New Delhi, Feb 3: Just one way of reporting this is to tell it like a story of contrasting men in winter. One who has raised hunch-backed toasts to convivial companionship with life’s final season. Another who is still trying to stare off its advance with Spartan ram-rod stiffness. One that has become a nestled shrine of sorts around which the faithful are allowed in to gather once every while. Another that is still looking for a seat out there in the cold.
The two winters came to a fleeting and uneasy confluence yesterday — Khushwant Singh turned 99 and L.K. Advani arrived to greet him at the centennial corner. He came with good wishes, a photographer and Black Cats. Among animals, Khushwant has retained only a preference for dogs. Among humans, his tolerance for company has shrunk to a handpicked few. Advani is not among them, which is why he had to ask to come.
Advani would have seen an arm-chaired aristocracy of one surrounded by a coalition of the committed that wishes to keep Khushwant just as he is forever — jurist Soli Sorabjee, barrister and good-life aficionado Bhaichand Patel, mushaira impresario Kaamna Prasad, columnist Humra Quraishi, Ambassador Dalip Mehta and his editor spouse Nandini, artiste Vrindavan Solanki, who busied himself sketching a portrait.
Advani may have had occasion to wonder what happened to the court that once gathered around his own feet, why he is a sidelined patriarch and Khushwant still a surrounded one. At 87, he is yet a dozen years shy of the man he went to see, but he may sense his winter has already turned wistful. Khushwant’s still turns on whiskey, a peg of pedigreed single-malt raised each evening, then downed.
Might there have been a toast last night to Khushwant at hundred? “But why not, of course,” gushed one among the chosen ones, “He’s frail, but he is all there in the head and the heart, he is reading, he is writing, he is still able to flash a naughty wink. Of course we toasted for him to get to a hundred.”
For Reeta Devi, neighbour to Khushwant Singh in the tony Sujan Singh Park apartments, his hitting a hundred is more than just fervent wish; it is a fond dare she’s thrown at him. Sometime last year, she renewed a subscription for Khushwant’s favoured magazine read, Private Eye, for three years. “I keep telling him don’t you shortchange me, I have put in for three years’ worth of Private Eye, he must live to read all of them, and more, he has to go well past hundred.” Debi wasn’t part of the quiet soiree Advani temporarily ruffled with his gunmen and cameraman, but she is known to visit Khushwant more often than anyone outside of his immediate family. “I have to pass by his window each day, you see, and I often pop in, he’s been very good to me and dare I say he’s in very good form. We laugh about my dare, he goes on reading Private Eye.”
He’s just been made a Fellow of King’s College, where he studied, and a Chair is in the process of being instituted, courtesy efforts of, among others, academician-writer Sunil Khilnani. Kasauli, Khushwant’s hill abode in Himachal, hosts a literature festival named after him each October. “He is still an active man with much to look forward to and be happy about,” remarked a friend who would not be quoted, “He is possessed of undying zest in that bird-like frame of his.”
Beyond the tick-tock displince of his life, beyond the fortitude a fine peg of single-malt can secure, there is more Debi and the extended Khushwant fellowship can draw solace from. More and more Indians are getting to live beyond a hundred. India’s population of the oldest among the elderly is fast galloping; the number of people in the country past their centenary burgeoned nearly six-fold between 2001 and 2011, census documents tell us.
The 2001 census registered 139,000 people [50.139 men and 89,333 women] who were 100 years or older. This number had spiralled to 605,449 [289,154 men and 316,295 women] in the 2011 census. Between 2001 and 2011, the numbers of octogenarians also climbed from 6.2 million to nearly 8.6 million, and nonagenarians from 1.6 million to about 1.9 million. India’s once-a-decade census exercise clubs all people above 100 into a single 100+ category. “But if someone counts, we’ll see an increase in the number of super-centenarians — those above 110 years — too,” said Mallikarjun Jali, president of the Geriatric Society of India, and professor of endocrinology in a medical college in Belgaum.
Part of the reason: a report by the United Nations Population Fund three years ago had pointed out that improvements in health and longevity have led to increasing numbers of the “oldest old” or people above 80 years in India. “Improvements in food supply, health-care and hygiene — they’ve all contributed to the greying of the population,” Jali concluded.
But there may be reason to argue, albeit thinly, that the Indian male had achieved longevity far before the arrival of good medicine and general good health. The spiritual balladeer Surdas lived to be 107, spanning the 15th and 16th centuries. More recent centenarians include scientist Mokshagundam Visveswaraiah, writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri, hotelier M. S. Oberoi, the first chief minister of Sikkim post annexation, Kazi Lendhup Dorji, scholar-philosopher K.D. Sethna, politicos Mohan Lal Chakma of Tripura and Anup Lal Yadav of Bihar, bodybuilder Manohar Aich of Baguihati, close home. There was also the fabled and much-married Habib Miyan of Rajasthan who claimed, unreliably, to have been born in the 1850s and breathed his last, quite reliably, in 2008.
Just another way of reporting this story could also be that Khushwant Singh does not know his actual date of birth, so anniversary celebrations happen arbitrarily several times a year, at least three, were we to believe those who should know. Khushwant Singh could already be much older than his 99; he is happy to rise and say cheers each time. Not something that can be said for every person that gathered around him yesterday.