His devil-may-care public persona was merely one side to Khushwant Singh. His son writes on the contradictions of a strict father and a disciplined scholar who did not take people – and himself – too seriously
Rahul Singh | March 28, 2014
I was in Washington and my deputy editor at Reader’s Digest took me to a dinner party. He did not mention to the hosts who he was bringing along. While I was there, a group of people got into a discussion about the emergency decree in India. Suddenly one gentleman said, “I wish somebody would shoot that bastard Khushwant Singh.” At this point my deputy editor stood up and introduced me saying this is Rahul Singh, son of Khushwant Singh. The party froze!
While such things happened quite often, he was very unmoved by it. He liked to show people letters that he received with addresses like ‘Bastard Khushwant Singh, India’. “Look, I have got this letter. It arrived to me even with this address,” he would often say proudly, taking a dig at how efficient the postal department was in India.
That was the real Khushwant Singh, my father, who liked making fun of himself and never took offence to what people said about him. He never took himself or other people seriously because he felt people take themselves too seriously. He used to make fun of Girilal Jain, his senior, for his statement that he did not write for the public but for the government.
He was a great communicator. He could speak to a simple villager in thet (chaste) Punjabi and also talk to a prime minister or a Nobel laureate with equal ease. Once I was travelling in the southern part of India, sometime in 1971 or 1972, and my car broke down in a village. While the mechanic was fixing the car and we went chatting, somebody heard that I was Khushwant Singh’s son. The man, a retired army jawan, came to me and showed me the postcard that my father had written to him.
He used to keep a stack of postcards on his table and replied to everybody who wrote to him. He would write 40 to 50 postcards every day. This continued till a few months ago [before his death]. His handwriting had become a bit shaky but he still used to write. In fact, I received a call from Nirmala Makhan, a TV anchor based out of Bangalore, who said she had received a letter from him only two days before his death where he had expressed the desire to complete the century. He had also quoted a line from a Keats poem.
During my Cambridge days, he used to write long letters and was keen that I join the Indian Administrative Service. With half-hearted efforts, I took the exam. Though I cleared the written test, I did not make it through the interview. In any case I was not too keen on that. He then advised me to join one of the big MNCs, the like of Burma Shell, as that was the big thing to do then. And while I did get an offer from one of the firms, I decided not to take it up. I used to contribute to a couple of magazines in Cambridge and had realised that my interest lay in writing.
He was not a journalist at that time, except that he had worked for Yojana. But he accepted my decision to join The Times of India. The only problem was that I had to shift to the Mumbai office. This is when he told me: “I have paid for your education and I believe that once a father has paid for a son’s or daughter’s education they must be entirely on their own.” But he decided to pay for my stay in a very cheap hotel for a month in Mumbai. After that he never paid for any of my expenses, except that once in one or two months he would send me a bottle of rum.
Those were dry days in Mumbai and drinking was not legal. But I had the drinking permit that was usually accompanied by a doctor’s certificate. I was 22 years then, and though he was quite a strict father, conservative in that sense, he was okay with alcohol as long as it was moderate drinking. In fact, I started drinking only after I joined The Times of India, and perhaps had the first drink with my dad. But I do not recall it very clearly now.
Unlike what people thought, he always believed that one should drink moderately and never had more than two drinks in a day. He used to always criticise Morarji Desai for his anti-alcohol policy, particularly since Mr Desai thought that anybody who drank alcohol was a drunkard.
But he was quite a strict father in many ways. I once came back very late at night in my college days. We had gone out for a party with girls and boys. We were all supposed to get back home by 10.30 pm but failed to do so. The girls’ fathers all rang up saying, “Your son went out with our daughters and our daughters have not come back yet.” He was very angry but asked my mother to stay quiet and said he would speak to me. When I reached home, he gave me a dressing down. “You can’t do that. The girls have their reputation at stake.” So, unlike the popular perception, he was quite a strict person, not as liberal as he was made out to be.
Friends and family members were also used to his being a stickler for time. In fact, Lord Swaraj Paul, whenever he visited, would reach Sujan Singh Park early and wait for the clock to turn seven before he rang the doorbell. Rajiv Gandhi, when he came to our home on my 50th birthday, also had a taste of it. My dad made a very moving speech after dinner. He said that every member of the Gandhi family had been to his house, including Rajiv’s mother and his brother. He was happy that Rajiv could make it for the first time and said he felt honoured. “However, it’s time for me to go to bed, so good night,” he said and left. His public persona was quite different from his personal persona. He was a serious scholar but liked to put out this image of wine, women and song.
He was also a person of simple things. One of the things that he always told me was not to accept any hospitality, or anything from my rich friends unless I can repay them. “Never do something, or accept anything, that will make you beholden to anybody,” was his strong advice, and he followed it in letter and spirit himself.
During my five-year stint with The Times of India in Mumbai, I used to stay as a paying guest; and since I had got a job with the Reader’s Digest and was slated to leave for England for a one-year training programme, my father asked me if he can shift into the same room. My landlady was startled that a man who was joining as the editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India wanted to take up a PG accommodation. But he stayed there for almost a year till he was given an accommodation by the publishers.
After he finished his Rockefeller Foundation project and was looking for something to do, he got an opportunity at The Illustrated Weekly of India. The weekly was without an editor for quite some time since its editor, AS Raman, had moved out and was looking for someone to take over. He applied for it and got the job. This was a very fulfilling period for him.
In the nine years between 1969 and 1978, when he was the editor of the magazine, he transformed Indian journalism in many ways. As he had himself written in the preface to a collection of columns, called Khushwant Singh’s Editor’s Page, he tore up the unwritten norms of gentility, both visual and linguistic till the Illustrated became a weekly habit of the English-reading pseudo-elite of the country. “It became the most widely read journal in Asia (barring Japan) because it reflected all the contending points of view on every conceivable subject: politics, economics, religion, and the arts,” he had written.
During his journey, he also nurtured a whole generation of young journalists who went on to become editors. There were Bachi Karkaria, MJ Akbar, Bikram Vohra and also Jiggs Kalra whom he nurtured. He recognised their talents and promoted them.
After I came back from training in England I shifted to an accommodation provided by the Reader’s Digest in Mumbai. This was very close to the place where my father lived and that was the time we had a lot of interaction. My mother was also there, but then she did not like Mumbai and decided to return to Delhi.
While we seldom discussed journalism, he would hold up the Reader’s Digest as an example of very good, simple English. He used to advise people that if they wanted to learn how to write simple but powerful English they should read the Reader’s Digest. He used to say that Indians have a habit of writing very complicated long sentences. His mantra was to keep the sentences short and use simple words. His advice was that one should only write about things that one is passionate about.
I completed my schooling in a journey through nine schools, including those in London, Toronto, Ottawa and Paris. I remember being the only Sikh student and the one wearing turban in the school in Paris. During all these years my father encouraged me to retain the five Ks or symbols of the Sikh. Though he was not a religious person and was an agnostic, he was very proud of the symbols of Sikhism and felt that it should be retained. So when I cut my hair, it was a very painful moment for him and he was very upset. This happened after I became the editor of the Reader’s Digest.
While he was never able to explain the contradictions of his views on being agnostic and still wanting to retain the symbols of Sikhism, he strongly believed that Sikhs will lose their identity, will merge into Hinduism if they get rid of their symbols.
The other difference that we had was over the issue of emergency. He was a strong supporter of Indira Gandhi and Sanjay. Neither I nor my sister and mother were happy about his stand in supporting the emergency rule in 1975, but he kept his stand because he believed that it would provide a respite from the political turmoil of the time.
His love for Sikhism led him to write a small book during his posting in London at the High Commissioner’s office. He applied for the Rockefeller Foundation grant on the basis of this book and was commissioned the project. This was one assignment that he was really looking forward to and cherished all his life. The assignment turned into a two-volume definitive book — A History of the Sikhs — that was published by Princeton University Press and Oxford University Press.
He was working on the book when I was in Cambridge and even after his grant was over he continued writing books on related topics, including a book on Ranjit Singh and a book on Anglo-Sikh war, which were kind of spin-offs from his research and the book on a history of Sikhs.
But his love for Sikhism did not mean he loved any religion. In fact, he was particularly against organised religion and was inclined towards atheism. This also meant that we did not have any religious ceremony after my mother’s death and her cremation. However, a couple of months ago he was persuaded by Mrs Charanjit Singh, chairperson, Le Meridien, to allow a kirtan to be held after his demise. That is precisely the reason we organised a kirtan, three days after his death.
One of his great passions was to bring India and Pakistan closer together. For anybody who came from Pakistan and wanted to meet him, he would always open the doors. Even though he was a casualty of partition, and lost everything, he never had any grudge. The partition made him very pro-Muslim and pro-Pakistani and he wanted the two countries to have closer ties and come back together.
He hated fundamentalism of all kinds, including people like Bhindranwale for his act. But he also opposed the Operation Blue Star because he felt it was a big blunder that Mrs Gandhi had made. He was quite close to Giani Zail Singh as well, who also did not like what had happened. He openly expressed his anguish but she (Indira Gandhi) never called back to explain anything. The incident had shaken him and he returned the Padma Bhushan conferred on him in 1974, protesting against the union government’s siege of the Golden Temple.
He was also vocal about the razing off the Babri Masjid and did not hesitate in criticising Lal Krishna Advani, holding him responsible for the unfortunate incident in 1992. He was equally vocal about the attacks on the Muslim minority of Gujarat in 2002.
During the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the Swedish ambassador called him and insisted that he move to his house. The ambassador took him to his home. That is when he made the statement: “Now I know what the jews felt like in Nazi Germany.”
He is the most honest person that I know. He was politically a little naïve and hence always spoke straight from the heart. He was an emotional person and never hid his likings, be it for Sanjay Gandhi or Indira Gandhi. But when he fell out with them, he never looked back. He was very close to Maneka Gandhi as well, and she told him the details of how she was thrown out of Indira Gandhi’s house; he wrote all of it in his biography, but then Maneka was too embarrassed and stopped the book from being published for a couple of years until the supreme court allowed its release.
He was also a very forgiving person. Even though somebody might have hurt him, or harmed him, he had the ability to put it behind and forgive. People trusted him and confided in him. He used to comfort them, listen to them and ask the right questions enabling them to open their hearts.
He was cut out to make people laugh, bring smile to the face, and to puncture egos. He was trusted by people—his readers, his friends and even those who hated him.
(As told to Shubhendu Parth)
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