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Khushwant Singh: Salaam to the Sardaar

Khushwant Singh: Salaam to the Sardaar

by HUMRA QURAISHI July 27 2020, 1:18 am Estimated Reading Time: 15 mins, 24 secs

Humra Quraishi writes about the many conversations she had with Sardaar Khushwant Singh. 

Khushwant Singh celebrated his birthday twice every year -  on February 2nd and on 15th August. He was born in the year 1915, at village Hadali in undivided Punjab.

Here’s the reason why he celebrated two birthdays in his own words, “My father was certain I was born at the start of  spring, so  February 2nd was my birthday date by his command. But my  paternal grandmother was  more than sure that I was  born in the  midst of  bhandon (monsoons), so  August 15th became my second birthday!”

There was something so refreshingly different about Khushwant.

For one, he lived life on his own terms. He spoke fearlessly. His writing was consistent and there were no contradictions there, no hypocrisy - nor was his writing complicated with modern day confusions. Until the end he hadn’t  bought  a  computer for himself and nor did he appoint a secretary or hold a  mobile phone in his hand. He would say, “Mere  bas  ka  naheen   hai  yeh  sab (not my thing). I’m  happy  writing  on a  note  pad”. And, he 'd  moan when  one  of  his friends gifted him gadgets - he would reject them and prefer to deal with basics.

Over the three decades that I interacted with him, I’d understood him to be childlike and spontaneous. His eyes had a boyish look and more often than not, he didn’t need to speak. We were able to tell so much about what he felt emotionally from the way he would respond to things through his eyes.

What would you say to a man who wrote for hours and hours a day? He gave no sermons and he never wasted time in gossip. No facades, no biases, no lies or deceit. He detested people who were communal and corrupt.

Khushwant was a good friend of mine. Even at the cost of sounding clichéd I would say that he was doston ka dost and yaaron ka yaar! He would do anything for his friends. When his close friend Prem Kirpal was alive, Khushwant would make it a point to visit him every week.

I'd accompany him often and although Prem Kirpal was stone deaf he would welcome us with a smile and then his hospitality would follow. And, when Khushwant announced that it was time for him to leave, Kirpal would look sullen. This friendship remained above and beyond the fact that Khushwant had written several provocative pieces on Kirpal's bachelor-hood. But then, there was a rapport there and a precious connect between the two.

Khushwant helped many of his friends but he never spoke about it. The renowned theatre personality Balwant Gargi, had told about the financial crisis he had once gone through and that there was only one person in the capital city who had helped him out. He had said, "The only person who helped me was Sardar Khushwant sahib. He paid my electricity and telephone bills. And he did it discreetly."

I'm certain that the patients who came to New Delhi’s Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital from faraway places for their treatment, would not have known of Khushwant's role in the building of a modern, well-equipped homestay (Dharamsala) for their caregivers. The Sir Sobha Singh Project came about because Khushwant persisted. He was determined that he would have it established as a part of the hospital. He did charity work – he followed Sikh philosophy that one-tenth of your earnings should go to the disadvantaged; a philosophy Khushwant’s parents had also followed until they were alive.

He had told me once, "My father always gave one-tenth of his  earnings to charity. Whenever my father visited All India Institute of  Medical Sciences (AIIMS), he’d make note that there were no arrangements for families and caregivers to stay - particularly for those who had travelled from far. Although he had tried he wasn’t able to build one in his lifetime; so it was left for the family and for the Sir Sobha Singh Trust to build it."

And over all the years and interactions with him, I hadn’t seen him raise his voice. I’d see young enthusiastic writers dropping in unannounced and he would be taken aback. He would also tell them that he didn’t like to meet  anybody without prior appointment but the  intruders would linger on. He’d be upset but then relent. Then he would say, "Okay sit, have a drink and then go!” Only if someone was to overstay, he would tell them gently, "Bhai ab tum jao’. There was that look of impatience in his eyes but he couldn’t ever bring himself to be rude.

And, in those years that I was residing at New Delhi’s Shahjahan Road, which was very close to his place at Sujan Singh Park, I used to visit him   almost every day and we would walk towards Lodi Gardens. Once there,  we’d walk for a while before he would get surrounded by his admirers.  They would chat with him and ask him his views on current issues and he would answer each one of them patiently. Not once did I see him irritable or make anyone feel that he was feeling intruded upon. There was also a channa seller, he would chat with – although he never bought anything from him.

