The death of any human being is always cause for sadness, but today our sadness is also a celebration of a keen mind and a prodigious wit. Khushwant Singh (1915-2014), who died at the age of 99 in his beloved city of Delhi, has left our world poorer for his passing but richer for the hundreds of irreverently insightful works he left behind in articles, books, poems and essays. According to his son he died peacefully and with his mind as alert as ever. The author of more than 100 published works, Khushwant Singh was a towering figure in the culture and literature of the subcontinent, whose name remained a byword for honesty and laconic wit, a touchstone for generations of future writers wanting to explore the life of India. Born in Khushab, in what was then united India, to a prominent Sikh family, he attended Government College Lahore, before reading for the bar at Temple's Inn, London. A colourful career led him into legal practice, then the Indian Foreign Service soon after partition. It was in the early 1950s that his career as an editor and writer began, working for the Hindustan Times and other newspapers, and penning his first story collection, The Mark of Vishnu and other Stories, which revelled in the irony and criticism of religious superstition and communalism that he was to become famous for. As he himself said, “Writing is where I succeeded. I was a flop in everything else.”
A strong proponent throughout his life of friendship and close relations between India and Pakistan, perhaps his most famous work, Train to Pakistan, explores the traumatic events surrounding partition and the communal violence that followed in its wake. Train to Pakistan reveals not only the heartbreak and upheaval of that time, the destruction of age-old communities and friendships, but is also scathingly critical of government and the manipulation of the poor and ignorant by the wealthy and powerful, a theme that remained constant throughout his career. Another constant, which earned him a degree of notoriety, was his explicit and graphic exploration of sex and the sexual life of India, through which he lampooned numerous figures from Mughal emperors to modern politicians. No one, especially no one in power, was safe from his jibes. When asked how he was such a prolific writer he quipped, “They haven't invented a condom for the pen yet.” This naturally earned him a reputation for a roving eye, but he remained a committed husband to his wife until her death thirteen years ago.
Khushwant Singh's passing is a moment of great sorrow, but his rich legacy remains to guide us, best summed up in his own words: “Your principle should be to see everything and say nothing. The world changes so rapidly that if you want to get on you cannot afford to align yourself with any person or point of view.” RIP Khushwant Singh, you will be missed. *
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