SECOND THOUGHTS – THE HINDU
96, not out
BY NAVTEJ SARNA
I was asked to do it when I was 95. I said I am not going to do it, I am too old. But the idea wouldn't go away.
A meeting with a literary icon can sometimes be imbued with excitement akin to that of a lovers' tryst. With a knowing smile, it seems, this thought crosses my mind on tiptoe, as I stand in the smoky, early winter dusk of Sujan Singh Park, glancing repeatedly at my watch. Finally, at seven sharp, I step up to the door that says famously “Do Not Ring Unless Expected” and bravely thumb the doorbell knowing that, 96 though he may be, Khushwant Singh does not forget his appointments.
It seems that time has bypassed that living room which I enter after a gap of more than two years. The books, the photographs, the drinks table and the author himself on his sofa chair in the corner, wearing a black woollen cap, his legs stretched out on a stool and a rough shawl thrown over them. A closer look shows that he is perhaps frailer than he was two years earlier, and perhaps he needs the hearing aid a bit more, but the sight of the strong drink of whisky that already stands near his right hand is reassuring. He watches carefully, unwilling to begin the conversation, until my drink has been served along with the wasabi-coated peas and butter-drenched fresh mushroom vol-au-vents.
Inevitably, we begin to talk of his latest novel The Sunset Club. He reaches out to a side table and hands me a card for the launch party. “I was asked to do it when I was 95. I said I am not going to do it, I am too old. But the idea wouldn't go away. So I started writing. You know I am an agnostic, but I call God Badhe Mian. I said: Badhe Mian, you have to give me one year so that I can complete the novel. When I finished it I said Badhe Mian, you have to give me six months to see it published. These six months finish on November 30 when the book is being launched. Now I am asking Badhe Mian for more time to see how the book does, what the reviewers say.” All along his fingers hold his forehead in a characteristic gesture and his infectious laughter makes you part of his conspiracy. He and I both know that the book will do very well. The first edition of the recent volume, Absolute Khushwant, containing his distilled thoughts on subjects ranging from love to religion, as told to Humra Quraishi, sold out in three days flat.
And does he still write everyday? “Yes, every single day. Actually I wake up at three in the morning and I brood. I feel sorry for myself, I have so many ailments.” His gentle smile and a timely sip of his drink belie that statement. “Then I get the morning's newspapers and waste my time doing crossword puzzles. Only after my siesta do I begin to write and continue till the evening. If I don't write everyday, it becomes too difficult to start again. The sight of that blank page and the challenge of having to fill it! It gets easier after the first page. I must write three or four pages everyday otherwise I do not feel I have earned my whisky.” This from a man who cannot remember how many books he has written, only that the list runs into yards. And besides the books there are the two columns every week, now translated into several regional languages, enabling Khushwant Singh to be read by “ chaiwallahs at railway stations, policemen on patrol and butchers in Khan Market.”
An open book of Urdu poetry lies face down near his left hand. I recall an entire section on the subject in Absolute Khushwant in which he writes: “I keep Ghalib on my bedside table and an anthology of Urdu poetry on the table beside me where I sit the entire day.” When I draw his attention to it, he raises his glass and quotes Ghalib: Goh hath ko jumbish nahin, ankhon mein to dum hai/ Rahnon do abhi sagar-o- mina mere aage.(Though the hand is powerless, the eye is still alive/ Let the jug and goblet remain before me)
And where does he place Faiz Ahmad Faiz in the ranks of Urdu poets, I cannot resist asking? “Very high,” is his quick answer. “Faiz was two years my senior in Lahore, at Government College. I met him years later when I went to Pakistan. I went to have breakfast with him and he was drinking whisky. Then I came back for lunch and he was drinking whisky. But he was never drunk. And the other Urdu poet, Ahmad Faraz: when he came to my room to have some whisky, he dipped his cigarette in his drink and said that this way he can enjoy both together!”
All this talk is not wasted on me. I hurry to my second drink; he is only half way through his only one. I wonder aloud if his evening darbars carry on with their usual regularity. “Actually I am thinking that I will stop meeting people altogether,” he says. “I want to sit in the dark and drink my whisky; otherwise, I am not being fair to it.” But I know that he yearns for silence and solitude for other reasons he has written about. “It is work, my writing that keeps me going. Writing is a solitary profession and you simply cannot write in a crowd or in the midst of people. Over the years I have discovered what enormous energy silence creates, energy that socializing and useless chit chat depletes. You have got to train yourself to be alone. You have to discipline yourself to follow a slavish routine.”
It is ten to eight and I know I must gracefully depart. Even as he looks meaningfully at my glass, I quickly drain it, toasting his health and his pen, and step out. For some reason I am exuberant and cheerful, unmindful of the traffic. Those who have visited this literary lion in his winter will share the feeling.