"Don't you get irritated with all these people coming up to you?" I would ask him and he'd smile, telling me that it was all a part  of  his everyday life. And when I would ask  him whether there was anything that he disliked, he’d say, "I can't stand arrogance, I can't stand  rudeness and those who’re  fake. I can see through flatterers within  seconds.”

When he’d be in an introspective mood he would tell me about the many important people he was associated with – the very well known, some of whom had wasted his time by dragging him to court with legal matters. He’d tell me about a few of his close friends who had let him down. Yet, he would say, he had never thought of avenging them by using his clout. He’d say, “That’s not who I am. I withdraw. That’s it.”

Many who were visiting India  from Pakistan would make it a point to meet him. He would ask them about his ancestral village Hadali. He would speak to them in Punjabi and meanwhile sprinkle his perfect vocabulary with English and Hindustani words so that we, who would also be around, could understand what was being spoken.

And it was in Khushwant’s home that I'd first met Minoo Bhandara - Bapsi  Sidhwa's brother - the owner of Murree Breweries; also a former member   of  Pakistan's National  Assembly.

Minoo had travelled to his ancestral village Hadali and taken pictures of Khushwant’s haveli. There were tears in his eyes when he saw them. And for what seemed like several minutes he'd kept on looking at the pictures silently. Later he said, “The last time I had visited my village was several  years ago, when I had travelled to Pakistan. It was a very emotional experience with a reception held  for me by village residents and  people coming from long distances to meet me. Ours  was a  huge haveli.”

He also told us this: “Three refugee families who had gone from Rohtak after India’s partition were living in our Haveli. It is touching to see that the gurdwara there is still intact. Even during the most violent times nobody harmed the gurdwara - when the population there was 90 percent Muslim with just a few Sikh and Hindu families.” 

Khushwant  would tell us many things about his village and its people: “My ancestral village Hadali has the distinction of having sent the largest number of men to World War 1. I have so many memories of my village - how my  grandmother would take me along with her to meet different families and  how she could  tell  the  time  of the day – there was no watch or clock there - during the day my grandmother would tell the time by the shadow of the sun on the wall and at night by the stars." 

All  those years when I would visit him, I‘d see Khushwant sitting on the same chair; the setting remained unchanged in his drawing room. And, around twenty years ago, when his wife Kaval was battling Alzheimer's, he'd sit on a sofa, which was placed right across from where she'd be. Every few minutes his eyes would move from the notepad he'd be writing on, towards her and stay there for a moment.

I saw him in this caring role for several months. This, after the family had employed a full time caregiver for Kaval. Despite that he would always be there supervising and making sure that her medicines, food and fruit were given to her on time.

Then, there were the  who’s who of this city. They would come to his house to take his advise. Although he had allocated the 7pm to 8pm slot to meet outsiders, they would walk in earlier during the day around noon. Many of them would confide in him. Our grand old man of literature, Khushwant Singh was a traditional man and the advice he gave them was mostly conservative.

When he was a man so consistently sensible, then why the image he carried of him sitting amid women and all the fuss, I once asked.

"All that because I talk  openly and write. If I like a woman's looks, I say it right in front of her husband." Reality was, as he would say it loud and  clear, that there was no woman, however beautiful and attractive she may have been, who could sit with him for more than fifteen minutes - because by then she’d have seen the impatience in his eyes.

He was not a loner but he was much at ease in his solitude.

Once when I visited him at his house in Kasauli he was so relaxed to be by himself that even I felt like an intruder. He’d sit on the front stretch of the house, reading or writing for most part of the day. He’d steer clear from the phone – a landline – and there was no sign of a television there. The place had an old world charm and visitors would start walking in by the evening. They would chat over dinner. His guests included Churamanis, Prashers (if  I am  not mistaken Mrs  Prasher was a former India Badminton champion), Baljeet Virk, Anil & Sharda Kaushik and the then Scottish Principal of  Lawrence School, Sanawar - Andrew Gray.

The next afternoon that I spent with him, we walked to the Kasauli market where he knew all the shopkeepers and informally. He greeted them in all earnest and asked them about their children. At the end of the day he just looked like a man content with his life; he read and recited Ghalib’s verses.

