Saturday, March 22, 2014

Remembering Khushwant Singh

I had recently shifted to Lahore from Islamabad, after quitting my computer science degree in the middle. It was a transition phase of my life. My mind was so cluttered with to-do ideas that it made no sense. I was living in a crowded hostel with clean environment in Firdous Market, a modern slum like area cluttered with so many narrow dark and dingy hostels. My roommate was an accounting student and he would remain absent all the time.

I spent my evenings walking alone in the near-by park. Liberty Market was next to the park. I would draw my pocket money from a bank in the market. The bank was situated next to Salt and Pepper restaurant. The bank’s basement housed a big book shop, which stocked course books of adjoining schools and colleges. A corner of the shop was reserved for random paper books. It was here that I was introduced to Khushwant Singh. His autobiography was lying on the shelf. The front page picture showed the back of an aging Sardar Jee with a walking stick. I casually lifted the book and learnt that the author was born in Jhelum, my home town. I purchased the book as I was feeling homesick and badly wanted to read something about Jhelum. Khushwant Singh’s captivating style of writing glued me with the book for two days. I didn’t go out for meals and finished to book in one go. I developed an eye ailment for reading the book while lying in my bed for a long time.
That’s how I met Khushwant and the book shop. Every time I would go to the bank to draw money from the ATM machine, I would visit the book shop. Quite often I would find a new Khushwant book there. I later found that the author writes a column in Hindustantimes. I downloaded whole of his archive and read it.
Now Khushwant was among my search words whenever I would visit Sunday second hand book market in Anarkali. I bought his novel Delhi from a dusty footpath. His autobiography Truth, Love and a Little Malice is a must read. Khushwant was never afraid of writing about taboos. He was the son of a rich construction taycoon. His father left a large legacy of real estate behind. He was humourous, lecherous, ogler, philanderer and an entertainer. Delhi is about the history of the city, written in the form of small anecdotes. He remained an atheist for his whole life. He would get all sorts of compliments in his mail. One lady used to abuse him liberally in her regular letters. Once her letters stopped arriving, he wrote to her, asking about her well being. She complained about her illness and about his inability to buy a thermal flask. Khushwant sent her the flask. The lady wrote a letter of thanks and restarted her letters containing choicest of abuses to Khushwant.
Men and Women in My Life, is another marvelous collection of portraits he wrote on people in his life. Khushwant was never afraid of writing about his fantasies about the women he met.
Khushwant was a regular evening drinker. His wife, who died 12 years ago, had the key to the cupboard which contained his Scotch. He would enjoy a drink regularly before his dinner. In his last book, Lessons of my Life, written at the age of 98, he has written that one scotch before dinner has contributed to his long life. Khushwant often boasted about not being drunk even once in his whole life.
He was invited to Pakistan as a state guest in Ziaul Haq’s era. At an official dinner, he arrived after his evening drink. Zia seated him on his table. The stage secretary invited Khushwant to say something. He got hold of the mike and read an Urdu couplet.
Ae Mulla, Teri dua mein agar asar hai to Masjid Hila ke Dikha .
Nahin to Baith mere Saath..Do Ghoont Laga aur Masjid ko Hilta Dekh.
He then challenged everyone in the dinner that his flight to India is after two hours and he does not care what they would do to him. The next day newspaper carried his poetry on front pages.
He has written about Manzoor Qadir, a leading lawyer in Lahore who later became a minister in Ayub Khan’s cabinet but died young. Khushwant has also written about an Indian lawyer Nani Palkhiwala, whose books currently occupy my table. His novel Train to Pakistan is very popular in India and Pakistan.
He is the creator of Indian joke characters Santa and Banta. I have read all of his books except A History of Sikhs, which I am anxiously looking for.

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