By Mayank Jain:
“Wit beyond measure is a man’s greatest treasure”
Not very far from the knighthood of being the wittiest, most interesting and yet brutally honest of them all, lived a man beyond his times, Khushwant Singh. The man was like no other and our first encounter was through NCERT’s faith in his story “The Portrait of a Lady” for young readers. It didn’t take long for him to capture me through his memoir of his own grandmother and before I knew it, I was in the spell. His writing, his attempts at imagery and his narration that didn’t leave anything to ambiguity hooked me to no end and soon I was looking for another one of his works all around.
“One Sikh may argue with one Sikh. One Sikh must never argue with two Sikhs—certainly not after dark.”Â
The man lived life on his own terms and survived the harshest of attacks by the so called ‘critics’ who take it upon themselves to set the order of the world right. They couldn’t make him budge from his tongue in cheek nature and commentary that was writing “With Malice, towards one and all”.
“When the world is itself draped in the mantle of night, the mirror of the mind is like the sky in which thoughts twinkle like stars.”Â
It was indeed exciting to grab a copy of the Hindustan Times every Sunday just to read that little column before the editorial which had one witty poem. I probably didn’t even know the word ‘satire’ or ‘sarcasm’ before I read him, but his words were meant to kill. It was quite liberating for a 16-year-old me to read about drinking from an ageing writer in these words:
“Drinking is not a vice, drunkenness is. Our aim should be to produce good quality beverages with low alcoholic content like lager, cider and wines rather than spirits like whiskey, gin, rum or feni. And at low prices which the poor can afford to buy. But will our stupid politicians ever learn any lessons?”
Why did I like him so much? I had no clear answers. I still don’t but he still remains close to my heart for a lot of reasons. His piercing wit is one of them and his belligerence, another. The man did a lot of good in his life. He was honoured with the Padma Bhushan in 1974 which he returned in 1984 as a protest against the storming of Golden Temple by the army. He also received the Padma Vibhushan in 2007.
“If the blanket of man’s fate has been woven black, even the waters of Zam Zam and Kausar cannot wash it white.”
But among many other things, he has been accused of writing too much about sex and has been called a ‘lecherous’ man in the past to which I have no loathing since each writer should be free to write. Critics also point fingers at him for always supporting Congress and also favouring the emergency of 1975-77. His recommendation was also responsible for the ban of Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel “The Satanic Verses” (the print edition of which remains banned in India till date) even before the Iranian Ayatollah banned it.
“Morality is a matter of money. Poor people cannot afford to have morals. So they have religion.”
None of it will ever squander my admiration for him as a writer and journalist who always believed in saying things that needed to be said. Also, what is a man without a little malice?
“When you have counted eighty years and more, Time and Fate will batter at your door; But if you should survive to be a hundred, Your life will be death to the very core.”
Khushwant Singh, born on 2nd February, 1915 lived to see a ripe old age of 99 years and peacefully died this morning in his apartment near Khan Market, Delhi and left behind a legacy that is hard to match and a currency of wit that will be valued forever.
There have been many people who saw more success, more admiration and more following than he could, but probably he was the last one of his kind. The kind that had a magnanimous heart full of “Love and A Little Malice”. There won’t be another Khushwant Singh and that’s a big enough loss for us to mourn though he would like all of us to drink wine and crack humour on him being too ripe a mango. Alas, these footprints he left on my literary soul are indelible!
“Not forever does the bulbul sing,
In balmy shades of bowers,
Not forever lasts the spring,
Nor ever blossom the flowers,
Not forever reigneth joy,
Sets the sun on days of bliss,
Friendships not forever last,
They know not life, who know not this.”