A VERY NICE MAN TO KNOW! REMEMBERING MR. KHUSHWANT SINGH
BY SONIKA SINGH
On March 20th, 2014, Mr. Khushwant Singh died at age of 99. A prolific writer, accomplished diplomat, true parliamentarian, Padam Vibhushan award
I feel so honored that on December 2nd, 1998, I had got this rare opportunity to meet and interview him.
“People like him are so rare to find
Their work touches the heart and is food to the mind.’’
Q. What kind of student were you? What type of a school you studied in?
Ans. I was a very bad student and wasn’t good in studies at all. I studied in Modern School, Delhi. Later we went to Lahore and as my father wanted me to be a lawyer, I was sent to England. A normal student finishes law in 3 years and it took me 5 years. My father used to crack a joke at me when I returned from England. People would ask him ‘Putar ke paas kar ke aaya hai?
My father would answer – “hor te pata nahi, time jaroor pass kar ke aaya hai.’
Q. Tell us something about your childhood pranks.
Ans. We used to do all sorts of idiosyncrasies like putting our shoes over the doors half opened and when anybody opened it, shoes used to fall on them. I remember while we were staying at Jantar Mantar, Delhi, where now stands Kerala House. We used to sleep on those charpais and next to us was a man who used to snore all night. He used to keep a lota under his charpai for his junglepani. One day I emptied a bottle of gum into his junglepani lota. He looked so worried, everything got stuck to his bottom, and we laughed like anything. By that time I had told Mother.
Q. An Indian and a Sikh, whose mother tongue is Punjabi, why did you write in English at a time when there were not many Indian writers in English nor were they highly acclaimed?
Ans. I felt more comfortable while writing in English; I could communicate best in English. There was more exposure to the world through English and it is the only language where if you know 400-500 words you can still write well. While in any other language, it is not possible. Moreover, I have used knowledge of Punjabi culture and language in writings of mine.
Then it is more economically viable, you see even the best Punjabi seller will not have circulation of more than 500 copies. But my book ‘Train to Pakistan’ last year reached one million.
Q. Lawyer, civil servant, diplomat, teacher, columnist, historian, short story writer, novelist, politician and hedonist. How do you co-exist so many Khushwant Singh’s together?
Ans. Oh, it’s easy. I started writing short stories that were drawn from personal experience, and then my novels again were inspired by my native experiences. Then I am a passionate nature lover and love watching birds and trees. I used to make notes on various trees and birds I came across. I tried to identify them, consulted encyclopedias, rang up my friend who had similar tastes, and made notes. I segmented them into 12 massis that is 12 months and that is how my book ‘Nature Watch’ came out.
Q. In your essay, ‘Art and Literature’ you had stated that one who doesn’t know the Bible has no business to write English. You also mentioned that the base of any language is fairytales, fables, folklore, etc. Which other readings would you recommend to these school children?
Ans. Yes, Bible has got very good English, in fact, I used it extensively while translating religious texts. I felt there were parallel concepts in the Bible with the Guru Granth Sahib. Then an extensive reading of old classics, Shakespeare is a must, not just two or three plays but all. I feel that our 1st five gurus and the 9th and 10th gurus were great poets in spite of the fact that they were not educationists and professionals.
Writing prose is pretty difficult. Usually, Indian writers tend to use bombastic words but good English is simple and lucid. By doing so the writers usually break the communication spell on readers.
Q. Whom among contemporary authors do you like the most?
Ans. Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, and there are lots more.
Q. You wrote in your story ‘Portrait of Lady’ that you could never imagine your grandfather being young. Doesn’t your granddaughter ask you such questions?
Ans. No, she‘s too embarrassed to ask so. In fact, all my relatives and my daughter never ask me such questions. Moreover, they are all camera shy, I have bullied my granddaughter in one or two photographs but she has never on her own told anybody that she is in any way related to me.
I remember an incident when my daughter was in Sardar Patel Vidyaylay, and her teacher started the chapter, ‘Mark of Vishnu’ She gave an introduction of the author (i.e. me) using the most derogatory phrases and words, unaware of the fact that my granddaughter was in anyway related to me. My granddaughter told me the whole incident and when the other day her teacher came to know that she is my granddaughter, she went off by saying; ‘Khushwant Singh is one of the most sensitive writers that we have in India today’.
Q. Sir yours was a love marriage? Tell us about it.
Ans. Yes. We were together in Modern School and from there my father sent me to Lahore and then England to study law. She studied at St. Stephen’s College and then went to London to take up a teaching course. Here we banged into each other and then got we engaged.
Q. If you get a free day from your hectic schedule, how would you spend it?
Ans. Actually, I have lost the art of relaxing and I don’t get free time at all. I get up at 4:30 and work all day till 7 o’clock. I don’t have time for anything, and I don’t have friends as I don’t have time for ‘gupshup’ and socializing. Apart from intervals like this one, I don’t get free time and instead of a sense of rejection, I get a sense of relief. I have no regrets. Now I am working on my new book.
Q. Talking about your works. How many of your books have been published now?
Ans. This question was once asked by a man from Pakistan who was working at the Congress Library of United Nations. It is the largest library in the world. I said I have no idea. Then he fed my name into the computer and there came out a list of 2 yards long and I came to know that 82 of my books have been published till date.
Q. Sir, what is your zodiac sign?
Ans. According to calculations I am a Leo. Actually, we don’t have the custom of celebrating birthdays in our village, but when we shifted to Delhi, my friends used to celebrate their birthdays. One day I told my father that I too wanted to celebrate my birthday, he gave his approval. In the evening when the boys came, bringing in those little parcels my grandma asked what was this all about, and when we told her, it was my birthday, she said ‘You were not born now but at the time when the First World War took place.’ Thus my day of birth was decided by my grandmother. And I according to her calculations, she said it was 15th August 1915 which also became our independence day.
Q. One last question. Given a chance to be born again, whom would you opt for Aishwarya Rai, Sachin Tendulkar, or Khushwant Singh?
Ans. None. I would like to be born as an American billionaire having all the riches and a private aircraft of my own.
Thank you, Sir.
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MARCH 19, 2018