City Obituary – Khushwant Singh, 1915-2014
A Delhi writer.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
One night, during the first half of April, 2009, Delhi’s legendary author Khushwant Singh, who died at the age of 99 in March 2014, 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 up from the floor. 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 after the accident. “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 drinking scotch.
Mr Singh’s living room was a coveted tourist spot for all those Indians and visiting foreigners (especially Pakistanis) who fancy themselves as writers, poets and intellectuals. But no one, not even the Prime Minister, would be permitted inside without an appointment.
No surprises, of course. The author who titled his autobiography Not a Nice Man to Know was famous for being a slave to time. He got up daily at 4 am. Earlier he would take a walk or play badminton but due to advanced age, he started to spend all his day hours reading and writing.
Even in his 90s, Mr Singh wrote two weekly newspaper columns that continued to enjoy a wide readership. Besides, he made it a point to reply to every letter he received from his admirers and critics. In the evening, he entertained his privileged visitors with whiskey, canapés and gossip.
While Mr Singh was a polite person, he could 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 (audience). Overwhelmed by so many books, she asked Mr Singh if she could take a few of them. Unfortunately, Mr Singh was one of those people who could never say ‘no’. The Calcutta lady happily picked up 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 had a sense of humor – check out his multi-volume joke books – but by 2010 he had started to look sad. Surrounded by books, an elderly cook and a daughter whose house was opposite his apartment, Mr Singh had a rather solitary existence. He might be considered by many as the living landmark of Delhi but all the fame had not spared him from that peculiar loneliness that falls on anyone who manages to reach his advanced years.
In his conversations, Mr Singh often rued that all his friends had passed away. The man had outlived his close relatives. His wife, Kaval Malik, died in 2002. His son-in-law died four years later. However, Mr Singh loved his scotch too much to leave too soon.
Khushwant Singh’s home in Sujan Singh Park