When two legendary editors get together for a no-holds-barred conversation ranging from sex, dirty jokes to Maneka's "badly brought up" son, Varun, there is really nothing to hide. The following are some excerpts from the conversation between Outlook's Editor-in-Chief Vinod Mehta and Khushwant Singh at the launch of Khushwant Singh's latest book, Why I Supported The Emergency: Essays and Profiles, edited and compiled by Sheela Reddy:
Vinod Mehta: Debonair had a thing called 'centrefold'. I used to consult Khushwant quite often on that matter. And so our friendship has grown since 1974. It had a few hiccups. I wrote a book on Bombay called Bombay - A Private View and Khushwant had a full chapter in that book. When I met Khushwant for an interview, I asked him, "What did you do in England when you were there for so many years? He replied: "Fucking, cheese and wine..." I have known him since then and it's been a pleasure.
Khushwant, I do not want to talk about the Emergency because that is so far away. But you write a lot about famous people who are dead. One of the charges made against you is that since dead people can't sue, you are rather unkind to them. Have you ever had any rule on writing about dead people? You want to be nice to them or you want to kick the boot in? I remember you wrote something about Rajni Patel...
Khushwant Singh (leaning forward to catch what Vinod is saying): Are you asking me why I write so much?
Vinod (speaking more loudly): No, No. I am asking you, do you have any rule when you write obituaries. One of the charges against you is that you are very unkind to famous people who are dead.
Khushwant: I have a different attitude to writing obituaries. Most people think that when a person dies, he somehow becomes a saint. And that you must only have nice things written about them. That's not my point of view. When you write an honest obituary about a person, if you think that person is a rascal, say so. In writing so, if relations get hurt, so be it. It does not matter. That's been my way of writing. I know when I go lots of people will have nasty things to say about me. I won't be there to read them but I hope my family will be able to take those things in their stride.
Vinod: In your 94 years of a very eventful existence, who is the most obnoxious person you ever met? Is it a long list?
Khushwant (laughing): In my long life, there are about three or four people I have really detested from the bottom of my heart. I think Krishna Menon is on top of my list because I served under him for four years. I knew what kind of person he was. There are others I won't like to mention. He is gone, so he cannot do anything to me. He cannot sue. That's the safety about an obituary. They cannot sue. Neither can their offspring for something you say about their ancestors. So it's pretty safe. There are about three or four others, but I think I will spare them.
Vinod : You cost me a friendship. When I was editor of Sunday Observer, you wrote something about your great friend Rajni Patel?
Khushwant: Rajni Patel was my friend from college days in England. I had known him. The man was the most unprincipled politician that I ran into. He ruled Maharashtra for some time ruthlessly. I have not the slightest doubt that he was also extremely corrupt. He made a lot of money. When I wrote his obituary, I did it with affection but I did not spare him.
Vinod: Malcolm Muggeridge once said that the British have sex on their brains and that's the wrong place to have it...
Khushwant: That's quite right.
Vinod: Do you think Indians also have sex on their brains? Do Indian talk more about sex than actually do it? Are we great talkers about sex? Do we talk more about sex and perform less?
Khushwant: Indians have it on their brains more than they have in the right place but as it happens, when you age, it automatically shifts from the middle to the head, and you are obsessed with it. It never leaves. It is something which is elemental, vital and far more important than other emotions like love or anger. This is elemental and it expresses itself in weird forms. You cannot suppress it, that's why things like celibacy do not work. Desire to have multiple relationships is also human. I wrote about the so-called happily married couple many times. Whether they do it or not, adultery is always at the back of the mind of both.
Vinod: You have written quite explicitly about sex in several of your books?
Khushwant: Yeah, I have a dirty mind. I have a vast collection of dirty jokes which are really funnier than ordinary Sardarji jokes or Parsi jokes or Gujju jokes. But unfortunately in this society, if I publish it, I will be behind bars for obscenity. But I have a collection which I hope will be posthumously published.
Vinod : As a literary kind of person, VS Naipaul once told me that he found writing about explicit sex very difficult because he was worried that his mother might read the book and will not talk to him ever again. Is writing about explicit sex very difficult, in literary terms?
Khushwant: I do not think it is done deliberately but it is so integral and important to one's life that you cannot really avoid writing about it. Human relationships are basically dictated by desire for sex.
Vinod: Is actual writing about explicit sex very difficult? People do say that sex is such an absurd act, what two people do to each other.
Khushwant: One reads so much about what people do to each other (in the name of sex) -- the law cases, in daily papers, from friends and their problems. I have realised how multiple the relationships between man and woman can be and what weird forms it takes sometimes. Some of them are quite unmentionable. So I feel you are being quite dishonest if you do not write about it.
Vinod: But is it difficult writing about it, describing things? You have written a lot about it. Do you find writing sex scenes easy or difficult?
Khushwant: There is not all that much sex in my writings. I have earned the name of dirty old man but apart from one or two incidences in my short stories or novels, most of what I have written about is very serious stuff -- history, biography, religion. Not being religious, I have written more on religion than any other Sikh alive today.
Vinod : Now a critical question, a million dollar question: How do you lure so many beautiful women? You are the most envied man in India.
Khushwant: I really have no idea but it is a fact that I have a lot of very attractive young ladies dropping in on me periodically and I thoroughly enjoy their company. But let me also add that as I get old, I also get very bored with them very soon and like (I do with) others, I send them packing at exactly quarter to eight. I do not mince my words. I tell them, ‘now you go’. I have had enough.
Vinod: Let's talk about journalism. What do you think of editors of today and how do they compare to the legends of your time?
