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Modern India’s Defining Man of Letters

Khushwant Singh Passes

Modern India’s Defining Man of Letters



“Thank the Lord he is dead, this son of a gun”: That’s a lift from the epitaph Khushwant Singh wrote for himself.

Khushwant Singh, modern India’s defining man of letters has never been easy to define.

Was he a good Sikhs deeply steeped in its tradition, history and literature as many Sikhs and non-Sikhs think of him or was he more in league with the devil, or at the least a self-hating delusional man not on the side of the Sikhs?

Was Khushwant Singh a political opportunist?  Was he the sycophant of Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi that he often appeared to be?  (The son succeeded the mother after her assassination in 1984 and was soon assassinated himself, but not by Sikhs.)  Khushwant spent many a gallon of printing ink in his feckless defense of Indira Gandhi and her demonic policies against Sikhs around 1984 and earlier when she suspended the Indian Parliament and ruled by fiat.

Or was Khushwant Singh the rare but independent minded and fearless representative of the fourth estate?  He returned the honors bestowed on him by the Indian government in protest of its genocidal anti-Sikh program.  And he equated the position of a Sikh in the India of 1984 to that of a Jew in Nazi Germany.  And yet he continued to defend Indira Gandhi and her warped view of power and its rampant misuse.

He was all these things and more.

Khushwant Singh was neither a theologian nor an academically trained historian.  Trained as a lawyer in Britain, he abandoned the pursuit of law after a brief uneventful stint and earned his stripes as a journalist and popular writer.

Yet his two volume history of the Sikhs won deserved kudos and international academic recognition.

His translations of selections from the Guru Granth rank among the best, as does his 2-volume History of the Sikhs, and yet he has continued to flout Sikh norms and practices publicly.

Countless Sikhs, including this author, found inspiration in his writings and just as many castigated him and refused to even list him among the Sikhs. Yet, I cringed at some of his pronouncements.

About 40 years ago he had caustically suggested that by the turn of the century there would be no Sikhs left in their present form.  Was it blasphemy, stupidity, callousness, or merely a slip of his eternally and thoughtlessly wagging tongue?  Or was it a deft challenge to Sikhs worldwide to explore their beliefs and practices, delineate them, and make them their own. Was he daring Sikhs to do what the Gurus had dared many other non-Sikhs of the day to do – examine the self.  What are we, who are we and why are we the way we are?

If it was Cassandra’s call it worked as intended for Sikhs are still here – almost in better shape than they were in then, and marking their presence all over the globe.

Khushwant Singh took over the stewardship of The Illustrated Weekly of India, as its Editor, at a time when the venerable magazine was floundering and its readers were abandoning it in droves, faster than rats desert a sinking ship.  But magically in a trice he had transformed the staid weekly into a glorious, trendy magazine with a come- hither look. It highlighted serious analysis, political news from the around the world, pictures galore, games and humor – a collection that few could resist.  It became India’s most popular weekly in English for which readers waited anxiously.




A widely read man who became India’s preeminent voice in English literature, Khushwant Singh produced erudite commentary and insightful prose but one finds his stamp on the bawdiest humor as well.  His output of publications – books and essays – is staggering and he remained,   commercially, perhaps the most successful Indian who chose to write in English. He authored 85 books.

Of the many imageries of death that Guru Granth provides the one that I believe fits Khushwant Singh to a “t” is of death as the completion of a mission and of life’s work.

Khushwant Singh lived a full life, productive and intense.  His body of work is beyond impressive.  It encompassed gurbani translation, Sikh history, critical essays on Indian and global politics, fiction and what I would charitably label adolescent humor.  For years he wrote five columns a week that were syndicated widely throughout the vast land that is India.

His widely circulated column With malice Towards One and All remains a marker of his puckish humor, laser like sharp vision and insight into human and societal foibles. If words can cut then his were sharper than a lancet.

Soon after the cataclysmic partition of India into the two free nations of India and Pakistan, Khushwant Singh produced the classic novel Train to Pakistan that still remains a moving, poignant testimony to the brutality of the partition and its impact on the lives of millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims.  Sixty years later the gut wrenching appeal of this classic novel remains undiminished.  It was and is a benchmark.

His relationship with all things Sikh or of Sikhi remained that of an adolescent – of boundless love and energy but when on display that connection to Sikhi was unmistakably leavened by an ocean of angst and mistrust.

From the Sikh point of view his translation of the foundational scriptural writings in Guru Granth – Japji Sahib – remains his cardinal achievement.  He also collaborated with four other lamplighters of Sikhi – Tarlochan Singh, Jodh Singh, Bawa Harkishen Singh and Kapur Singh in assembling and creating an English translation — the UNICEF sponsored Sacred Writings of the Sikhs.  Widely reprinted since its original publication in 1966, it remains the gold standard of translation that captures both the poetic genius of the writings but also their import and meaning.  Admittedly its language appears somewhat dated but even now almost half a century later this small book conveys the magic and the majesty of Guru Granth as none other.

Khushwant Singh remained a man of many parts, some at war with each other. Walt Whitman framed the question directly, “Do I contradict myself” and the only possible answer lay in the next words, “Very well, then I contradict myself.”  This to me was the spirit of Khushwant Singh.

Khushwant Singh died at 99; well beyond the four score that are theoretically promised us.

Shooting from the hip a la cowboys seemed to be his style.  But his words were well honed and sharpened weapons, carefully chosen for the duel at hand.

The man is silenced by time but his work remains.  He will be missed and he will be celebrated. Warts and contradictions all.

~ I.J. Singh

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