The Sardar in the lightbulb

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“I may die any day now.” This was the heading of an article on Delhi author Khushwant Singh in last week’s issue of Outlook magazine. Written by book editor Sheela Reddy, the article began with this passage:

Last week, lakhs of newspaper readers across the country woke up to find their weekly fix missing. The ‘Sardar in the lightbulb’, loved and loathed in over 17 Indian languages, had hung up his pen without saying goodbye. After more than 70 uninterrupted years of ceaselessly needling readers, Khushwant Singh suddenly decided he’d had enough. “I’m 97,” (he isn’t, he’s 96) “I may die any day now,” is all he’ll say about his self-imposed exile into silence.

And so ended the column-writing days of Khushwant Singh.

There are two kinds of Delhiwallas. Those who have been to Singh’s living room and those who have not. Singh has a board outside his drawing room door that famously says, “Don’t ring the bell unless expected.” The rule applies to all, including the VIPs, but Pakistanis are an exception. I have been to Apartment no. 49-E, Sujan Singh Park, a graceful if rundown apartment complex very close to Khan Market.

At his living room, Singh barely registered my presence. Only once, when I refused an offer of whiskey, did he turn to ‘check me out’. “Please poke around in the refrigerator for some fruit juice”, he said and turned back his attention to whiskey-drinking guests.

One night, two years ago, Singh fell off from his bed. It was pitch dark; Singh stumbled around but could not get up. He then called for his son Rahul who was unable to pick him up. A security guard was later summoned from outside and only then was the author of classics like A History of the Sikhs brought back to his bed. Luckily, there were no injuries.

Despite being frail, Singh continues to be a typical Delhiwalla. “I have a dirty mind,” he declared one evening at a rare public appearance in the Capital. “Each time I see a woman I have dirty thoughts about what she would be like in bed,” the novelist confessed during a conversation for a television show at Hotel Le Meridian. Facing a select audience that included the prime minister’s wife, the old man brought the hall roaring down with repartees that were witty as well as intelligent. At one point during his talk, which was peppered with literary references from Urdu poet Faraz Ahmad to William Shakespeare, Singh said, “I don’t know a single married couple whose mind has not been tempted by an extra-marital affair.” Queried on his worst nightmare, he shot back, “Finding myself in a kachcha (underwear) in a gathering like this.”

Born in what is now Pakistan, Singh’s first novel, Train to Pakistan, is considered by many to be his masterpiece. He served as editor of some of India’s most prestigious newspapers and journals. He was close to prime ministers and presidents. His later reputation as a ‘dirty old man’ grew though his joke books, later novels and the newspaper column Not a Nice Man to Know.

The drawing room guests, of course, are a lucky bunch of people. They’re usually puffed up with pride for managing to sneak inside one of the city’s most hoity-toity addresses. Most are authors, journalists, bureaucrats, and industrialists. Some of these journalists, as Singh complained to a friend, pass off these evening chats as exclusive interviews in the next day’s newspapers. The author now requests regular visitors not to bring along their friends. He says he is very old and finds it exhausting to make new acquaintances.

The guests don’t mind. Mostly elegant and soft-spoken, they talk loudly for Singh’s sake for he can no longer hear clearly. But they lower down their voices while talking among themselves. When this happens, Singh looks amusingly from one face to another or just focuses on his peg.

While Singh is a polite man, he can also be blunt without the guest being aware of it. One evening, a 70-year-old lady admirer had come from Calcutta just to meet him. Overwhelmed by so many books, she asked Singh if she could take a few of them. Since Singh is one of those people who can never say ‘no’, the Calcutta lady happily picked as many books as she could from the shelves, including the autographed copy of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s book Courage: Eight Portraits. When the lady was leaving, Singh shook her hands and said, “It’s the first and hopefully last time I’m seeing you.”

The author is also a diarist. Every morning he notes down everything in his diary, including if the day had started with constipation. Along with a mixed scent of booze, kebabs, and sandwiches, there floats an unmistakable whiff of unofficial hierarchy in the drawing room. Sheela Reddy, Outlook’s book editor, stands out as the prima donna. A daily presence in the durbar, she is often chosen for the honour of measuring the peg for our author.

Other regulars include a string of important Pakistanis visiting the town. They are summoned to Sujan Singh Park to brief the author with the latest on Lahore’s society gossip. In fact, the white curtains in Singh’s living room, which are printed with ayats from the Holy Quran, were gifted to him by Manzoor Khan, foreign minister in General Ayub Khan’s cabinet.

As the clock strikes half past eight, everyone gets up to leave. Singh, a morning person, is very particular about his time. The rule does not spare even Reddy. Out goes everyone.

Last week, a friend called up at Singh’s residence. The cook answered; he said that sahib is quite ill. Khushwant, stick on please.

 

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.