Self Expression Magazine

An Interview with Khushwant Singh !!

Posted on the 07 January 2013 by Unforgettable
Please do not ring the bell unless you are expected, says the sign outside the door of his New Delhi home. Luckily, we have an appointment, and after dawdling for ten minutes so that we are not too early, one of us rings the bell. A suspicious manservant soon appears, and after being assured that we are expected, takes our visiting cards and goes back inside. He’s a trifle friendlier when he returns and ushers us into the presence of Sardar Khushwant Singh.

India’s best-known writer, dressed in a deep-grey salwar-kameez and black patka, a blanket covering his lap and legs, doesn’t get up, but greets us affably and offers us tea and biscuits.
Before we begin, he takes his phone off the hook, another sign of Singh’s old-world courtesy. His body seems shrunken and frail, but throughout the hour-long interview, punctuated with hearty laughs, a sly wit, and flashes of malice, it’s clear that the iconoclastic Sardar’s mind is as keen as ever.
Khushwant Singh has been everywhere and known everyone worth knowing. Yet when he talks, one senses that he maintains his distance, never gets too close—the best way, perhaps, to ensure that everything is grist to his writer’s mill.
RD: You look remarkably fit for a person of 90?
KS: Ninety plus.
RD: How do you manage it?
KS: (Laughs) No idea. I acquired long-lived parents.
RD: Your parents...
KS: Lived to 90 and 94. My mother died at 94. Father died at 90, holding a glass of whisky. I think that’s the secret of longevity—to have long-lived parents. The rest is discipline.
RD: What kind of routine do you maintain?
KS: I rise very early, between 4:30 and 5. I don’t waste any time on prayer. I get to work… I read the papers and I then scribble, read, all day long, except for a short break for lunch, which is just a bowl of soup. Then I work again, rest a little, work again, till sundown.
RD: What time do you go to bed?
KS: I retire at about 9 or 9.30, I read in bed till about 10.
RD: You said you don’t waste any time on prayer? Aren’t you a practicing Sikh?
KS: I am, emotionally, [a Sikh]. I listen to kirtan if it is good, from the Golden Temple, the live broadcast, morning and evening, but if the ragi is singing out of tune, I switch off.
RD: But you are not a religious person?
KS: No. [But] I am very devoted to the Ganga. I go, at least once or twice a year, to watch the aarti in Haridwar. The spectacle means a lot to me.
RD: You get a sense of identity from being a Sikh?
KS: That’s right.
RD: But do you think people in a country as divided as India should cling to their religious or caste backgrounds?
KS: I think the sense of belonging does give you a certain amount of mental satisfaction. I conform to the outward semblance of the Khalsa, and it has paid because I was the only journalist, Hindu or Sikh, who opposed Bhindranwale while he was alive, saying he’s an evil man, not a sant. I was under police security for 15 years because I was on their hit-list. I opposed Khalistan because I thought it would be suicide for the Sikh community to demand a separate state, and they heard me because they knew I was one of them. I think I turned round at least the intelligent Sikh’s point of view and that gave me enormous satisfaction.
RD: So you’d say that liberal journalists like you should have their own regional or religious identities so that they can influence people from their community?
KS: Yes, but mind you, it is nothing that cuts me off from the rest. At one time, when I gave up my Padma Bhushan after [Operation] Bluestar and people criticized me, [saying] that "When it came to the choice of being a Sikh or an Indian, he chose to be a Sikh," I protested strongly. I said, "You have no right to question my patriotism. Would you ask a Hindu, ‘Are you a Hindu or an Indian?’ But you have the courage to ask a member of a minority community to prove his belonging to the country?" It never occurred to me that I had to be one or the other, I am both.
RD: You have mentioned in your autobiography that as a young man you were close to the communists?
KS: I was never a cardholder. But I was leftist in the sense that I voted communist.
RD: And did you take part in the freedom struggle?
KS: No, not really. But I did subscribe to the freedom movement and I was much closer to the Congress than to the Akali party. It is a communal party. I continue to be critical of the Akalis.
RD: You admired Gandhiji?
KS: Very much. I still do. I still think that the point of reference for every Indian when he is in doubt on any political or social issue is to say, "What would Gandhi have done under the circumstances?" I didn’t subscribe to his fads—prohibition, celibacy, no doctors—but generally he was always right. He meant more to me than any of my panth, my gurus.
RD: Have you ever used Gandhi as a reference in your personal life?
KS: Well yes. I have never lost my temper. I let out my venom in my writing if I have to, but person-to-person, I have never lost my temper, never used abusive language. I use vulgar language in my writing. Or for people I don’t like, but I have never had an outburst of anger and I think that’s largely Gandhi’s influence. When you lose your temper, you’ve lost your cause.
RD: You started as a lawyer.
