Against the flow: The man that is Khushwant Singh

Khushwant Singh
Edited by Sheela Reddy
Penguin, 2009,
pp 296, Rs 450

When a well-known journalist chooses to do a compilation of essays and other short writings by a  person of such eminence as Khushwant Singh (KS) the reviewer’s dilemma is “What do I review?” In this case is it the compilation by Sheela Reddy or the compiled writings of Khushwant Singh? I have chosen to make it a bit of both.

Sheela Reddy is a senior journalist and her choice of KS’s writings has a lot to do with the ‘read worthiness’ of her work. As for the content not only can KS not be ignored but on the other hand his supporters and detractors lap up his writings with the same appetite but for different reasons.

If the choice of the title of the book is Sheela Reddy’s, I give her full marks as it is just the kind of title KS would have chosen. He is known to deliberately outrage public sentiment by going against its flow and his open admission of support for one of the most infamous happenings in Indian history. KS has rightly admitted that the dark side of that period cannot be ignored or condoned and the injustices visited upon its challengers and innocent people by an extra-constitutional authority remain unpardonable.

Sheela Reddy has done a great job in the choice and positioning of KS’s writings in her book. This collection is fashioned deliberately to reflect the vast range of the Sardar’s  interests, the many facets of his personality and the awesome number of celebrities he interacted with. He has this unique ability to set the appropriate tone for the theme of his writing. Whether it be humour, contempt, admiration or anger every part of his writing displays it clearly.

The contents of Sheela Reddy’s book are in such a skillful sequence that minimises the boredom of reading a string of essays on disparate subjects. For example, the first essay deals with the merits and de-merits of the Emergency, the next with Indian writers and their English writing. Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao and R K Narayan figure as the path-breakers. In typical KS style he then gives a graphic and unashamed narrative of the invasive investigation of his rear end with gory (literally so) details which I find too outrageous to recall in this review! Then, it is the days of the “Last Moghul”, the pathetic Bahadur Shah Zafar and his fate at the hands of the British.

The numerous writings on subjects so wide apart as Mother Teresa, Amrita Sher-Gil, Ranjit Singh, religion and godmen on the one side and kissing, F*** All editors on the other are positioned so well to prove what Sheela Reddy has herself observed — “He can write about farting and fornicating on the same page as a verse by Adi Shankara or an Urdu couplet by Iqbal and make it all appear as the most ordinary thing to do.”

KS’s writing prowess is forever unconventional, often outrageous and irresistibly irreverent. To top it all, he openly enjoys with equal fervour the disapproval of his detractors and the adulation of his fans. Of course, one cannot forget his openly expressed weakness for pretty women!

Sheela Reddy’s introduction (Was it a bit too long?), narrates her years of acquaintance and meetings with him under different circumstances. He is known to suffer but few of those he meets and Sheela Reddy appears to have made the grade. The compilation is a tribute to someone who creates suspense about what is yet to come, about something he could be keeping up his sleeve — or as the Sardar himself may have chosen to say — “Up his kaccha!”

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