I saw him at Tata Litlive, a frail old Sardarji, talking to someone at the Experimental Theatre where he was going to receive a lifetime achievement award. I wanted to go and introduce myself. But what do I introduce myself as? As a writer I don’t anything substantial to talk about, all I have is a bunch of short stories, poems, a blog, and a novel permanently in a state of suspended animation. Well, er, hum. Here is a man of substance, considerable amounts of it, charm, wit, and achievement and I was overwhelmed. That is to say I didn’t muster the courage to speak to him. And, damn! I bungled that opportunity, which will never come again. I thought writers like him are immortal, they don’t just die. So, no worries, maybe, after the novel is published I could introduce myself and give him a copy of my magnum opus.
Alas and Alack, that’s not to be! The sardarji in a light bulb is no more. Mario’s cartoon of him, pictured him in a light bulb. Why I don’t know, because Mario is also no more. It could be that he wrote at night, or, it could be that ideas for his columns spring to mind like a light bulb, a sixty watt one. Writers are such mysterious creatures.
My first acquaintance with his writing was through the Illustrated Weekly of India which he edited. My dad would bring the magazine home from office and immediately all the neighbours would want to read it. (Actually they wanted to ogle at the semi-nude pictures.) It contained salacious bits of information no newspaper dared to print in those days. He would not spare the holy cows of society. He satirized Amrita Sher-Gill’s paintings, he rubbished Godmen like Rajnish, he spoke boldly against Bhindranwale. Nobody was above his acerbic wit, he spared no one: neither self-styled gurus or punch-drunk divas. Sometimes you hated him for his frank criticisms; sometimes you loved him for demolishing an icon. His style was simple and he gave his journalists full freedom. I have read his articles and columns but not his novels. I mean to, soon. This is a loss that must be recorded in letters of black in our literary history.
As I am writing this I receive a call from a friend who worked with him in the Times group. He says he used to come to office in a tee-shirt and mostly his pheta would be either blue or yellow in colour, and that he was jovial with the staff. This is quite a departure from the norm because those were the days of casteism in the editorial echelons. Forget editors, not even assistant editors would drag their stiff asses to the copy desk to see how a story was going. But he changed it all and we got a new crop of editors – Akbar, Karkaria, Nair, D’Monte – all who believed in his style of running a publication.
Rest in peace Khushwant Singh, man in a light bulb!