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Scarlet letters, still read

The grand old man of Indian journalism, Khushwant Singh's new novel is truer to life than fiction

Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Irreverent Khushwant Singh

It's writing that leaves his readers gasping. Either they gasp in horror or they gasp with vicarious delight. Khushwant Singh's fiction is not for the prim and proper. And his latest novel, “The Sunset Club: Analects of the Year 2009”, to be released by Penguin this coming Monday, is no exception.

Themes

Lust and love constitute a significant theme of the novel. In the end it is all lust, says Singh, as long as youth allows you to indulge it — love is just an aura given by the romantics — and after that it is all fantasy. Even if he says it with the solemnity of a social scientist, it is not easy to sit before the veteran journalist without squirming in sheer embarrassment. But hasn't one always known the no-holds-barred author to be a combination of erudition and downright crassness, political savvy and an endearing naiveté, lashing pen and gentle smile?

So he discounts the romantic angle even as he quotes romantic poetry and has titled the chapters of “Analects…” like lines from an ode to Delhi. “Well, I read a lot of poetry,” he says mildly. The book too talks about contradictions we Indians as a whole revel in, and which make us “interesting”.

Interesting, yes, but perhaps also hypocritical? “Oh yes, they're a lot of humbugs,” he agrees, adding his own existential contradictions to the list. A confirmed “agnostic”, he points to the objects in his home that seem to suggest otherwise. A plate with “Allah” written on it, a number of Ganesha statues, images of the Buddha. And then every morning, like his protagonist Boota Singh, one of the members of the Sunset Club, he recites the Gayatri mantra. Incidentally, he has done a free translation of the mantra considered a maha (foremost or greatest) mantra of Hinduism, in the book. It sounds rather like the Lord's prayer from the Bible. For all his agnosticism he is certainly thorough with the scriptures.

“I taught comparative religions, three of them, in the United States,” he notes. His studies and life have only served to convince him that Marx was right in calling religion the opiate of the masses. “There are no answers to questions like where we come from, what happens to us when we die,” he says. He turns to his “favourite, Ghalib,” quoting his lines, just as Boota does in the novel: “ Humko maaloom hai jannat ki haqeeqat, lekin dil ko khush rakhne ko Ghalib ye khayaal achcha hai” (We know the truth about Paradise: it is a good idea to beguile the mind.”)

The factual events of January 26, 2009, to January 26, 2010 that form the backdrop of “The Sunset Club”, are accurately taken from his diary. “I keep a very detailed diary,” he says. Plus, he admits, he has “plagiarised” from his own earlier writing on nature. Each chapter begins with a fond description of the mood each month brings to the city.

All the spice

With such accurate chronology and description, and considering the book evolved from a suggestion that he record memories of his friends now dead, why did he need to turn it into a novel instead of retaining a memoir format? A factual life is “very dreary,” he says. “You have to add mirch masala to it.”

Mirch masala notwithstanding, his life is “very disciplined,” Singh is prone to remarking. That is how he manages to maintain his busy schedule even at 95 and has “never in 60 years missed a deadline”. “The Sunset Club” took him “exactly one year,” says Singh. Referring to his regular columns, book review work, etc., he adds, “And with all I had to do, this is only extra work.”

Singh's room is warm in the onset of winter and with a blue comforter at his feet, he is characteristically stretched out on his chair and footstool, occupied with his crossword — which he refers to at once as a “waste” of time and something that keeps the mind alert. Not that his other work doesn't serve that purpose. But it turns out that busy mind is hoping to wind down. “I'm in the last stage now — vanaprastha,” he smiles, borrowing from scriptural terminology again. He is trying eventually to “see no one” and “to stop writing.” Socialising is “such a waste of time”, says the man who has clinked glasses with celebrities of the world.

Why then this change? “I hope it will bring peace of mind; it is a daunting task to do nothing,” he says, though conceding he is not disturbed either. That brings to mind the hand on which his forehead always seems to be resting. For a cheerful soul it is an uncharacteristic gesture. “I recall my father used to sit like that,” he offers by way of explanation.

“There are so many things I do that my father used to do.” Age does that to us. So how would he like to be remembered? He amiably offers lines of Hilaire Belloc: When I am dead, I hope it is said, “His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”

A.R.

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