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Khushwant Singh: A nice man to know
By Humra Quraishi
Khushwant Singh was born in 1915, and he'd passed away on 20th March 2014 …Earlier this week there was a radio discussion where Narayani Ganesh, Ravi Singh, Preeti Gill and I, spoke of Khushwant - the writer, journalist and the man!

He was a wonderful person. In all my 60 years, I haven't come anyone like him. I miss him…

I have been writing extensively on him but in this week's column I'm focusing on some of the lesser known aspects to him. In fact, when I'd asked him why he celebrated two birthdays he had told me -

"Why two birthdays! When I was born in Hadali my father was away to Delhi and though the news reached him he didn't really bother to jot down the exact day and date of my birth. And since Sikh families did not have horoscopes made for their children so the date didn't really matter and the village also kept no such records. It's only several years later, when I was getting admitted in school in Delhi (Modern School) my father put down my date of birth as 2nd February 1915. It went on till my grandmother told me that I was born in the midst of bhadoon (monsoon), so I'd then decided to make myself a Leo - new birth-date as 15 August, 1915 …of course, all this was before our independence.

On his early years in Hadali, he'd told me - "It wasn't a big village …about three hundred homes, with a majority of them belonging to the Muslims. Only about fifty Hindu and Sikh families, the rest Muslims. Our family lived in a large house with a courtyard to it, a huge wooden door was right at the entrance …and though we were considered to be prosperous but our everyday living was very simple, with my grandmother doing the daily chores. Her routine was fixed - waking up very early, milking the cows and thereafter starting off the daily chores - cooking, making chappatis, getting me ready, walking along with me to the Dharamsal where the granthi taught not just me but a group of other village boys (Hindu and Sikh boys), Gurmukhi alphabet and multiplication tables, walking back with me, and once again get busy with household chores. We lived with the basics. There was no clock or even a watch; during the day my grandmother would tell the time by the shadow of the sun on the wall and at night by the stars… I still have those recollections of the formative years of my life in Hadali. It was after some years that my grandmother and I shifted to Delhi to be with my parents and my father had me admitted in the Modern School. I missed my village and somehow had those strong emotional ties with it. Initially it was tough for me (this adjustment from the village life to city life and also on the school front). I wasn't happy in school, the boys made fun of me and many a time went through humiliating situations… I wasn't a good student. No good at either studies or sports and then wasn't at ease in school with the boys making fun of me, cracking jokes about the name of my village, of my name. Often I was punished for things I didn't do and though the school (Modern School) insisted that they had done away with corporal punishment but several teachers slapped and even caned me. And what was most humiliating was to be punished for what I hadn't done …maybe this was because I was not really good at either studies and nor in games."

During my interactions with him, Khushwant would speak in that nostalgic way about his village "Today few know that it is this village - my ancestral village of Hadali - which had provided more soldiers (proportionately more than its population) for World War I than any other village of the undivided Punjab …My ancestors were into trade and they had camel caravans. It was grandfather, Sobha Singh, who moved into the construction business. They laid a part of the small - gauge rail-track and tunnels on the Kalka - Shimla railway."

Why didn't he join the construction business and why did he become a lawyer? "It was my father who'd decided that career for me. Though in the Modern School, Miss Budden had suggested that I'd take up writing as a career but he wasn't happy hearing that and was rather adamant that I should become a lawyer …this could be because there was no lawyer in the family or that they thought that because I was a chatterbox at home so would be good at arguing cases. An additional advantage was that I'd taken Urdu in Modern School and court records were kept in Urdu …Midway, from St.Stephen's college I shifted to Lahore to join the Government College. Passed, with a third division in BA and then applied for admission to the London University for LLB …in 1943 I set sail for London. Did poorly in the LLB examinations and after six months of enrolling myself for the LLM decided to return back. And when family friends asked my father what had I passed he'd quip - Hor tay pata nahin time bahut pass karkey aaaya hai (don't really know what he has passed except that he has passed a lot of time!) …After my marriage, I moved to Lahore but things didn't seem to look up on the work front.I was a misfit in that legal profession. To me it was a soulless profession. A profession in which you survive on other people's quarrels. I'd realized I wasn't made out to be a lawyer …the crux lies in these lines of Akbar AIlahabadi -

'Paida hua vakeel, to Iblees nay kahaa /

Allah nay mujhey Sahib -e - awlaad kar diyaa.

(the day a lawyer was born, Satan exulted:

Allah has blessed me with a progeny of my own)'"


One of the reasons for this lies in the fact that Khushwant's very first love affair was with a Muslim woman. To quote him, "I believe that if you fall in love, your very perception of his or her community changes. And for some reason you begin to feel closer to that community, you are drawn to it, to the entire community. It happened with me after I had got close to Ghayoor …Before I had met her I'd those typical stereotype notions of the Muslims (those typical notions that most Hindus and Sikhs are brought up with) but then all that changed after I'd met her and this attachment for the Muslim community increased in those following years …of course, later I'd met and befriended many women but with Ghayoor it was different."

"It happened whilst I was in college here. She was a Muslim from Hyderabad but she had come to Delhi to study at the Lady Irwin College, to take a degree in home science …I must have been around 17 years and Ghayoorunissa was three years older than me. She was my sister's friend … on one of those occasions when she and I and my sister had gone to see cinema, she'd slipped her hand on mine and held my hand … and that alone meant a lot to me. I was drawn to her and that burqa she'd worn added to that entire atmosphere, to that romance, to her beauty."

He had detailed more to her and their friendship - "she's dead …died some years back … on hearing of her death I went to Hyderabad and visited her grave. Towards her end (that is, when I had last met in Hyderabad before her death) she was very lonely, was not in good health and she'd spoken of death and with that had even told me that she'd booked a grave - space for herself Most members of her family had already died and her daughter Fareesa had shifted abroad and married there."

Why didn't his relationship with Ghayoor culminate in marriage? Did her being a Muslim come in way?

"I'd gone off to England to study and Ghayoor went back to Hyderabad and she'd later married and settled there. In fact, she'd married twice …No, her being a Muslim did not come in the way at all. It couldn't have bothered me, I could have married her but it didn't happen …And, after a gap of about thirty years I met her again, here in New Delhi, when she was back to get her daughter admitted at the Lady Irwin College …After this I had continued to keep in touch with her, and did make it point to meet her whenever I was in Hyderabad for work… Yes, I was so taken up by Ghayoor that it drew me to the entire Muslim community … It was Ghayoor's affection for me that made me an ardent lover of Muslims For me, an Indian Muslim could do no wrong. I came to the conclusion that all you have to do is to fall in love with one person to love his or her community."

*(Humra Quraishi is a freelance columnist based in Delhi and is currently a visiting Professor in the Academy of Third World Studies in Jamia Milia University).

News Updated at : Thursday, February 9, 2017
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