Khushwant Singh has made a long and ‘sexciting’ career out of dirt. I entirely approve. I can hear voices saying, “ You would!” Khushwant understood the power and potential of peddling sex in a nation consumed by the subject in private, but in total denial in public. Let’s face it, Indians do have pretty grotty minds and are obsessed by sex but unlike other nationalities, continue to pretend it is ‘dirty dirty’ and ‘not a part of Indian culture.” I can hear Khushwant snorting and guffawing at that. Sex was a tool ( pardon the lousy pun!), that Khushwant shrewdly employed to shock a hypocritical society and knock the socks off those who played prudes, while hanging on to his every word. He was brash, when others were coy. Rude ( his cruel obituaries!) where others were diplomatic. Outspoken ( taking the dhotis off Godmen and other fake gurus) where others were pious. As the best editor of the now defunct ‘Illustrated Weekly of India’, Khushwant’s mission statement was to debunk sex, religion and politics. And did he succeed! Gone were the earlier erudite but essentially boring essays written by his predecessors on our scriptures, gone too, the mind- numbing lectures on pre-Aryan whatever. Khushwant changed the rules of the game by running provocative stories on subjects that were derided for being ‘too sleazy’. Khushwant liked it hot – I guess, he still does. There were no sacred cows in Khushwant’s book ( Sanjay and Maneka Gandhi apart ). All that he considered ‘humbug’ was exposed boldly and brazenly in his weekly. He crowed and gloated in print as the circulation figures zoomed upwards, doubling and trebling during his tenure. He boasted about his unbeatable formula, with good reason. But his ‘maaliks’ were clearly not impressed. Khushwant was given his marching orders. And a short but very lively era in the annals of magazine journalism in India came to an abrupt end.
Khushwant proved Controversy is indeed King.
Khushwant had tasted blood. By now, most of literate India knew about the Sexy Sardar, who had breasts and buttocks on his mind and didn’t feel ashamed of admitting it. All this upfrontness was very new for a young nation that was still coming to terms with a new desi morality that had just begun to emerge in a tentative, confused way. Khushwant tapped into the confusion aggressively and built his fan base on not just his own libido but other people’s too! His outrageous public pronouncements often camouflaged the essential Khushwant, who was disappointingly ‘normal’ and ‘tame’ in real life. So busy was Khushwant playing to the galleries and pandering shamelessly to the prurient tastes of his loyal readers, he managed to murder his own early work - people conveniently forgot his scholarly tomes ( ‘History of the Sikhs’), and paid little attention to his only worthwhile novel, ‘A Train to Pakistan’. He himself was so busy enjoying his unprecedented popularity with the ladies, that he almost succeeded in burying his own earlier reputation as a well-read, well-informed, worldly-wise intellectual with a sharp, incisive mind. His nightly salons after he shifted to Delhi, attracted interesting people from across the world. People flocked to his Sundar Nagar home – visiting dignitaries, ambassadors, dancers, painters, writers - where the country’s best known sardar presided over his durbar and chuckled wickedly into his Scotch at the absurdity of it all. But even as Dilli’s socialites fawned over the man, it was the lady of the house, Khushwant’s formidable wife, who actually called the shots. This remains one of the best kept secrets about Singh - he was an adorably hen- pecked husband throughout his married life, till Sardarni , passed away .
I haven’t met Khushwant recently. But I continue to read him religiously. Even now, in his autumn years, he never fails to engage readers with his wit and the vast repertoire of subjects he tackles in his column. Most of his journalistic peers are dead, or worse, nobody knows they are alive. A few stalwarts continue to churn out largely unreadable columns full of hot air. Khushwant used to dismiss them as gasbags during his hey day ( forty odd years ago). They remain gasbags even today. Today’s young Indian has no idea about any of them. But chances are , the young Indian has heard of Khushwant Singh…. perhaps from a toothless grandparent who still experiences shock at the memory of the nation’s original Dirty Old Man. Perhaps, this is not the legacy Kamasutra Singh would wish for himself… but in a way he has become a victim of his own carefully constructed image over decades. I hope his sense of irreverence, his wicked sense of humour – the two qualities that made him the literary rascal, the incorrigible iconoclast he has always been – remain with him till the end.
Now, if only we can persuade him to write his own obit – that would be the real piece de resistance from India’s most readable writer. And I also suspect the joke will be on us!!
Alas, for Khushwant, the pen – for which he had once naughtily recommended a condom -- proved to be mightier than the penis.
If nothing else, Khushwant Singh has staying power ( errr.... I swear I didn't mean it as a pun!). I wrote this column for a special issue of The Week ( 25 Most Controversial Indians), and it elicited a fair amount of comment. I thought of KS ( the man , not the condom) once again this morning, when I read his views on Osho. Khushwant has written the introduction to a new volume of Osho's teachings ( 'Life's many mysteries..."), published by Penguin India ( can't wait to get my hands on it). I am an unabashed admirer of Osho, and believe he is one of the most underrated thinkers of our time. What he said about love, sex, God and several other subjects many decades ago is more relevant today than ever before. Twenty years after his death in Pune, Osho lives again. I hope he is having the last laugh, wherever he is...