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Tribute: The craft of being Khushwant Singh

Loved by many and hated by some a former Illustrated Weekly assistant editor remembers working under the maverick editor. With his bold writing and trenchant wit, Khushwant Singh ensured that it was never the Illustrated Meekly of India

He was my maverick editor through nine years (June 1969-July 1978). He took the circulation of The Illustrated Weekly of India soaring from 49,000 to 398,000. Some of our finest journalists flowered under his avuncular editorial care: Bachi Kanga-Karkaria, M J Akbar, Bikram Vohra, ‘Jiggs’ Kalra, Anikendranath Sen, Ramesh Chandran, Vithal C Nadkarni, to name a few.

Khushwant Singh
Khushwant Singh

For our 1970 Independence Day issue cover he commanded me to get Lata Mangeshkar to tie a rakhi on Dilip Kumar. Next, it could be Sunil Gavaskar on the cover, even Shakila Banu Bhopali. He was at once unpredictable and unputdownable. Alongside the personable Fatma Zakaria, he had two such towering intellectuals as R Gopal Krishna and Qurratulain Hyder serving under him.

He opened out The Weekly as no editor did. In sweatshirt, he entered office, sharp, at 9.10 am, spreading his corduroyed legs right across the editor’s table. Then, holding a ruled notepad in his lap, he wrote, by hand, every word he penned, not least ‘The Editor’s Page’. (It was Mario who put the Sardar inside that bulb.)

He made The Weekly the most discussed magazine in India and abroad. Even while he steadfastly supported Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi, his journal sold 375,000 copies a week through the 19 months of the emergency in India. ‘Sanjay and His Maruti’ was one of his more successful covers. This after his having refused, pointblank, to bow to the government censor’s diktat.

He refused to wilt in the face of the Sunday Times, London, labelling him as “another apologist for Mrs Gandhi.” We then counted circulation rises and falls by the 10,000, as the early-1972 Bangladesh war issue touched 398,000.

In his care, The Weekly became a cosmos of India as the world’s finest authors wrote readily for him. He promoted me as his assistant editor. He gave us youngsters on his staff total freedom, encouraging us to be as irreverent, as hard-hitting as he himself was.

He shocked the sensibilities of conservative India with his focus on nudes. Side by side, most controversially, he turned the accent on the castes and communities of India. He accomplished all this while uncaringly leaving office by 2.30 pm each day. He never worked at being editor, he just glided through the job.

His distinguishing trait was that he left you to perform. Yet there was the devil to pay if a particular issue failed to sell. He got a chart placed behind his back reading: “The editor’s answer to his critics.” That chart always showed an upward trend in circulation. Maybe he had his failings. Yet he never knew failure. He worshipped success and swore by it.

He swore at the world and got away with it. He was the most hated and yet the most loved editor of India. He set the journalistic tone for a whole new generation of editors led by Vinod Mehta. By defying all conventions of journalism all the way.

At the end of the most eventful years in our lives, he found himself sacked by a three-line note, one July 1978 afternoon. Whereupon he just picked up his umbrella and walked off, saying: “Goodbye, Raju, thank you for suffering me for nine years.”

Singh was king
“It’s very, very sad. I adored him. I missed seeing him on his birthday, which I feel terribly guilty about. He was a wonderful figure and a life enhancer. A life lived to that great an extent is a cause of celebration rather than a cause of sadness. I’ve known him for the last 20 years and he has been most encouraging and helpful. He was a great writer and a mentor.

William Dalrymple, author of Return Of A King by Bloomsbury India
William Dalrymple, author of Return Of A King by Bloomsbury India

I remember when I was writing City of Djinns, he was also working on his book, Delhi and despite being rivals in that sense, he helped me out enormously. We discussed books over whiskey, a combination he obviously loved. He was one of those who could look into my mother-in-law’s eyes and start reciting Shakespeare to her (he chuckles). I can’t think of a life more fulfilled. He will be much missed."

Excerpts

Dom Moraes (1938-2004)
Dom Moraes’s interest in poetry was born very early in his life. In his preface to a collection of his poems, he wrote, ‘I was about ten years old when I started to read poetry… I had an instinctive feel, even at that age, for the shape and texture of words.’

By the time he was fourteen, Dom — Domsky to his friends — had begun to write poetry himself, and he learnt French in order to be able to read Villon in the original. Poetry became a lifelong passion and he continued to write till the end of his life. Dom was my friend from his years at Jesus College, Oxford.

He was a complex character who disliked everything about India, particularly Indians — the only exceptions he made were the good-looking women he took to bed. Although he was born in Bombay and dark as a Goan, Dom considered himself English, spoke no Indian language and wished to be buried in the churchyard of Odcombe, a tiny village in Somerset.

Never a practising Christian, he selected Odcombe because one Thomas Coryate, who hailed from the village, had travelled all the way from England to India in the seventeenth century and died in Surat, where he is buried-and Dom went to Odcombe with Sarayu Srivatsa, his companion during the last decade and a half of his life, to collect material on Coryate’s background for his biography.

