In a novel, the writer sells the reader a story; in reportage, his or her powers of perception and analysis. In the realm of autobiography and memoir, it might be said, one sells oneself. The more dramatic one’s life experiences and the more divergent one’s beliefs from the mainstream of the culture, the more readers one wins. The writer Khushwant Singh, now 95, has always enjoyed the persona of a professional provocateur, as suggested by the very title of his widely syndicated column With Malice Towards One and All. The purpose behind his writing, he tells us in Absolute Khushwant, has always been “to inform, amuse, provoke”.
He certainly does so in his new book, an engaging, if somewhat uneven, collection of opinions and reminiscences on various subjects, transcribed by journalist Humra Quraishi. Long-time readers of Singh are unlikely to be surprised by any of his stances. He continues successfully to cast himself as part-monk and part-libertine, rising at 4am, working through the day, always keeping himself gainfully occupied, speaking truth to power and avoiding idle pursuits, while simultaneously enjoying his drink and his gossip sessions, keeping his sexual life alive in mind if not in the flesh, recalling his many affairs and vigorously contesting (while also clearly enjoying) his public image as a dirty old man, accepting it finally as the price to be paid for his candour. “Usually, writers are an interesting and colourful bunch,” he writes—and clearly, he has set out his stall to be the most interesting and colourful of them all.
This carries a certain charm, and certainly, the house of Indian literature (which at one point in the book is compared with a brothel) would be much duller without Singh’s two rooms, one for work and one for play.
Absolute Khushwant reads very much like—this is both its strength and its weakness—a string of quotable quotes pulled together for maximum impact. Dozens of subjects are raised, from the place of sex, marriage, work and solitude in life to secularism and communalism in politics to Partition and the persecution of Sikhs in 1984 and Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, but on most issues, the discussion ends abruptly just as matters are beginning to become interesting. Many contradictions arise, few of which are explored.
(Left) At a picnic with wife Kaval (left) and Sheila Bharat Ram. (Photo Courtesy Penguin India. Absolute Khushwant: Penguin,190 pages, Rs250
Stubbornly, Singh continues to defend his support of the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975, and indeed, the thuggery of her son Sanjay (“He had a vision and this was not really understood...He had been good to me. He put me in Parliament. Even Hindustan Times—it was he who called up (K.K.) Birla and told him to give me the editor’s job!”). This is to put personal relations over reason. “If (Sanjay) had lived, this country would not have been a democracy,” writes Singh. “There would have been order and faster development, but no democracy, of that I am sure.” This makes it harder to sympathize with Singh’s persistent agitation against the politics of Hindutva (“My present mission is to warn readers against the dangers posed by Hindu fundamentalists”). It seems reasonable to ask why democracy may be sacrificed for development, but not secularism. After all, Narendra Modi, though considered a murderer by Singh, too boasts of a record of “order and faster development”.
One of the most intriguing angles of the book is Singh’s view of sex, and of all those other aspects of and appendages to desire—love, marriage, companionship, family—that exist on the same continuum as sex while also being in tension with it, never quite working themselves out into a straight line. “If you ask me what’s more important, sex or romance, it’s sex,” he declares. “Romantic interludes take up a lot of time and are a sheer waste of energy, for the end result isn’t very much.”
Singh at his home in Sujan Singh Park, Delhi. Photograph courtesy Penguin India.
But even the road of sex only takes one so far for “sex with the same person can get boring after a while...you know, routine...A partner once bedded becomes a bore.” That would suggest a sexually fulfilled life is incompatible with the institution of marriage and its presumption of monogamy and sexual fidelity. As one season keeps giving way to the next, so—if one is really to be honest to oneself—must a sexual partner.
This is an interesting and perhaps quite logical (if somewhat disillusioned) view of desire, but here it is complicated, and in part explained, by Singh’s personal experience. In an essay on his wife, Singh writes that he was married for over 60 years and “It wasn’t a happy marriage”. In part this was because his wife got very close to another man “from the very beginning of the marriage, probably from the very first year.” “I felt I could no longer respond emotionally,” he confesses, “and had nothing left to give.”
There is something quite heartbreaking about this, and while many of Singh’s views on sex are refreshingly unorthodox and candid, it’s hard not to feel that they involve an element of compensation and rationalization that have to do with his own lacks and losses. Singh is a great admirer of old English poets (Tennyson, Edward Fitzgerald), even casting his translations of his beloved Urdu poets (whom he also quotes liberally in Absolute Khushwant) into a style and meter similar to theirs. So one might perhaps offer, as an alternative to his view of love and sex, William Blake’s view: “What is it men in women do require?/The lineaments of gratified desire./What is it women in men require?/The lineaments of gratified desire.”
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
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