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.

Advertisements
2013, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

For Rahul, With A Hundred Crore

New Delhi, Jan 15: Staring at diminished electoral returns in 2014, the UPA is set to unleash a mega propaganda blitz dovetailed into Rahul Gandhi’s promotion to the fore of the Congress campaign.

Beginning tomorrow — the eve a widely-awaited Congress session — the government will pump in excess of Rs 100 crore into the eight-language multimedia offensive to buttress what could well become the Nehru-Gandhi heir’s debut lead in a national election.

The effort has been designed by the ministry of information and broadcasting in collaboration with Mumbai-based communications firm PerceptIndia as a six-week ad barrage that will terminate close to the notification of general elections in early March. UPA sources told The Telegraph tonight that this “final promotional push” is aimed at “correcting the imbalance between the huge achievements of the UPA over the past ten years and the erroneous perception that these have been wasted years”.

images

The UPA appears unworried that the government-funded salvo could lend itself to being slammed by the Opposition as misuse of public money to serve the interests of the Congress, or, more bluntly, Rahul Gandhi. “Seven lakh crore rupees have been spent by the government on welfare under the eleventh Plan,” the sources countered, “This money is only a fraction of it, and besides, it has been lying allocated and unspent. All government have the right to speak about their achievements.” Continue reading “For Rahul, With A Hundred Crore”

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 ?

images

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.

2013, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Manmohan Stares Down Rahul’s Torpedo

New Delhi, Oct 1: Rahul Gandhi’s torpedo strike at the ordinance on tainted politicians has left the Prime Minister he deeply respects fuming.

Clearly peeved by the Congress vice president’s abrupt offensive, Manmohan Singh has set up a hard-talk date with top Congress and cabinet colleagues tomorrow to pick a credible way out of the raging public embarrassment the UPA has inflicted on itself. As he flew home tonight after key bilateral and multilateral engagements in the United States, a key prime ministerial aide told The Telegraph that Singh had been “taken aback” by Rahul’s intervention and “left upset”, but also that he was “firmly of the view a final decision had to be thought through in consultation with the party and government allies”.

images

Quitting the job is far from the Prime Minister’s mind; questioning the causes of his current discomfiture is a closer description of his mood. “…When I go back I will try to find out the reasons why it had to be done that way and how do we handle it,” Singh told journalists on the special back from the United States, making it plain that Rahul’s positioning had both stumped and mortified him. When asked if he had been hurt that Rahul had torn into the ordinance while he was abroad, Singh said, “Well. I am not the master of what people say…I have been used to ups and downs and don’t get easily upset.”

Continue reading “Manmohan Stares Down Rahul’s Torpedo”

St Petersburg

Strelna: A War and A Quarrel

The US brought the tremors of a distant war to this picturesque Baltic islet this today and Indian sails lay a little knocked of wind as New Delhi’s effort to build consensus with BRICS leaders against US liquidity withdrawals floundered. Three BRICS nations — Russia, China and South Africa — virtually vacated India’s concerns on adverse spillover effects of the US economic policies saying the problems were for New Delhi to handle, not for the collective.

US President Barack Obama has arrived here holding the world to an obligation on Syrian strikes several big nations gathered here are unwilling to undertake. “My credibility is not on the line, the world’s credibility on the line…the world had set the red lines when 98 percent of the nations condemn the use of chemical weapons.”

gty_barack_obama_vladimir_putin_ll_111031_wg

Half his campaign in the US Congress won with the Senate’s endorsement, Obama is now at hair’s breadth distance from pressing the button on Syria. Obama’s unyielding host, President Vladimir Putin, appears to be gritting harder at his jaws. “Any unilateral military action against Syria will be deemed and act of aggression,” he warned just before he welcomed G20 leaders at the majestic entrance to the Konstantinovsky Palace this afternoon, “There is no evidence they used chemical weapons.”

War rumbles are new to the G 20 forum, purely economic of makeup, but with Obama and Putin stepping onto the same stage, it was bound to shake. Bilateral atmospherics have been tense coming into this summit. The US underlined Obama did not intend meeting Putin one-on-one on the sidelines, an almost routine event at such multilaterals. The Russians made it clear they were going to leverage their status as the G 20 hosts to signpost their opposition to US brinkmanship over Syria.

