I distinctly remember walking down the cobbled-path leading to Khushwant Singh’s house in an old-world hilly town frozen in time just the way the British left it in 1947. Kasauli is a small outpost for the Army’s Northern Command, just 60 kms north of Chandigarh. The quaint hill station could be akin to the English countryside. Stone and wooden houses dot the winding roads, cloaked between tall pine trees and bushes of wild flowers, daisies and hydrangea scattered every few metres. The small hamlet’s few local residents and visiting elite, who’s summer houses over the years have become their permanent abodes, are landmark’s unto themselves. Khuswant Singh’s Raj Villa is one of them. Inherited by him from his father-in-law who had purchased the bungalow from a Brit couple residing in it formerly, Raj Villa’s stone facade and long sloping pathway welcomes you warmly.
There’s no gate, just a greeting walk down the driveway strewn with pine leaves, that local kids use to make DIY toys. And there he would sit most afternoons and early evenings, at the end of the long-winding driveway, wearing a white kurta pyjama, draped in a thin Himachali shawl, a wrap-around turban and buried in books and newspapers. He’d squint behind his glasses and recognize guests walking and make space in his small circle. Attentive, gracious and a merry disposition is all you’ll ever be greeted with during an idle afternoon with India’s greatest literary figure, Khushwant Singh. He’d be as eager to talk about the weather, his love for the slow life of Kasauli, the energy of Delhi that awaits him and even the perils of modernisation and politics.
The last time I walked into Raj Villa’s open haven was in 2007. Since then Khushwant Singh’s light had dimmed, but only a little. His longest running column in the Hindustan Times (“With Malice To One And All,” that previously also ran in The Tribune) had ended an era of his poignantly put, witty political and social comment in 2012. It was as radical as the illustration of a Sardar in a light bulb. Yet Kasauli had rallied around to celebrate him with the Khushwant Singh Literary Festival that Singh proudly moderated for two years. Authors and actors, who’d previously shared a relationship with the Himachali town from Rahul Bose, Deepti Naval to Mani Shankar, Aiyar, Shobha De, Gillian Wright to his proteges Bachi Karkaria, Malavika Sangghvi and even local figures like Ashok Chopra gathered in halls and celebrated the literary legend.
Most summers of the past decade or more have meant this lifestyle for Singh, Independent India’s biggest literary figure. From his piquant satire to his historical gift to Sikhism and even his scandalous self-adulation of his love for women, Khushwant Singh was a writer known not to mince any words. Most modern day journalists and authors salute Singh for his “opening up of the English language to appeal to a wider audience, not dumbing down from glorified language nuances,” as Karkaria recently said on a radio show about Singh.
Khushwant Singh penned his own obituary in his twenties. The man told the Human tale of India’s darkest hour, the partition of 1947 in a seething account called “Train To Pakistan” in 1956. It was the first book that lay bare the scale of the Human tragedy of the time and steered clear from the politics of the civilian exchange it was seen till then. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1974, a medal that he returned to the government in protest to Operation Bluestar in 1984. Till then he was supporter and friend to both Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency years of 1975 to 1977. He was criticized for his stand at the time, but that didn’t deter his ideology.
Singh has also compiled what can be considered modern-day Punjab’s richest historical account, “History of The Sikhs Vol I & II” in 2004 and 2005. Around the same time, he penned down a retrospective and introspective book of obituaries titled “Death At My Doorstep” in 2005. Singh, not one for morose and dry comment, compiled his list of obituaries written for luminaries like Benazir Bhutto (who ironically would be assassinated two years later in 2007), Sanjay Gandhi, MO Mathai, Rajni Patel, Lord Mountbatten, even his pet dog Simba. And on a page he even published his own epitaph, “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.“
Perhaps Singh’s best quality as a writer came with the sharp packaging of his political and social commentary with a witty Santa/Banta joke in the end. The quintessential character joke has become synonymous with Sardar humour as the bewitching hour of 12 pm is. Would Singh want us to mourn his demise at the ripe age of 99? I think not. I can still picture myself walking down the path of Raj Villa in the summer of 2014 and find him immersed in his papers in the afternoon sun and be an audience to his witty wisdom . “As a man gets older, his sex instincts travel from his middle to his head.” (“The Company Of Women,” 1999)