A news ticker on a Pakistani TV channel last week left me in some grief, especially the part of my Khushwant Singh-inspired irreverent side, over the loss of a great icon.
To my lasting regret, I never got to see in person the man I most admired for indulging a “freehand” almost as if he wanted to provoke a reaction, which of course, he did.
Being a self-proclaimed agnostic, he couldn’t fathom the dependence of people on faith, and yet, not only painstakingly authored A History of the Sikhs, but also had Kalima - the Muslim article of faith - displayed in bold Arabic inscription at his residence.
A B S Jafri, one of the pre-eminent journalists of the Partition era, and my mentor in his last years, related an anecdote about this interesting side of Khushwant.
Jafri recalled: “When I went to meet him, I saw this big inscription cast in iron - Allah in Arabic - hanging over the head of where Khushwant was seated. Taken by surprise, I just said, by way of astonishment, ‘this is huge’.”
“A smile parted Khushwant’s lips and he pulled out the top drawer of the table in front of him, saying: “Here is the miniature replica.”
My love of all things Khushwant goes back slightly over two decades. The rites of passage were initiated as a student in New Delhi when Portrait of a lady — Singh’s account of his grandmother, and part of the English course - brought home a certain profoundness.
But from my time as a freshman, I rarely missed his syndicated column With Malice Towards One & All - with the signature logo (crafted by famed illustrator Mario de Miranda) depicting the Sardarji ensconced in the light bulb.
The light may have switched off just one short of a magnificent century, but Mario has to be credited a decent percentage for the instant seduction!
In Pakistan, I was drawn to his writing basically for two reasons: one, his irreverence to everything that most people clung to for dear life and; two, his trademark wit. It was a lethal combination. He was a born raconteur, an indulgent name-dropper, who habitually delighted in rubbing the authority the wrong way.
Few people made an impact like him with a vocabulary that even school-going kids could relate to. In a manner of speaking, he made simplicity the cornerstone of how a life ought to be lived and related to.
And so it became a hobby to collect the Singh-edited issues of The Illustrated Weekly of India from wherever one could lay one’s hands on. One has read almost all of his published oeuvre, including the ones with lesser métier like the series of Khushwant’s Joke Book.
Because he was unabashedly vocal about his risque side, it was all taken in good spirit. At least, one hasn’t seen a celebrity loved so much more by women despite the obvious case of “wobbly knees” not entirely down to old age!
Consider this: When Fatima Bhutto, the niece of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, went to India to promote her controversial memoir Songs of Blood and Sword in 2010, like elsewhere, Khushwant Singh, too, felt constrained to rave about her looks like a smitten teen crush.
Describing her as a “stunner”, he also had an eye for detail well past his age of 95: “the pinhead of a diamond sparkling on the left side of her nose and her long jet-black curly hair falling on her shoulders.”
The only difference was that while every foreign writer, who was swayed by Ms Bhutto’s “good looks” in their reviews in the foreign press got a roasting in Pakistan for not being able to see beyond beauty, not a word was uttered for Khushwant.
That’s the measure of the man, loved for his free spirit and therefore, seen in a different light - like the Sardarji in the light bulb.
Pakistan and Khushwant Singh go back a long way, of course. He was born in Hadali in what became the independent state of Pakistan in 1947 and studied law at the prestigious Government College Lahore. Very few people may know that Khushwant was invited by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, to become a judge after independence, but he chose to pursue a career in the UK.
His seminal account Train to Pakistan was first published under a different title (Mano Majra), but it sold well only after the initial title was changed.
But it is obvious that he had a soft corner for Pakistan — the few things that melted him was any mention of his birthplace and he would often inquire from Pakistani visitors about it.
It is a well-known fact that you could not meet Khushwant without prior appointment and breaching the familiar “Please-do-not-ring-the-bell-unless-you-are-expected” sign at his Sujan Singh Park residence was next to impossible, but when a friend took a chance, in person, last year — after years of failed networking — he was rewarded because he had come all the way from Pakistan.
“I am a Pakistani first. Whenever I have gone to Pakistan I always felt that I am home,” is how effusively Khushwant Singh gave his heart to the visitor before asking this friend not to insist on taking him to Pakistan “because then I won’t return” .
In a touching gesture, his son Rahul Singh has saved some of his father’s ashes after one regular Pakistani visitor to the Sujan Singh Park residence and friend pleaded that he wanted to bury them at Khushwant Singh’s birthplace in Pakistan.
Perhaps, the most loved Indian in Pakistan, suffice it to say, he will be equally missed in Pakistan as in India.
♦ The writer has lived and studied both in Pakistan and India. He is Features Editor.