Vir Sanghvi on Khushwant Singh

Mar 22 2014, 18:08 IST
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The truth is that there were four distinct Khushwant Singhs. Reuters The truth is that there were four distinct Khushwant Singhs. Reuters
SummaryKhushwant Singh's novels have not stood the test of time and his political instincts consistently let him down.

One sure-fire way of telling a person’s age is to ask him or her about Khushwant Singh. If they say that he was a nice old man who ran a weekly column which contained jokes sent in by readers from Jabalpur and Asansol, then they are quite young. If they mention a connection with the Gandhi family, then they are middle aged. If they talk about the legendary editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India, then they are old. And if they discuss the author of Train to Pakistan, then they have just looked him up on Wikipedia.

The truth is that there were four distinct Khushwant Singhs. To tell them apart, you only have to look at his life chronologically. In the beginning, Khushwant Singh was the prosperous young author and heir to the fortune created by his father, Sir Sobha Singh, the builder of New Delhi. This Khushwant Singh worked in the Indian High Commission in London and wrote such novels as the well-reviewed Train to Pakistan. He was unabashedly right wing, pro-American and anti-Nehru at a time when the prevailing intellectual ethos was left wing and anti-American. He regularly lampooned the left and they, in turn, libelled him as a CIA asset and an American stooge. (Of course he was neither.)

Photos: Grand old man of Indian literature, Khushwant Singh, dies at 99

A second Khushwant Singh emerged in the late 1960s when he was appointed editor of the venerable Illustrated Weekly of India. Though he had little journalistic experience, Singh turned the Weekly into India’s most popular magazine and created a new style of journalism which was widely imitated. He also mentored such young writers as MJ Akbar, Bikram Vohra, Bachi Karkaria and Jiggs Kalra who went on to become stars in their own right.

But most readers probably remember a third Khushwant Singh. This was the man who worshipped at Indira Gandhi’s feet, hailed Sanjay Gandhi as the hope of the nation, promoted Menaka Gandhi’s claims to succeed her husband and then, eventually, fell out with the Gandhis and flirted with various other politicians, supporting LK Advani at one election and then singing the praises of Manmohan Singh.

Over the last decade or so, there has been the final Khushwant Singh, a nice old man who lived in Delhi’s Sujan Singh Park, still turned out a weekly syndicated column when he was well into his 90s and

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