The master raconteur takes his final blow in style

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Khushwant Singh in younger days

(This is my review of journalist and author Khushwant Singh’s (arguably) last book The Good, The Bad and The Ridiculous, published in The Sunday Guardian a while ago. A delightful, pacy read, this book is for keeps.)

Among the commandments for writing good profiles, as taught to us throughout journalism school and careers, is ‘show the good, the bad and the ugly’. This basically means that someone attempting to condense a person’s life or deeds into an essay, you must be objective; show your subject as they are, not as they might want to be seen. The best profiles or biographies, certainly, are the ones that are unabashedly honest, laying criticism and/or credit where it is due. To be honest, then, requires courage, and is seen as essential to being a good journalist and a credible writer. Khushwant Singh has known this for the larger part of his long and illustrious career as both.

In the introduction to his latest book The Good, The Bad and the Ridiculous, he writes: “I have met a good number of this subcontinent’s most famous (or infamous) and interesting people. I have also suffered famous bores, and sometimes been rewarded with behavior so ridiculous that it becomes compelling…. A lot of what I have observed or found out is not flattering, but I have never held back from making all of it public in my columns and books. If what is good about a person can be written about, why not the bad? I don’t do this out of malice, only out of my firm belief in being truthful.”

Having lived for almost a century, Singh is well-placed to comment and opine on, and chronicle the life and times of the people who have shaped, or at least lived fairly public lives in, the subcontinent. He has also seen this part of the world change dramatically, from the time of British Raj to Independence to the rise of the ideological right-wing in India to the present era of globalization and liberalization. And he has kept a diary, “an extremely useful habit”, as he calls it.

In a sense, Singh fits the ‘been there, done that’ bill perfectly. One only needs to go through the 35-strong list of names he has written on in this book to see how, as editor of some of the country’s most notable newspapers (such as The Illustrated Weekly of India and The Hindustan Times), he has come into close contact with figures as powerful as Mahatma Gandhi, as revered as Faiz Ahmed Faiz or as celebrated as Protima Bedi.

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The book cover

Of these 35 profiles, some are scathing, others admiring, still others are a smooth blend of both – but they are never conjecture. Instead, they are a (reliable) peek into the private lives of the rich and the famous, of political honchos and celebrities from the worlds of cinema and literature – and he never deters from that other commandment of profile writing: Know thy subject well. He talks of film director Chetan Anand’s sexual promiscuity in the same breath as of poet and fellow-journalist Dom Moraes’ Anglo-Indian arrogance. He recounts a drunken, humiliating episode with actress Begum Para as vividly as he remembers the blackheads on Amrita Shergill’s nose.

He also retells, in chilling detail, his encounters with Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the man who held the entire nation hostage from his ‘holy’ seat in the Golden Temple; a confrontation with Indira Gandhi where he pleaded for the release of Bangladeshi prisoners of war, where she admonished him for trying to lecture her on morality, followed by another encounter where she met him warmly at a party; and a summons by Jawaharlal Nehru in London while he (Singh) was PRO for the Indian embassy, after his affair with Lady Mountbatten had become public.

Singh talks about people who have entire books, films, even institutions dedicated to unearthing every tiny detail of their lives – such is the hold they have over public imagination. His profiles, then, become more like excerpts, snippets from entire lifetimes, the aankhon-dekhi that only he can elucidate upon. In that sense, The Good, The Bad and The Ridiculous can also be read as an autobiography of sorts, for it also gives us a peek into the mind and heart of Khushwant Singh.

For instance, we learn of his sympathies for ex-defence minister George Fernandes and ex-President Giani Zail Singh, his deep admiration for social workers Mother Teresa and Bhagat Puran Singh; his attempts to trace the roots of Phoolan Devi’s criminal career tell us of his ability to look beyond the given picture; and those to revisit his blind faith in Sanjay Gandhi, unapologetically stating that “he was loyal, and so was I”, show us a man of conviction, but equally open to criticism; and his piece on L.K. Advani is a veiled apology for supporting the man who triggered this wave of ideological polarization – something that he regrets not writing about more, as he has stated in past interviews.

During the launch of the book at the Khushwant Singh Literary Festival in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh, earlier this year, his son Rahul Singh announced that this may well be his last book, citing health reasons for his retirement. For this reason alone, The Good, The Bad and The Ridiculous demands a read – to see the world, one last time, through the hawkish eyes of this doyen of Indian journalism. As for the generous sprinkling of gossip and scandal throughout – which is delicious to read, nevertheless – an old man can be allowed his indulgence, once in a while.

