I had met him for the first time sometime way back in 1982, when he had come to Bhubaneswar for the jubilee celebrations of a local vernacular daily. Khushwant Singh had planned a trip to Konark and I was sent along as a guide. His host had thought that I, being a Punjabi myself, would be the appropriate person to give him company. However, I kept this fact a secret and did not tell him that I could speak Punjabi. I can still remember his caustic and witty comments on seeing the erotic sculptures on the walls of the Sun Temple. He uttered a few unrepeatable quips in Punjabi to his wife who had accompanied us, which I cannot write. After we had done a circumambulation of the temple, he chuckled at me: “You Oriyas look so simple, but this is what all you had on your minds centuries ago.”
I kept bumping into him quite frequently in the next few years. I once had the opportunity to sit next to him on a flight. He was not a good conversationalist still I told him a few jokes, two of which he liked. He took out a big diary and wrote them down. I saw them in his column a few weeks later, and he had duly acknowledged me.
Khushwant Singh was known for his larger-than-life image. He was an author, journalist, columnist and joke-teller. I was an avid fan of his writings and always wanted to write like him. More than half a dozen times, I had sent him pieces of my writings for his comments, but these went ignored.
When Saddam Hussain was killed by the Americans, I had made a few mourning covers and sent them to George Bush and Tony Blair. The story had been picked up by the press both here and abroad. It carried the picture of the cover and a short write up of my collection of mourning covers. Khushwant had read the piece in the Times of India and two weeks after it was printed I got a cryptic letter written on a post card. His words were: Dear Mr. Dhir, What a morbid yet fascinating hobby you have—collecting mourning covers and death letters. I am interested in seeing your collection. Call on me when you come to Delhi.”
I immediately acknowledged the post card and wrote to him that I would be in Delhi the next month and would carry my collection. I soon received another post card with a cryptic one liner: “Ring me up before you come,” along with his phone number.
I rang him up with a lot of trepidation. I was told that he picked up the phone himself and was a stickler for time. In case one was late by even five minutes of the appointed time, he would refuse to meet him. He did pick up the phone and I reminded him of his letter. “Come this evening,” he said, “at 7 sharp.” He took my phone number.
When I returned to the hotel in the evening, there was a note in the reception which said Khushwant Singh had called and said that the appointment for the evening had been cancelled. I was very disappointed and heart broken. The next morning I rang him up again and he apologised and told me that he had some surprise guests from abroad. When I asked him if I could come this evening, there was silence at the other end. “Can you come just now?” he asked. I replied in the affirmative and just half an hour later I was standing outside his Sujan Singh Park house, clutching my Mourning Cover Exhibit.
There was a sign which said, “Please do not ring the bell unless you are expected.” I timidly pressed the bell button and the small Sardar appeared at the door and with a smiling face asked me to come in. He was all alone in the house and excused me for not being able to give me a cup of tea. “It is too early for something stronger,” he said.
He was soon sitting on his sofa, his feet on a stool, a blanket draped around him to beat the late February chill. The walls of his spacious living room were lined up with voluminous books. There were papers everywhere, tokens of the scholarship that had produced fine translations of Urdu poetry and more than sixty highly regarded books, despite his claims to be no scholar. I sat on the carpeted floor and handed him the exhibit page by page. For the next one hour he went through the entire collection, questioning me about the covers, stamps and history. He peered at the covers and stamps closely, pointing out the details and I was awestruck by his knowledge of the subject. He told me that he had brushed up his knowledge on mourning covers after he had read the article and found it fascinating. After a good hour, as I was packing up my collection, Khushwant Singh told me abruptly, “Make a mourning cover for me after I die.”
“You will outlive me”, I said, “I will never get the chance.”
“Nonsense, promise me that you will make a cover after my death. It will happen very soon. You won’t have to wait long”, he said with a premonition which disturbed me.
After extracting the promise from me, we proceeded to decide on what the cover should carry on its face. He got up and went to a nearby bookcase from where he got an album with many black and white photos. He pointed out a few from his youthful days, but we finally decided on his iconic trademark of the Sardar in the bulb which appeared in his celebrated column—With Malice towards One and All.
Appearing first in Illustrated Weekly and then Hindustan Times, both the papers whose editor he had been at some time of point, his column was widely followed and had kicked up quite a few controversies. It ran for years, featuring a cartoon of him sitting guru-like inside a light-bulb, with a stack of books beside him, a few girlie magazines and a whiskey bottle and glass. It had been drawn by Mario Miranda, and had first appeared in the editor’s page in the Illustrated Weekly of India.
For his frank and acerbic writings, Khushwant Singh received a lot of abusive mail. He showed me one envelope from Canada which was simply addressed to ‘Khushwant Singh, Bastard, India’. The letter had been delivered by the post office, a fact which made him proud. He had treasured the envelope for years and had shown it to many visitors.
I had taken along with me copies of two of his books: Train to Pakistan and A History of the Sikhs. He autographed them grudgingly and then bade me goodbye. This was the last time I met him. The grace notes of that mellow afternoon in his study have always stayed with me. I subsequently called him up at least half a dozen times during my trips to Delhi, but each time he refused to meet me. He had grown old and reclusive and met very few people. Khushwant Singh, died on March 20, 2014, aged 99 years.
He was one of the most humble, spartan, puritanical, disciplined and generous man I have ever met. I particularly admired him for being fearless in expressing his views in his writing and speech. He had been awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1974 but returned the decoration in 1984 in protest against the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar by the army. He was a rare character, who lived his life his way. Despite openly proclaiming to be a non-follower of any religious ceremony, he has written more about the history of Sikhs and translated more Sikh scriptures than any other Sikh author.
During his lifetime, Khushwant Singh was keen on burial because he believed that with a burial you give back to the earth what you have taken. He had requested the management of the Baha’i faith if he could be buried in their cemetery. They had agreed but imposed a few conditions which he found unacceptable; hence he was cremated the same afternoon. He had told his family not to have any religious ceremony after his death.
There must be many who must have mourned Khushwant Singh, countless men and women whose lives he had touched during his 99 years. Who was the real Khushwant Singh? Was he the inspired translator of Guru Nanak’s hymns or the writer of ribald and dirty joke books? Was he the erudite historian who wrote some of the most enduring books on the Sikhs and Punjab, or the bestselling author of full-blooded novels and short stories with many sexy passages? All his different avatars have one common thread—his total lack of hypocrisy.
I have kept the promise that I had made to him. The Black Bordered Mourning Cover was released by me last week. Many philatelists all over the country have written to me asking for a cover. The Sardar in the bulb has appeared for one last time. Adieu Khushwant Singh. Heaven is a more pleasant place now, with the Sardar telling his ribald jokes.
By Anil Dhir