2014, Essay, New Delhi, Telegraph Calcutta

Catastrophe After Catastrophe After Catastrophe: Khushwant Singh’s Parting Verdict On His Nation

My first and only meeting with the Grand Khushwant Singh
My first and only meeting with the Grand Khushwant Singh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“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.”

–Khushwant Singh’s epitaph to himself

 

New Delhi, March 20: To the handful few who he allowed around him during his last years, urging their cherished one to a century of years had become a collective manifesto. It cannot be said for certain Khushwant Singh, who departed in the silence of a missed breath at home in Sujan Singh Park this afternoon, shared the zest of his constituency any longer. The first and only time I ever met him, shortly after he turned 99 this February, he intoned to me in whispers his diminishing lust for life. “Oh I so dislike no longer being my own master, I so dislike my dependence on other people. Even to go to the loo I must wait to catch someone’s eye and they have to help me…it’s the thing I have begun to most dislike, it’s my health I’ve most begun to miss, that I am no longer my own master…”

Reeta Dev Burman, neighbour and frequent care-giver to Khushwant Singh, sat opposite, having just fetched him the latest edition of “Private Eye”, his favourite magazine. She waved her arms about, as if to banish that despondency of tone. “But how could you even say that, Sir, you are the master of all of us, it is we who are dependent on you!”

Singh, lapsed in his sofa seat by the fireside, just looked at her with a wan here’s-looking-at-you-kid smile. Then he raised his glass, as if toasting the incredulity of Dev Burman’s exhort, and sniffed a sip. He was seldom known to have indulged himself to more than a peg a night, but that peg of single malt he missed for nothing. He never needed to say that evening how much he still loved his daily drink, but he spoke eloquently, though feebly, of how little he had begun to enjoy living. “I’ve already lived a rich and full life, you see, how much longer can one expect to go on…” For a man who had played the quirk of writing an obituary notice on himself aged 20, he had come a fair distance. He smiled infirmly, a little disagreeably, at the mention of going on to a hundred. His eye flickered, but only as if to say, look at the state of me.

By his fireside in Sujan Singh Park, February 11, 2014
By his fireside in Sujan Singh Park, February 11, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He took another sip of whiskey, dropped wrinkled lids on his eyes and chanted the Gayatri mantra as clearly and beatifically as I have ever heard it spoken. His eyes still shut, he then said, plaintively, “The only other prayer I say to myself each morning is Om Arogyam, Om Shanti, a prayer for health and a prayer for peace.”

The room was dimly lit, like a cavernous shrine; the fire gave off the most light and it picked out books everywhere, ordered and wantonly piled, in shelves, on the floor, on the centre table where bottles of whiskey stood competing with volumes of words. The shrine’s deity sat closest to the fire. He wore a loose cap over his sparse, straggly hair and had a blanket thrown across his knees. It was a cold evening. On his chest he wore a stain of gravy as big as his heart. Khushwant Singh seldom bothered pretending what he was not. He was now an old man; when he ate, he often spilt food onto himself, and he was beyond caring about it.

He had chanced upon a piece The Telegraph had run on his feisty toast to turning 99 (In centennial corner, Indian spring With malice towards none of the other 99-ers) and a few days later he’d had word sent to me. He had recovered from the exertions of celebrations around him, he was asking if I would like to drop by for a drink. Dev Burman would be my guide into Sujan Singh Park’s most vaunted precincts. There was a sign by the doorbell to the ground-level flat that said: “Do not ring the bell unless you are expected.” I rang.

A hushed usher and a turn in the hallway later I was in the company of the man I had known by so many descriptions I was a little taken aback to see that he fit, rather shriveled, in one corner of a sofa seat. Khushwant Singh, Inner Temple barrister, diplomat, historian, novelist, editor, columnist, scion of the builders of imperial New Delhi, imp, scamp, jokester, famed raconteur of Bacchic ribaldry, much of which was myth he invented around himself.  And yet all of that barely completes the description of the man who wrote the most words a Sardar ever did, bar the possibility that Manmohan Singh has been writing his life and times from Gah to goodbye and all that. Khushwant Singh collaborated notoriously with the Indira-Sanjay imposition of Emergency, earned the Padma Bhushan only to spurn it when Mrs Gandhi ordered the army into the Golden Temple in 1984 and rendered Sikhism’s holiest sanctum a bloodied battleground. A quarter century later, he would accept the Padma Vibhushan, the land’s second highest civilian honour, from a successor Congress government.

