August 15, 2020
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‘I May Die Any Day Now’

His zest is alive, but Khushwant puts his column-writing to rest

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‘I May Die Any Day Now’
Courtesy: Penguin India/Dinesh Khanna
‘I May Die Any Day Now’

Such A Long Journey...

  • Khushwant’s career as a journalist started while he was a briefless lawyer in Lahore in 1940, and wrote regularly for the Tribune, contributing book reviews and profiles under the byline ‘KS’
  • His first regular column appeared in Yojana, launched by the government to publicise its five-year plans. The columns were “smothered under government garbage” but still managed to draw readers and create controversies
  • 1969 saw the birth of India’s most widely-read column, Editor’s Page, in the Illustrated Weekly of India under his now famous sardar-in-lightbulb logo
  • The column migrated with him, first to the National Herald, and in 1980, to the Hindustan Times
  • Other newspapers began to eye his wildly popular column, with the Sunday Observer the first to buy the rights to it in 1981
  • When he left Hindustan Times in the mid-’80s, his column became so widely syndicated that his friend, Aveek Sarkar of the Ananda Bazaar group of newspapers, persuaded him to start a second column. His two columns appeared every week without fail for the last 30 years in a dozen national dailies and translated into all the major Indian languages, making him India’s best-known columnist.


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.

“Some gossip, some titillation, some amusement, that’s the best I can offer.”

It has been a long journey, starting with his days as a briefless lawyer in Lahore in 1940, when the bored and just-married Khushwant began contributing book reviews to the Tribune. But even then, the irrepressible writer of middles and short stories knew how to prick inflated egos and raise controversies. When, for instance, he was snubbed by a minister in the Punjab legislative council, Sir Manohar Lal, Khushwant wreaked his revenge by writing a three-part series on him for the Tribune. He changed the minister’s name to Sir Mohan Lal, a ridiculously stiff British loyalist with his very Indian wife, but the portrait was life-like enough to be recognised. The subject was offended, but the readers loved it.

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.

V.S. Naipaul: “His way of writing comes from a very special relishing of people.”

It was either Khushwant’s gift for making a splash even in the unlikeliest of journals or the fact that he was sought after by several foreign journals, including the NYT, as a contributor. But within two years of taking over as editor of Yojana, the owners of the Times of India group offered him the job of editor of their picture magazine, the Illustrated Weekly. The then Irish editor, C.R. Mandy, was retiring, and Khushwant seemed the right man to replace him.

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.”

“Getting angry serves no purpose. Make someone a laughing stock, you kill him.”

Not least of the Weekly’s attractions was Khushwant’s Editor’s Page. For the first time in Indian journalism, he insisted on taking over one page for himself. But instead of building himself up by pontificating and printing his own mugshot, he started writing “about anything that came to my mind, including why some monkeys have red bottoms, which shocked people”. But there was a reason why the Editor’s Page soon became the most widely read page—“his appetising way of writing,” as Naipaul describes it. “It looks easy to copy, but it isn’t, because the writing comes from a very special relishing of people and experience and a great generosity of spirit. Khushwant has always been a selfless encourager of Indian talent. It’s his own brand of patriotism.”

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.

Naipaul: “He gave the country a picture of itself, in a serious but not solemn way.”

Nine years later, when the Jains sacked him, the circulation of the Weekly had soared from 60,000 to 4.1 lakh. The only thing he decided to take away with him, besides his umbrella, was his column. He didn’t know it then, but it was the golden goose. In the years to come, it would reach several hundred thousand more readers than the Weekly could ever claim, in every Indian language, making him the most widely read columnist anywhere in the world.

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.

“I can’t stop,” he says, a trifle sheepishly. “I don’t know how to sit and do nothing.”

Readers in Bombay warmed up to the column almost at once. One of the first columns the Observer carried was Khushwant’s obituary of Rajni Patel. Characteristically, Khushwant chose to recount a story about how Patel tried to raise funds for drought relief: by inviting potential funders to his home and serving them Royal Salute whisky, which cost Rs 1,500 a bottle. It sparked off a fierce controversy on the letters pages, with angry readers ticking off Khushwant for “writing ill of the dead”.

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.

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