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Khushwant Singh launches his 'last book'

Last updated on: December 1, 2010 10:50 IST

Khushwant Singh launches his 'last book'

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Vaihayasi Pande Daniel in New Delhi
On a chilly Delhi evening, Rediff.com's Vaihayasi Pande Daniel attends Khushwant Singh's latest book launch, which the legendary writer says is his last.

The chilly winter Delhi evening was dominated by two unique individuals. And could there have been a greater contrast between these two personalities?

He, the 'dirty old man,' touching an unbelievable grand age of 97 ("If I make a century I will be lucky"), in a wheelchair and a black ski hat, his glass of Scotch beside him.

She, a sober, dignified lady, elegant in pearls and a beautiful blue silk sari, her manner modest and gracious.

Khushwant Singh, writer, and Gursharan Kaur, the prime minister's wife.

"She is a crowd-puller! I discovered she could draw as many people as a star from Hollywood," Singh says, explaining why he always invites Mrs Manmohan Singh to his book launches.

"Sometimes she comes uninvited," he adds, mock grumbling. The witty Sardar explains that he unabashedly uses his Gursharan Kaur connection and often shows off to friends when flowers arrive from the prime minister's home for him.


Image: Khushwant Singh at the book launch function
Photographs: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/Rediff.com
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'I have been saying it is my last book'

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This time around, Gursharan Kaur is far from a gatecrasher. She is the chief guest. She released Singh's "last book" The Sunset Club at the postmodern-decor Meridien hotel, New Delhi, on Tuesday.

"I have been saying it is my last book and I said that about my last six books. I don't know how long I can carry on... I am now trying to learn how to do nothing," Khushwant Singh, who edited The Illustrated Weekly, Asia's oldest English magazine, in the 1970s, New Delhi magazine and the Hindustan Times in the 1980s, said.

Sunset Club is a poignant tale of three crotchety but hugely lively, fantasy-driven eighty-something Delhiites, of varied backgrounds. They meet every evening at dusk in the capital's Lodhi Gardens to share life's experiences and views, be it religion or sex or lust or Ayodhya or Valentine's Day or Varun Gandhi.

The sensitive tale seems to have bittersweet autobiographical strands, reflecting bits and pieces of Singh's life and that of his friends and relatives.

Gursharan Kaur pointed out, "It is typical Khushwant Singh, hilarious, open and scandalous. I enjoyed it (what she has read so far) as I enjoy his columns that are informative, refreshing, honest and very transparent."

"Khushwant Singh tried hard to convert me into an author," the prime minister's wife added, "but who has the time and the will to write? I think his talent is inborn. He cannot put his pen down."

Gursharan Kaur added that there was already a writer in the family, her daughter.

Daman Singh, her second daughter, has written two well-reviewed novels. Her elder daughter Upinder Singh, a professor of history in Delhi, has written several books of history. Amrit Singh, her youngest daughter, is a distinguished New York-based lawyer, who took on George W Bush's administration at a time when her father and the US president were allies and friends.

Also Read: 'My father is the toughest man I know'


Image: Gursharan Kaur speaks at the event as Khushwant Singh looks on
Photographs: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/Rediff.com
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Singh's mantra: Inform, amuse and provoke

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The prime minister's wife, in her simple, unaffected way, was the true host of the evening, solicitously looking after Singh, even as she spent time with others in the room, chatting, autographing books, posing for cameras.

Arrogance? Not a trace of it. Style? Trademark, low-key friendly grace.

At 96, Khushwant Singh is frail, confined to a wheelchair, sensitive to bright light and even more soft-spoken. As far as spirit and spark go, if anything the legend has gotten crustier and sharper.

He recalled drolly how he got into the business of earning money from needling others in print, "I decided upon a three word formula: Inform, amuse and provoke. With provoke, I found that anytime I write something about people, they took me to court!"


Image: Gursharan Kaur at the book launch
Photographs: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/Rediff.com
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Singh's legendary 'open house' set off a nostalgic trip

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Among those who attended the event were sculptor Satish Gujral; India's first lady chief justice Leila Seth (whose son Vikram is one of two Indian writers Khushwant Singh admires; the other is Amitav Ghosh); India's Ambassador to Israel and author Navtej Sarna; Pakistani High Commisioner Wajid Shamsul Hasan; journalist Nalini Singh; Le Meridien owner Bubbles Charanjit Singh and Khushwant Singh's daughter Mala Dayal.

The launch of the final book of an author whose tart wit and frank take on Indian life has enthralled Indians for decades was an intensely sentimental occasion.

Editor-in-chief and publisher of Penguin Ravi Singh reminisced about an important Delhi event -- evenings with Khushwant Singh.

For decades the writer -- whose father Sir Sobha Singh was arguably Delhi's biggest builder through the 1930s -- has run an open house at his Sujan Singh Park home where anybody and everybody was welcome to stop by and have a drink, discuss politics, national affairs and just about anything under the sun with him as long as they made an appointment and left within their designated time or they were sweetly told to "bugger off."


Image: Mrs Kaur with Khushwant Singh at the function
Photographs: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/Rediff.com
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A 'generous, sensitive, genuine and principled man'

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Ravi Singh recalled that Khushwant Singh has spent a lifetime cultivating his crusty, malice-to-all, not-a-nice-man dirty old man persona and "a bigger lie we will not hear."

The publisher said he has not met a more "generous, sensitive, genuine and principled man... (with) the extraordinary courage to call a spade a spade, no matter what the consequences."

Penguin Books India had organised a film of tributes, some touching, some amusing, from some of the people who know Khushwant Singh best: Editor-writer M J Akbar, his tailor Saimuddin, journalist and editor Nandini Mehta, his long-serving cook Chandan, editor Vinod Mehta, writer Vikram Seth, his typist Lachman Das, his neighbour Reeta Devi Verma, among others.


Image: Khushwant Singh mingles with guests at the event
Photographs: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/Rediff.com
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'His sins were scarlet, but his books were read'

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Most of these Khushwant Singh admirers concur in relating that the writer in person was the antithesis of the media image he concocted.

As someone said, "So untrue!" And another added, "He just created this persona largely to tease because it was so completely different from the middle class template. Therefore he created this binge persona of someone who is vicious and loves their drinks. If every Indian drank, he would have converted himself into a teetotaler!"

Singh, in his closing remarks, musing on how he wishes to be remembered, recalls French writer and historian Hilaire Belloc's mischievous quote: 'I hope when I am dead, it will be said, his sins were scarlet, but his books were read.'

The video tribute had insights from people who have known Singh for a long time, here is what they had to say:

Lachman Das, his assistant: 'Writing is not an easy job. Neeeevvver has he missed a column. Sometimes when he is writing there is no ink in the pen. He still goes on continuously writing.'

Vinod Mehta, editor: 'If you went to his house for a drink you never knew who you would meet and you could meet anyone from the age of 25 to 85. He was the first popular journalist in India.'

Nandini Mehta, journalist: 'He injected fresh air.'

Parminder Singh, nephew: 'Forthright, honest and upfront.'

Chandan, his cook: 'Hum kisi bhi halat mein paune aath baje khana taiyar rakhte hai (Dinner, no matter what the situation, had to be kept ready at quarter of 8). The smallest of small people have come to see him and the biggest of big people.'

Vikram Seth, writer: 'Very disciplined in many ways and very excessive in others. I think he has about 20 cats!'


Image: Khushwant Singh and Gursharan Kaur greet guests
Photographs: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/Rediff.com
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