With no malice at all
A prolific writer, walker and scotch enthusiast, Khushwant Singh also has quite a warm side to him, as T.S. NAGARAJAN reveals. A prolific writer, walker and scotch enthusiast, Khushwant Singh also has quite a warm side to him, writes T.S. NAGARAJAN.
Happy days gone by ... Khushwant Singh and his family with Simba, the dog ...
I JOINED the Yojana in the mid 1950s as its staff photographer. The Government had launched the journal with much fanfare to carry the message of the country's Five-Year Plans to the people. Khushwant Singh was its Chief Editor. Coming from Mysore, Delhi, for 23-year-old me, was a new world. Khushwant Singh was my first boss.
On my first day, when I entered his room, I found Khushwant sitting behind a large table covered with green flannel and a glass top. He was a bit shabbily dressed, in a blue sweatshirt and a white turban, not very well tied. He greeted me with a broad smile. Calling me "Naga" he said, "I have staked my reputation on you." His voice was sonorous, his accent perfect. I was quiet and began shuffling my feet.
He was always the first to arrive and also the first to leave. The first job for the day was the editor's meeting. Khushwant, an excellent raconteur, used to regale us with jokes, most often concerning colleagues. None of us missed these meetings.
Khushwant loved sauntering in, going from desk to desk, talking to his colleagues. One morning, he strayed into his secretary's cabin and found him eating lunch well before time. "What happened? Didn't you have your breakfast?" asked the editor. Taken by surprise, the secretary stood up holding a piece of chapati in his hand, dripping with oily subzi, and answered: "Sir, the doctor has asked me to have lunch before lunch and after lunch". Khushwant laughed and hastily left the room, not to embarrass his secretary, who suffered from chronic gastritis. The secretary's premature lunch took up much time at the next editorial meeting.
We travelled all over the country looking at dams, power projects and steel mills. Our visit to the Bhakra-Nangal project was significant. The mammoth dam got its name from a village called Bhakra, now submerged in the Gobindsagar reservoir. The villagers knew that soon their homes would be flooded by the Sutlej. They were getting ready to leave. Khushwant spoke to one of them. "Sardar Sahib, we are happy that our village will soon be a part of the lake. This will bring us good fortune. Even as young men we knew that one day a dam will come up here," said the villager.
"How did you know?" asked Khushwant.
"I remember, a long time ago, the governor Sahib came on a visit. While going round, he picked up a piece of stone and put it into his mouth. He tried to crush it but couldn't. He spat it out and said, "A huge dam may come up here." (The villager was, perhaps, referring to Sir Louis, Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab and an engineer by profession. He suggested damming the Sutlej to water the parched plains of the Punjab in 1908. This was investigated and a proposal for a dam costing Rs. 3.72 crore was given up as unremunerative.) No doubt, the villager's story was apocryphal, but was certainly a part of the legend of the land.
... and in Bhakra village ...the story of a dam.
Yojana brought me close to Khushwant. His bright and wind-swept flat in Sujan Park, close to the Capital's famous Lodhi Gardens, was an open house for my wife and I. For others, he had (and perhaps still has) a notice outside the front door: "Kindly Ring the Bell Only If You Are Expected". He guards his privacy. Though he can't suffer bores, scroungers and pseudo-intellectuals, he finds it very difficult to say "no" to anyone.
Kaval, his wife, (who died recently), was the shield between him and his unwanted world. She was house-proud and kept her home clean and bright. Most regulars in the Lodhi Gardens would see her walk every evening, but she did not talk to anyone. Kaval appeared reserved and tough. In reality, she was neither. Khushwant tries to give the impression that he is a drunken slob. He is not. He works very hard and never drinks during the day. He loves his Scotch and is equally generous with it to his friends and guests. Dinners in their home were great events. Kaval managed to wind up the party by 9 p.m. If some guests stubbornly stayed on, she would just retire to her room leaving the difficult job to her husband.
He was a compulsive walker. Often I accompanied him to the Lodhi Gardens in the evenings. We even developed a sort of a friendship with an owl there, which lived in a crevice. While on our rounds, Khushwant would stop before the owl's nest and call for the bird. Invariably, the owl appeared briefly as though to say "hello" and vanished.
I illustrated his book on the Sikhs: The Sikhs Today and later travelled with him to do some assignments in connection with his magnum opus: History of the Sikhs. We went to all the important gurdwaras in the country. Perhaps, I am one of the few South Indian Brahmins who has had a conducted tour of so many gurdwaras from a celebrated Sikh historian and possibly a Sikh theologian.
He observes all the outward manifestations of Sikhism. He wears his hair long, keeps his beard unshorn and listens to kirtans. He is proud of being identified as a Sikh. But he describes himself as an agnostic. When I moved to Bangalore, Khushwant came to stay. He looked around and wanted to plant a tree in front. It was early in the morning and the nurseries were not yet open. Thrusting a few notes into my pocket, he said that I should buy a sapling and plant it on his behalf.
Eventually, we planted a Tulip tree (Spathodea campanulata) next to the gate. Today, it has grown tall and big. It has spread its branches so wide that we have shade all through the year. In the flowering season it drops its vermilion blossoms around the entrance like a carpet of welcome. Despite repeated trimmings, it still keeps growing with a vengeance. The tree is full of energy and appears uncontrollable much like the man whom it represents for us.
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