Known for his outspokenness and bold writing, Khushwant Singh is a man with his own mind and who does not mind writing or speaking what he thinks correct, come what may. Neither does he mince words nor does he wither under pressure. For instance, his comments on the great Noble laureate were rather strong. He said that Tagore was a mere songwriter and an “overrated writer” which naturally created an uproar in Calcutta and angry letters poured in. Unrepentant at the storm he had created, all he did was to laugh it off. As the compiler of the book says, “Khushwant isn’t afraid to be himself. His writing is very much like him.”
Khushwant Singh seems to have had a soft spot for Sanjay Gandhi and had ample words of praise for him. During the Emergency, when he often got the chance to meet him while working for Surya magazine, Khushwant Singh said about Sanjay Gandhi, “He was more relaxed with Maneka’s family than his own. He was a man of few words but with enormous zest for work. He was a strict teetotaler and even avoided drinking tea, coffee, aerated drinks and iced water. In some ways, he epitomised the slogan he had coined: Kaam jyaada, baatein kum — work more, talk less. He was a young man in a hurry to get things done…. .”
In another article Khushwant Singh had to undergo endoscopy for a polyp in the rectum. It so disturbed him that he began drafting in his mind farewell letters to his near and dear ones. After undergoing the endoscopy when Khushwant Singh was told that he had no cancer but a polyp, he was rather disappointed because “there is something romantic about cancer; polyp is like a plop sound produced by a frog leaping into a stagnant pool; but haemorrhoids have no romance attached to them; they are simply a miserable man’s piles,” to quote Khushwant Singh.
In another article on editors, Khushwant Singh lashed out at newspaper proprietors for “proprietors matter, editors do not; money counts, talent does not”. He showered praise on M J Akbar who founded the Asian Age. “It was a bold venture as the Asian Age came out in all the metropolitan cities of India as well as in London. It was as close to being a complete newspaper as any could be. Besides having these unique qualities it also published articles by those critical of the government and ruling party. It was probably this aspect of the journal that irked Akbar’s latest partner in the venture….” Khushwant Singh said that without a word of warning, on March 1, 2008, while Akbar was on his way to office, he learnt that his name was no longer on the Asian Age masthead as he had been sacked. A similar sort of treatment was meted out to Khushwant Singh when he edited the Illustrated Weekly and which made him comment, “That is how small-minded people with pots of money and power can be.”
In his essay on the ‘Maharajas’, Khushwant Singh attacked Indira Gandhi for imprisoning Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur during the Emergency. He said, “Gayatri Devi brought the worst out in Indira Gandhi; her petty vindictive side.” He added, “Indira could not stomach a woman more good-looking than herself and insulted her in Parliament, calling her a bitch and a glass doll.” What is more when Sanjay Gandhi was killed in a plane crash, Gayatri Devi rang up Indira to offer her condolences. Indira refused to take her call.
In an article titled ‘Mrs G: The Wonder that was Indira’, Khushwant criticised her with no holds barred. He wrote: “She had dictatorial tendencies, indulged in gross favourtism, overlooked competition and systematically undermined democratic institutions. She wanted to set up dynastic succession. She manipulated and gagged the press…” and so on. But after pointing out all her weaknesses and follies, Khushwant Singh was forced to admit, “But in my own way, I admired, loved and feared Indira.”
In an essay on M A Jinnah, Khushwant Singh quoted the Manchester Guardian to describe him: “The Hindus thought he was a Muslim communalist, the Muslims took him to be a pro-Hindu, the Princes declared him to be too democratic. The British considered him a rabid extremist — with the result that he was everywhere but nowhere. None wanted him.”
There are many such articles and essays in the book which are thoroughly enjoyable and hold the reader’s attention right till the last line. Here is a book worth reading.
(Penguin Viking, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017.)