Home Literature Remembering Khushwant Singh

Remembering Khushwant Singh

By: Misbahuddin Mirza

I was eight years old when one of my friends introduced me to the intoxicating world of reading comics. This was the beginning of my nine-year-old incurable addiction to obsessive marathon reading. When I was not outside playing cricket, kabbadi, marbles, gilli-danda, or swimming I would be sprawled out with ‘Classics Illustrated Junior comics,’ transforming myself into a prince riding out to rescue Rapunzel from the bad witch, or become one of Enid Blyton’s ‘Secret Seven,’ members out to track the bad guy. I was perfectly happy to stay lost in my make belief fantasy world with my favorite characters from Dennis the menace to Beetle Bailey to Richie Rich, and beyond. Then Khushwant Singh happened.

Each evening when my dad returned home from work, he would bring along a different magazine – one of his friend at work had organized a private mini-library, where some friends would pitch-in to have several latest magazines delivered to the office each week, and each friend would then borrow a publication each afternoon. My favorite magazine was the ‘Illustrated Weekly of India,’ because it carried two pages of comics in the back, from four different sets – including Phantom, and Mandrake the magician. Reading this took only a few moments – and then the agonizing wait for the next week to see what happened next in the continued series of Phantom and Mandrake stories. Once I was done with the comics, the Illustrated Weekly did not have much to offer to a very young reader. Until one day, when for some strange reason, I decided to flip through the pages, and happened to read the ‘letters to the editor,’ section titled “Bouquets and Brickbats.” The letter was a lengthy scathing attack on the editor – Khushwant Singh. ‘Wow! Grown-ups don’t mind letting the world see such criticism of themselves,’ I thought. This honesty and openness somehow appealed to my young mind.

Sometime soon after, having nothing else to read, I decided to read what I later came to know as the editor’s page, just because it happened to have a curious depiction of a Sikh man with a pen and writing pad sitting inside a light bulb.  It was a funny, entertaining piece, that I thoroughly enjoyed. This was probably the turning point when I decided that grown-ups’ articles were also entertaining and enjoyable. I looked up the writer’s name – Khushwant Singh – and decided to look out for his writings. What followed was a profoundly fun, entertaining, and informative and regular reading of Singh’s articles, until he quit the Illustrated Weekly of India. Then I picked up his trail when he started writing for the Sunday magazine. But, by that time, I had read gazillions of books, including almost every novel written by James Hadley Chase, and had voluntarily given up my binge reading to concentrate on my efforts to get into engineering school.

However, the happy marks left on my memory by Khushwant Singh’s writings are still crystal clear. He would take an ordinary incident and write about it in a way that it etched his article firmly in your permanent memory. He wrote clearly, concisely, honestly, and more importantly in such a witty and entertaining way, that you just could not stop reading until the article’s conclusion.

He wrote on various topics, often mundane, but, yet, managed to turn each one into a masterpiece. He did not take himself seriously and poked fun at himself, for instance when he wrote about the time when he had checked into a weight loss resort at a five-star Bombay hotel. He described that at check-in time he was given a large bowl, with instructions that he was free to eat anything to his heart’s content, as long as he put exactly the same amount in the bowl, and was asked to return after 24 hours with the bowl. Then he described the 24 hours later-scene, where the nutritionist gently points out to Singh to observe and comment on the huge bowl, now overflowing with decaying food, emanating a putrid odor.

He wrote about the time when he had asked all his grownup brothers to stand in a line in his living room and asked a visiting European lady guest to guess his brothers ages. He described that after a lot of effort, the lady finally pointed out to two of his brothers saying that those two looked like they were about six months apart. Singh then wrote how he had to gently point out to the visitor that ‘the process took a little longer than six months in India.’

Once he described a first-time British visitor to India, staying in a forest side villa, describing an elephant that had strayed into her backyard, over the telephone, as she looked through her backyard window in horror. ‘It is black, it is huge, it has tails on both sides… and it is using one of its tails to pluck cabbages out of the ground… and wait, I can’t tell you what it is now doing with the plucked cabbages.’

Later, I learnt that Singh wrote stuff that generated a lot of controversy. But, it is amazing that a mediocre student, could evolve into such a successful and talented writer. When he died at age 99, instead of writing an obituary, many writers simply used the epitaph that Singh had penned for himself:

“Here lies one who spared neither man nor God

Waste not your tears on him, he was a sod

Writing nasty things he regarded as great fun

Thank the Lord he is dead, this son of a gun.”

(Death at my Doorstep, Roli Books)

Singh Saheb, I know you will never read this article, and I know that we will never meet. But, I feel terribly guilty of not having made the effort to meet you – I know you were an agnostic and that you were proud of your background; but, as a lifetime admirer of your writing style, I would have tried to cajole you into following my spiritual quest. Maybe you would have laughed heartily at my effort, but, I know you would definitely not be mad at me for the well-intentioned effort. I am also absolutely sure that we would have become best friends.

Misbahuddin Mirza is a licensed Professional Engineer, registered in the States of New York and New Jersey. He is the author of the iBook Illustrated Muslim Travel Guide to Jerusalem. He has written for major US and Indian publications.