KS: I didn’t have much of a practice. So I had lots of time to read what I hadn’t read in my school and college days. Being a bad student I barely passed my exams and I barely bothered about books. It was sports all the time. I started reading and got involved in literature and writing. The few cases I handled gave me the material for my early short stories.
RD: You were pretty indisciplined as a youth, an indifferent student, barely scraped through your exams. Yet you became a highly disciplined person.
KS: I don’t know how it happened. I was unhappy with the jobs I did after law. I got into the diplomatic service. There again I had really little to do. I discovered that a diplomat’s life is largely entertaining and meeting people. At the end of the day there’s nothing. So I gave up. I had the courage to go, because, by then my stories started appearing in magazines. I turned to the Partition experiences, which were churning in my mind. Then came my first novel Train to Pakistan.
RD: You narrowly missed getting into the ICS.
KS: That’s right.
RD: Do you regret that?
KS: Thank God I didn’t. They would have thrown me out.
RD: Why do you often betray the confidences of your friends in print?
KS: I haven’t any close friends. Friendship needs time to interact, sit down, gossip. I don’t have that time. Friends meddle with my plan of work. I resent people dropping in for a chat. I admit I have no forgiveness. If anyone is ever rude to me, however much they may try to make up, I can’t bring myself to re-establish the old [connection]. And when they drop me, I have a sense of relief.
RD: So you are a loner?
KS: Yes, I am.
RD: Do all good writers have to be loners?
KS: Yes. I am alone, but never lonely. You have always books around you. I have, in the last few years, deliberately cultivated what I call sanyas in my own home, with all the creature comforts. I never go out, no parties, unless I simply have to.
RD: You said in your autobiography that writing on Sikh religion and history are the most fulfilling things you’ve ever done. Yet you seem to have given up that kind of writing for journalism—and that too for an entertainment kind of journalism. Do you regret trading fulfilment for fame?
KS: I do both. I mean I have books coming out all the time. I have just updated my two-volume Sikh history. Another book [has just come out] on my views on death and dying called Death at My Doorstep, which consists of my own views, [and those of ] people I have interacted with like the Dalai Lama or Osho whom I questioned on the subject. It also has a collection of obituaries I’ve written.
RD: You have not given up serious writing?
KS: No. Well, I am not a serious person. I don’t claim any profundity for any of my writing. But I am prolific. Any rubbish I write gets published, so books keep churning out.
RD: What’s your favorite work?
KS: Well, the seminal work would be my History of the Sikhs and my translation of the [Sikh] scriptures. I have also done translations from Urdu. Iqbal was my favorite poet and I translated his two very long poems. It’s now in its 11th printing.
RD: What accounts for your pheno-menal success as a journalist?
KS: Slogging. I have never, in 50 years, ever missed a deadline.
RD: From your autobiography it’s clear that you are not a womanizer and not a drunkard.
KS: I’ve had very little sex. I like my Scotch, but I’ve never been drunk.
RD: Do you still have your three large pegs?
KS: I have two. But they are massive (laughs).
RD: Sex is such an important dimension to almost any of your fiction.
KS: It’s of real interest to every human being and so why gloss over it, and it’s fun, it’s interesting, it has so many dimensions.
RD: You call yourself a rational person. Yet you carried a regular astrology column in The Illustrated Weekly of India [now defunct magazine] when you were its editor.
KS: Because the time it was dropped the circulation dropped. We used to get the column from England, and I said if you have to carry this rubbish, why not [use] Indians who specialize in this? I got a man from Poona. Then he discovered we paid the Englishman much more and he refused to write. I wrote the column myself for three months.
RD: You just made it up, and nobody noticed!
KS: Yes.
RD: Is it true that you want to be buried in a Bahai cemetery?
KS: I don’t want to be cremated, I want to be buried. I don’t believe in wasting wood and I feel that one should give back to the earth. They won’t have me in a Muslim cemetery; they won’t have me in a Christian cemetery. The Bahai said we have a cemetery, but we will have our Bahai rites. I said you do what you like.
RD: You are not scared of death, are you?
KS: I am scared of what goes before it—the pain, the anguish, being put in the hospital, somebody shoving bed-pans under your bottom—that I’d rather be spared.
RD: Twenty years ago, after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, Sikhs were murdered in Delhi. And yet today the prime minister is a Sikh, the most important economist in the country is a Sikh, and the chief of the army staff is a Sikh.
KS: Raj Karega Khalsa, not with a kirpan but a ballpoint pen! It is a remarkable turnover.
RD: It tells you something about India, too, doesn’t it? That this can happen in this country is a wonderful thing.
KS: That’s right.

Collected From Reader's Digest(RD).

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