In the editorial note to Me, the Jokerman, Mala Dayal aptly sums up the crux of the new book on her father, Khushwant Singh“This collection, culled from the articles and columns that he wrote in the magazines and newspapers he edited and contributed to — the Illustrated Weekly of India, the Hindustan Times, The Tribune, etc — reflects his intense concern about growing fundamentalism, curiosity about godmen and women and the state of the country and its people. There are also evocative pieces on nature and amusing vignettes on the cities he lived in — Delhi and Bombay and the hill station he escaped to in the summer, Kasauli. Included is a diary from January to November of the traumatic year 1984. Inevitably, the book concludes with ‘Sex Matters’ and a selection of jokes.”
It is well documented that the storming of the Golden temple on June 1984 had prompted Khushwant Singh to return his Padma Bhushan, who neither showed any remorse towards Bhindranwale nor tolerance towards the injustice meted out to his community. An edited version from his unpublished journal of 1984, which forms one of the essays of this new book, gives an account of the fateful month in the history of Independent India, where in an exchange of fire at the parikrama between the Indian Army and Akali leaders, thousands of innocent Sikh lives were lost. Singh particularly mentions how till today, no one really knows the extent of the loss of life and property even though Rajiv Gandhi had then admitted that over seven hundred army personnel had died in “Operation Blue Star” and the Akali version had put the figure of civilian casualties at over 5000; the reason as he reveals was how even weeks following the Operation, the army combed Sikh temples and villages in pursuit of extremists. Singh, who was known in literary circles and outside, for his passion for drinking, women and the Gandhis openly declares in this unpublished journal about the sour relationship that followed this massacre, a big blot in Indian history. Singh writes, “They were not my kind of people — they are self-centred and unconcerned with what happens to other people. I was relieved the association was an end.”
In matters of liqour, Singh unabashedly declares his love for moderate intakes. He writes, “Drinking in moderation creates social bonding. Drinking in excess creates social problems”. But he shows no hesitation for his great admiration towards people like Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz who could drink from morning to late in the night without showing any traces of drunkenness. Coupled with notes on drinking is an underlying cutting remark on all those who abandon “sharaab” as “haraam”. For as per Singh’s understanding, from Hinduism (which makes ample mention of Madira, sura or somras as the favourite drink of gods and goddesses) to wine being used in Jewish and Christian religious rituals, foolish are those who discard the love of liquor out of considerations of it being a religious taboo.
Religious scriptures like the Gita are not the only subjects of banter in his essays ; godmen and godwomen are also not spared. In fact, it is actually the essay titled “Sangam of religions” which is particularly very interesting; wherein Singh banishes the idea of a single religion and reinforces a sense of belief in all religions which seemed to have borrowed some concept or the other from each other. He cites examples of how monotheism in Islam exists in both Judaism and Christianity, its five daily prayers having roughly the same names as Jews, its greeting salaam alaikum being a variation of the Jewish shalom aleichem; how Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism share belief in Karma, the cycle of birth-death-rebirth, meditation, so forth.
In matters of liqour, Singh unabashedly declares his love for moderate intakes. He writes, “Drinking in moderation creates social bonding. Drinking in excess creates social problems”. But he shows no hesitation for his great admiration towards people like Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz who could drink from morning to late in the night without showing any traces of drunkenness.
The key take away from this book, for that matter, any book by Khushwant Singh is his sense of humour — be it his refusal to fit in with his elderly compatriots who choose to overlook that sex is a major affliction among the aged; or his banishment of the institution of marriage as “man-made laws enforcing monogamy” corroding personalities of both man and wife and how the test of this social contract could be done by dissolving it every five years and then leaving it for the parties to decide whether they wished to remarry each other or someone else or resume the state of single blessedness; or reduction of the Kamasutra which categorises women according to their physical attributes to nothing more than a treatise which comes in handy during woman-spotting game; or his distaste for the Indian tradition of keeping nicknames which are mostly unasked for and which he describes as ‘mutilations of real names’.
Besides his barbs against almost everyone (from Bhagat Singh to Dayanand Saraswati to John Kennedy) and everything; there are also instances the book provides which show what a passionate human being he was in ideas and principles he believed in; mentionable of the lot being his love for Guru Nanak’s teachings about communal harmony as also his love for nature and his rants against exclusion of nature study as part of educational curriculum in our country.
Mala Dayal in her editorial note reminiscences how a shopkeeper in Nainital when enquired about Khushwant Singh was remembered simply as “who? that writer of joke books”. Sifting through the book will give his readers an insight into the 99-year-old literary genius’s plethora of knowledge over a variety of subjects ranging from Golwalkar to erotica, from Pakistan to the nuances of the English language — all told in a brilliant interactive style and with great simplicity. No wonder both the writer and the man always appealed to the young and the old alike!