“But why?” I ask Khushwant Singh when he firmly pronounces that his sixth and latest novel, The Sunset Club, will be his last. “I am ninety-six plus,” he reminds me. For most writers, that would be good enough reason to call it a day, but Khushwant? In all the years I’ve known him, I have never once heard him express the usual fears that lead a writer to his retirement after a certain age, usually around their seventies: fear of compromising their body of work for posterity, or fear of falling flat on their face with their next book. And even his cook, Chandan, who has served him loyally for almost sixty years now, knows that his Sahib wouldn’t be able to live a day without writing. “He gets up even earlier these days,” Chandan says, “around 3 am, and starts writing. His pen keeps moving till he gets tired; then he leans back in his chair and takes a nap, then goes on writing again.”
“I’ve gone on because there’s nothing else I can do,” Khushwant admits, almost as if writing was a bad habit. We are seated in his living room, his outstretched legs wrapped up in a checked shawl against the November chill, and he has consented to my “spoiling the taste of his whisky” by talking about The Sunset Club, to be released on November 30.
He has no idea, he says, why other writers give up after a certain age. “Perhaps they get involved in writers’ politics, organisations and societies as they get older.” Or perhaps they simply give up the struggle. “It’s a daunting thing to face an empty page and fill it up without getting up from your chair. Perhaps they find it too much and give up. And if you give up writing even for a while, it becomes very difficult to resume it.” Which is why he continues to write, Khushwant says, “every single day of my life”. It could be anything, even answering his mail. “I answer every single letter, that keeps my pen going.”
Or his diary, which he has been keeping for the last ten years. His entries reflect his daily concerns: what time he got up; how many times he had to get up in the night to empty his bladder; what the temperature of the day or weather was like; national events, from cricket and hockey matches to political events; what he has to do, who came to see him. “Your name is already there at the bottom of today’s entry,” he tells me.
Khushwant is really proud of being the only Sikh who spoke against Bhindranwale and the Khalistan demand.
In fact, his meticulous diary notes proved an invaluable resource when he was writing The Sunset Club, which takes us through a year in the life of three friends who meet every evening in Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens. For each episode of his novel, all he had to do was turn to the relevant page of his diary. “The earliest episode was about Chander Mohan aka Chand Mohammed and that woman. It gave me an excuse to write about love and lust through my three characters.” Or the 2009 elections. Thanks to his diary entry, “I was able to write about Varun Gandhi’s speech about cutting off the hands of Muslims with frightful names ending with ullah.”
What excited him into writing The Sunset Club, he says, is that through the three characters, all in their eighties, “I could pass judgements on events that were happening in the country, or were happening last year. And one being Hindu, one Muslim and Sikh, I was able to give different points of view on different topics like love, lust, religion, laughter clubs, artificial mourning like the Shias do on Moharram, but mainly the fear of death and all the conjectures about what happens afterwards.”
Despite having cheerfully claimed the label of “India’s Dirty Old Man” that others have thrust on him, Khushwant confesses now that he has always had “a kind of missionary purpose” in his writing: to debunk religious beliefs that had no foundation whatsoever in reason. It’s that same mission which spurred him into writing The Sunset Club: “Religion has been my main target because the religions we practise are pure mythology. Nobody knows if there’s one god or three gods, or a hundred gods. Nobody has a clue who created the world, where we came from, where we go after we die. I felt it was time somebody had the courage to say: ‘I don’t know and I will only concern myself with the existence of life: not where I came from, nor where I go after I die.’”
“You have to formulate for yourself your relations with other human beings and also the man-made laws that seem to be utterly flawed. Like monogamy, for instance. It doesn’t work; we know it doesn’t. Muslim laws are even more antiquated. A man may marry four wives, a woman may not marry more than one. If she’s caught in adultery, she must be stoned to death; cut off the hands of criminals and kill people who are against the Shariat law. These are extreme laws and you have to raise your voice against them and take the consequences.”
