Such A Long Journey...
Last week, lakhs of newspaper readers across the country woke up to find their weekly fix missing. The ‘Sardar in the lightbulb’, loved and loathed in over 17 Indian languages, had hung up his pen without saying goodbye. After more than 70 uninterrupted years of ceaselessly needling readers, Khushwant Singh suddenly decided he’d had enough. “I’m 97,” (he isn’t, he’s 96) “I may die any day now,” is all he’ll say about his self-imposed exile into silence.
“I’ll miss the money,” he says when I prod him, adding as an afterthought: “And the people fawning over me to write about them in my columns.” Fat chance, considering that the same evening, he was entertaining two editors, one of whom was trying to trawl yet another book out of his old columns and the other had brought along his latest novel for him to review. “You want me to praise it?” he asked, almost innocently. “Yes!” was the fervent response. Perhaps he did not know Khushwant’s column-writing days are over.
For Khushwant, that first portrait of a pompous minister set the tone for his journalistic writing. He had discovered how to use humour as a lethal weapon: “If you get angry, it doesn’t serve the purpose. But make somebody into a laughing stock and you kill him.” It served him well whenever he turned to journalism, especially when writing for foreign publications like the New York Times, Harper’s and the Toronto-based Globe and Mail.
Khushwant’s gift for needling people and raising controversies became apparent long before he joined the Illustrated Weekly of India. In the mid-’50s for example, when he quit his UNESCO job to join as editor of Yojana. It was a journal that no journalist would ever take seriously, its only aim being to publicise the five-year plans the government had started. But his bosses had not reckoned with their new editor’s journalistic zeal: he prepared dummies, rewrote deadly dull government speeches, wrote an editor’s page calculated to perk up readership, and gave it a champagne launch. He even managed to rake up a controversy—by splashing over several pages of the journal a speech given by S.K. Dey, advocating that Hindus eat beef. Dey, a pioneer of the community development programme, believed passionately that it would solve the problem of stray, starved cows on the roads. It took Khushwant to highlight it—landing them both into trouble.
It wasn’t exactly a plum job. In fact, his friends and family thought he was better off at Yojana. “It’s just a picture magazine with photographs of newly-married couples and strip cartoons, not to be taken seriously,” a friend advised him. But Khushwant had no such doubts: “I would have jumped at it if I hadn’t just been offered the Rockefeller grant for researching my books on Sikh history.” Journalism would have to wait.
The Jains were more than ready to wait for the four years it took him to complete his History of the Sikhs, refusing to appoint another editor to take Mandy’s place until Khushwant returned from the US.
Indefatigable Khushwant at the launch of his Sunset Club. (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat)
It was well worth it, as V.S. Naipaul perceptively noted a few years ago: “Khushwant Singh changed Indian journalism when he became editor of the Illustrated Weekly in 1969. Until then in India the daily newspapers reported speeches, and the picture magazines did art and dance. Khushwant began to give the country a picture of itself. He did this in a serious but not solemn way. His vision was many-sided and rounded. He always had a feeling for what was glamorous, photogenic and exciting, and his readers loved him for it, as they still do.”
The “appetising” writing was no accident: Khushwant honed the art during the years he spent in the US, lecturing in American universities and colleges like Princeton, Hawaii and Swarthmore. Faced with classrooms of students who knew little about contemporary India, he discovered some tricks to keep his students awake through his lectures. “It became a challenge to keep them awake. I made the lectures very elementary, and filled them with as many anecdotes as I could unearth.”
It was a skill he took with him as he stepped into journalism: “Some gossip, some titillation, some tearing up of reputations, some amusement—that is the best I can offer.” But the combination of serious-but-not-solemn was something that readers in India had not experienced before. They were hooked, right from the start.
And then they began to seek him out. Bombay’s starlets, adventurers, godmen, writers, lawyers, ministers, politicians, tycoons, cranks approached him in a myriad ingenious ways. Once, for instance, when he wrote in his column about how a pickpocket had made off with his Cross pen, Soli Sorabjee’s wife sent him a new one, along with an invitation to dinner. Nani Palkhivala invited him to preside over his annual budget speech delivered in a stadium; Kamini Kaushal claimed old Lahore ties (Khushwant went to college with her brother); Raj Kapoor invited him for a private film screening; I.S. Johar bribed his way into Khushwant’s home by bringing juicy gossip; Persis Khambatta came to plead not to publish her pictures that had appeared in Playboy, disarming him by falling at his feet. All grist to his writing mill, his unerring eye for the human foible in each of them making his Editor’s Page ever more popular.
