When a tyrant asked Plato for the Constitution of Athens, a proud democratic city-state five centuries before the Christian era, the philosopher sent him the plays of Aristophanes. Among them is The Clouds, which lampoons Socrates, father of Western philosophy and Plato’s guru. The message was evident. In a free state, nothing is sacrosanct, neither the strut of a political peacock nor the heavy tread of an intellectual elephant.
If a contemporary dictator wants to know the Constitution of modern India, send him 99: Unforgettable fiction, non-fiction, poetry & humour, a brilliant selection of Khushwant Singh’s writing, compiled by his beloved granddaughter Mala Dayal, and David Davidar, the esteemed editor who once worked for him.
Laughter is the amazing grace of freedom. Khushwant loved, above all, to laugh. Did this make him a humorist? He enjoyed being provocative, particularly about the middle-class hypocrisy surrounding alcohol and sex. Did this make him a voyeur? He slipped easily into bawdy language. Did this make him a dirty old man? No. Khushwant Singh became India’s most famous writer-historian because he possessed a deeply serious mind, a sensitive imagination, a perceptive eye and the heart of a humanist.
Like so many intelligent men, he could never suffer a fool, particularly a pompous one. Since the ranks of the mighty are littered with the delusional, he always had much to laugh about. But he pursued comedy with such chronic persistence that his public image was bound to morph into some sort of caricature. If you look at photographs of some dignitaries in his company, they seem to feel obliged to laugh even before he has said a word. They went away with a sense of disappointment if they did not hear anything salacious while conversing with him.
The beauty of Khushwant’s style lay in the power of simplicity, backed by the eye of a social historian, and deep understanding of the multiple silken threads that link or fray in human relations. He could capture the whiff of an era in a sentence, the totality of experience in a startling image picked from the welter of facts. The opening piece in this collection is a powerful account of his last visit to the village where he was born, Hadali, now in the heart of Pakistan. Its caption, Village in the Desert, is as clean as the first sentence: “It is safest to begin with the beginning.” By the time, six pages later, he has said his last, emotional farewell, your eyes brim with as many tears as his. In less than 3,000 words you have travelled through the warmth, tensions, tragedies and values of a united Punjab, shredded into fragments by a partition that no one fully understands.
That fraternity, even when under strain, began in the convivial games of children and sparkled in the songs of women, and stretched across a geography from the Indus to the Jamuna, from the lower Himalayas to the deserts of Sind and Rajasthan. That Punjab is irretrievable now; and even its memory has begun to weaken as the generation of Khushwant Singh leaves us. It will linger on in such prose, but literature is unfair compensation for a thousand years of living magic.
As the past withers with such formidable pain, Khushwant Singh repeatedly asks himself that question to which no one has found a satisfactory answer: what is death about?
Life had a powerful resonance for him. Did death mean anything more than its absence? Death did not even offer the satisfaction of being the opposite of life. It was nothing, an arid void, a disappearance after such exotic appearance. Khushwant Singh did not possess enough religion to find consolation in devout obedience to the script of any scripture. But he found the courage to make his peace with the unknowable. The thought of death taught him, obliquely, how to live. He went to Delhi’s Nigambodh Ghat to watch funeral pyres, and found the experience cathartic. The finality of ash cured him of “petty vanities and anxieties”.
Absence of faith did not mean absence of belief, however anachronistic that may sound. When his marriage was on the verge of breakdown, he spent the night at a gurdwara praying for resolution to this crisis.
The agnostic in Khushwant surrendered easily, and I think willingly, to the touch of the divine: “Many a time in Tokyo, when I got up at three in the morning to work on the translations of the hymns of Guru Nanak, I felt the hand of the Guru on my shoulder. Though I knew it was make-believe, I found it comforting.”
Did he really consider it to be “make-belief”? I doubt it. Khushwant Singh could have never found comfort in the false. He wanted his own end to be swift and painless, and that indeed is precisely how it came.
When the time came, the Guru took him with a soft touch on the shoulder.