With no malice towards Khushwant Singh
For me an era truly passes with the passing away of Khushwant Singh.
When I first entered journalism college, I did not even know how to wield the pen that was said to be mightier than the sword. As part of our field training while on the course, we were taken to visit several leading journalists across the country – one of them was Khushwant Singh, then the editor at Hindustan Times in New Delhi. That meeting, where I asked him what was the hallmark of a good writer, I believe changed the course of my life – I might otherwise not have stayed the course – I had actually signed up only because I wanted to clear the civil services exams where essay writing held a disproportionately high degree of the marks required for entering the service.
But then Singh said, “The only way you can become a good writer is by writing.”
Just take a notebook to bed every night, he said and scribble at least 1000 words of just about anything in it – your day, your quarrel with your mother, your feelings for the boy next door, the rose in your garden…. Anything will do so long as your pen learns to form the words on paper. Then read it back after a week, he advised. And you will either cringe at what you have written or else marvel that you could actually write the way you did. Eventually you will know what works and what doesn’t and you will get to be a halfway decent writer.
That’s precisely what I did – I filled pages and pages of several notebooks with just about every nonsense I could write. And though I was eventually destined to become a hardnosed political correspondent, my feature writing skills were born out of Khushwant Singh’s advice and even today stand me in good stead.
I thought it was destiny again when fate brought me to Bombay from Hyderabad where I had got my first job with The Indian Express and soon I found myself at The Illustrated Weekly of India – though Khushwant Singh had moved on even before we had met him in New Delhi. But there were stories of Singh from colleagues at the Weekly — the best one I like is of his first day at work. I was told by an old hand at the magazine that the Weekly hadn’t had an editor in some months before Singh was appointed and the day was very exciting for the staffers. Even the peons got in early and decided to polish all the furniture extra clean in readiness for their new editor. But when a non-descript sardar walked in and tried to enter the editor’s cabin, the office boy pushed him away believing him to be just a driver or some menial hand of one of the editorial staff.
“You cannot enter in there. That is our sahib’s cabin,” he was told.
So Singh just sat down on the peons’ benches and decided to wait for the first person to come in who might recognize him, for who he really was. The next one in was an assistant editor who was shocked to see his new boss waiting outside his own door like a common visitor. When he scolded the peon, the man was almost in tears – how could I know, he asked. He did not have the airs of a top editor.
Nor had Singh thought to educate the man – he threw no tantrums, none of the ego that would have got in the way of a lesser man.
I was also told that he took the sales of the Illustrated Weekly to dizzying heights simply by walking to work from home and otherwise. That gave him the opportunity to stop by the vendors who sold books and magazines and Singh could glean what the readers really wanted – so the Weekly became the first wholesome family magazine wth a little bit of politics, a little bit of business, some sports, some films, some culture, horoscopes, the crossword and, of course, dollops of sex. While at school, I remember, this was the one magazine the chief librarian painfully went through herself before releasing to the students – she stamped out with black ink every picture of `bosoms and buttocks’ as she put it it, that Singh thought would spice up a reader waiting for that painful surgery in the dentist’s clinic or awaiting his turn at the lawyer’s.
For a long time I thought I must call Singh and thank him for unknowingly having made me into a credible writer. But eventually I did get around to writing him a thank you note three years ago – he promptly sent me an old fashioned hand written post card asking me to come over and see him when I was in Delhi next.
I did call him some months later when I visited the capital but he was having a bad day and would not meet visitors. I was then seized by a personal crisis of my own and had to leave the city hastily and could never make it back to see him again.
But I have read almost every word he has written – and here is the other thing I picked up from Khushwant Singh: I never lend a single book of mine to anyone, not even my closest friend and I buy every book I read. When friends ask me for one I always say, “When are you returning the last one you borrowed?”
They are confused because they do not remember borrowing one. I do not either.
It is just the line that Khushwant Singh once wrote used when it got difficult to get out of lending a book to someone.
May his soul rest in peace.