I had first met Khushwant in the early 1980s at The Hindustan Times (HT)  office. He was the editor of HT and I was looking out for a reporter’s job. He offered me chai and  cookies but not the job. We were destined to meet again, several years later and this time through my daughter Sarah and his granddaughter Naina, who were learning classical dance at a Kuchipudi dance school and had become friends.

By this time I was working as an independent journalist. And, what first took me to his home was a feature I was writing about celebrity  bedrooms. Unlike all the others whom I had  interviewed for this piece, he was forthcoming and walked me through all the details.

We chatted long into the afternoon and he had taken me by surprise. He was rooted in his views about marriage, home and children. He was not the man I had imagined who wrote about sex and women. He talked about the highs and lows in his six-decade-long marriage and how there were so many factors, including children, which had held his home together. When I asked him about his affairs with women, he told me it was a waste of time and that he had no time for those things. He was clear about the fact that he was a person who could neither be financially nor emotionally dependent on anybody; that it was only his work to which he was devoted.

I was a regular visitor to his house thereafter and used to have many conversations with him. During the days when his wife was unwell, he would talk and discuss contemplatively, more than he did before.

I once asked him if the partition of India had affected his attitude towards Muslims. And, this is what he  had to say to me: "I have always tried to bridge the  gap between Muslims and  Silks. Also, two Muslims have left a deep impact  on  me - one was Manzur Qadir who was my best friend right from pre–Partition days and our families were also very close. Later he became a leading lawyer and jurist and served as the Foreign Minister of Pakistan. The second was my Urdu teacher in Modern School Delhi, Maulvi  Shafiuddin Nayar. Both were good, honest and among the finest men I have known. They made me do away with prejudice against Muslims. Also, what stands out as a fact is, that my first love, when I was in college, was a  Muslim girl Ghayoorunissa. She was from Hyderabad. With that relationship, I was drawn to the entire community and today some of my best friends are Muslims.”

Another time, when I asked him about his views on death, he said to me, “Death doesn’t scare me, it is inevitable. It’s no point brooding about it. It is better to be prepared for it. Asadullah Khan Ghalib has said - Rau mein hai  raksh-e-umar kahaan deykheeye thammey. Nai haath baag par hai nah pa  hai rakaab mein  - Age travels at a galloping  speed, who knows where it will stop? We do not have the reins in our hands, we do not have our feet in the  stirrups.”

He had continued to speak, “I see death as nothing to be worried or scared about. In fact, I believe in the Jain philosophy - that death ought to be celebrated. Earlier whenever I'd feel upset or low, I used to go to the  cremation grounds. It  had a cleansing effect on me. It worked as therapy.”

“I  had written  my  own  epitaph  years  ago,” he told me. “Here  lies the 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’s dead; this  son  of a  gun.”

He would say, when the time  comes to go, one should go as a man without regret or grievance. He would quote Allama Iqbal who had expressed his thoughts beautifully in a couplet written in Persian - 'You ask me about the signs of a man of faith? When death comes to him, he has a smile on his   lips.”

“I don’t think of death. No, I don’t believe in the idea of rebirth and such theories. I tell Bade Mian (God) often that he’s got to wait as I still have unfinished business to deal with. But I do fear being incapacitated by old age – high blood pressure, prostrate, deafness; loss of vision. What I dread is the thought of going blind or stone deaf, of ending up with a stroke. As of now I have these partial dentures. I had them fitted because I like to eat well. I can’t cope any longer with Punjabi or Mughlai food but I do order in Thai, French or Italian food two to three times every week.”

He also told me that he wanted to be buried because he believed that you give back to earth what you have taken from it. However, he lamented that he will be taken to an electric crematorium.

“I’m preparing myself for death. I hope it won’t be very painful. And, since I don’t have any faith in God nor therefore in the day of judgement – not also in the idea of reincarnation – I have to come to terms with a complete full stop!”

Towards the end when I asked him if there was anything that worried him at all, he told me that the Right Wing Fascist forces, which were rising slowly, were disturbing. He said that the present generation should be made aware of communal politics and the dangers it poses.

In  an  interview  given to  me  shortly after  his book - The   End  of  India (Penguin) - was published in the spring of the year 2003, he had said to me,  “If we love our country we have to save it from communal forces. And though the liberals are shrinking, I do hope that the present generation rejects communal and fascist policies.”

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