Khushwant Singh, noted Indian author and journalist, died last to last week. I’ve been meaning to write about it, but my memory of him is like a warm, if foggy feeling and I didn’t want to put it to paper yet. But, here we are, talking about the man, because he deserves an audience.
I’ve never read any of his serious books, instead reading his column and the famous Joke Books that he edited. However, I did have the good fortune to meet Khushwant Singh at his home in Kasauli, on a trip with my parents. We had no plans to go and see him, but someone mentioned that he was at home and it was worth a shot. His servant was skeptical that he’d be interested in meeting us but he was a gracious host and welcomed us into his home. We sat in the lawn, me having lassi and the adults having tea and we talked about his life and ours. I told him of my interest in writing and he didn’t skip a beat in telling me to print some pages of my writing and send them to him when I get back home. I did print some pages, but I never posted them, partially because I was never sure if I was a good enough writer.
I did, however, ask him for advice. I was at a point in my schooling where I was skeptical whether I wanted to keep pursuing the Sciences or shift my focus to the Arts and that question would define my future. I told him that I was interested in becoming a writer and that I would love to be in that field. He looked at me, he looked at my parents and without mincing any words, he told me the following (paraphrased from memory) –
“Your parents are hard working people. They do not run a business and they don’t have money sitting around to fund such ventures. I have the luxury of having family money. This house belonged to my Mother-in-law and I’m living comfortably in it. If you ask me, go and become an Engineer. You’ll always be able to become a writer if you have it in you, but you’ll not be able to get a degree and get a job when you are older.”
I have to admit, that hurt. But it was the truth. Mr. Singh had that habit, it seems, of not twisting words to please anyone. He was as straightforward with a 16 year old as he was with a man his own age. I’ll remember his advice for life because I did become an Engineer. I even went on to do get a Masters degree, but I’m still a writer at heart.
Of course, the reason I didn’t want to write this was because it reveals more about me than about Mr. Singh. That’s something I’ve heard about writers – their writing often reveals more things about themselves than they would like.
But coming back to Khushwant Singh’s life or rather his death; when he died, I sighed with a slight pain in my heart, but the very next moment, I was struck with the following thought – In a stroke of masterful genius, he did what any Indian would respect forever, he died just before scoring a century.