New Delhi, March 20: Khushwant Singh, author, journalist, commentator, wit and raconteur par excellence, died at his home here Thursday morning, in his 100th year of birth, after having led a life that, in the words of his son, “touched the stars” and left an indelible and acerbic mark on Indian journalism and contemporary writing.
He died quietly at his leafy Sujan Singh Park apartment, a landmark for oldtimers of the capital, a city in whose construction his grandfather, Sir Sujan Singh, had a big hand. Pre-deceased by his wife Kawal, he is survived by son Rahul and daughter Mala. He would have been 100 on Feb 2, 2015.
Rahul, a journalist and writer, said his father had stopped writing a few weeks back, but he was reading papers every morning.
“He was alert mentally till the very end,” he said. “He passed away very peacefully, led a very full life,” he added.
The body was cremated at Lodhi crematorium with political stalwarts like L.K Advani, Farooq Abdullah, Salman Khurshid among others, present.
A recipient of Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honour, Khushwant Singh authored some internationally renowned books like “Train to Pakistan”, “I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale”, “A History of the Sikhs”, “The Company of Women” and “Delhi”, and wrote over 30 books – novels, many short stories, essays and countless commentaries.
His last work: “The Good, The Bad and The Ridiculous” was published in October 2013.
A self-confessed lecher but honest and upright, Khushwant Singh always enjoyed his evening drinks and was fond of food. Extremely candid, he had a sign outside his door saying: “Please do not ring the bell if you are not expected.”
“He was very punctual about timings. If there was a party he had hosted, people had to strictly stick to the timings. If you were late, chances were you wouldn’t be on his next guests list,” a close friend told IANS.
Khuswant Singh was close to former prime minister Indira Gandhi and initially supported her controversial Emergency rule for the discipline it had imposed, but then their friendship fell out because of her imposition of press censorship and jailing of hundreds of dissidents.
The relationship further soured after he became close to estranged daughter-in-law Maneka Gandhi, whom he mentored for some time, after she broke away from the Gandhi family after her husband and Indira Gandhi’s younger son Sanjay Gandhi’s death in an air crash.
Born in Hadali, now in Pakistan, he had, among others, served as the editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, where his column, “With malice towards one and all”, flagged with the bulb symbol with his caricature inside, made him an iconic figure. It was drawn by the legendary cartoonist Mario Miranda.
He was also editor of The Hindustan Times and National Herald.
Known for his colourful writings, sharp sense of humour and love for the good life, Khushwant Singh’s writings weren’t just limited to novels and short stories, and his oeuvre ranged from political commentary to contemporary satire.
He was also a member of the Rajya Sabha from 1980 to 1986.
In 1974, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award, but he returned the award in 1984 in protest against the army siege of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
President Pranab Mukherjee too expressed sadness at the death of noted writer. “A prolific writer who made his mark in literature as well as in journalism, Khushwant Singh will be remembered for his sharp insight and unique wit, as well as sense of humour,” he said.
He was also very close to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh whom he supported through thick and thin. “A gifted author, candid commentator and a dear friend. He lived a truly creative life,” the prime minister said in a statement.
While condolences poured in from political leaders, publishing world, literary figures, contemporaries and people he mentored, Bikram Vohra, editorial director of AsianLite, a London-based newspaper, and who was one of those who was with him at the Weekly, said one can’t mourn a man who lived life to the fullest.
“He lived spartan even though he was one of the richest men in Delhi. He dressed with a carelessness that often got him into scrapes. He had a wicked sense of humour and loved being irreverent. The evening drink was a honoured ritual. People who bored him he simply ignored,” he said.
Vohra quoted Rahul Singh, his former colleague, as saying: “It was a great life, he touched the stars and he touched our careers. Celebrate it, my friend and know that dad would be laughing at the posturers. Tonight we shall drink to the man who made us journalists.”
“Publishers have lost one of the most prolific and versatile authors. Friends will miss the large peg,” said Pramod Kapoor, founder and publisher, Roli Books.