By Ayaz Amir
March 25, 2014
What is the good life? Is it the life lived in virtue? But what is virtue? It is different things to different people. What usually passes for virtue in our climate either sticks in the throat or is a stimulus to laughter. The line between virtue and hypocrisy is often a thin one, and in this country at least we have made ourselves masters, impresarios really, of hypocrisy: looking out for ourselves all the time but snivelling about the hereafter, our great preoccupation, and the nobility of our intentions.
If there was a Khushwant Singh amongst us he would have described us how he was accustomed to describe his own countrymen: a nation of “sanctimonious humbugs”. But then call it our good fortune or misfortune that a Khushwant Singh could not have survived in this more pure environment. For the things he could get away with in his homeland would have been forbidden fruit for him here.
Not that India is some special temple of free speech. As far as I can make out the media there dances as much to the tune of big money as over here, in some particulars perhaps more so. Still, there are things you can say there that in our midst would be an invitation to the code of criminal procedure.
For instance, Khushwant Singh, a cultural Sikh and proud of Sikhism if I may put it that way but no believer in any religion, would openly say that he was an agnostic, someone professing his ignorance about how existence, or the universe or the cosmos came into being, a position diametrically opposed to the tenets of what we call ‘revealed religion’. No one can proclaim his agnosticism here. If he did we would have a riot on our hands. Religious zealotry is powerful in India too, but here we have made it into something special.
Khushwant Singh would talk of wine, women, Scotch-woch in his writings, often in a deliberately provocative manner. About curviness – I need not be more explicit – he could go into raptures. He liked his three doubles of an evening, consumed almost in military fashion, the sacred ritual started on the dot at seven in the evening and finishing precisely at 8.30, a strict regimen someone like me of weaker mettle would be hard put to follow. Try saying this in Pakistan.
I sometimes mention the stuff – note the euphemism again – when I write about the cup that cheers (the noble art of euphemism striking again) but mostly in a roundabout manner and even then I can almost feel my editorial masters, a mistress too, getting a serious attack of the jitters. I need hardly add that they are all certified members of the liberati yet their fears, sometimes imagined, keep getting the better of them.
But this is about Khushwant Singh and his iconoclasm, not Pakistan and its conformism. And the first thing about the Sardar, before all else, is that he was a most engaging writer. You started reading him and were hooked. In this respect, if I may draw a parallel, he was similar to Somerset Maugham, a writer sadly out of fashion these days but once upon a time very popular. I read a good deal of Maugham in my teens. Nothing that he wrote was ever dull. Khushwant Singh was never dull.
He knew this himself. How could he not? I remember reading an essay by him wherein he was frank about his own accomplishment as a writer in English but confessed that there was one person superior to him: Nirad C Chaudhary whose acclaimed masterpiece is the memorable ‘Autobiography of an Unknown Indian’.
Making fun of humbug, puncturing sanctimoniousness was effective when the writing reputation had been established…to begin with by the widely-read novel ‘Train to Pakistan’, then the History of the Sikhs (in two volumes) and last of all the newspaper column which was to remain his signature tune until nearly the end.
And there was the candour, the outspokenness first about himself and then only about others. In this if he was like anyone it was Montaigne, the French author who almost invented the essay form and whose essays down the ages have been surpassed by none. Montaigne was open about his shortcomings and foibles, one of his many endearing qualities, but not to the extent Khushwant Singh made a cult of openness.
Which other man would openly admit that his wife of 60 years had had a long love affair with someone else? That this was no passing fancy but had lasted almost twenty years. And then who would have the serenity, the strength of soul, to come to terms with such a thing? He would say all this on television (Karan Thapar’s interviews of him remarkable in this respect).
I admit that the openness when it came to bodily functions could be jarring. Of what general interest would be the size of….? Well, you get my meaning. Khushwant Singh could be a great one for such stuff, which, to put the best construction on it, was his way of making fun of Indian prudery. In the land of the Kama Sutra, as in Victorian England or indeed our own virtuous republic, certain things are not said openly. Much like a laughing Buddha, or an epicurean philosopher, for whom happiness and pleasure would be the highest good, for our Sardar no such constraint existed.
And yet Khushwant Singh for all the joke-cracking was no ribald figure. An intently serious man, there were many passions that resided in his heart and about these no man could be more passionate: tolerance, humaneness, humanity. Bigotry and fanaticism he couldn’t stand. The rape of the environment, the cutting of trees, he couldn’t abide. Indian superstition, indeed sub continental superstition because we in Pakistan are no less than anyone in this department, he made fun of.
Not only in relation to his openness but also in the humanity of his ideas he was the Indian Montaigne. If any Pakistani resembles his iconoclasm and had a similar sense of fun – at the expense of the pompous and the seemingly upright – it was Ardeshir Cowasjee.
Of Khushwant Singh’s seriousness there was no better reminder than his daily routine: up at the crack of dawn, making tea for himself and his guards (this was during the Khalistan uprising when he was on the hit-list of Sikh militants and he had been provided with official bodyguards), regular exercise, then to work, a light lunch, a 45 minutes’ siesta no more, again work, some tennis, then at seven in the evening open house to anyone invited or the self-invited, drinks for everyone, and for himself the three military Patialas and that was it, before dinner time when guests were expected to leave, and if any did not Mrs Singh, the same lady who for twenty years had put a bulbous pair of horns on Khushwant Singh’s head, made sure that they did.
Khushwant Singh would say that he never got drunk in his life and there is every reason to believe him. And he would say that he was too shy and timid to make passes at women. But the carousing and womanising reputation was taken for granted by those who did not know him well, perhaps because he took a perverse delight in not correcting that image, no doubt as part of the lifelong shock and awe tactics he employed towards the humbuggery and sanctimoniousness of his countrymen.
He had no fear of death but he had a horror of a helpless man’s death, nurses putting bedpans beneath him as he liked to put it. No man could have his wish more fully granted, for when death came it was in his sleep without pain.
If this be not the good life, what is? Khushwant Singh took pride in being of no religion but it is hard not to imagine that the gods would have awaited his arrival, and that he already would be at their table, Falstaff summoned specially for the occasion, regaling them with dirty jokes and the sound of bawdy laughter.