an opportunity to connect with him, if possible, for Mr Singh, at 98 years, had practically retired from public life though he continued to write daily and his weekly column was syndicated across several Indian newspapers. But I was to get lucky.
The day passed in some kind of surreal haze as I met retailers and booksellers before heading to Sujan Singh Park, the residential complex built by Khushwant Singh’s father, where he lives. As I entered his living area, a high-ceilinged cavernous room lined with books, I sighted him in one corner, grey and hoary in his armchair from which he watched us approach.
Thereafter, we conversed for a half hour, in a mix of Punjabi and English, and few conversations before this have packed so much in such little time. We discussed Ghalib, jointly recited Bulleh Shah, chatted about the ’62 Indo-China war, Hong Kong people and HK cuisine, family, memory, Sikh Gurus, sohni kudis and old men! Always the gracious host, he offered to serve me whiskey – it was late noon, I had a book launch that evening, and with great regret, I declined. The grace notes of that mellow afternoon in his study will always stay with me.
I requested him to sign my copy of The Taj Conspiracy. Sign it he did, with the Sikh blessing: charhadi kala vich raho. Have a buoyant spirit!
As a fellow Punjabi and Sikh, he cast a towering shadow over me at an impressionable age. When I met him finally, he lived up to every impression I had of him. A man of great joie de vivre, sly wit, erudite, with a phenomenal memory. He was supportive of younger writers and generous with his time. A natural raconteur, he was stimulating company.
A journalist asked me what his greatest achievement is? I believe it is his legacy of passionate, fearless, incisive writing – something that is especially relevant in today’s environment of bans and stifled discourse. In that, he is one with the legendary Ghalib, a poet he much admired and quoted. I remember, as I took leave of him, his parting gift to me was a Ghalib shayr:
Rau mein hai raksh-e-umar kahaan dekhiye thamey,
Na haath baag par hai na pair hai rakaab mein.
Age travels at galloping pace; who knows where it will stop,
We do not have the reins in our hands nor our feet in the stirrups.
(Translation by Khushwant Singh)