Despite his distaste for India, however, Dom’s descriptions of the Indian countryside — of the heat and dust storms of summer, of the monsoons — were lyrically beautiful. His characters too came alive in his writing; notwithstanding his ignorance of the Indian languages, Dom was able to comprehend what people said in their dialects and in Indian-English.

Like his father, Frank Moraes, Dom was a heavy drinker. Because of his love for the bottle, could not be depended on for meeting deadlines or sticking to the subject he was commissioned to write on. Ram Nath Goenka of The Indian Express sacked Dom for spending his time in a Calcutta hotel, drinking and consorting with a lady, instead of going on his assignment to the Northeast.

His friend R V Pandit fired him for drinking in his office in Hong Kong. The Times of India appointed him editor of a magazine they intended to bring out, but they fired him before the first issue came out; Dom vented his anger on poor Prem Shankar Jha, who was appointed in his stead, by grabbing his tie and demanding: ‘Fatty boy! What do you know about journalism?’

I had got Dom an assignment from the Dempos, shipping magnates and mine-owners of Goa; Dom produced a very readable book on Goa without mentioning the Dempos I had to add four pages on the family.

He was commissioned by the Madhya Pradesh tourism department to do a book on the state’s historical sites; he did a creditable job of describing the beauty of the landscape and the state’s full-bosomed tribal women, without bothering about historical sites.

Dom never allowed facts or truth to stand in the way of his writing. He did not write reference books; instead, he painted pictures in vivid colours to the songs of flutes.

Dom is said to have married thrice. When he was married to the actress Leela Naidu, I stayed with them in Hong Kong; they, in turn, visited me several times in Delhi.

At the best of times, Dom spoke in a low mumble, hard to understand — when I had asked Indira Gandhi, whom he interviewed many times to write her biography, if she understood what he said, she had beamed and replied, “No, Leela Naidu translated for me.”

Dom’s second wife, Judy, bore him a son, although I don’t think Dom paid for his education; neither am I sure if he had church or civil weddings and court divorces. In any event, he certainly did not pay any alimony to his former wives — he never earned enough to do so.

Dom was not choosy about his women: if any of them were willing, he was always ready to oblige. The only real love of his life, I think, was Sarayu, a Tamilian Brahmin married to a Punjabi and the mother of two children. Sarayu was instrumental in Dom’s overcoming of the writer’s block that plagued him for seventeen long years, from 1965 to 1982.

Protima Bedi (1948-1998)
The two words missing from Protima Bedi’s life’s lexicon were ‘no’ and ‘regret’. She could never say no to a man who desired her, and grew into a very desirable and animated young woman — whom most men found irresistible. And she did not regret any of the emotional and physical experiences she had.

Extracted with permission from Rupa publications: The Good, The Bad And The Ridiculous. Khushwant Singh with Humra Quraishi
Extracted with permission from Rupa publications: The Good, The Bad And The Ridiculous. Khushwant Singh with Humra Quraishi

Protima felt that keeping secrets was like lying, so she told everyone everything, including her husband and the succession of lovers who entered her life. She broke up marriages but remained blissfully unaware of the hurt she caused people. She had to get everything off her ample bosom.

Protima Gauri (as she named herself) had a zest for living. She loved men, liquor and drugs. She had an enormous appetite for sex and admitted to enjoying it as many as six times a day.

She had a large range of lovers. Protima hated humbugs and hypocrites. She wrote: ‘Every woman I know secretly longed to have many lovers but stopped herself for many reasons. I had the capacity to love many at a time and for this had been called shallow and wayward and a good-time girl.’

Protima also had a puckish sense of humour. Once, she arrived in Bombay with an electric vibrator. A very scandalized customs officer refused to let it pass. She gave him a dressing down: ‘My husband is out of town most of the time, what do you expect me to do? I am trying to be faithful! Are you encouraging infidelity?’ She got away with it.

Death caught Protima unawares. She was killed in a landslide while on a pilgrimage to Badrinath. And on the same day, in Bombay, died Persis Khambatta, India’s first beauty queen and the one-time mistress of Protima’s husband, Kabir Bedi.

Own epitaph
Serious in mind and fun at heart, Khushwant Singh wrote as he led his life. Most profound thoughts were conveyed with simplicity and humour.

We published four books with him, the last one being Death at My Doorstep, in which he wrote 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.

Publishers have lost one of the most prolific and versatile authors. Friends will miss the large peg. The sign outside his door said, “Please do not ring the bell if you are not expected.” I am sure the angels knocked on his door before taking him away. - Pramod Kapoor, founder & publisher, Roli Books

What the man said
>> Morality is a matter of money. Poor people cannot afford to have morals. So they have religion.
>> Your principle should be to see everything and say nothing. The world changes so rapidly that if you want to get on you cannot afford to align yourself with any person or point of view.
>> Freedom is for the educated people who fought for it. We were slaves of the English, now we will be slaves of the educated.
>> My mind is no dirtier than most men’s. I am honest and I say it. Fantasising is a common phenomenon and there’s no censorship here.

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