With a little malice towards Khushwant
A missed Khushwant Singh column does to me all that a missed Khushwant Singh column can do. It makes my Sundays dreary.
Thankfully, most newspapers – metropolitan and regional – carry his ‘malice…’ column. So, wherever your travel takes you, Khushwant Singh’s malice is sure to follow you in right there: Hyderabad, Guwahati, Bhubaneswar or Mumbai.
There was a time when I used to edit Khushwant Singh’s ‘malice’ column for HT. Of course, one never had to rewrite his manuscripts for clarity, as is the case with many writers. That was never going to be the case.
Occasionally, a line had to be shortened or added, or a word lopped off so that the piece fitted in. This was always tricky. A shoddy editing job could turn a piece into a mutilated masterpiece. My editor trusted me to do this job.
I was aware that Singh was ripe old. At that age, mental faculties tend to wilt, the brain actually shrinks in size and most people lose the ability to do things accurately. Therefore, I would closely read through the manuscript, but without much success at finding even typos. Very rarely would Khushwant Singh miss a comma.
The manuscript would come with catchphrases, but never with a complete headline. So, my job was to think hard of what headline to give. Should it be profane, or witty or even flirty as Khushwant Singh often is? Ultimately, the content dictated the headline’s tone and tenor.
I would also look for appropriate pictures to go with the ‘malice’ column. It was a job I loved and now miss, having moved on to doing something far more tricky – fighting Islamophobia, writing on minority issues and what it means to be a Muslim today.
Once, Khushwant Singh expressed a wish to meet the person who handled his column at the Hindustan Times, whose editor he was many years ago. I was very excited. So, one wintry Delhi evening, Sushmita Bose, a colleague, and I landed up at his ground floor pad at Sujan Singh Park, dot at the top of the hour.
Khushwant Singh was – expectedly – downing pegs of Scotch and nibbling off a rind of fine cheese, with his son for company. He reached for Sushmita’s hand, kissed it and got talking. Of course, Sushmita, the only woman among us, got most of the attention.
Khushwant Singh told me that he was happy to see young Muslims take up journalism.
Khushwant Singh is perhaps the only contemporary newspaper columnist who writes not so much with the intention of violently moulding public opinion but to entertain, apprise and hold the mirror up. Yet, his writings are unsurpassed in their abiding popularity.
His pen is so homespun, anecdotal and easy-going. It can be caustic without the rage, provoking without the jab and insightful without being condescending.
I sometimes wonder why some of our present-day columnists – the Barkha Dutts, the Sagarika Ghoses or Shekhar Guptas – don’t take a leaf out of him, be less hectoring but more engaging?
Such lavish praise of Khushwant may cause you to suspect that I am up to something sinister. You might say, halal se pehle, bakre se mohabbat, Zia?
This Sunday’s ‘with malice towards one and all’ ruminates about the state of Pakistan, and rightly so. Every other day, there are bomb blasts in Pakistan, he says. No one is sure why Muslims are killing Muslims. The mullahs seem to be extending their influence. So on and so forth.
Khushwant Singh then focuses on the state of Pakistan’s women. He rues that more and more women are taking to burqas. A community that confines half its population in purdah cannot succeed, he writes. Male chauvinism was on the rise.
To the extent of confining women and keeping them from exploring their options, I agree with Khushwant Singh. But Pakistan descending into intractable chaos and purdah putting fetters on women are half truths.
Sometimes, Pakistan’s assessment is unfairly harsh. There is a thriving body of civil society members who are attempting to reconcile liberalism and Islam. Sometime after 9/11, when a delegation of reputed Pakistanis was invited to Delhi, I met some of them. I met a young lady from Swat, a lawyer, who has been a powerful voice against extremists there.
I had long chats with Asma Jahangir and Jugnu Mohsin. Sherry Rahman, a Pakistani parliamentarian, is the bravest of Pakistani women. One could read up this great piece on the Christian Science Monitor on Sherry. It is temptingly titled thus: “Could there be a liberal Pakistan? Sherry Rehman says she’s working on it.”
Purdah isn’t confined to Pakistan, as Khushwant Singh points out. It is practised in most of India, by Hindu, Sikhs, Muslims and Jains alike. In traditional bania families, women, especially daughters-in-law, seldom go out without covering their faces with the long end of their saaris. I find it ridiculous when people associate purdah with Islam.
Islam and liberalism, as philosophical systems, are largely mutually exclusive and competitive. But there is evidence that the two are reconcilable. Women like Sherry Rehman or Asma Jahangir are proof of this. Of course, some of them may not be willing to raise their hands for Khushwant Singh to hold and to kiss.