Inform, Provoke and Amuse: Remembering Khushwant Singh
In this previously unpublished interview, Khushwant Singh talks about life, partition, the fear of death.
Editor: Mohd Irshad Alam
Interview Recorded by: Dr Kiran Bala
Khushwant Singh was a man of many talents. A writer, a lawyer, a journalist and even a diplomat, in his 98 years on Earth, Singh left an indelible mark on people through his acidic wit, his caustic humour, and his way with words.
Kiran Bala recorded this previously unpublished interview with Khushwant Singh in 2009, just after he turned 94.
Khushwant Singh on the Brutality of Partition
Khushwant Singh began his life in Pakistan’s Punjab province, in 1915. His exact date of birth has been a subject of dispute, but for the sake of this podcast, let’s stick with the date of birth he gave himself, 15 August, 1915.
He worked as a lawyer in Lahore from 1939 till 1947. He had to leave the city in 1947, after the brutal partition of 1947 divided India into India and Pakistan.
“Partition affected me a lot. I had opted to stay in Pakistan. I thought it would be like another province of India. I never realised, nor did any of my leaders that partition would take such a horrible form. After all, Nehru and Jinnah assured us that nothing would happen. It would be a peaceful partition. Both were utterly wrong.”Khushwant Singh
Khushwant Singh – The Journalist
Khushwant Singh worked with the Indian Foreign services as a diplomat till 1951 when he joined All India Radio.
He’d go on to found and edit multiple media publications including The Illustrated Weekly of India, The National Herald, Hindustan Times and Yojana. Over the course of his life, Singh wrote at least 40 books and short stories.
“The purpose of my writings – inform, provoke, and amuse. The last part I often took care of myself. When I was teaching abroad, I realised how little I knew about my own country. I applied my abilities to inform students. I made the Weekly almost a mouthpiece of the Muslim minority. Because they faced discrimination. They had no press of their own. I was the only one pleading for our “foreign enemy.” I even did a special issue on Jinnah, on his birthday.”Khushwant Singh
Khushwant Singh – The Diplomat
Singh was also appointed to the Rajya Sabha, serving as a Member of Parliament from 1980 to 1986. He’d later be awarded the Padma Vibhushan, apart from the Padma Bhushan, a Sahitya Akademi fellowship and many more awards.
Singh strongly believed that journalists needed to be both objective and subjective and the change in reportage, especially towards entertainment journalism, left him feeling a misfit.
“I am really unhappy with the change in newspapers. Now, they have to compete with electronic media, namely TV. Now you find newspapers which are really more Bollywood. In every column, I see advertising. They get columns written by film stars. So I feel a misfit.”Khushwant Singh
Khushwant Singh On Old Age & the Fear of Death
Four years after this interview, Khushwant Singh breathed his last.
He passed away peacefully at his home in Delhi, on 20 March 2014, of natural causes.
In 2014, talking about old age and death, he had said,
“Old age and death is certainly scary. I only pray that I go without pain, you know. Slip out of it without any agony. I live alone, I’m a widower now. My daughter lives across the corridor. I’ve resigned all clout. I’ve sold the cars I had. I’m entirely dependent on my children. But how dependent can I be on people? I know I’ll become a burden and I don’t want to add to their burden.”Khushwant Singh
In 1943, Singh humorously penned his own obituary and epitaph. It read:
“Here lies one who spared neither man nor God;
Waste not your tears on him, he was a sod;
Writing nasty things he regarded as great fun;
Thank the Lord he is dead, this son of a gun.”
“There’s a Ghalib line I like to quote: Rau mein hai rakhsh-e-umr kahaan dekhiye thame. Nai haath baag par hai, na paa hai rakaab mein. (Life moves at a galloping pace, where it will stop I do not know. I have neither the reins in my hands, nor my feet in the stirrups.)”Khushwant Singh
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