In 1978, however, syndicated columns were still decades away. The Editor’s Page travelled with Khushwant to his next paper, the Congress-owned National Herald. Any other editor in his shoes, asked to edit a daily which came out sporadically, in between police raids, would have probably dropped that column. Dropped that irreverent, housecoat-and-slippers tone, at any rate. But Khushwant stuck to his weekly deadline, producing the same long piece, short piece and joke at the end for as long as he lasted at the Herald.
At his next job as editor, in the Hindustan Times, his column was even more incongruous amidst all the sermons on the editorial page. But having little else to do as editor of a daily, Khushwant stuck on stubbornly with it, having rechristened it as With Malice Towards One and All but with the same sardar-in-a-lightbulb logo that cartoonist Mario Miranda had originally designed for him. To the surprise of those who had dismissed Khushwant as a lightweight who knew nothing of political journalism, the circulation of the daily went up significantly on Saturdays, when Khushwant’s column appeared on the editorial page.
Rival papers began to eye the column which, for reasons that no journalist or editor could fathom, seemed to have a life of its own, packaged into bestselling books by enterprising publishers long after they had been published by the daily. Outlook editor Vinod Mehta recalls how he first spotted the syndicate potential of the Malice column. In 1981, about to launch a weekly newspaper, The Sunday Observer, Mehta approached Khushwant for rights to reproduce the column. Khushwant, who had not thought of syndication so far, asked the paper’s owner, K.K. Birla, who readily agreed, perhaps because the Hindustan Times didn’t exist in Bombay at that time.
Others began to want a piece of the Malice pie. But they had to wait till Khushwant left Hindustan Times—or rather, was asked to go because of his differences with Indira Gandhi. He left the paper, but his column stayed. For Khushwant, the disappointment of not getting an extension as editor in Hindustan Times was more than compensated by the number of newspapers across the country vying for his column. In fact, the pressure to produce a fresh column in every state in India in every major language eventually forced Khushwant to write two weekly columns instead of one.
It couldn’t have been much fun: getting up before dawn every single day, an endless round of deadlines, chasing payments, readers’ letters, keeping track of events, and people dropping in, hoping to be written about. Now that he has given it all up, you’d think he’d rest. But he’s already reaching for his yellow legal pad, scribbling away as if it’s a guilty pleasure. “I can’t stop,” he says a trifle sheepishly, “I don’t know how to sit and do nothing.” The columns are done and over with—but it looks as if another book is on its way.
Apropos of Khushwant’s piece ‘I may die any day now’ (Oct 24), it would be a betrayal of my own past not to have a friendly and nostalgic word for Khushwant Singh. I first came across him in Jinja, Uganda, in the late ’60s. The Indian community there had a social meeting hall called the Nanji Khalidas Library which was a reading room with Indian periodicals. We were all eager every week to be the first to get the glorious Illustrated Weekly. It provided such fascinating and lively reading under the editorship of the stout sardarji portrayed by Mario Miranda’s immortal cartoon. The Weekly and Khushwant’s column brought us a rich, pungent whiff of the India of those times, getting past the moralistic and complacent Nehru era and into the at-first hopeful and then increasingly cynical and corrupt times of Indira. I still remember some superb numbers of the Weekly: like the one where Nirad Chaudhuri proclaimed his resolve to be a brown sahib complete with a sola topee, with a Mario cartoon of a thick-lipped Anglofanatic Indian lady chanting “Oh to be In England/Now that the Wintah is Theyah!” Khushwant Singh shocked my young susceptibilities by dismissing a late Pearl Buck novel about India brutally thus: “The most fluent writer in the world has run out of ink.” He introduced me to the new and sinister figure of V.S. Naipaul in a review of his disturbing novel set in Uganda, In a Free State. That was where I first heard of homosexuality. This was another Khushwant Singh shocker. There was unforgettable pleasant stuff too: a series called ‘My India’ by foreigners who had sojourned there, especially a marvellous essay on life in Bombay in the late 1950s and early 1960s by the Anglo-Australian journalist Phillip Knightley. We Indians would sit at the long table watching with hawk eyes as the courtly man in charge of setting out the periodicals took out the one and only copy of the richly coloured Illustrated Weekly. On one occasion I was so keen to get it first that the man complained angrily of my “snatching!” He was an editor of sheer genius, whatever else.
Mohammed Othman, Aurangabad
Khushwant Singh, whose fictional corpus in Indo-English writing was not only of the highest quality but also spicy, humorous and amorous, has been invaluable to my generation. Mario Vargas Llosa said “journalism decimates artistic acumen and felicity”. Khushwant proved an exception.
Krishna H. Pachegonkar, Aurangabad
So the Bhishma Pitamaha of Indian journalism has decided to call it quits. The journalistic world will be poorer by his absence. Is it the final full stop, though? I doubt it.