But if he took deep offence to Operation Bluestar, he turned with no less anger at the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the communal riptide that tore across many parts in its wake. One of the things that he recalled to me that first and last evening with him was his sense of outrage with the causes and consequences of the tearing down of the Babri Masjid. His wrath had probably been touched off anew by the insistent arrival of L.K. Advani to the private fete at Sujan Singh Park the day he turned the final lap to a hundred. “That man has blood on his hands,” Singh told me with a sense of disdain undiminished after all these years, “And I told him as much, and very openly. I was to be chief guest at an event and Advani was there as deputy prime minister. When my turn came to speak, I said it out loud, his hands are dipped in blood. He heard me out, and told me he would give the answer to that another day…” Advani had arrived at his birthday party and left; circa February 11, 2014, the day of our assignation, Singh still awaited his promised reply. I begged one question of him before the clock ticked over half seven in the evening, time for Singh to prepare for dinner and retire. I asked what he thought of the state of the nation, having spanned all its years since Independence and before, and he threw me a quizzical glance and asked, “But I didn’t get what you said.” He probably did not want to answer that one, but I repeated the question. “Ah,” he said, rearranging his blanket, “It’s one catastrophe after another, catastrophe after catastrophe after catastrophe, but I’ve got used to it.”

He didn’t have long to bear with it. He went just as he had wished. “All that I hope for is that when death comes to me, it comes swiftly,” Singh wrote in his last book, ‘Absolute Khushwant: The Low Down on Life, Death & Most Things In-Between (Penguin, 2010)’, “without much pain, like fading away in sound slumber.” A fair guess is the note he’d most have preferred to attend his last journey is a crescendo of “Cheers!”, apt salute to the son of a gun. Now gone. RIP Khushwant Singh.

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2014, Bihar, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

From Gujarat Into Bihar: After the Mahatma, Narendra Modi

Recently in Patna: Not since Indira Gandhi has any non-Bihari come to dominate the state’s political discourse as the BJP’s prime ministerial pick from the far end of the country, Gujarat’s Narendra Modi.

The central clue to Modi’s pre-eminence on the poll run is merely this: both Bihari protagonists, chief minister Nitish Kumar of the JDU, and predecessor Laloo Yadav of the RJD, have all but forsaken cognition of each other and narrowed focus on Modi as their chief adversary, the man to beat in this summer’s Lok Sabha election.

Nitish brought his protracted quarrel with Modi to a head last June, severing his 17-year tryst with the BJP even at the cost of losing majority on the assembly floor and losing out on the support of key upper caste sections. “Modi is a socially divisive and economically non-inclusive politician, a threat to pluralist India,” Nitish has repeatedly remonstrated in advocacy of his decision. More recently, as battle-lines sharpened and stakes rose, he has also been driven, in unlikely fashion, to pit himself in the race for prime ministership.

Laloo, on the other hand, has mocked Nitish’s “secular” avatar, emphasized his long conjugality with the BJP and foregrounded himself as the vanguard of the battle against Modi. “History will tell you, and the future will prove, the strength and force to fight communal and fascist forces like Modi resides in me, none else. I stopped (L.K.) Advani’s communal rath in Bihar, Nitish was the one who flagged it off again, tell me what credibility does he have?”

Continue reading “From Gujarat Into Bihar: After the Mahatma, Narendra Modi”

2013, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Mummy, Sorry For My Behaviour, But I Am The Appointed Prince, Ain’t I?

New Delhi, Oct 3: His father lowered the legitimate Indian voting age to 18, but fairly more than twice the older, Congress vice president and prospective arbiter of national destiny, Rahul Gandhi, claimed the right today to be “young” and, therefore, naturally subject to parental reprimand and correction. “My mother told me the words I used were wrong,” Rahul told journalists at the start of a two-day tour of the hot adversary territory of Gujarat today,”In hindsight, maybe the words I used were strong but the sentiment was not wrong. I am young…”

“Mummy!” is probably the sense that should ring out loudest from the Congress inheritor’s frank, tough callow, cry. Here is the gen-next of the first family of Indian politics, of self-appointed entitlement and priority, assuming that a private cry is kosher for public consumption: Mummy, if not for your rap on my knuckles I would have railroaded into Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his elected cabinet sans apology, I am appointed pretender to this unappointed kingdom, aint I ?

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Rahul Gandhi is beginning to achieve probably the converse of what he intends in his heartrending innocence: he is appearing every inch a brattish dictator of Congress and UPA affairs in his effort to send out word he is responding to democratic sentiment.

