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Khushwant Singh (1915-2014)


May 11, 2010
Ancient Greece
Khushwant Singh, an Indian diplomat, author and journalist who was one of his country’s best-known chroniclers of strife and slaughter, died on Thursday at his home in New Delhi.

He was 99, according to most reports, although by his own account he may have been several months shy of that age.

Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, confirmed the death on a government website, saying, “His writings, whether as a journalist, editor, historian, author or provocative raconteur, never failed to shed light on the human condition.” He added, “There was hardly an aspect of public life that escaped his attention and none that was not the better for it.”

Khushwant Singh’s most widely read work was “Train to Pakistan,” a slim, chilling novel about the 1947 partition of British-ruled India, in which sectarian strife claimed an estimated one million lives as the twin republics of India and Pakistan were born.

He lived long enough to write about the many bouts of violent intolerance that followed: the pogrom against minority Sikhs like him in 1984, the razing of a mosque in 1992 by a resurgent Hindu right, and the attacks on the Muslim minority in the western state of Gujarat in 2002.

“You kill my dog, I kill your cat” is how he described India’s history of retaliatory violence. “It’s a childish and bloody game, and it can’t go on.”

Mr. Singh was born in 1915 to a prosperous business family in Hadali, a village in the Thar Desert of what is now Baluchistan Province in Pakistan. His date of birth was not recorded, but according to his autobiography, “Truth, Love & a Little Malice” (2002), his father, Sobha Singh, invented the date Feb. 2 when he enrolled him in school. Mr. Singh later changed it to Aug. 15, based on his grandmother’s recollection. And many years after that, Aug. 15 turned out to be India’s birthday, too — the day it officially became independent from British rule.

Educated in Delhi, Lahore and London, Mr. Singh was a practicing lawyer in Lahore when religious violence broke out in the days and weeks leading up to independence in August 1947. Like millions of other Sikhs, he crossed over to what would become Hindu-majority India.

He drove alone and heard disturbing tales. On one side, Muslims boasted of killing Hindus and Sikhs. On the other side, Hindus and Sikhs boasted of slaughtering Muslims. Like millions of partition-era refugees, he settled in Delhi. The journey inspired “Train to Pakistan,” first published in 1956 and reissued in 2006 with a series of unflinching pictures, some never before published, by the American photographer Margaret Bourke-White.

Mr. Singh used the occasion to goad Indians into staring at the horror of their past. He described the partition as a “poison” injected into the Indian soul.

“People should know this thing happened,” he said in an interview after the reissue of the novel. “It did happen. It can happen again.”

Mr. Singh joined the Indian Foreign Service, served in Ottawa, London and Paris, and returned to Delhi to devote himself to writing. He was prolific.

He edited an influential magazine, The Illustrated Weekly of India, and then The Hindustan Times, an English-language daily newspaper. He wrote novels, history, translations of poetry, collections of jokes and newspaper columns about everything from politics to faith to sex. He repeatedly accused his fellow Indians of being sexually repressed.

Mr. Singh was known for his irreverence, but he acquiesced when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared emergency rule in 1975, suspending the Constitution, jailing political dissidents and muzzling the press.

In a tract called “Why I Supported the Emergency,” Mr. Singh said he had thought that the emergency decree would provide a brief respite from the political turmoil of the time. Emergency rule lasted nearly two years, filling jails with political dissidents and several of Mr. Singh’s fellow journalists. He later acknowledged that he had been spared from the worst excesses of the emergency because he was perceived to be a friend of the prime minister and her family.

By the time Mrs. Gandhi ordered troops to storm the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine, in an attempt to arrest leaders of a Sikh separatist rebellion, Mr. Singh was no longer a supporter. Sikhs say thousands were killed in the 1984 raid, though the official toll is 575. The temple, in the Punjab city of Amritsar, near the Pakistani border, was heavily damaged. In protest, Mr. Singh returned a high government award, the Padma Bhushan,

Mr. Singh, who described himself as an agnostic, also wrote a seminal book, “A History of the Sikhs.”

Survivors include a son, Rahul, and a daughter, Mala.

Mr. Singh was known as a raconteur with a bawdy wit, but he lived a disciplined, habitual life. In recent years he rose at 4 a.m., wrote in the mornings, rested in the afternoons and received visitors at 7 every evening, usually drinking two shots of whiskey.

He lived in an apartment that his father, a builder whose constructions dot colonial-era New Delhi, had built for British soldiers. For over a decade, Mr. Singh’s home was guarded by Indian troops, including one just outside his door — a precautionary measure against militant Sikhs who had threatened to kill him for opposing their bid for independence.

In that sense, he was a nationalist. But he was also one of his country’s most dogged critics.

“Why am I an Indian?” he asked in an essay. “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.”



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