Home / Specials / Obituaries /  Khushwant Singh, author of unique wit, dies at 99

New Delhi: At 95, he wrote The Sunset Club, a novel about three friends in their 80s who spend the evenings in Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens talking about love, lust, sex and scandal towards the end of their lives. At 98, he published Khushwantnama: The Lessons of My Life, ruminating on a life lived fully and the lessons it taught him.

Perhaps they pointed to a premonition he felt of his own death. On Thursday, Khushwant Singh, the author, scholar and journalist known for an irreverent, wicked sense of humour, died less than a year before he would have been 100 years old. He was born on 2 February 1915, at Hadali in Punjab, now in Pakistan.

To friends and fellow journalists, the lasting image of Khushwant Singh will be of him holding court with a glass of Scotch in one hand and a pen in the other.

But there was much more to the man than his love of drink, female company and the good life in general, or even his reign as the editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India and New Delhi—both magazines that don’t exist anymore—or the newspapers Hindustan Times and National Herald.

For an editor who came under fire for backing Indira Gandhi during the Emergency rule in 1975-77 when she gagged the media and suspended civil liberties, Khushwant Singh showed an unsuspected rebellious streak when he, in 1984, returned the Padma Bhushan that had been awarded to him 10 years prior.

That was in protest against Operation Bluestar, the June 1984 army assault ordered by Gandhi to flush out Sikh militants holed up inside Amritsar’s Golden Temple, the holiest of Sikh shrines.

He eventually made his peace with the establishment. A Member of the Rajya Sabha from 1980 to 1986, he was decorated with the Padma Vibhushan in 2007.

“There was nothing petty or insecure about Khushwant; unlike other famous Indians, he welcomed jokes at his own expense, and criticism too," tweeted writer Ramachandra Guha as news of Khushwant Singh’s death spread.

Clearly, if there was one thing that defined Khushwant Singh, it was his outrageous sense of humour, often, at his own expense. A skilful raconteur, he once had his audience in splits by narrating a tale (in chaste Punjabi) of how he mollified a young child in a swimming pool, petrified at the sight of his (Khushwant Singh’s) vast frame and flowing hair, by offering him a banana.

He was also known for his skills as an editor and for the bonds he forged with his fellow workers and readers.

“He was an outstanding editor of his time," said Vinod Mehta, author and editorial chairman of the English news weekly Outlook. “He knew how to strike a great rapport with his readers. He was a brave and courageous man who risked his life and took on Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the leader of a Sikh religious group."

Ironically, Khushwant Singh, whose scholarly treatise A History of the Sikhs won him international acclaim, was an atheist who also wrote Agnostic Khushwant: There is no God, published in 2012, in which he argued for either re-orienting religion or scrapping it—something completely unpalatable to believers.

Mehta’s association with Khushwant Singh began in 1972, when Mehta was editor at Debonair and Singh worked for The Illustrated Weekly in Mumbai.

“I used to send him the centre-folds for the magazine before they got printed. He liked women with big boobs. When he saw actress Katy Mirza on the centre-fold of Debonair, he wanted to meet her. I arranged their meeting and they got along famously," Mehta said over the phone in Delhi. Founded in 1971, Debonair was an Indian men’s magazine modelled after Playboy.

Singh was also a nature lover and bird enthusiast. Tweeted Guha: “Khushwant was known for his love of whisky, but in fact he loved nature more."

He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the many trees in New Delhi, often pointing them out to younger colleagues who rode with him in his car.

Singh’s loyalty to the Gandhi family still attracts criticism. “Khushwant’s stupidest act was to support Sanjay and Maneka Gandhi," tweeted Guha, but he added “This we can forget, and remember his books, his warmth, his generosity.

A prolific writer with over 80 books to his credit, Khushwant Singh always encouraged first-time writers. When Vineet Khanna, a paraplegic whom Singh had befriended and dubbed ‘the Baba Amte of Chandigarh’ for his social work, wrote his first book of poetry published by the Writers Workshop, he wrote a moving foreword for it, besides mentioning it in his weekly column.

When he wrote Khushwantnama… last year, he presented the first copy to Prime Minister’s Manmohan Singh’s wife Gursharan Kaur at a private ceremony. Millions of his fans still remember his classics like Train to Pakistan, I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale and Delhi: A Novel.

Singh attended elite schools and colleges in India and abroad including King’s College, London, where he studied law. The post-colonial English author was also well versed in Urdu and had a couplet ready for every occasion.

Singh’s father Sir Sobha Singh was a builder and contractor who built Sujan Singh Park, the residential neighbourhood where Khushwant Singh lived.

He remained till the end a brilliant editor with a sharp eye for an errant typo, something that students from his alma mater Modern School in New Delhi, who were taken to meet him a few years ago, noticed when they asked him to write something for the school book.

Often invited to address gatherings and play chief guest at events, Singh would get bored with stilted formality and look around for interesting people in the audience.

His punctuality and sense of discipline were legendary. Those who worked with him say he would be in office on the dot but he valued his personal time, and rarely missed going home for lunch and a short siesta when he edited a magazine in Delhi.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called him “a gifted author, candid commentator and a dear friend".

“He lived a truly creative life," he tweeted.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, too, took note of his passing.

“My condolences on passing away of noted author & journalist Khuswant Singh. May his soul rest in peace," Modi said.

Interestingly, the author did not believe in “rebirth or in reincarnation, in the day of judgement or in heaven or hell".

“I accept the finality of death."

In his book Absolute Khushwant: The Low-Down on Life, Death and Most Things In-Between, he wrote: “I believe in the Jain philosophy that death ought to be celebrated... In fact, I’d written my own epitaph years ago:

“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."

Vidhi Choudhary contributed to this story.

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