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Obituary : Khushwant Singh

Khushwant Singh once said–There’s no point in writing if you are not honest. So taking a cue let me begin by saying, I wonder what he really wanted t be remembered by. His last writing years had me confused.

For sure he will be remembered as a man of extraordinary writing stamina, one who never let go. Though he himself said he had never rated himself highly as a writer. Certainly his prose did 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 once recalled.

Khushwant said he was never been bothered by his reputation. Nevertheless, he felt the need to tell posterity the same things over again. Did he not quite trust what `they’ would say about him, a desire to rest all controversies; be it the Emergency, Maneka, Sanjay or Indira Gandhi. Better for K have had the last word on K.

I liked Khushwant—he was a very nice man to know. Yes like me, all sorts of women liked him, well-connected ingénues, middle-aged angst- ridden talented matrons, natty socialites; they all want to either know him or write about him. Unquestionably he came to symbolize `English-speaking’ literary Delhi, and represent what its audience liked. In the last decade of his life not a year passed 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 himself— even ` 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.

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. Some more have been , –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 was worthy reading, but just some salacious tit-bits to sum up a leader!

To K’s credit he was taken seriously when spouting these `isms’ because of his immense following. He subtly (often not so subtly) laced 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 thought he 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 , he decimated the idea of a writer burning the midnight oil in his garret. And Delhi ‘s `Book-launch crowd’ lapped it up. Signs of the times, baby. As a Lady socialite at one his book’s launches said–“Let’s face it, I’m famous.” Yeah, in the end, sadly, that was Khushwant’s bottomline.

Manju Kak