People, places, memories ... 75+ years of vintage Khushwant Singh
(This review was written for Sunday Mid-day and appeared in the issue dated 23 August 2009)
The last book I read about the Emergency was many years ago and it depressed me so badly that every time I hear the words “Rohinton Mistry” or “A Fine Balance” my hair stands on end and I shiver, tormented with images of lusty young men being dragged away to have their wedding tackle interfered with in a nasty way.
So this book was actually lying about my house for weeks and I was avoiding it.
Over a period I noticed others in the family chatting away knowledgeably about Amrita Sher-Gill’s energetic libido and Protima Bedi’s admission that she enjoyed sex as many as six times a day – and even the occasion on which R.K. Narayan sat stoically through a porn movie.
Curiosity piqued, I picked it up. It was not an endless thesis justifying Khushwant Singh’s controversial support of Indira Gandhi during the darkest phase of India’s democracy. Instead, these essays and profiles cover a wide range of subjects and personalities, and span nearly 80 years.
Khushwant Singh’s style is unpretentious and engaging, and his intelligence and years of experience have given him a rare and precious view of the world. His sense of the absurd puts in perspective much that our innate national trait of pomposity has rendered straitlaced and unjustifiably self-important. He will have us remember, for instance that “Like most Indians, Nehru treated Whites with more courtesy than his countrymen” and that India’s godlike First Prime Minister was vain about his looks and that if his breakfast was late he would storm into the kitchen to berate his cook.
Missing from this book was his anecdote about the occasion when, as PR guy at the Indian High Commission in England, he had sent out press notes about the Indian PM’s visit and English subeditors, unfamiliar with the word “Pandit”, assumed it a proofing error. The country woke to headlines which proclaimed that Bandit Nehru had arrived in the UK.
Besides Nehru, this book also has reflections concerning Partition, the Sikhs, L.K. Advani, Qurratulain Hyder (“Aunty Subjantiwalli”), Firaq Gorakhpuri, G.D. Birla, Maharaja Ranjit Singh and many more.
When Khushwant Singh writes about Indians writing fiction in English, he regrets that no major work of fiction has come out of the history of India’s freedom movement or about Partition – modestly disregarding his own Train to Pakistan.
In his no-nonsense way he shares here his views on food, religion, the weather, wealth, kissing, old age, death and various other subjects – not forgetting to mention (more than once in this book) that he never bothers to have a bath because to thoroughly scrub essential locations of the body with a damp cloth is equally effective. Reading this as Pune pants with anxiety for our vagrant monsoon, I felt better about the water cuts.
When I closed the book, I thought about all the history and perspective it had given me and determined to recommend it to everyone I possibly could, requesting them to share it with their children and grandchildren, to whom it would give an unbiased and funny view of the world which gave rise to them.
Taking a fond last look at the cover, I realized with a start that I’d forgotten why on earth Khushwant Singh had supported the Emergency.