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Book Review : Khushwant Singh

Book Review

Absolute Khushwant:

Penguin India

Pages 189

Price Rs 250

Khushwant Singh with Humra Quaraishi

Khushwant says–There’s no point in writing if you are not honest. So taking a cue let me begin by saying:  this is an apology of a book. Maybe that’s why he calls  publishers `brothel-keepers’. Also I’m not quite sure if it’s an appropriate epilogue to his great writing life, or one he would like to be remembered by.  (An eulogistic Preface, in pared words ideas simply and masterfully told,  and the whole ably put together by Humra Quaraishi, yet it seems as if  the man Khushwant wants us to see not is not the man he really is— he only  peeps out when he thinks no one is looking.)

But he says he’s never been bothered by his reputation. Nevertheless, why so uneasy—why the need to tell posterity  the same things over again. Or does he not quite trust what `they’ will say about him, a desire  to rest all  controversies; be it the Emergency, Maneka, Sanjay or Indira Gandhi.  Better for K have the last word on K.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Khushwant—he’s a very nice man to know. (When I met him first he talked of my Kashmiri aunts, Nona and Ranjana Handoo,  whom young men courted in the Anglicized circles of Mussoorie and Simla.) Yes like me, all sorts of women like him, well-connected ingénues, middle-aged angst- ridden talented matrons, natty socialites;  they all want to either know him or write about him. What can a poor generous old man do, but help them.  And mostly he  gets it right.( Except  the odd goof up like his flattery of a writer ( now diseased ), later accused of  plagiarism.)

For sure K.’s  last years will be remembered as a man of extraordinary writing stamina, one who never let go.  Though he himself says  he has never rated himself highly as a writer. Certainly his prose does not put him in the haloed circle of  Ghosh and Desai, but of his huge popularity there is no doubt. “You have made bullshit an art form.” scoffed an Editor of The Times, he recalls.  If only  some of  his priceless bullshit pieces were part of this collection of 33 short essays,  it would have been a treat. Instead what we have are his platitudes on Religion,  Love, Life, Age, Death, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa etc.

Unquestionably he has come to symbolize `English-speaking’ literary Delhi, and represent what its audience likes. Lately not a year passes without a mini fest-type do toasting him. Almost as if he’s been hallmarked as its quintessential 20th century writer. Why not–look at his phenomenal output of two dozen works or more—Train to Pakistan, annals on History of the Sikhs, Delhi, his prolific columns, et al. Collect them and you have a veritable encyclopedia of the times.

But it also brings us to two questions;  what of Khushwant’s  will really endure. And when does a writer realize talent alone will not suffice—that he/she needs a little soda bicarb to create the froth to rise. He/she needs to brand himselfeven ` a dirty old  man’ nomenclature will do.

Admits writer Lev  Grossman “ brand management, (sic) for better or worse,  has become a writers’ job in these late,  decadent days”,  on yet another book out this month, Freedom. ( Time: Aug:2010).  Yet, Grossman adds its American author Jonathan Franzen, is hopeless at it. Despite this, his  novel that took 9 years in the making will put him in the league of  Delilo, Salinger, Updike, Hemmingway and Scott. One has only to look at Time magazine’s cover to appreciate what is truly worthy of celebration. Penguin: are you listening?

Meanwhile what Khushwant  will also be specially remembered for is changing the way we look at journalism—how to promote our friends and displease our foes. His hugely entertaining columns can make or break reputations. But on politics,  his issue of  royal diktats are a bit alarming! For example, after her death,  Nandini Satpathy was once dismissed as a  poor drunk—one weakness alone summed her up. (Needless to add Naveen Patnaik was in the wings). However readable, unqualified diktats are not good journalism,  just opined struts that exalt or put down incontrovertibly.

Absolute too has its share of them –eg., –Manmohan Singh is our best Prime Minister yet—better than Nehru who was prone to nepotism. Surely Nehru was a statesman,  a politician, a litterateur .  He actually fought for India’s freedom, took risks and spent 9 years in prison. Certainly an erudite comparison between the two is worthy reading, but just some salacious tit-bits to sum up a leader! Have a heart K., the leagues are not comparable. And the right-thinking Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would be the first person to gall at such a paean to him.

To K’s credit he is taken seriously when spouting these `isms’ because of his immense following. He subtly (often not so subtly) laces salacious gossip with true scholarship,  treading the line gingerly and astutely with a `punch and embrace’ technique. In decapitating Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi,  in one fell sweep idolizing Sanjay, kicking Maneka, and that last pot-shot about Rahul’s grand vision vis a vis Rajiv’s, he thinks he’s got India’s first family neatly wrapped. Where is the vein split open sir, where `o’ where are the nuances and  insights, why doesn’t he leave you gasping for more.  If only politics was crafty penmanship alone!

To sum up, in some imprints K’s lent his name to including this,  he’s decimated the idea of a writer burning the midnight oil in his garret. And Delhi ‘s `Book-launch crowd’ laps it up—just watch debutante writers eschew the `let the enlightened page speak for itself’ in favour of  (!) at the next do. Signs of the times,  baby. As a Lady socialite  at the book’s launch said–“Let’s face it, I’m famous.”  Yeah,  the bottomline.

Manju Kak