City Landmark – Khushwant Singh, Sujan Singh Park

Delhi's Dirty Old Man

Delhi’s celebrated author in his winter years.

[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

One night, during the first half of April, 2009, Delhi’s legendary author Khushwant Singh, said to be 95-year-old, fell off from his bed while sleeping at his home in Sujan Singh Park, a graceful if crumbly apartment complex very close to Khan Market.

It was pitch dark; Mr Singh stumbled around but could not get up. He then called for his son Rahul who was unable to pick him. A security guard was later summoned from outside and only then was the author of such classics like Train to Pakistan and A History of the Sikhs was brought back to his bed. Luckily, there were no injuries.

“I’m very worried,” said Mr Singh when I met him a few days later. “At my age, the fall could have been fatal.” Sitting on his usual fireside sofa, in white pajamas, red-pullover and a cap, he was sipping scotch.

Mr Singh’s living room remains a coveted tourist spot for all those Indians and visiting foreigners who fancy themselves as writers, poets, intellectuals and leaders. But no one, no matter even if it is the Prime Minister’s wife, is permitted inside without an appointment.

No surprises, of course. The author who titled his autobiography Not a Nice Man to Know is famous for being a schedule stickler. He gets up daily at 4 am. Earlier he would take a walk or play badminton but now due to advanced age, he spends all his day hours reading, writing.

Even though he is in his 90s, Mr Singh writes two weekly newspaper columns that continue to enjoy a wide readership. Besides, he makes it a point to reply to every letter he receives from his admirers and critics. In the evening, he entertains his privileged visitors with whiskey, canapés and gossip.

While Mr Singh is a polite person, he can also be blunt without the guest being aware of it. One evening a 70-year-old lady admirer had come from Calcutta for a darshan. Overwhelmed by so many books, she asked Mr Singh if she could take a few of them. Unfortunately, Mr Singh is one of those people who can never say ‘no’. The Calcutta lady happily picked as many books as she could from the shelves, including the autographed copy of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Courage: Eight Portraits. When the lady was leaving, Mr Singh shook her hands and said, “It’s the first and hopefully last time I’m seeing you.”

No doubt Mr Singh has a sense of humor – check out his multi-volume joke books – but now he has started looking sad. Surrounded by books, an aged cook and a daughter whose home is opposite his apartment, Mr Singh has a rather solitary existence. He may be the living landmark of Delhi but all this fame has not spared him from that peculiar loneliness that falls on anyone who manages to reach his kind of advanced years. In his conversations, Mr Singh often rues that all his friends have passed away. The man has outlived his close relatives. His wife, Kaval Malik, died in 2002. His son-in-law died four years later. However, Mr Singh loves his scotch too much to leave too soon. He has got his bed dragged against the bookshelves to pre-empt any fall. The Delhi Walla wishes him good health and happiness.