“I will only retire in the cremation ground,” Khushwant Singh told KK Birla, when Birla asked him about his plans of retirement from the Hindustan Times.
The legendary writer – the “dirty old man” of Indian journalism – finally died on March 20.
Singh had no fear of death; he expected it not to be too painful. God, though Sardarji was an atheist, probably listened to him and granted his wish. His son Rahul said: “He passed away very peacefully at his residence in Sujan Singh Park in Delhi. He led a very full life.”
Regarding death, in his book Absolute Khushwant, the courageous Sardarji said: “I don’t fear death, what I dread is the day I go blind, or am incapacitated because of old age. That’s what I fear. I’d rather die than live in that condition.”
This wish was also met. His son said: “Singh had stopped writing a few weeks back, but he was reading papers every morning. He was mentally alert till the very end.”
Born in Hadali (now in Pakistan) on February 2, 1915, Khushwant Singh had completed his schooling at Modern School in Delhi, and then studied at St Stephen’s College before moving to the Government College in Lahore. He also studied at King’s College in Cambridge University.
He practiced law at Lahore High Court for several years before joining the Ministry of External Affairs in 1947. In 1939, he married Kawal Malik and had his son Rahul, and daughter Mala. His wife had died in 2001.
He was a most widely read and controversial writer in India, and he witnessed all the major events in modern Indian history, including Partition.
His literary career spanned several decades, during which he wrote on subjects varying from politics to poetry. His acidic prose spared none as he gleefully criticised social ills in his column “With Malice towards One and All.”
One coterie tried to brand Sardarji as an “agent” of Pakistan, as he severely criticised India for its policies on different occasions, but he proved time and again that he was a true patriot.
Known for his humour, Singh took many digs at his community. Of his own writing, he says: “I often ask myself why I write. While it provides me with daal, chaal, and scotch whiskey, I could earn as much, if not more, running a dhaba on a national highways. However, writing also boosts my ego, which selling tandoori chicken and parathas would not.”
He wrote satirical columns on contemporary issues but attracted controversy over what his critics called his obsession with writing on sex. Regarding sex, he wrote: “I think it’s healthy and human to think about sex and fantasize ... all men, young and old alike, if they are honest, will admit that sex is always on their minds. Of course, my mind is still very active, though I’m not doing it any longer, I can still write about it. Nobody has invented a condom for the pen. My pen is still sexy.”
The Sardar was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1974 but returned it in 1984 protesting against the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar by the army. In 2007, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan.
Khushwant Singh’s writing career started with Yojana, the planning commission’s journal which he founded. He also edited the Illustrated Weekly of India, and then Hindustan Times. Train to Pakistan, I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale, A History of the Sikhs, The Company of Women, Delhi, The Sunset Club are just some of his books.
In 2002, he wrote about his life, family history, and his relationships with politicians in the autobiography Truth, Love and a Little Malice. In the book he honestly and courageously talked about his sex life among other things.
Sardarji’s last book is The Good, The Bad and The Ridiculous published in October 2013, when he was 98.
The “dirty old man” always wished to be remembered as someone who made people smile. It’s a safe bet that his wish came true.