The distinguished writer Khushwant Singh was a multi-faceted man. He had a wide range of interests: pursuit of knowledge, literature, Urdu poetry, journalism, religion, nature, travel etc. He upheld truth and wrote no-hold-barred pieces. He particularly enjoyed puncturing windbags. His writings were full of insights; he never compromised on facts.
Towards the end of his life, he was obsessed with death wish. He wrote: "The truth is that I want to die. I have lived long enough and (am) fed up of life. I have nothing to look forward to. Whatsoever I wanted to do in life, I have done. So what is the point of hanging onto life with nothing whatsoever left to do" (September 2012).
His friends and fans felt his will to live weakening steadily. He admired Ghalib whose "diwan" (Collection of ghazals, poems) he kept by his bed side. Along with other books, Urdu poetry surely provided him solace and comfort. It gave him "sakoon-e-dil" – peace of mind.
I had met Khushwant Singh on three occasions. The last one in late 80's (also a memorable one) was at a Media Institute in the capital where he had been invited for a convocation address. Being a visiting faculty I shared the dias with him.
After the convocation, we had a brief chat. He was fascinated by my knowledge of Urdu poetry and admired my memory. When I told him in the post-Faiz era, the new generation poets are very talented. "I get very little time to read new Urdu poetry", he said.
Subsequently, I used to send him select Urdu couplets. He was quick to acknowledge these on a post card (his known trade mark).
In his last pieces there were direct and indirect references to death. He quoted Iqbal:
Nishan-e-mard-e-momin ba too goyam
Choon marg aayad tabassum bar-lab-e-ost
The identity of a man of faith, you enquired
He faces death with a smile.
Zauq's famous couplet:
Layi hayaat a aye qazaa le chali chale
Apni khushi naa aaye naa apni khushi chale
Life brought me, death snatched me away
I came not on my own pleasure. I go not on my will.
On one occasion, I sent him select Urdu couplets on death. Khushwant Singh enjoyed reading them and replied "Compile them in a book".
A few of these Urdu couplets I reproduce below (English version is free rendering).
Maut kaa ek din mu'ayyan hai
Neend kyon raat bhar nahin aati (Ghalib)
Predestined and fixed is the day of death
Why then sleep eludes me and sleepless are the nights.
Hosh-o-hawaas tab-o-twan ja chuke hain Daag
Ab hum bhi janae waale hain, samaan to gayaa (Daag)
My senses and reflexes have parted company, Daag,
And so have the energy and vigour
The baggage has left already
I too am ready to leave
Main maikade ki raah se ho kar nikal gayaa
Verna safar hayaat ka kitna taveel tha (Addam)
Too long and arduous was life's journey
But I made a choice: a short cut
I floated through the tavern.
Akhir iski sookhi lakdi ek chita ke kaam aye
Hare Bhare kisse sunte the jis peepal ke bare mein (Prem Varbratni)
Fables of fun and laughter, we used to hear
Of the lush green peepal tree
End result: its dry timber.
Was put to use to light a pyre
Saqia yahaan lag raha hai chal chalo
Jab talak bus chal sake sagar chale (Mir Dard)
In full swing is the rhythm and flow of footfall
The rush of departures
Let the rounds continue uninterrupted
Drink after drink
Ahde jawani ro ro kata, peeri mein leen ankhen moond
Yani raat bahut jage the subha hooey araam kiya (Mir Taqi Mir)
The period of youth was spent shedding tears
In old age I closed the eyes and slumbered
That is: sleepless I had spent the night
When the dawn broke it was time to rest
Ho chuki Ghalib balaein sab tamaam
Ek marge nagahani aur hai (Ghalib)
Only the unpredictable death remains
All other disasters are over.
The following couplet of Akbar Allahabadi I did not include (deliberately? Perhaps)
Buddhon ke saath log kahaan tak wafa karein
Buddhon ko bhi jo maut na a aye to kya karein
For how long can we serve
And take care of the elderly
But helpless are the elderly
If death eludes them what can they do?