Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Goodbye Khushwant Singh

In 1989 VS Naipaul was travelling India to research for Million Mutinies Now. While on his way from one place to another in Mumbai he was reading a popular Indian magazine trying to understand the reason for its success. Meant for house wives, it was a lowbrow magazine covering issues of domesticity without any intellectual pretensions. After flipping through it, Naipaul decided that the magazine was popular with its readers because it didn’t intimidate them, a fact that made it endearing and friendly.

It would be unfair to compare an obscure magazine with a successful author journalist who wrote on a wide range of issues and was read equally widely for close to five decades. But many of Khushwant Singh’s readers would be tempted to draw this analogy between the magazine and Singh as a writer arguing that it’s the simplicity of his style which made him one of the most popular columnists and writers of India.

There are few writers and columnists who can connect with their readers so well. Khushwant Singh’s writing was never too deep or insightful but unpretentious and direct. There was another attribute of KS’s writing which was available in almost all his essays I read – I read almost all his essays and articles – brevity.

Except a few of his essays and articles, all his pieces were short, so you could know about historical personalities, famous entities, swathes of history (mostly Indian), books and writers reading two or three pages. He, in fact, had less patience for lengthy pieces or long books - he liked the quickies. This ability to cover lengthy subjects with brevity meant you never spent too long on any piece to know its subject from one end to another.

Although his simple style is much celebrated, not many readers have noticed that Khushwant Singh’s language was not always as simple as it had become later. If you read his early pieces from the 50 and 60s, the style is direct but the language is guilty of authorial indulgence. I think he did away with his turns of phrases and use of literary words as he started spending more time on journalism than novel writing. Or it could be that as India started becoming more and more comfortable with English, some heavy phrases which were in use in the 40s and 50s became obsolete and they fell off Khushwant’s writing.

One day, when the post partition riots were at their pick, Khushwant was driving to a place somewhere in north India. And he saw a group of Sikhs standing on the way. They hailed his car and asked Khushwant for a lift. Once in the car, they told they had just killed a train full of Muslims headed to Pakistan. And A Train to Pakistan was born, a tight novel with well-crafted  characters, and the milieu of a village in Punjab authentically created. Albeit, Train to Pakistan never found respect from critics who mostly call it a flimsy work.

It’s a novelist that Khushwant Singh had set out to become; journalism was just a career compromise although it brought him much more renown and success than novel writing. I have read all his short stories except one which he had written much later in life….I liked some of them, found some passable and some a little silly. 

But all of them were characterized by ribaldry with earthy humour which was Singh’s trademark and was available in all forms of his writings. Perhaps telling that Singh had set out to become a novelist is a little factually wrong. He had, in fact, not even set out to become a writer. He started considering writing as a career when the other careers he had pursued earlier - law and diplomacy - disappointed him. He used to call himself a briefless lawyer and a tactless diplomat who didn’t have too many career options before him.I read this many times in his columns and interviews, but don't really believe it.

I think that failure in other professions pushed him into writing and he became a famous writer - was a clever story he had created later, having found literary success. His law and diplomatic careers may have been disappointing but writing wasn’t an afterthought. He had written a collection of short stories – The Mark of Vishnu and Other Stories – while on a diplomatic assignment in Canada and the book had received good press in the west. 

Profiling Nirad C Chaudhuri, Khushwant Singh had written that Chaudhuri lived a dual life: when he stayed indoors he was in dhoti and kurta and ate on floor but when he stepped out he was in suit and hat. Khushwant Singh also had a duality to him, the Khushwant Singh that emerges from his writings – a fun-loving, garrulous, light-hearted, sex-obsessed Sardar and the other is how people who personally knew Singh describe him, a serious person who liked the company of women but was very decorous to them. I am not sure which one was the real Khushwant – maybe both of them or maybe how his readers knew him was just an image he had created of himself to find acceptability as a writer of light pieces.

So as obits are pouring in since Khushwant “‘made an exit” last week, what must the iconoclast, agnostic and loner (whose favorite place was graveyard because of its calm) be thinking sitting up there? He must be sipping his favorite scotch chota, chuckling and telling: “They still take me seriously!”

Death was among his lifelong obsessions - when he was 28 he had written a short story titled Obituary. Goodbye, Khushwant Singh.

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