N. Krishnamurthy, Chennai
I’ve read Khushwant for many years. What I’ve found shocking is that he often brings his personal grudges, rancour and malice towards certain individuals whom he has personally known, and often befriended, into his writing. Very unethical and malicious, sir.
Babloo Sr, Kansas
No one could prick a bloated ego like Khushwant. That he did it in his inimitable style, with spoonfuls of sarcasm and wit, makes him even more of a national treasure in a country full of swaggers with no sense of humour. He deserves the Bharat Ratna more than anyone else I know.
G. Natrajan, Hyderabad
I recall how when Khushwant wrote on the population problem with liberal doses of sex thrown in, a reader, impressed or rattled, wrote to the editor saying had his parents adopted birth control measures, his readers would have been spared the ignominy of reading his nasty columns in the Weekly. To Khushwant’s credit, he printed the letter in toto.
Sanket Biswas, Calcutta
For an atheist/agnostic, Khushwant had an eye for seeing and describing the colourful Indian way of life. He was also the first to recognise and introduce some great people much before the world could understand them. Bhagwan Rajneesh was one of them.
B.V. Gopala Rao, Warangal
To Khushwant goes the credit of making English accessible to people like me for whom it was a second language. His interesting descriptions of people, incidents remain a touchstone for me.
Kumar Rakesh, Chandigarh
Thanks Khushwant. It has been a life well lived.
Santosh Gairola, Taiwan
Khushwant Singh's brutal frankness had much to earn admiration from the readers of his columns, which I have read for years in The Illustrated Weekly as well as in The Telegraph, Calcutta. He is obssession for portraying anything concerning sex made him what he is known for to all his readers. I recall once he wrote on population problem of India with characteristically liberal doses of sex thrown in the piece to make it spicy. One reader, profoundly impressed or rattled, wrote to the editor saying, had his parents adopted measures for birth control, his readers would have been spared the ignominy of reading his nasty columns in The Illustrated Weekly. Lo and behold! The Sardar published the letter in toto, I guess, without any editorial interference. Hardly any editor anywhere, much less in India, could have pocketed such vulger indignity.
It would be a betrayal of my own past not to have a friendly and nostalgic word for Khushwant Singh.
I first came across him in Jinja, Uganda, of all places, in the late 1960s. The Indian community there had a social meeting hall called the Nanji Khalidas Library which was a reading room with Indian periodicals. We were all eager every week to be the first to get the glorious Ilustrated Weekly of India when it arrived. It provided such fascinating and lively reading under the editorship of the stout sardarji portrayed by Mario Miranda's immortal cartoon.
The Weekly and Khushwant's column brought us a rich, pungent whiff of the India of those times, getting past the moralistic and complacent Nehru era and into the at first hopeful and then increasingly cynical and corrupt times of Indira.
I still remember some superb numbers of the Weekly: like the one where Nirad Chaudhuri proclaimed his resolve to be a Brown Sahib complete with solar topee, with the Mario Miranda cartoon of a thick-lipped anglofanatic Indian lady chanting "Oh to be In England Now that the WIntah is Theyah!" Khushwant shocked my young susceptibilities by dismissing a late Pearl Buck novel about India brutally thus: "The most fluent writer in the world has run out of ink." He ntroduced me to the new and sinister figure of V S Naipaul in a review of his disturbing novel set in Uganda, "In a Free State". That was where I first heard of homosexuality. This was another Khushwant shocker.
There was unforgettable pleasant stuff too: a series called "My India" by foreigners who had soujourned there, especially a marvellous essay on life in Bombay in the late 1950s and early 1960s by the Anglo-Australian journalist Philip Knightly.
We Indians would sit at the long table watching with hawk eyes as the courtly man in charge of setting out the periodicals tool out the one and only copy of the richly coloured Illustrated Weekly. On one occasion I was so keen to get it first that the man complained angrily of my "snatching!"...
He was an editor of sheer genius, whatever else.
With due respect and admiration of his success, my humble self drew an opinion.. just repeating: 'It takes all types to make a world'.
Khushwant Singh, more than anyone else, has made us Indians search our souls and come to grips with our faults. No one can prick a bloated ego like he can. That he did it in his inimitable style, with spoonfuls of sarcam and wit, makes him even more valuable as a national resource in a country full of swaggers with no sense of humour. He deserves a Bharat Ratna more than anyone else I know.
I have read Mr Khuswant Singh for many years.
What I have found shocking is that he often brings his personal grudges, rancours and malice towards certain individuals whom he has personally known and often be-friended, into his writings.
Very unethical and malicious, sir.
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