Khushwant Singh’s ‘The Good, Bad and the Ridiculous’
By K. S. Subramanian
When one has all the time in the world, one little knows what one can do with it. Yet one would pontificate to his friends that one has little time to do all the work on his palm. “Oh! I am so busy that I have to find time,” as if it is a needle in a haystack. It is part of a defense mechanism not to leave room for someone to think that you lounge around. It’s better to spread around the feeling that you are busy or at least a busybody.
There is a lot happening in the domain of politics, society or any other walk of life. Most of us who see the happenings don’t want to poke our nose into them or let our flannels get dirty. Suffice it to say that we intervene in these happenings by writing about them, where the sagacity of your ideas flows out. Besides when we spend a part of the day – say about two to three hours – on reading a novel, biography or re-illumination of a past event, the time is well spent. These written words make us reflect on these events for a while and someday when we put them down on paper (nay, lap-top), we are stunned by our own reappraisal of the events.
When Khushwant Singh, the famous and celebrated editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India and various other publications, passed away in 2015, I felt sad that death should catch up with someone who enjoyed his social-circle (not merely the elite) as much as the “gaalis” he received for his fearless comments. I confess I was in awe of him in my younger days and also during my baptism in journalism in The Indian Express, Mumbai in the 80s when I was a sub-editor working under his affable, accessible son, Rahul Singh. Those days my seniors would describe Rahul as a toddler in the newspaper because he had worked for the Reader’s Digest earlier.
Khushwant brought a new look to the Weekly and boosted its circulation with his much loved Editor’s Page. Since he was well-established in the media world as a Roving Editor, he divided his time between his evening tete-e-tete with celebrities, be it Bollywood, corporate or literary, and the Weekly preparations for the highly themed magazine. Of course, his contacts with the celebrities were something the lesser mortals were envious of. His self-deprecation and witticisms made him win as much malevolence as friendship. But he had a well-etched view of every friend of his, irrespective of their field of operation. Precisely this uncluttered appraisal finds its way into the sharp portraits he draws up in The Good, Bad and the Ridiculous.
From Amrita Shergill to Dom Moreas to Nehru to Giani Zail Singh to Shraddha Mata, the range of real-life personalities in his writing is illustrative of the mindset of the generations he had known. Malice is not intended nor is there any but Amrita Shergill, for example, does not come off well in the two pages given to her. He tilts with gossip, yes, but his observations about them, including a lofty legendary Nehru, are mostly from personal encounters. Be it the personal tragedy of Dom Moraes, the wide ranging politics of George Fernandes, the complexes of Mulk Raj Anand or the Rajiv-Zail Singh tiff, they are all dealt with the same brush – of sympathy and empathy, too. Krishna Menon, the fall guy of the 1962 China debacle, is shred to his last peal of skin by Khushwant’s flourish of pen, which reveals more than his biographers could have. Of course, he has a soft corner for the Gandhi family as his own role as a pillar of the fourth estate during the Emergency was dubious. That alone is the sore point in the collection, even though he diffuses a bit laconically his critical observations on Indira Gandhi. Nothing much to crow about it, however.
In the Preface, he is succinct about it: “I have been criticized most severely for writing uncomplimentary things about dead people. Death does not wipe away the sins of nastiness or idiocy. A man should be judged in death as he would be in life. The truly good and the great are not diminished when their faults are exposed…they earn greater respect for rising to admirable heights despite their very human flaws.”
Though gossip is thick in the air, Khushwant does not merely rely on it for giving a flourish to his pen-portraits. His empathy flows for Bhagat Puran Singh of Pingalwara, the famous son of the Punjab, who returned his Padmashree in protest against Operation Blue Star. Puran Singh’s home for the destitute, cutting across race, religion or caste, was initially a ramshackle one. However, Khushwant’s visit to the home and his sketch of the man made the state government wake up and come out with aid. More donations flowed and he was prompt in acknowledging even the small amounts with a receipt. No wonder, Khushwant Singh writes, “In living memory, Punjab has not produced as great a man as Bhagat Puran Singh.”
I would personally rate his sketch of Dom Moraes as the best. The amazing poet was burdened by the memory of his insane mother and also writer’s block for 17 years, until his third wife, Sarayu, persuaded him to bring out the remarkable Out of God’s Oven. A quintessential British, as Khushwant calls him, he had hardly anything complimentary to say about India, as fundamentalism raised its head. Poetry grew like “maggots in his head” but to his last day he could never live up to his potential or stick to a job. Down with cancer in his last days, Dom was laid apart by personal tragedy. The following lines capture the turmoil:
“From a heavenly asylum, shriveled Mummy glares down like a gargoyle at your only son…that I am terminally ill hasn’t been much help. There is no reason for anything to exist. Goodbye now. Don’t try to meddle with this.”
The tidbit about Zail Singh reveals a facet that the late President could bear no grudge about, even for worthy reasons. When the Opposition approached him to prosecute Rajiv Gandhi for corruption in Bofors Scnadal, Zail Singh refused. Though he was quite unhappy with the late Prime Minister on some counts, he believed prosecuting Gandhi would send a wrong signal. However, opinions may vary on the constitutional propriety of it. Khushwant quotes a couplet that best sums up the profile of Zail Singh:
“It was the bruises on my lips that made me comprehend with what thoughtlessness I had kissed the rose.”
There is a galaxy of personalities in the book – from Urdu poets such as Sahir Ludhianvi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz to Shraddha Mata, besides the greats like the Mahatma, Louis Mountbatten – but the underlying tone of honesty of the author pervades them all. His perspective on the role of Sant Bhindranwale is also consistent in keeping with his abiding faith in secular values, though he is able to evaluate the social side of the man’s rise. His unrelenting critique of L.K. Advani for effecting a social divide is also understandable.
Singh confesses somewhere: “I am a simple minded Sardar.” The old, wily Sardar does not want to be caught in the wrong, but doesn’t intend to wrong them either.
Khushwant’s admiration for George Fernandes could only be representative of the general public feeling for him. The simple reason for this was the fact that the man’s life was a reflection of the story of contemporary India including its “achievements and failures”.
Khushwant Singh’s penchant for writing (as the phenomenal number of his books would speak for it) is as instinctive as that of solving the crossword puzzle early morning. Equally instinctive is my return to this book in 2015, which I have read so often since I bought it.
K. S. Subramanian, India, has published two volumes of poetry titled, Ragpickers and Treading on Gnarled Sand through the Writers Workshop, Kolkata, India. His poems have appeared in Asian Age, a daily published from New Delhi and other centres and in several magazines, anthologies and web sites such as Brown Critique, Yorick Magazine, Poetry Pacific, Muse India, Kingston Writers Creative Blog, Café Dissensus, among others. He is a retired Senior Asst. Editor from The Hindu, one of the leading and well known dailies in India.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.