Khushwant Singh (KS), loved to deliberately project an image that would provoke some kinds of people to hate him.
I had the opportunity last week to attend the Khushwant Singh Literary Festival at Kasauli. For the last four years I had confirmed that I will, but something or the other had intervened at the last minute to make me change my plans. This year, I was able, at last, to fulfil my commitment. Kasauli, a quiet cantonment hill station on the way to Simla, is quite lovely in early October. The Kasauli Club, the venue where it is held, dates back to the 19th century, and the lovely deodar trees around it look that old. But, for me personally, the real dividend was that I was able to participate in an event dedicated to the memory of a man whom I had the great privilege to know very well, and for whom I had the highest respect.
Khushwant Singh (KS), loved to deliberately project an image that would provoke some kinds of people to hate him. This was an image he had conjured up about himself: a Scotch loving, womanising, atheistic, irreverent old man with “dirty” ideas in his head. But the reality was quite starkly different. Yes, he did love his evening drink, which he had at sharp 7 pm, but he was by no means a drunkard. In fact, his “happy hour” would end exactly at 8 pm. He would eat early, wake up around 4 in the morning, was very particular about his exercise — tennis, swimming, walking — and worked with a discipline that was as unwavering as it was admirable. That is why he was such a prolific and thoughtful writer.
His home was a salon where, for that period between 7-8 pm, only the very lucky were invited. The guests could include the talented but unknown, as also the most powerful and the most famous. It was always the right mix of people, and during these small soirees the conversation was far more important than the spirits. It is true that he had a weakness for beautiful or unusual women, but he was very far from being a letch, and treated them with great respect. His wife, who died only a few years before he did, was always present, and his occasionally flirtatious or outrageous remarks were never in bad taste, but only a way to jolt people out of their complacency or hypocrisy.
KS’ greatest strength was his ability to speak and right about what he believed was right, irrespective of who this would annoy, and it was on this aspect of his personality that I dwelt upon in my intervention in Kasauli. He believed that religious fundamentalism of all kinds was wrong — Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or of any other faith. Thus, he was devastatingly critical of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, as he was of the Khalistani movement. In fact, the Khalistanis had planned to assassinate him, but fortunately this was foiled by the Delhi police in the nick of time. Many religious charlatans, who claimed to be God, were the focus of his acerbic critique. Although he claimed to be an atheist, the truth is that he was deeply knowledgeable about all religions at the level of spirituality and philosophy, but was dismissive about rituals, and had little time for blind religious orthodoxy.
He also believed that, as a citizen of India, he had the right to voice his opinion on any subject of public importance, without anyone having the right to question his credentials to do so. In a democracy, the right to dissent was fundamental, and he never failed to exercise that right, much to the annoyance of both his “powerful” friends, and others who were congenital conformists. For instance, upon his request, the Kasauli Lit Fest is dedicated to the brave Indian soldier. But, this notwithstanding, if he felt that there have been lapses with regard to the security of the country, he would not have hesitated to say that for one moment lest someone accused him of lack of patriotism.
He was also an iconoclast where personal morality was concerned. He hated hypocrisy, and loved to provoke the self-righteously pious, who looked upon anything sensual as an affront to “Indian” values. Such people, he felt, were woefully ignorant about either the philosophy behind the Kamasutra and Khajuraho, or human psychology as part of a balanced life. In this sense, he was but a link in a powerful Indian tradition of lampooning the vayiz or ritualistic sermoniser. In one of his couplets, Ghalib writes:
Kahan maikhane ka darwaza Ghalib or kahan vayiz
Bas itna jaante hain kal woh jaata tha jab hum nikle
(The tavern’s door and the sermoniser — the two are far apart
But this I know that yesterday, he was going in when I came out)
Even the right to dissent is a well-established tradition. Adi Shankaracharya, who revived Hinduism in the 8th century, and was one of its greatest thinkers, said that nothing — not dharma, nor artha, nor kama, and not even salvation mattered, and nor did teerthas (pilgrimages), the Vedas or yagnas. The only thing that mattered was bliss and awareness — chidananda Rupah — and he who understood this could say: “I am Shiva! I am Shiva!”
Unfortunately, today, KS, if he was alive, would probably have had to face, for his refusal to conform, and for asserting the right to state fearlessly what he believed in, the threat of assassination, or the crime of sedition, or the label of being anti-national.
At the entrance to his apartment in New Delhi was a notice board that said: “Please do not ring the doorbell if you are not expected”. Kalburgi did not have such a notice on his door. When the bell rang, he opened it, and was shot dead. His killers have still not been traced, and Dabholkar, Pansare and Gauri Lankesh have also been killed in similar manner.
Perhaps it was best that KS, having lived for almost a 100 years, died when he did. He would have found it very difficult to accept the brittle atmosphere that is threatening the very idea of India today.