Khushwant Singh did not believe that much remains of man after death, favouring Omar Khayyam’s attitude: Some talk awhile of Thee and Me/ Then no more of Thee or Me. “Death erases our bodies, our minds and everything our bodies or minds may have achieved in our lives,” he wrote. Mercifully, he also wrote that “…you may write books that may be read after you are gone.” And so he did: six novels, an autobiography, collections of short stories and essays, reams of columns, translations of novels, Urdu poetry, scriptures as well as a magisterial history of the Sikhs.
Soon, when the first leaves of the next spring sprout in his beloved Delhi, it would be a year since Singh passed on. It will be time to distance ourselves from the man himself, to put aside the sense of personal loss and probe beyond the stories that drape his persona like magical myths: his disciplined writing regime, his evening durbars, his love of Scotch and women. In short, it will be time to cut out the surrounding noise and assess his life’s work. In that process, 99, the appropriately named collection of pieces of fiction, non-fiction, humour and poetry — one for each year of his life — will be essential reading, for the uninitiated and the ardent fan alike.
Put together by daughter Mala Dayal and publisher David Davidar and introduced by Davidar’s analytical essay, it effectively lights up the vast literary landscape that Khushwant Singh strode with ease as journalist, historian, novelist, translator and public figure. Though one is tempted to dip in and out of the book, a sustained right-through reading is recommended to get a good view of where the three lives of Singh, as Davidar calls them — the public, private and secret — mingled with each other and enriched all that he wrote with honesty and forthrightness.
One could put aside the excerpts from the six novels (for no other reason than that one should read the full books) and a somewhat inconsistent section on humour and consider the non-fiction sections — on family, Indian destinations, Pakistan, singular personalities and sex in the land of the Kamasutra — that provide delectable pickings. A brilliant piece on his birthplace, “a tiny hamlet called Hadali, lost in the sand dunes of the Thar desert…..now deep inside Pakistan,” kicks off the collection and foreshadows all that is to come: wonderful descriptions of nature and childhood in a traditional Sikh family in pre-Partition Punjab, the uneasy but peaceful coexistence of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims before the maelstrom of Partition engulfed them. (A poignant postscript: part of Singh’s ashes were buried in Hadali.) Early family years are also movingly recalled in pieces written on the deaths of his parents and of Simba, the irreplaceable family dog.
An honest surveyor of the Indian political scene, and a diehard foe of all religious fundamentalists, Singh summed up his attitude to his native country as “Yeah, this is my native land. I don’t like it, but I love it.” How much he loves it is clear in the affectionate piece on the building of New Delhi — in significant part by his father Sir Sobha Singh — and depictions of his beloved haunts Kasauli and Mashobra.
Singh, the journalist, who would take the staid Illustrated Weekly to unprecedented success, is at his brilliant best in his pieces on Pakistan: on Jinnah, Lahore, and on the hanging of Bhutto. The same perceptive pen is unsheathed for the pieces on Gandhi — Khushwant Singh considered himself a Gandhian though he drank and celebrated sex; on Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi. There is a reverential conversation with Mother Teresa and the unfulfilled threat of seduction from Amrita Sher-gil. But my favourite is the trenchant and explosive take on the famously irascible and rude Krishna Menon, with whom Singh worked as PRO at the High Commission in London before launching on a full time writing career.
A collection of Urdu poetry was never far from Singh’s hand and he once confided that he often read some couplets before going to sleep.
Also, whether he was walking in the Lodi gardens or lounging in the sun in Kasauli, he was always aware of the nature around him, the changing seasons and light, the coming and going of flowers, leaves and birds. Both these passions are abundantly on parade in 99. There are affectionate pieces on Faiz — whom he knew to drink from sunrise to sunset without showing the slightest sign of drunkenness — and Ghalib, as well as a translation of Iqbal’s Shikwa and Jawab-i-shikwa. Poetic passages on monsoon, summer and spring can easily rank among the best writing ever on Delhi. But the poet could as easily turn into, as he says himself, “a bit of a lecher.” And there are a few racy pieces in the collection to prove that.
Singh once wrote: “The most fulfilling thing I have done in my life was working on Sikh religion and history”. Any assessment of his work must necessarily give centrestage to this scholarly dimension. 99 provides ample introduction by including pieces that stretch from Maharaja Ranjit Singh to the tragedies of 1984 and are rounded off by a translation of Guru Nanak’s exquisite Bara Mah. All in all, 99 is highly recommended. There could not be a better tribute to the memory of Singh nor a better set of leads for readers and scholars to pursue.