People's writer

Khushwant Singh, who passed away on Thursday, was in perpetual conversation with the people of this country through much of his long life. He held a fine mirror up to them, praising them, criticising them and ridiculing them, always helping them to look at themselves better and forcing them into better understanding. He was many things in life – writer, editor, columnist,  novelist, historian, ornithologist, lawyer, even a government official and many other things.

But the human sum total of the man who sat inside the bubble of a bulb was greater than all these parts. He found his way into the hearts of all the people who read him by being the simple and elemental man, devoid of airs and pretensions, reacting humanly to people and events, in a language that everyone understood. His scholarship sat lightly on him and he would happily exchange a learned tome for a girlie magazine, and would proudly say so. It was this ability to relate to people in the most ordinary ways that made him India’s most popular columnist.

He had all the contradictions of human beings. He loved gossip while he respected facts. He wrote history dispassionately but infused passion and imagination in its retelling in fiction. He was a champion of freedom and liberal values but supported their suppression once in his life. He held strong views but was never afraid to change them. He was an agnostic, but held religious literature in high esteem. He claimed he had malice towards one and all but was never malicious in the vile way. Even those whom he scorned loved reading him. He boasted and exaggerated but was also humble and real about himself.

What held all these together in his writer’s persona was perhaps his sense of humour. He had the rare ability to laugh at himself and the world and had the courage to pay the price of fair name for the right to poke fun. He revelled in rebellion and questioned received wisdom and accepted views, never afraid to walk alone. Memory is a revolt against the oppression of the past. He was a raconteur with a prodigious memory going back into many decades of personal life and centuries of history. That kept him firmly pegged to the present even at the sundown 99. It is this never-say-die engagement with life and his ability to convey his sense of celebration to the world that made Khushwant Singh.

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