THE GENEROUS GENT
I first met Khushwant Singh in 1979. This was the time when I could not wait to make Delhi my destination, or maybe move to Mumbai, the Mecca of all opportunities.
I had had enough of the city of my birth!
As a cub reporter in the Lucknow bureau of The Times of India, the bureau chief, K VikramRao, had showered me with the choicest of assignments. I had a pass to cover the proceedings of the VidhanSabha. I got a pat on the back for reporting on the tension between the city’s Shia and SunniMuslims. My writing took to task the Archaeological Survey of India for neglecting the historical legacy of the nawabs, which became a topic of debate in the VidhanSabha.
In hindsight, the city was a virtual volcano of news. Any journalist’s paradise. The difficult days of the Emergency,were over. Uttar Pradesh bore the brunt of the Emergency, imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975, like no other state. Now, Mrs Gandhi was in the Opposition and most of the politicians who opposed her and formed the Janata Party were from UP, like HN Bahuguna and ChaudhryCharan Singh.
Here, MohsinaKidwai, UP Congress Committee (upcc) president, kept an open house where Mrs Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi were regular visitors. SwaroopKumariBakshi’s win of the Lucknow East constituency in late 1977 was a great morale boost for the defeated Congress party, followed by Kidwai’s win from Azamgarh the following year. The Janata Party, in power in Delhi and Lucknow, was falling apart while the Congress party made hectic preparations to return to power, which it did after the 1980 elections.
It was true that politically Lucknow was alive but culturally the city was dead with no economic prospects for any youngster with stars in her eyes. So I boarded the overnight train to Delhi and went knocking on the doors of editors for a job in the national capital. Feeling rather chuffed after being praised by InderMalhotra, TOI’s resident editor in Delhi, for reports filed from Lucknow, I nagged him to move me to the Delhi office to the extent that he began to look through me. Boobli George Verghese was a hero and one of the few journalists to criticiseMrs Gandhi’s Emergency. The winner of the Ramon Magsaysay award smiled sweetly when I asked him for a job and promised to call later.
Finally, ChhotuKaradia, India Today’s most maverick managing editor, hired me. But before all that I met Khushwant Singh. Recently dismissed from The Illustrated Weekly of India, after having boosted the circulation of the news weekly from 65,000 to 4,00,000 during his nine years as editor, he was editing New Delhi magazine from an office in the PTI building with Madhu Jain and a very young Raj Chengappa as reporters.
His assistant almost did not allow me to meet the editor, as I did not know Khushwant Singh then. In those days, we did not even carry visiting cards. We just argued and used wit to get to people who mattered to find out what they were thinking. On the way out, Khushwant Singh briefed his assistant that the next time I came to the office I should be allowed to see him, after being told that the pretty girl was here. That was it! As editor of The Hindustan Times, he allowed me to write a series of articles during my first visit to Pakistan in 1980. “Yes, I will publish you but only if you write nothing negative about Pakistan,” said the man who was born across the border in 1915. I also wrote for him from Europe after I went to live there in 1982. Unfortunately, I never met Khushwant Singh again but of course I read him regularly. In 2003, after I published The Book of Muhammad for Penguin, Khushwant Singh said in his review that he had learnt a lot about the prophet of Islam. I was humbled and grateful to this giant of a man who was so generous.
More recently, when I published The Book of NizamuddinAulia in 2012, Khushwant Singh wrote: ‘HazratNizamuddinAulia may be regarded as the patron Saint of Delhi. His ever-lasting message to all who look on Delhi with evil eyes “HunoozDilli Door Ast — Delhi is still a long way away,” can never be forgotten.
A recent publication highlights his message. MehruJaffer’sThe Book of NizamuddinAulia (Penguin Viking) not only gives his life story but also has many valuable quotes from his teachings. I give a few extracts from her biography.’Khushwant Singh is dead. Long liveKhushwant Singh!