It is a little ironical he seemed to plead his case when he had just used the the ovarian lottery of his famous name to hector the government into submitting to his sudden rash of realisation that the ordinance on tainted politicians stood on the wrong side of extant public opinion. “I have a right to voice my opinion,” he humbly submitted, “A large part of the Congress party wanted it, why am I being penalised for raising my voice on something that was wrong? Was I wrong?”

It must be lost on very few that the luxury to raise their voice in the Congress belongs to so few they make a minority of fingers on a palm.

What Rahul has achieved with one fleeting fit of impetuosity at Delhi’s Press Club of India the other afternoon is this: trigger hyperactive action in a government that had so far taken the charge of paralysis in its stride. It is unlikely anybody else in the UPA, other than “Mummy”, who was clearly disapproving of Rahul’s chosen style, could have carried off such a feat.

“Mummy”, for the record, has had her share of differences with the government she has played regent to for the last decade. But never once has she found occasion fit enough to throw a public fit as her son chose to, or could afford to get away with. Sonia Gandhi did have her reservations about the slow pace of acceptance a slew of NAC-advised social welfare measures — the MGNREGA and the food security bill included — found with the Manmohan Singh dispensation, but she chose a more muted and patient tack to push her case

But the grand old lady of the ruling coalition may well have expected such an outburst from her appointed heir. The Nehru-Gandhis, after all, have not made a name for themselves as deferential democrats; they have, on the contrary, often conducted their affairs as possessed of divine right.

Rahul’s iconic great grand father was known to publicly admonish unpalatable entreaty. He once banished a delegation from Phulpur, his Lok Sabha constituency near Allahabad, telling them he was the Prime Minister of India, not just another one of 500-odd Lok Sabha members mandated to nurse and sweep about a woebegotten east UP constituency. Grandmother Indira’s carriage was altogether more imperious, such that wreaked upon India the singular memory of the Emergency, such that her minions came to publicly equate India with Indira. Father Rajiv, for all his cherubic charm, sacked a foreign secretary in a press conference broadcast live. And, when he reluctantly joined politics, justified it saying “Mummy needs me!” Not the nation, not its people, not the Congress party, but Mummy. Uncle Sanjay’s untimely and tragic departure from the scene (which occasioned Rajiv’s entry into public life) is considered by many an act of divine favor to Indian democracy; he did worse than impose the five-point programme, medical proscription of the right to parenthood was part of which. He is known to have, in one fit of rage, slapped his high-nosed mother across the dinner table over an argument. Rahul is infinitely better brought up; he has pleaded guilt to Mummy’s morality, though wielded his ovarian advantage nonetheless.

2011, Egypt, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

How I made a mistake and then realised breathing free itself was the revolution

These pieces under the tagline “Ringside at Tahrir” were first published in The Telegraph in February 2011

Sankarshan Thakur, who reported on the Egyptian uprising, recounts an unforgettable lesson he learnt at Tahrir Square

Feb 13, Cairo: Revolutions don’t reserve the right to admission; everyone’s welcome, including those they rise against, the more the merrier. Revolutions, as opposed to coups d’etat, are driven not by the dark deceit of a few but by the daring embrace of the many. They aren’t hatched in the shadowy backrooms of power, they are audacious things that roam the streets and arrive to explode at power’s guarded precincts: a palace, a prisonhouse, a wall, a ship deck, or, as in Egypt the past fortnight, a townsquare. They can’t be a crafted plot, they are a propulsion force laser-guided by the unjust nature of things. Revolutions don’t demand rights to admission. They erupt, the rest follows.

Egyptian Troops take a briefing before deploying in Zamalek, Central Cairo
Egyptian Troops take a briefing before deploying in Zamalek, Central Cairo

On my fourth evening at Tahrir Square last week, I lapsed into an error of judgement induced by critical gaps in my understanding of how revolutions work. There isn’t a standard guide anywhere on revolutionary symptoms and practices, of course, that reporters tasked to the ringside can pack in their in-flight bags; there probably can’t be.

Revolutions are not science, they are, if anything, a work of art in progress. But art is probably more demanding of understanding and interpretation because formulas don’t fit. Between one revolution and another very little fits. Mikhail Gorbachev survived to become extant world statesman, Nicolai Ceaucescu ended up shot and strung on a pole.

On the other hand, between a failed revolution and a successful one, a lot can seem similar. Tiananmen and Tahrir both began with angered youth facing off against tanks in the capital’s heart. They probably rolled over that one man — and much more — who stood in the tank’s path in that iconic photograph from Tiananmen; at Tahrir, human bodies rolled into the treads of tanks to immobilise them.

Continue reading “How I made a mistake and then realised breathing free itself was the revolution”