The Train has left, with the Master aboard

The chirpy and witty Sardar, who celebrated life with wine, women and letters, finally left his station without a return ticket. Khushwant Singh, the author of acclaimed partition saga ‘Train to Pakistan’, left behind a mountain of words he weaved on lives, both fictional and non-fictional.

With the latest gossips on lips and a glass of scotch in his hand, he entertained the ‘who-is-who’ of the capital in the evening durbars at his home in Sujan Singh Park, near the posh Khan Market in Delhi, before he fell ill. He even loaned Manmohan Singh Rs 2 lakh when the Prime Minister needed money to hire taxis for campaigning when he contested for South Delhi Lok Sabha seat.

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Singh, who edited the Hindustan Times and Illustrated Weekly of India, was close to Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi and supported Emergency only to earn the wrath of liberals. He fell foul of Indira after he supported Maneka Gandhi after Sanjay’s death and Singh’s son Rahul believed that his father was politically naïve. “He became close to Indira Gandhi but championed the cause of Maneka Gandhi after the death of Sanjay Gandhi. Later, he fell out with the same Maneka,” the son said.

If one knows Singh only for “naughty” writings, then he may be doing an injustice to a writer on history of Sikhs or Ghadar movement, the first armed rebellion in India, or of Maharaja Ranjit Singh besides his novels like ‘Delhi’.

Singh fell short by 10 months to hit a century in life but he never missed the bull’s eye whenever he picked up his pen, whether it was his regular ‘With Malice towards One and All’ column or his short stories or novels, which became a rarity in the past couple of years.

As a writer, Singh remained the same, witty and sharp, as in his youthful days when he even wrote his own obituary. It was in 1943 at the age of 28 when he imagined how ‘The Tribune’ would announce the news of his death in front page with a small photograph.

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He imagined the headline would read ‘Sardar Khushwant Singh Dead’ along with the text, “we regret to announce the sudden death of Sardar Khushwant Singh at 6 pm last evening. He leaves behind a young widow, two infant children and a large number of friends and admirers. Amongst those who called at the late Sardar’s residence were the PA to the chief justice, several ministers, and judges of the high court.”

Seventy-one years ago, he might have wanted a front-page report on his death in a newspaper in Punjab but now he has grown to such proportions that prominent ones abroad and publications in the remotest corner of India would devote pages for him.

Singh’s brush with obituaries did not end there and a friend-journalist Dhiren Bhagat published a ‘pre-obituary’ in now-defunct Sunday Observer in 1983.

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Bhagat summed up the colourful Sardar: “Contradictions surrounded Khushwant at every stage of his life. He strove to give the impression that he was a drunken slob yet he was one of the most hard working and punctual men I knew. He professed agnosticism and yet enjoyed kirtan as only few can and does. He was known nationally as a celebrated lecher but for the past 30 years at least it was a hot-water-bottle that warmed his bed.”

Khushwant later remembered Bhagat in 1990 while reviewing ‘The Contemporary Conservative: Selected Writings of Dhiren Bhagat’ edited by Salman Khurshid. “The score was more than settled in my favour as I, 40 years older than him, am alive. Dhiren had met his end in a car accident a month earlier in November.”

Death was “rarely spoken about in our homes” but in the past years, Singh continuously broached about it. He remembered his wife’s death and how he wanted to face it alone.

PS: A BIG THANK YOU to ANAND (HARIDAS) CHETTAN for the TITLE and discussions on Sardar throughout the day, to SREEPARNA and HARIPRIYA for patient reading and interventions, to ANNIE for her incisive comments.

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on March 21, 2014 http://www.deccanherald.com/content/393514/train-pakistan-stops-forever.html)

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