Book Review – Truth, Love & a Little Malice

For many Indians, the book title would have been a giveaway – no one else but Khushwant Singh can write a book with this kind of title :). I also think that sums up Khushwant Singh, the person. I write his name without any prefixes of “Mr” or “Shri” not out of disrespect but because his persona just doesn’t allow formality. I have never met him, but I have known him right through my life .. 1969, the year I was born is when he started working as the Editor of “The Illustrated Weekly” and right through my growing years, I have heard his name come up for several things. “The Mark of Vishnu” was a short story of his that was part of our English syllabus, then I remember seeing a topless Sanyasin and a write-up on Osho in the Illustrated weekly saying the underwear was Acharya Rajneesh’s birthday gift to the Sanyasin, then his proximity to the Gandhi parivar and how Mrs. Indira Gandhi would walk down to his house for dinner (though am not sure if that is true or just gossip), his proximity to Sanjay and Maneka Gandhi etc.

When I picked up this book, his autobiography, I expected to have fun and to get to know the India around the time she got independence through a journalist/writer’s eyes. Well, I had a lot of fun and found some golden nuggets, especially about Pandit Nehru and his family saga besides a rare peek into Jinnah, the founder President of Pakistan. It will hurt a lot of people, but it does appear that Jinnah was a nicer person than Pandit Nehru or maybe my biases are playing out.

Am sharing some of the amazing nuggets from the book, but everyone must just read the book to get a glimpse into the life of a well to do man pre and post independence. Surprisingly, I was reminded of that song – “Na biwi, na bachcha, na baap bada na bhaiya, the whole thing is that ke bhaiya, sabse bada rupaiyya”; a loose translation would be – “Neither your wife, nor your child, neither your father, nor your brother, the whole thing is that, money is bigger/more important than all”. The song stays true in the 1900s, and now and will probably remain true forever!!

Here are my excerpts from the book –

“I reveal myself without shame or remorse. Benjamin Franklin wrote:

If you would not be forgotten

As soon as you are dead and rotten

Either write things worth reading

Or do things worth writing.” So true. Khushwant Singh has written his autobiography without shame or remorse and I love Benjamin Franklin’s quote. Saving this quote. 

“Modern School started with only thirty students, twenty-seven boys and three girls……..Though I spent ten years at Modern School and years later married the girl I set my heart on when I saw her first at the age of five, I made no lasting friendships in the school.” Modern school today is a huge institution and its so difficult to imagine the school in the Chandni Chowk area 🙂

“It was during my second year at St Stephen’s that three revolutionaries, Bhagat Singh, Raj Guru and Sukhdev, were hanged. All over India, schools and colleges closed as a mark of protest against the executions. Not St Stephen’s. After the morning assembly another boy and I raised the slogan ‘Bhagat Singh, Zindabad’. We hoisted the Indian tricolour on the college flagmast meant for the insignia of St Stephen’s bearing a red cross and the college motto, Ad Dei Gloriam —to the glory of God. We were summoned by the acting Principal, an Englishman named Monk, to his office. He reprimanded us and warned us that if we did that sort of thing again we would be expelled from the College.” St. Stephen’s character hasn’t changed much it appears. While there are really good and great folks who have come out of that college but some of the alumni have turned out more Brit than the British – Shashi Tharoor for instance. Then the closet Pakistani Mani Shankar Aiyar…. and then many more. 

“The atmosphere in the Punjab had become so charged with hate that it only needed a spark to set it ablaze. The prolonged Hindu-Muslim riots in Calcutta led to massacres of Muslims in Bihar, followed by massacres of Hindus in Noakhali in East Bengal. Then Muslims of the North-West Frontier Province raided scattered Sikh and Hindu villages and slew as many as they could lay their hands on. Others fled their homes to safety in Lahore, Amritsar and East Punjab. While the killings of Hindus and Sikhs were going on in the North-West Frontier Province, I happened to go to Abbotabad to appear as defence counsel in a murder case involving two branches of a Hindu family. The case was finished in one day.” It is terribly sad to read the chapters on partition. While Khushwant Singh’s family didn’t suffer, there were massacres on a large scale :(. So much for Gandhiji’s non-violent protests. I don’t agree with the partition and call me biased but I still feel the partition came about just to satisfy Pandit Nehru’s ambitions of becoming the first PM of independent India. I also noted this paragraph because of Abbottabad which once again was in the news for being the hideout of Osama Bin Laden. What has Pakistan degenerated into. Will it even survive as a single country ? 

