Last month I received a copy of Khushwantnama: The Lessons of my life. I completed the 188-page book by Khushwant Singh almost in a single sitting. And the first thing I felt like doing after reading the book was to ask my office to connect me to Khushwant Singh so that I could offer him my salutations for this wonderful book published by Penguin Viking.
The person who picked up the phone at the other end told my office that Khushwant Singhji may not be able to come to the phone. A message was also conveyed that if Advani wanted to meet Khushwant ji, he was welcome to see him that evening. I immediately responded that I had another engagement that evening, but I would certainly call on him the next day.
Khushwant Singh was born on February 2, 1915. So when I received this book in February, 2013, I knew that he had completed 98 years of his life and had entered his 99th year !
I have not read any other author who could write so well, and with such lucidity, at such an advanced age. It is therefore, that in the caption to this blog I have not only lauded the book, but also the writer.
The book opens with this verse from Shakespeare:
This above all, to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Hamlet Act I, Scene III
I must say that this book is eloquent testimony to the fact that Khushwant Singh spares absolutely no effort to be true to himself. He writes with extraordinary candour even while writing about his own self. Sample these first two paragraphs of his Introduction:
I am now in what, according to traditional Hindu belief, is the fourth and final stage of life, sanyaas. I should be meditating in solitude, I should have shed all attachments and all interest in worldly things. According to Guru Nanak, a person who lives into his nineties feels weak, does not understand the reason for his weakness and keeps lying down. I have not reached either of those stages of my life just yet.
At ninety-eight, I count myself lucky that I still enjoy my single malt whiskey at seven every evening. I relish tasty food, and look forward to hearing the latest gossip and scandal. I tell people who drop in to see me, if you have nothing nice to say about anyone, come and sit beside me. I retain my curiosity about the world around me; I enjoy the company of beautiful women; I take joy in poetry and literature, and in watching nature.
Apart from the Introduction, the book contains sixteen chapters. As a former journalist, I particularly liked three of these, namely :
(i) The Business of writing
(ii) What it takes to be a writer
(iii) Journalism Then and Now
In a chapter titled “Dealing with Death”, the author writes :
I actually believe in the Jain philosophy that death ought to be celebrated. I had even written my own obituary in 1943 when I was in my twenties. It later appeared in a collection of short stories, titled Posthumous. In the piece I imagined the Tribune announcing news of my death on its front page with a small photograph. The headline would read: ‘Sardar Khushwant Singh Dead’. And then in somewhat smaller print: ‘We regret to announce the sudden death of Sardar Khushwant Singh at 6 p.m. last evening. He leaves behind a young widow, two infant children and a large number of friends and admirers… Amongst those who called at the late sardar’s residence were the PA to the chief justice, several ministers, and judges of the High Court.’
The last but one chapter of this book is the one captioned: “Twelve tips to live long and be happy.” My daughter Pratibha said to me: “Without even reading this book you seem to be following most of the tips given by Khushwant Singh. Two of the most invaluable tips held out by the book are : Don’t lose your temper, and don’t tell a lie! And you follow both these almost intuitively.”
The last chapter of the book is Epitaph. It runs as follows:
How would I like to be remembered when I am gone? I would like to be remembered as someone who made people smile. A few years ago, I wrote my own epitaph:
Here lies one who spared neither man nor God
Waste not your tears on him, he was a sod
Writing nasty things he regarded as great fun
Thank the Lord he is dead, this son of a gun.
On Sunday March 3, 2013 I called on Sardar Khushwant Singh at his residence at Sujan Singh Park, New Delhi (named after Khushwant Singh’s grandfather). I heartily complimented him on the book he had written, and offered my pranams to him. I had a cup of tea and spent a very pleasant hour at the place. I also met his daughter Mala who lives in the adjoining flat, and takes great care of him.
President Zail Singh was operated on in the same Texan hospital as his predecessor, Sanjiva Reddy. When taken to the operating theatre, the chief surgeon asked the President: ‘Are you ready?’
‘No, I am not,’ he replied. ‘I am Zail Singh.’
Chapter in the book,
“Humour is a lethal weapon”.
18 March, 2013