Farewell to a free spirit

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Khushwant Singh lived a full and varied life

For a man who spent much of his adult life in the power-bubble that is Lutyens' Delhi, hobnobbing with the high and mighty, Khushwant Singh never let his inner-self be cellophane-wrapped in the ostentatious sophistry of our times. Outspoken, irreverent and brutally honest, Khushwant Singh was a free spirit. He refused to be chained by the terms of political correctness or caged within stifling social codes. He had no qualms in acknowledging that he supported the Emergency even when, in his own words, it had “become a synonym for obscenity” much like he had no moral compunction in telling the world, in his last book published when he was at 97, that he had come to the sad conclusion that “since the age of four”, he had “always been a bit of a lecher”. It is no wonder then that this man who trained as a lawyer and had joined the foreign service of a newly independent India (“a briefless barrister, a tactless diplomat”, he said) quickly gave it all up to become a roving journalist and a prolific author whose words knew no bounds. Indeed, they flew thick and fast, and hit one and all equally hard. His memorable column, With Malice towards One and All, in equal parts the product of his razor sharp commentary as it was of his acid wit, remains one of the widely read in the annals of Indian journalism. A typical Malice column was a combination of three or four short essays, covering a wide range of issues from politics to culture to literature and, of course, also included juicy details from the author's own trails and travels. But while Malice (alongside The Illustrated Weekly of India which became one of India’s most popular magazines under his editorship) is one of the most important factors in making Khushwant Singh a household name, it is hardly evidence enough of the author's wide range of talents.

For a fuller understanding of the literary giant that was Khushwant Singh, one must, of course, take into consideration his other, equally iconic, works such as The Train to Pakistan and I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale. While the former remains the one of the most searing accounts of Partition, the latter, situated at the peak of India's freedom movement, is the author’s finest literary contribution. But that is not all. Apart from his classics, Khushwant Singh also wrote a lot on Sikhism, for instance. In fact, his History of the Sikhs, is highly regarded both from a literary viewpoint as well as from a scholarly perspective. Infact, it established him not just as an erudite historian but also put him in that rare group of scholars whose works are equally accessible to the academic and the lay-man alike. Interestingly, Khushwant Singh professed to being an agnostic, even though it was his interest in religion that inspired his fine translations of Sikh literature into English. And if all this wasn’t enough, Khushwant Singh also wrote beautiful poetry in Urdu with as much skill and ease as he dished out jokes in Punjabi, neither of which failed to warm the hearts of his readers.

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