There’s another reason, he says, why he has so passionately opposed resurgence of fundamentalism in all religions, particularly in India: “Because I fear that if they are allowed to get away with it, they will tear the secular fabric of this country built by people like Gandhi, Nehru, Azad and Indira Gandhi.” And for Khushwant, his life’s biggest achievement is not the long trail of books he’s authored—he’s lost count but the list the American Centre sent him of his books in the Library of Congress was “two yards long, including some I’d fogotten I’d written”, and this was more than ten years and twenty books ago! What he’s really proud of, though, is that he was about the only Sikh who spoke against Bhindranwale and the demand for Khalistan. For his pains, Bhindranwale put him on his hitlist and even sent people to have him bumped off. Khushwant sums it up simply: “He failed, I won. I think my single contribution was to persuade the Sikhs that what they were doing was wrong. It was suicidal in their own interests and fatal to India if they succeeded. So I feel a sense of achievement.”
Advani at a rally Khushwant is passionately opposed to a resurgence in fundamentalism. (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat)
And what about his books? “I’ve no idea how many of them will be read after I’m gone. I’ve done serious books like history and translations from the scriptures, translations from Urdu poetry and short stories from other languages. But what will last, I’ve no idea. As Hillaire Belloc said: “I hope when I’m dead it will be said/ his sins were scarlet/ but his books were read.”
But there are a few of his books even Khushwant would like to forget. His first two, for instance, published while he was a lawyer in Lahore. “I belonged to a Leftist group and I wrote a small book on Stalin which I published at my own expense,” he confesses. Was it complimentary to Stalin, I ask incredulously. “Very,” he says with feeling before bursting out with his deep, belly laugh, thoroughly enjoying “making an ass of myself,” as he describes it. “I was a fellow traveller.”
“I probably have the last copy left,” he adds, “along with the last copy of another book I published at my own expense—it was called Pax Islamic, on the pan-Islamic movement.”
It must be tough to keep up his reputation as the enfant terrible of Indian writing? Frankly, he doesn’t give a damn.
“So you did some vanity publishing?” I ask, to tease him. He refuses to be embarassed: “Well, you can’t even call it vanity publishing because there’s some compulsion—I was Leftist then.”
“Making an ass of myself” must rank among Khushwant’s prime pleasures. It’s what he claims he’s done by creating Sardar Boota Singh in The Sunset Club. “It’s a self-caricature,” he says, “I could never take myself that seriously. Boota Singh is the kind of person I’d like to lampoon.”
It’s this sturdy refusal to take himself seriously that has perhaps rescued Khushwant’s sense of humour from ageing. Of the people who flock to him every evening, more overawed by his age than anything else, Khushwant says irreverently: “They’ve made me into a kind of minor prophet. It’s because I say things they haven’t heard before—like my pronouncements on religion. then my memory for quotable quotes comes in very handy. They think I’m a bloody witty man even when what I say is borrowed.”
It must be hard to keep up his reputation as the enfant terrible of Indian writing, now that he’s 96? Frankly, he doesn’t give a damn, “although that’s never been my aim, for some people, whatever I write makes me a man who deliberately provokes controversy. But I think it just comes naturally to me.”
So is he really going to give it all up: his teasing and infuriating readers, his see-how-easy-this-is writing that he slaved a lifetime to master?” “Enough is enough,” he says firmly. “I think I should now learn to do nothing. I owe it to myself. Besides, when I’m not doing anything, I feel relaxed.” Then adds with that honesty that has won over his readers: “Except my mind keeps bothering me. I am confused: am I writing because of the celebrity status that it gives me? Then I say to myself: I’m becoming a narcissist. I can’t do without praise and flattery, and these are minus points. I must get over them. I must tell myself that my life is almost over. And therefore I must learn to live entirely by myself till the last day and not depend on other people for anything, neither their approval nor disapproval.” It’s a virgin territory he is as eager as ever to explore.