Khushwant: In my time, the editor was the boss of every paper, particularly the magazines. Now there are national papers with all India circulations like Times of India, Hindustan Times, but I do not even know the name of the editor because he no longer runs the paper. It is either the owner or the proprietor. They take as much news as you can get in the headlines, in the front page, the rest is all Bollywood or dress designers and pretty girls. You look at all the papers, they are pretty unreadable. I read you because I find you readable. But I do not recall the names of other editors who I bother to read. (Ramachandra) Guha perhaps, but he is not an editor. There are a few journalists for whom I always stop and read because what they say is well-written and is plausible.
Vinod: But do you think editors of your time were a little pompous like Girilal Jain saying that I have written my editorial for two people in India -- the Prime Minister and myself?
Khushwant: No, it was (Dilip) Padgaonkar who said that he was the second-most important man in India after the prime minister. He was editing the Times of India at that time. In my time, S.M. Mulgoakar was a good writer. Frank Moraes was a good writer. But they are all in the past tense, I can think of no one in present times. I go through about six to eight newspapers everyday and most of my time is spent doing crossword puzzles because that's the only interesting thing I find in newspapers today.
Vinod: One great editor of Times of India, Mr N.J. Nanporia used to buy things from Sunday chor bazaar. One day, in one shop a chap came and said, "Good afternoon, Mr Nanporia." He kept following him. He kept wishing him "good afternoon" wherever Nanporia went. At the end, when Nanporia was getting into his car, he said, "You are a very nice chap but who are you? The man replied: "Sir, I am your chief reporter..." Do you think I am justified in calling my dog, Editor
Vinod : Graham Greene once said that a man should not be judged by his friends alone. He should actually be judged by the enemies he has. So who are your great enemies?
Khushwant: I have no enemy. Unless it is religious fundamentalists. I was worried when we had Bhindranwale and I had the nerve to write against him. I was under police protection. That's why I keep my fingers crossed.
Vinod: Can I ask you something about Mr L.K. Advani?
Khushwant: I was really disappointed with Mr Advani. I knew him and I signed his nomination papers when he fought the elections in Delhi because he was an able man. He spoke well and he was a clean man. I nominated his name and that was well calculated by his supporters because at that time, soon after 1984, the Sikhs were not willing to vote for the Congress. They did not know who to vote for. When they published his papers with me signing them, the Sikhs voted in his favour and he won quite easily. And he came to thank me. But when he started this rath yatra, I was really disappointed and I said so in a public meeting at India International Centre. He was then the Home Minister, he came with his Black Commandos and I was presiding because I was then with Penguin. I took the liberty of saying: "Mr Advani, I am here. I am not well but I am here and I want to say things to you which I may not say otherwise... You sowed the seeds of communal hatred in this country and the country will pay for it... I always believed that you are clean, honest and you do not womanise. Such men are dangerous."
Vinod: You were called Indira Gandhi's chamcha?
Khushwant: I supported her when I thought she was right in imposing the Emergency. With some reservations, I supported the Emergency proclaimed by Indira Gandhi on June 25, 1975. Let me explain why. I concede that the right to protest is integral to democracy. You can have public meetings to criticise or condemn government actions. You can take out processions, call for strikes and closure of businesses. But there must not be any coercion or violence. If there is any, it is the duty of the government to suppress it by force, if necessary.
But when she curbed the freedom of press during the Emergency, I withdrew my support. Indira Gandhi had the habit of snubbing whoever opposed her. She was waiting for a chance to snub me. I never gave her the chance as I never met her after that.
Vinod: Any regrets about being a great fan of Sanjay Gandhi?
Khushwant: He may have been impatient but he was right. We do need compulsory population control in this country. But how we go about it, I don’t know. I did support him and I have no regrets about it.
Vinod: But you also called him a bit of a goonda. Among contemporary Indians who are not dead, who is the one man that you admire the most?
Khushwant: The man I admire the most is Manmohan Singh. The man has ideals. I recall when he fought the elections in South Delhi against Vijay Kumar Malhotra. Three days before the polling, his son-in-law came to see me and said that we do not have the money to take voters to the poll. We need to hire hundreds of taxis and buses to take them there. I said: How much do you think it will be? He said, at least a couple of lakhs. So the next day I gave it to him in cash. After the election results, when Manmohan Singh had lost, he rang me up and asked me if I was alone and could he drop in. I said yes. He came carrying a bundle. He said, 'I believe you lent my son-in-law this money for my election to take voters to the poll, I have not spent it.’ And he gave it back to me. Can you think of another Indian politician today to do that kind of thing? My respect for the man went up.
Vinod: Just two more questions: What's the best joke you have heard? You have written so many of them.
Khushwant: All my best jokes are filthy jokes and I do not think it is fair to tell them (in public). But on another occasion, in my own home, I promise you a very jovial evening, full of dirty jokes.
Vinod : What would you say to Maneka and Varun Gandhi, if you met them today?
Khushwant: She has a badly brought up child. I could not believe the words that are being attributed to him. Of course, he first denied it but could not get out of it because it was recorded. You do not say abusive words for the Muslims and Sikhs in public because it's an ethnic insult. All his mother's relations are Sikhs. What he said about Muslims is totally unpardonable. I think he should be banned from fighting the elections but I am no one to say that. I hope that the electorate puts him out. But I suspect he will win that constituency.
Vinod : Now I must do your job and tell you a joke. Winston Churchill was a guest of President Roosevelt in the White House during the war. One day he called his PA to his bathroom to take dictation. When the PA went into the bathroom with his pad, he found Churchill stark naked with a cigar in his mouth and he kept dictating. Suddenly, there was knock on the door and Churchill went and opened the door and there was Roosevelt staring him in his face. Standing in his birthday suit, with quiet aplomb, he said: 'Mr President, you see, I have nothing to hide.' Long live Khushwant Singh.
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine