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Khuswant's post mortems

Bhupesh Bhandari  |  New Delhi 

Ho agar umr-e-khizr bhi, to kahenge bawaqt-e-marg hum kya jiye, abhi aaye abhi chale (Even if I have a very long life, still I'll say at the time of death I didn't live for long, just came and left so soon)
Ho chuki Ghalib balaen sab tamam ek marg-e-nagahani aur hai (Adversities all have taken their toll on me, Ghalib Only untimely death remains)
Poets like Zauq and Ghalib have romanticised death. But tradition forbids us from talking ill of the dead.
Even if you didn't like somebody when he was alive, your take on him is supposed to take a turn for the better once he is dead. Like the scared water of the Ganges, death washes away all traces of the sins a man might have committed in life.
This plays on the mind of anybody who sits down to write an obituary. No harsh words need to be said, no skeletons need to be dug from cupboards.
Except Khushwant Singh. He doesn't believe in sparing the dead his acid pen. Sardar Sahib is free of all inhibitions when writing about men and women he knew as they were""he was irreverent about them when they were alive and is no better now that they are dead.
On second thoughts, it seems Khushwant Singh keeps his best stuff on people for their obituaries, safe in the knowledge that dead men don't sue you for defamation.
A defeated snake doesn't bite when poked. The 35 obituaries spread over 134 pages are largely irreverent pieces, mostly on well-known public figures.
Khushwant Singh writes with passion about the people he had known well. For others, he substitutes it with his sparkling wit and keen observation.
He had just two meetings with Amrita Shergill, one at Lahore and the other at Mashobra, yet the five pages on her are riveting stuff. The same is true for Mountbatten, whom he calls the Lord of Baloney.
The best of the lot are his pieces on (a friend from his schooldays who went on to become foreign minister of Pakistan), Marxist millionaire Rajni Patel, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and
But you could open any page of the book and find it hard to put the book down. Take R K Narayan's obituary. Though a man of great imagery and a wonderful facility with words, you would rarely come across an interesting account of him.
Your search could end with this book. Eager to shake him off during a visit to the US, Khushwant Singh told the Pied Piper of Malgudi that he was going to watch a porno film.
To his surprise, Narayan not only decided to come along but also found the film interesting enough to sit through its entire length.
Some of these people took potshots at Khushwant Singh while they were alive.
famously commented that Sardar Sahib had never been to bed with anything more interesting than a hot water bottle for several years and spread the story that he shopped for bras for his wife and daughter in Hong Kong by cupping the breasts of Chinese women to indicate the size.
Bhagat's and Moraes's deaths did not diminish Khushwant Singh's hurt at these comments. But, to his credit, it didn't prejudice his views on these people. He is effusive in his praise for as well as
Khushwant Singh has known many more people than he has written about in this book.
He worked closely with and knew both and quite well. Though he has written a lot on his close encounters with the dynasty, he never got down to writing their obituaries.
Also, for all the fun, the publisher could have done a great service to the reader by mentioning when these obituaries were written. In its present form, it is difficult to tell whether or not these obituaries were written spontaneously.
Death At My Doorsteps
Khuswant Singh
Roli Books
Pages: 170

First Published: Mon, January 31 2005. 00:00 IST
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