When we ‘covered deprivation’ in 2008

[Something i wrote about 2 years ago. old memories. reshared? 🙂 ]

One bright morning in January, a bunch of thirty odd youngsters set out on a trip with a mission- “covering deprivation”. Their motive was to visit the adjoining ‘poor’ district of Krishnagiri, 256 kms away from Chennai, to bring to light the plight of villagers and others who did not belong to the mainstream flow of convenience that makes up metropolitan cities like their own. Spirits soared and bad jokes as well as rumors flew about how they’d have to stay in sad little huts, with no electricity or water. Most had chlorine tablets, purifiers, blankets, thermal body suits and more safely tucked into their strollies. And they prepared for the worst as they kicked back heels, reclined into comfort and enjoyed ‘Ratatouille’ on the LCD screen in their mini tourister on the way.
Six hours and a few mishaps later, they were looking out their windows and drinking in rustic beauty at its best. The horizon was made up of rocky hills and forest land and the highway that they were speeding on was the lifeline that seemed to connect this island to the rest of civilization. Soon, much to the relief of some, they came to a hotel in which they were to be accommodated for the next week. The hotel boasted of a restaurant as well as a bar, thank god, but now, could they get some hot water, pronto please?? And then they were escorted to the district collector’s office where Dr. Santosh Babu, IAS, personally welcomed this bunch of overeager journalists. He was to make his best efforts to help them but they were to keep in mind that this district was also being developed at an extremely rapid pace- the officialdom was putting its best foot forward and they, the press, were to keep in line…
The following few days were a flurry of travel, visiting villages, talking to farmers, understanding the rural setup of life, as well as enjoying the idyllic pleasures of natural beauty, taking rides on fishermen’s boats down the Cauvery, eating, drinking and having ‘fun’ back at the hotel and then falling into bed exhausted but content. From seeing scruffy children running after their bus, and then grouping together with outstretched hands for sweet treats that these exotic looking ‘rich’ people might offer them, to finding out how bigger goals, such a conserving a forest, are achieved at the cost of taking away the livelihood of the marginalized alone- they saw it all.
It was like a pictoral collage of deprivation. A widow who was dumb and deaf, who stood smiling like an idiot, not knowing her plight, since she had no financial statistics of her own whatsoever. An eighty year old woman with no one in the world to call her own, except a brother in whose bathroom she was allowed to spend rainy days. Kaveri, an 8 year old girl, who was so enchanted by the tinkle of bangles on the wrist of one of these foreigners, that she cutely recited ‘ABC..’ in order to gain possession of them. Another girl, who sat watching Sun TV in her one room house, but was never allowed to go to school anymore, since she had gained puberty. Satyamurthy, a young man in his prime who worked in the pantry car of Lal Bagh Express, who believed that purity of the village was important to keep the Gods happy. Sujatha, his wife, who was living in the forest for the time being because she was having her period. Her one year old son, who was deprived of polio vaccination because she was unfit to mingle in social circles.
But with the graphic portraits of deprivation came the ghastly mask of deception. Government officials attempted to gloss over the truth by guiding their guests to their successful endeavors alone. The villagers had seen it all before- these foreigners came once, saw them in their natural habitat, absorbed the shock and went away, never to return. In turn, they had learnt techniques to make profit out of their destitution. They told tales of their poverty and then begged for some form of remuneration to ease their pain if only for a very short while. Kaveri and her friends too, had learnt the art of begging- since nobody could resist the sympathy they’d feel for these cherubs of the wild. The deception, probably, fully and finally existed in the heart of these journalists. What they came looking for, really, was stories and tales they could tell, and it did not much matter what the fates of these people would be.
The fun fair ended where it began. Questions, terrifying answers, doubts and clarifications- all swam together in the mind, but were not really voiced. For lack of concern or for fear of the truth and its reverberations- they all stayed woefully mum. Their hearts and heads were in the right place, probably, since feeling too much might have been something of a mistake. Emotion, after all, obscures objectivity, that much valued characteristic essential to a journalist. They all felt a little bit wiser to the ways of the world, now that they had gone down a road less travelled. They took their memories, and their notes, home.