By Asif Noorani
May 28th, 2015
Like father, like son. Rahul Singh, a distinguished journalist, has inherited his love for Pakistan from his legendary father Khushwant Singh.
Hiding behind distinguished Indian journalist Rahul Singh’s calm exterior, is the excitement at having been able to take a pilgrimage to Hadali, his family’s home town on our side of the Wagah border. His father, the legendary writer, novelist, historian, journalist and columnist Khushwant Singh often spoke and occasionally wrote quite sentimentally about the village and the school he attended.
Some years ago, Rahul and his sister Mala Dayal were refused permission to visit Hadali, but in April when Rahul Singh crossed the border with his sister and companion Niloufer Bilimoria, to participate in the third Islamabad literary festival; he was greeted by eminent scholar F.S. Aijazuddin, who had been able to get all three of them the official permission to visit Hadali.
Rahul and Mala were both thrilled to see the school, where a portion of their father’s ashes (brought from Delhi by Aijazuddin last year) was plastered, but they were dismayed to see that their ancestral home was in ruins. A few goats were tethered to a surviving wall.
The three then drove to Islamabad, where Rahul Singh was among the participants at a session held to mark the 100th birth anniversary of Khushwant Singh, who passed away last year in Delhi, a town he spent most of his life in. Among those who share the stage with him are Ashok Chopra, the senior Singh’s publisher and co-author of two books; eminent lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan; the nonagenarian write Pran Nevile; and Ameena Saiyid, OBE, the CEO of Oxford University Press, Pakistan.
As the moderator of the session said, Rahul has the ‘unfair advantage’ of being the son of Khushwant Singh and has a wealth of information about his father.
But as the son of Khushwant Singh, Rahul has also had the ‘unfair disadvantage’ of being consistently compared with the iconic writer. His father’s immense popularity has been a heavy cross to bear.
The 1940, Delhi-born Rahul Singh is largely known for being the son of a highly accomplished and versatile person. But the Cambridge-educated Rahul has his own list of achievements. He did his Tripos in history from King’s College and was merely 23 when he became the Assistant Editor of The Times of India, the most highly-circulated English daily of the subcontinent. It was a coveted position and journalists not yet in their 40s could not even dream of holding that post.
He worked in that capacity for five years before he took over as the founding editor of the Indian edition of Readers’ Digest, a position he held with distinction for 11 years. He reverted to mainstream journalism when he edited such important newspapers as the Indian Express and Khaleej Times.
In 1991, he gave up journalism to accept a proposal from the UNESCO to write a research-based book on his favourite subject – population. This took him to eight developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, where population control programmes were conducted with amazing success.
In 1994, his book Family Planning Success Stories was released. Subsequently, his engagement with Earth Times in New York gave him global exposure to issues concerning population, women, racism and food. He is currently an active supporter of an NGO that works for women’s empowerment in India.
Leading a semi-retired life, his major involvement is in holding the annual Khushwant Singh Literary Festival at Kasauli, a picturesque hill station in Himachal Pradesh, with the help of Ashok Chopra and Niloufer Bilimoria.
“Raising finance and making arrangements is quite a challenging job,” says the chief organiser of the festival, which is perhaps the only lit fest in the world to be dedicated to one single writer.
As a participant last year, I was highly impressed with the proceedings, as also with the scenic venue of the festival. There is just one session at a time, so one is not baffled to attend one session and miss another.
When I ask him at the breakfast table of the hotel (where all participants, including yours truly are staying) if he remembers Lahore of the pre-Partition days, Rahul pauses for a moment and says he does have some memory of that period. When the rioting began, his father sent him, his mother and sister to Delhi, where his grandfather was very well-entrenched.
His father stayed back for some time, but when the riots became ferocious, he left the house in Lahore to his dear friend Manzur Qadir – a barrister who later rose to become Pakistan’s foreign minister – and escaped to Delhi. The strong friendship between the Qadirs and the Singhs has continued even in the second generation.
Rahul has also inherited his love for Pakistan from his father. When the Punjab Government was to bestow its highest award upon Khushwant Singh, he insisted that two Pakistanis – barrister Aitzaz Ahsan and publisher Ameena Saiyid – be invited to attend the function.
Likewise, at Kasauli, as many as three people cross the Wagah border every year to participate in the lit fest. When Rahul Singh was compiling the obituaries written on his father’s death, he saw to it that as many as eight out of 50 obits included in the slim volume, Khushwant Singh: The legend lives on, were the ones that were penned by Pakistanis. Rahul’s own piece was a worthy read too, as was his introduction.
He is quite touched by the warmth that Indians are shown in Pakistan and when he is told that Pakistanis express similar feelings on returning from India, a disarming smile appears on his face. It says everything.
He is, however, disturbed by the jingoistic drama that is staged every evening at the Wagah-Attari border.
“As a result of efforts made by peaceniks on both sides, the two main ‘actors’, if I may use the word, have started shaking hands before closing their gates.”
He finds the so-called talk shows on TV channels on both sides no less abhorring.
“Writers don’t retire,” Rahul said about his father, 14 years ago in an interview with an Indian daily. That holds good for the son also, who continues to freelance for newspapers and magazines. Like his father, Rahul plays golf when he is in Delhi and tennis (singles, not doubles) at the Bombay Gymkhana.
Apart from his flat in Delhi and a room in his father’s villa at Kasauli, he has what he calls a ‘tiny hole’ in Goa. But the one place he enjoys spending most of his time is the spacious flat near the Gateway of India in Mumbai, a city he loves for its cosmopolitanism, “Shiv Sena notwithstanding”, adds Rahul.
One of his lesser known hobbies is cooking. He learnt it when he was all by himself. It is not unusual for the confirmed bachelor to host a dinner at a short notice; his specialty is continental cuisine.
Rahul Singh’s one big regret is that he is unable to read and write Urdu, a language in which his father excelled. Khushwant translated Iqbal’s Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa with seemingly nothing lost in translation. He quoted and recited couplets from Urdu every now and then.
“I had begun to learn Urdu but when the Partition took place, I had to learn Hindi and Gurmukhi in Delhi…I do, however, enjoy its cadence and mellifluousness,” says Rahul Singh. That he loves listening to ghazals is to say the least.
Asif Noorani writes and speaks on a wide variety of subjects, except politics. His pet theme is the need for closer cultural relations between India and Pakistan. He can be reached at email@example.com