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.