I have taken many walks in Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens but until I read Khushwant Singh’s latest novel, I did not realise that the dome of the main mosque, built in 1494, is ‘an exact replica of a young woman’s bosom including the areola and the nipple’. In the interests of furthering the education of the male readers of Outlook, I have looked up the word ‘areola’ in the dictionary. It is the pigmented area around the nipple, the place you put your lips.
Last weekend I took another look at that magnificent monument and, yes, he is absolutely right. The dome does look like a bosom, one that is firm and ripe, the kind you see in some of our ancient sculptures. My meditative evening walks in that park are ruined. Now my eyes, inevitably, turn towards that bosom made of stone. I had never imagined that, one day, a dome on a mosque would disturb my sleep. The Sunset Club is Khushwant Singh at his naughtiest; this novel is not meant for the prudish.
The plot is simple enough. Three men meet almost every day in Lodhi Gardens around sunset. Preetam Sharma, Boota Singh and Nawab Barkatullah Baig are all in their late eighties, their sunset years. They sit on a bench and bitch and moan about their infirmities and the indignities of age. They say outrageously rude things about each other and everyone else. On most days, they reminisce about their sexual exploits or the lack of them. Crucially, they are intimate friends.
Preetam Sharma is modelled on Prem Kirpal, someone I knew well. He was our education secretary and he did a stint with UNESCO in Paris. Prem was one of the nicest, kindest men I have known. He was a weekend painter and his paintings were truly terrible. They hung on his wall and I was forewarned not to admire them. He had the habit of taking them down and gifting them to you if you did so. He also wrote bad poetry that he printed himself in Khan Market. At one time he was in love with Kanwal, who had movie star looks. But she married Khushwant and Prem died a bachelor. Friends suspected that he was a virgin till the end.
The novel goes through 12 months of the year. May is the month of laburnums... ‘like a good-looking woman without character’.
Boota Singh is based on the author himself. The location of his residence, drinking single malts at seven every evening, the son’s passion for golf are some of the easier giveaways. It is for the reader to figure out how much of himself Khushwant Singh has put in Boota Singh and how much of it is made up. Boota enjoys farting and revels in inhaling the stink he produces. He continues to have wet dreams in old age. The nawab, a hakeem of sorts, informs him that people with gas problems don’t make good lovers; they rarely bring a woman to a climax. And constipation induces discharge of semen in the middle of the night. The Sunset Club is that kind of novel, not everyone’s cup of tea.
Of the three, only the nawab is a wholly imagined character. He is decadent and a sex maniac. His circumcised penis, we learn, is massive ‘like the Qutub Minar’. He married when he was eighteen and his bride sixteen. They made love six times a day; she preferred to lie on top and take charge. When she went to her parents to deliver, the nawab took the maidservants to bed and frequented the brothels in Chawri Bazaar. This book is not likely to appear on the syllabus of Mumbai University.
I would advise prudish readers to persevere, skip the dirty bits and they will be amply rewarded. The novel is beautifully written: ‘By the end of January, winter loosens its grip; by sunrise, foggy dawns turn into sunny mornings; the time for flowers and the calling of barbets is round the corner.’
The novel takes us through the twelve months of the year. May is the month of laburnums, a flower without fragrance ‘like a good-looking woman without character’. But laburnum’s opulence is ‘a mass of canary gold dripping down like bunches of Kandahar grapes’. When the heat of June is over in Delhi, ‘the stormy moisture-laden winds shake trees and send their branches swirling like dancing dervishes’. There are wonderful, lyrical descriptions of flora and fauna of northern India.
R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao were some of Khushwant Singh’s contemporaries. They have all left. Today, he stands alone. At the age of ninety-six, he continues to be prolific and writes with wit, elegance and economy that would be the envy of writers half his age.