The only significant sideline that did unfold today was a mini-summit of BRICS leaders, where India failed to rally support for its call to restraint on capital flow volatility triggered mainly by the US. India claimed that BRICS leaders had “reiterated concerns expressed at the Durban Summit in March regarding the unintended negative spillovers of unconventional monetary policies of certain developed economies”.

The claim found no consonance in individual statements emerging from leaders of some other BRICS member states, who seemed to be saying that India’s economic difficulties were essentially her own and she should take steps to tackle them.

Reuters quoted the Chinese Vice Premier Zhu Guagyao as saying, “We see temporary difficulties of some BRICS countries, mainly as difficulties in terms of international balance of payments…the policy response to such difficulties include increasing interest rates and devaluing currencies.”

The Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak  appeared to brush aside the Indian effort to rally consensus saying the issues raised amounted to “individual problems not concerning BRICS as a whole.” The South African finance minister Pravin Gordhan, was downright dismissive: “We don’t know what the proposal is, this is India’s initiative to resolve India’s issues,” he was quoted as saying.

Asked whether discordant BRICS voices meant India lay isolated in its concerns over the negative impact of US monetary policies, foreign secretary Sujata Singh said: “I can only tell you what I heard and I heard all (BRICS) leaders expressing concern on unconventional monetary policies. Our official release says concerns were reiterated by BRICS leaders, it is a common position.”

Setting the stage for St Petersburg, India had raised the pitch to secure wider agreement between emerging economies on speaking out against unconventional monetary policies. Economic Affairs secretary Arvind Mayaram had expressed the hope India’s position will find traction among BRICS and G20 nations and said, “There is no reason why our voice should not be heard. I do believe if our voices are strong and clear, we will be heard.”

The Indian reluctance to accept lack of consensus among BRICS notwithstanding, different voices emerging from the platform may well have belied Mayaram’s optimism. The Indian contingent remains optimistic, however, on being able to lobby G 20 nations more effectively. “Wait to hear what emerges from the G 20 on the level of international cooperation among emerging economies on the adverse impact of unconventional monetary policies,” an official said, “The different voices could be misleading because their contexts they are responding to may be different.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself reiterated his fears adverse impacts, telling G20 leaders at the commencement of the summit, “The world economy is not in good shape.  There is some good news of a strengthening of growth in some industrialised countries, but it is not broad based…     The G 20 is the premier international forum for discussing international economic issues. I think we need to reflect on why we are having less success in restoring global growth than we had hoped.”

Global economic corrections in the part of developed nations isn’t a battle he is giving up on easily. His intended audience, though, may be engrossed on the grim prospect of a more immediate battle. It is unlikely Obama and Putin will part from Strelna agreed on Syria.

2013, Reportage, St Petersburg, Telegraph Calcutta

St Petersburg, Sideline to Syria

St. Petersburg, Sept 4: Here we are for a high-table summit on the chilly sidelines of Syria, nosed into a toxic cumulus of war dragged to economic summitry. Up by the Baltic to mend global purse holes, but riveted on the pirouette of hostilities 3000 miles south in the Middle East that could blow those holes bigger.

Chance would be a fine thing if the G20 stage, set up at the offshore palace isle of Strelna, isn’t bleached by the eyeball-to-eyeball between host Vladimir Putin of Russia and the most powerful of his arriving guests, US President Barack Obama. A dare flames away between the two; Obama bent on a disciplinary strike on Damascus, Putin girded to prevent that happening.

images (1)

There’s more that strains the two men than just the causes and consequences of the deathly spew of sarin gas in Syria. There is also the ice over a certain Mr Edward Snowden, spy turned whistleblower who the US wants for national security offences and who Russia has provided shelter and protection. Obama scrapped a scheduled state visit to Moscow last month, enraged over Putin’s hospitality to the American absconder; he’s come to St Petersburg only because it’s a multilateral. Never mind that poor bilateral atmospherics between the Cold War Big Two could sour it for the rest of the conference table.

