In the early 80s, Anjum Niaz, then working for The Weekend Star (which I edited at the time), returned from Delhi with an exhaustive interview with Khushwant Singh. In a rambling interview, as I recall, Singh expressed a great deal of affection for Pakistan and talked nostalgically about the friends he had left behind. However, what attracted more interest was the backdrop to Singh’s picture – the curtain behind him was block printed with the words Assalam Wailukum all over it. That was one of the first inklings of Singh’s warmth towards Pakistan and Muslims.
Understandably, the death of no other Indian has perhaps been mourned so widely in Pakistan as Singh’s. When he died on March 20th this year at the age of 99, newspapers here carried many personal reminiscences of Pakistanis who had met him in his home in Delhi, many of whom continued to stay in touch. His doors were always open to Pakistanis, it was widely reported, though lately his ill health forced the duration of visits to be shortened.
Born in Hadali in the Punjab district of Khushab in February 1915, Singh studied at Government College Lahore, where he made lasting friendships. The mass scale killing on both sides in which his community, the Sikhs, was both perpetrator and victim, led the family to flee to India in the aftermath of Partition. The trauma stayed with him and was best reflected in his highly acclaimed novel Train to Pakistan published in 1956. A no holds barred account of the barbarism shown by all sides in the religious divide, the novel takes no sides; it is filled with villains and just a few heroes.
It was in Delhi, where his family settled and prospered, that Singh discovered his true passion – journalism. However, a stint in diplomacy preceded his plunge into journalism. In fact, his entry into journalism started with the electronic, rather than the print media, when he joined All India Radio. But his wit, irreverence and ability to deal punches where needed, were best suited to print journalism. Perhaps his most popular and longest running column was ‘With malice towards one and all,’ encapsulating quintessential Singh writing that while taking on all and sundry managed to remain inoffensive – its title notwithstanding. It first appeared in The Illustrated Weekly of India, accompanied by a caricature of Singh by the well known Goan cartoonist Mario Miranda.
Singh’s first job as editor was with The Illustrated Weekly, where during a nine year stint, he imprinted it with such a strong personal stamp that his successors had their work cutout for them. In fact, The Illustrated Weekly was at its peak in circulation during his editorship, and when he left unceremoniously, it began to take a nosedive. Even Pritish Nandy who became editor in the 80s and revamped the weekly, could not succeed in raising the circulation. It seemed that readers linked Singh inextricably with The Illustrated Weekly and his departure robbed the publication of its main attraction and character. Singh also edited two other publications, the Hindustan Times (1980-83) and The National Herald.
Singh’s journalistic career was not entirely glorious. As editor of The Illustrated Weekly, he supported the imposition of the Emergency by the Government of Indira Gandhi and the press censorship that came with it.
He had already become quite close to the Gandhi family, particularly to Mrs Gandhi’s unpopular younger son, Sanjay. The Emergency, which remained in force from 1975 to 1977, stifled dissent and apart from opposition politicians, many journalists were imprisoned – including the highly respected senior journalist, Kuldip Nayar. Earlier in 1974, Singh was awarded the Padma Bhushan.
Singh’s disenchantment with the Gandhis came with the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar by Indian troops. His disillusionment deepened with the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, following the assassination of Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. The massacre of Sikhs led by cadres of the Congress Party brought home to him the tragic reality of communal politics in independent India. It was at this time that Singh decided to return the Padma Bhushan awarded to him a decade earlier. Although he never disowned his secular beliefs, the violence against his community evoked his identity as a Sikh, an identity he began to own more deeply. His two-volume A History of the Sikhs is considered both a rich account of the origin and evolution of various aspects of Sikhism and a labour of love.
Whether it was a newspaper column or a book, Singh had a great talent for infusing humour into most of his writing. Among my personal favourites is Delhi: a Novel. Published in 1990, it is a bawdy and rollicking account of the history of Delhi as told by a narrator who happens to be a journalist (a barely disguised Singh himself). Interspersed with the lead character’s sexual encounters is the history of Delhi itself – narrated in a way that only someone totally in love with the city can.
Singh’s aversion to communal politics was not restricted to the mistreatment of the Sikhs alone. The deep sorrow he felt at the killing of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 is reflected in his book The End of India. Strongly countering the narrative propagated by Hindu extremists, he used his knowledge of history to show how successive invaders – and not Muslims alone – had destroyed places of worship and persecuted the minorities in their efforts to establish their writ. The Gujarat killings, in which the state government was complicit, made Singh realise that this was not the India the freedom fighters had struggled for.
Wicked, witty, irreverent, but never irrelevant, Singh always managed to put across a tolerant point of view. He might have erred in siding with the political leadership at the wrong time, but his humanism and secular values could not be questioned. Substance, with style, that was the essence of Singh’s writing. Young journalists can still learn a lot from the late maestro who left a formidable legacy at the age of 99.
Zohra Yusuf is Executive Creative Director, Spectrum Y&R.