That creative juices of sublime writing flowed through the veins of late writer Khushwant Singh is reflected in the reverence with which he is read even after his death. But it is uncommon for a writer of such stature to openly pronounce himself an unproud Indian. And, with two new publications on him due later this month, readers will have much to chew upon.
Khushwant Singh rarely shied away from calling a spade a spade and in one of his essays, “Why I Am An Indian”, he makes it a point to highlight that there is “little to be proud of what we are doing today”. This statement, which may take many by surprise, and even annoy some self-proclaimed nationalists today, is in response to a rhetorical question that Singh poses to himself at the beginning of the same essay: Am I proud of being an Indian?
His answer? “No, I am not proud of being an Indian.”
If a noted public figure was to make such a statement today, of all memes and trolls coming his way on social media, the question asking “Why is he an Indian then” would be one of the most prominent.
“I did not have any choice: I was born one. If the good Lord had consulted me on the subject I might have chosen a country more affluent, less crowded, less censorious in matters of food and drink, unconcerned with personal equations and free of religious bigotry,” Singh explains.
The simple point that the much-acclaimed writer seeks to make through this and several other essays on India is that our nation has many shortcomings, and that we don’t necessarily need to be proud of everything about our country as long as we can rally around the consciousness of one nation.
“I don’t like it, but I love it,” he says about India.
Khushwant Singh argues that despite our many differences “of language, religion and faith”, we have risen as one whenever the situation has demanded.
“What then is this talk about Indianising people who are already Indian? And has anyone any right to arrogate to himself the right to decide who is and who is not a good Indian,” he wrote in 1970, which seems all the more relevant today.
Later this month, Rupa will publish “On India”, a selection of Khushwant Singh’s best writings on the country. The selection spans a wide range of topics and ends on a happy note with some of the author’s favourite jokes.
Another book, “Extraordinary Indians”, a collection of his profiles of 50 eminent Indians (and one Pakistani) from a variety of backgrounds and professions is being published by Aleph Book Company.
“Khushwant Singh was one of the finest writers and journalists we’ve ever had and a fearless public intellectual. His greatest contribution to public life was probably his courageous defence of secularism, and the unending war he waged against religious fundamentalism. He was also an outspoken voice on the need for free speech, and politicians and leaders of probity and rectitude,” David Davidar, Publisher and Co-founder of Aleph Book Company, told IANS.
Over the course of his prolific career, Khushwant Singh met and wrote about hundreds of people. The people in the new book are those he admired deeply for their integrity, talent, generosity, vision and leadership.
“Given the tenor of our times, we need voices like his to be heard loud and clear. That is one of the reasons we’re publishing ‘Extraordinary Indians’, a collection of the finest profiles Khushwant Singh wrote, to mark his 102nd birth anniversary.
“At a time when large sections of our media and intelligentsia are genuflecting and are glorifying corrupt scoundrels, sectarian thugs and false gods, the book shows us who India’s true heroes and heroines are,” he added.
These two books, which will be on the stands soon, are a fitting tribute to the nation by a writer who travelled extensively through most parts of the country and abroad and who, in Kipling’s words, walked with kings but never lost the common touch. Enshrined in these pages is Singh’s deep belief in the idea of India.
There is a lot to take away from these two books for young readers as well, as Kushwant Singh was a visionary, born perhaps much ahead of his times. Flicking through these pages, one comes to realise that he was a staunch believer in the wild spirit. It is okay sometimes to flirt and live life, as they say, to the fullest.