Reviewing Khushwant Singh’s work is educative for a number of reasons. It teaches one to avoid using certain words when simpler ones will do; to get to the point; and to say plainly whether the writing in question is of value or not. In keeping with these lessons, then, here it is: This anthology deserves to be read. It will not be a waste of your time. Whether you dip into it at random or read it cover to cover is immaterial. It will amuse you in parts, possibly horrify you, teach you a thing or two about Delhi, the Emergency, England and a lot of other things, places or events that historians are too boring to ever include in the textbooks they bequeath us.
99: Unforgettable Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry and Humour, Khushwant Singh, Aleph, Rs 699
I began with Singh’s essay on Bombay, wanting to see it from his eyes. It was not a pleasant picture, of course, but my city isn’t a pretty one. What prompted me to keep reading was Singh’s uncanny ability to get to the heart of his story, something I hadn’t recognised when I first read Train to Pakistan decades ago. I also noticed that his columns often brought out the best of him, as if their enforced word limits compelled him to cut out the chaff from his prose.
Aleph’s decision to publish 99 pieces for each year he lived (Singh passed away on March 20, 2014) will mean little to the reader, considering the body of work left behind. What does matter is the decision to include the minutiae among his jokes and poems. If you aren’t sure about whether you need a copy, I must quote Singh himself to convince you: “There is a lot to be learned from both the sacred and the profane. I have done that nearly all my life...”
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