Not for any lack of trying by the subalterns of the G 20, though. For all the war drum decibels booming in the Summit halls, there is a cacophony for corrections seeking to be heard. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh might well be lead tenor of that set. “Though there are encouraging signs of growth in industralised countries, there is also a slowdown in emerging economies which are facing the adverse impact of significant capital outflows,” Singh said setting out for the G 20 this morning, “I will emphasize in St Petersburg the need for an orderly exit from the unconventional monetary policies being pursued by the developed world so as to avoid damaging the growth prospects of the developing world.”

Decoded, “unconventional monetary policies pursued by the developed world” essentially means huge capital withdrawals by the United States into its own economy and markets. So, though the Prime Minister and his government chose not to collar Washington by name, plaint and plea both addressed to the Obama administration: follow your recovery path, but don’t push us back in the process.

Prime Minister Singh referred to “several reform measures to stabilize the rupee and create an investor-friendly environment” but sought a “stable and supportive external environment” to sustain the Indian effort.

Economic Affairs secretary Arvind Mayaram, who spoke to journalists en route to St Petersburg, also flagged Indian concerns over the “spillover impact” of substantive capital withdrawals by the US. “We hope to raise the issue with other nations at the summit and arrive at a consensus on matters such as enhancing the resource base for emerging economies and underlining the need for infrastructure investment to impact growth impulses,” Mayaram said.

Two areas seemed to trouble him: the likelihood of a spurt in international oil prices, and the liquidity pullout by developed nations. “We have to raise this concern strongly and I do not believe that if our voices are strong we will not be heard,” Mayaram said.

Asked whether India hadn’t itself partly to blame because of its laggardly progress on structural reforms, Mayaram countered: “I don’t believe it is correct to say structural reforms have not taken place in the recent past. I can list them, it is a long list, it is a pathbreaking list of reforms.”

For a senior official headed to conference sessions where the discourse is likely to be dominated by concern, if not pessimism, Mayaram was oddly bullish of posture. “We do not require any drastic measures,” he said to a suggestion that the government might have to resort to dire-strait steps, “We can bring the situation under control.”

He flew in the face of a threatened downgrade by Standard & Poor’s, saying he had “credible numbers” to contest the ratings agency’s grim forecast: a nine percent expansion in the sowing area has raised the prospect of a bumper crop and a one percentage point spike to GDP growth; the impact of project approvals worth US$ 30 billion will soon begin to kick in; first quarter FDI inflows stand at US$ nine billion compared to US$ five billion over the same period next year; the rein on fiscal deficit (4.8 percent) and current account deficit (3.7 percent) will be held tight. “I don’t understand what the case for downgrading us is? And where do they get this 33 percent downgrade prospect figure?” Mayaram wondered. Then, as if to put down S&P’s own standings, he acidly added, “Unless, of course, they want to downgrade the whole world because the slowdown is global.”

Brave words from a finance man speaking on the back of a shaky Rupee, plunging markets and spiraling prices. But we were 40,000 feet up in rarefied air aboard AI 1 when Mayaram proclaimed the prospects on Indian economy robust and raring for leap. Loftiness probably comes easy at such heights.

2013, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Manmohan Singh: From Home Truths to Foreign Fancies

New Delhi, Sept 3: Prime Minsiter Manmohan Singh has signalled a sabbatical from a long season of domestic picket-fencing and is set to swivel focus on foreign policy ventures whose centrepiece remains the elusive search for a trust breakthrough with Pakistan.

Cleaving off from the extended, and often turbulent, monsoon session of Parliament, Singh is set to take a recess from public engagement on domestic disquiet over a range of issues from corruption to the economic slide, leaving the battling for his party and ministerial colleagues to do.

 

 

 

 

 

When Singh departs for St. Petersburg tomorrow to summit with G20 leaders, the Prime Minister will be embarking on a hectic, though he’d hope less exacting, eight-week international schedule that will take him from the United States in the west to Brunei in the south-east with Moscow midway. Continue reading “Manmohan Singh: From Home Truths to Foreign Fancies”