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.

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Living Room Conversations in 2013

“It’s pretty clear now that Modi will be our next Prime Minister.”

*grudging nods*

“But you have to see, no, how these Congress people have sold off our country. The BJP, whatever else it may be, at least has sound minority upliftment policies.”

*grunts of derision* “And what might these be?”

“They don’t believe in any of this wishy-washy business of reservations. You know, reservations and quotas and all these fillips have actually harmed the minorities. They’ve become comfortable with the way things are. Expect the government to hand everything to them on a silver platter.”

“Okay, let me stop you right there. Reservation as a policy may have gone wrong in our country, that’s another discussion. But if the BJP is against it, it’s not because they genuinely care about the Muslims or other minorities, but because they want votes. Hindu votes. Lots of them.”

“No no, that is rubbish. The party may have started out with the Hindutva peg, but look at how they’ve changed. Look at what Modi has done in Gujarat, he has transformed it. What development!”

“There are actually reports saying other-….”

“Have you been to Ahmedabad recently? Looks like Europe only. Beautiful. The roads, the cleanliness! And I hear they have great infrastructure too.”

“But that’s only in areas that are non-Muslim. There are reports that say Muslim areas have been ghettoised. That there were boycotts and Muslims were discriminated against for the longest time. For all you know, this is still true. The man is just cashing in on the UPA’s weak moment.”

“And he might as well. Such brilliant governance. He will turn the country around.”

“But there is still a large number of people, at least I know several people, who are dead against him coming to power. He and the party he hails from are divisive forces. If we think six degrees of separation…”

“But why? Till when are you lot going to harp on 2002? Godhra wasn’t the only such incident that happened in the country. The Congress also allowed all those Sikhs to be killed in 1984 when Indira Gandhi died.”

“But look at the scale of violence! Two wrongs never make a right. No one’s saying that 1984 was acceptable. But neither can 2002 be, right?”

“They started it. They started it by setting fire to that coach full of men, old and young, women, children. All those poor souls did was go to Ayodhya…”

“So then it was a retaliation to the Babri Masjid episode…”

“In which no people died. All they did was demolish that mosque!”

“But why? Why do that? Why did it matter so much? Doesn’t that just show you what they’ve thought and wanted to do with the minorities all along?”

“No! There was a temple earlier. It belonged to us, that land! Those bloody Mughals came and plundered through everything. During Ram’s time, there was a temple there…”

“What?! How can you possibly know what was there in the time of a mythological character? This is such ridiculous conjecture!”

“But they did have it coming. And how can you take their side? They don’t even let their women study, or breathe in peace. They’re such a patriarchal lot, and so extreme! They don’t really want to live here also. But India’s government made it so convenient for them. Being secular means they get the best of both worlds. They’re far away from the troubles of Pakistan and here they can be as ‘Muslim’ as they want to be.”

“But…? What best of both worlds? They make up the larger part of our poor classes.”

“And whose fault is that? Because of these reservations, they don’t have the incentive to work hard and move ahead in life. Their basic survival needs are met by the government. And you don’t know, but they also get a lot of opportunities. So many seats in the UPSC and in public sector companies and schools and colleges lie waiting for them to come and simply take. And they wouldn’t even have done anything to deserve it.”

“But even if what you’re saying happens, these ‘benefits’ can only be reaching a small percentage of people. I’m sure a lot are still not even aware of what all they have a right to.”

“No, all that’s rubbish. They all know. They’re very cunning. They send their kids to these madrasas, where they learn the same codes of conduct that existed 100 years ago. Empty minds are the devil’s paradise.”

“BUT WHAT ARE YOU SAYING? THIS IS A COMMUNITY LIKE ANY OTHER MINORITY THAT IS MINORITISED! THROUGH STATE ACTION, THROUGH STATE TERRORISM, BY THESE SANGH PARIVAR TYPE PEOPLE WHO HAVE SUCCESSFULLY BRAINWASHED MIDDLE CLASS EDUCATED PEOPLE LIKE YOU…LOOK AT ALL THE INCIDENTS OF VIOLENCE THAT HAPPEN IN THIS COUNTRY, THE MINORITIES SUFFER MORE EVERY TIME. THIS IS A DANGEROUS TREND….”

“Listen, calm down. We don’t know who’ll be PM yet. But it’s quite certain that Modi will be our leader. We need a man like him to come to power. He will save the economy, and put up a brave face in front of China. He is what this country needs.”

*Resigned to our fate, we reconsider our options. Much to our horror, we realise, there are none.*

There is no point of history. History is the past becoming the future becoming the present all over again, all the time.