“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.
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.
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”.
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”→
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 ?
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.
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”.
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.”