What amazing luck Khushwant Singh had, to see the birth of independent India, freed from the clutches of the colonists – “I was up early in order to get to the Red Fort to see the Union Jack come down and the Indian tricolour go up. Once again the whole route was crowded with people going on foot. Lord and Lady Mountbatten drove up in their six-horse Viceregal carriage. Many British officers were picked up and carried by the crowd on their shoulders. Almost overnight the much hated English had become the Indian’s most loved foreigners.” Also note, even today Indians love white-skinned foreigners. Infact we have a “white” addiction – why else does everyone want to become “Fair & Lovely” or “Fair & Handsome” (Gross!!!!). 

“Mr Jinnah sent word to my father that he should persuade me to stay on in Lahore. The indication was clear; he wanted to consider me as a Judge of the High Court. Evidently he had neither wished nor foreseen that in the Pakistan he had brought into being there would be no place for non-Muslims.” Doesn’t Mr. Jinnah appear to be a better person than Mr. Nehru? Maybe if he had lived longer, Pakistan would also have been a thriving democracy rather than the failed state that it has become. Guess even countries have Karmic retributions !

“The Daily Herald carried a large photograph of Nehru with Lady Mountbatten in her négligé opening the door for him. The caption read ‘Lady Mountbatten’s Midnight Visitor’. It also informed its readers that Lord Mountbatten was not in London. Our P.M.’ s liaison with Lady Edwina had assumed scandalous proportions.” No comments. This is exclusively quoted for the HMVs. 

The Illustrated Weekly years…. “If I could not brighten it, I couldn’t have made it any duller. I had three clear objectives in my mind: inform, amuse and irritate. I would use it to tell Indians about their own country; I would try to shake them out of their mental lethargy and provoke them into thinking by publishing controversial articles; and, being somewhat of a joker, I would try to amuse them. With that triple formula I felt I could not fail.” And it worked. He did inform, amuse and irritate in equal measure I guess. 

The emergency years… “One thing Mrs. Gandhi did not suffer from was compassion. The Emergency powers turned the heads of many civil servants; they became rude and tyrannical.” And while I don’t agree with Khushwant Singh supporting the emergency, I can understand why he might have done it. 

The insights into Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s family life are fascinating – that Rajiv Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi never got along was news to me. That Rajiv hated Sanjay and held him responsible for the fall in the family’s status because of the emergency… the way Maneka Gandhi outwitted her mother-in-law etc makes for interesting reading. Its like a TV soap serial. Strangely enough, Madame Sonia Gandhi just gets a passing mention. I wonder what Khushwant Singh thought of her or perhaps by the time she became the powerful leader of CONgress, Khushwant Singh was already 90+ and probably had lost interest.

Khushwant Singh is the leader of the “Award Wapsi” gang but he would have scoffed at the present gang members for choosing frivolous reasons to return their state given awards. He returned his Padma Vibhushan in protest against the army entering the Golden temple. My respect for him went up several notches as I read those pages where he describes his feelings at the time when he visited the Golden Temple after the army had killed Bhindranwale.

In the last but one chapter, Khushwant Singh writes about his fear of dying and what Osho told him – “I put my fears to Acharya Rajneesh the one time I met him in Bombay. The only prescription he gave me to overcome my phobia was to expose myself to the dying and the dead.” And Khushwant Singh did take that advise seriously. Hope it helped him.

If Khushwant Singh had lived one more year, he would have hit a century and that would have been something… but what a life !! so fully lived, without remorse and with the ability to look at both the positive and negative inside of oneself.

I have left out large portions from his life and the book … his atheism, belief in the Sikh Gurus and the Granth Sahib, his Pakistani friends and the encounters with many women. This blog would have been too long and unreadable.

Bottom line on top – Loved the book. Please do read it.

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