I must begin this review with a confession: I am an unabashed admirer of Khushwant Singh. I have known him for years and enjoyed many a delightful evening in his cozy flat listening to his yarns and talking about his three great passions: people, poetry and politics. Ensconced in his favourite armchair, his feet atop a cane stool, a fire blazing in the hearth, surrounded by piles of new books gifted to him in equal numbers by aspiring and established authors, he is witty, curious, engaging; in fact, a very far cry from the ‘dirty old man’ of popular imagination. Till his health permitted, he would permit two or three or four (never too many to make a crowd) of his friends and admirers to drop in (always after taking a prior appointment) at a scheduled time (starting from 7.00 pm sharp and ending on the dot of 7.45 as he sits down for his dinner at precisely 8.00 pm). Recent years have seen him retreating from public life and meeting fewer and fewer people; though, as the number of his books continues to grow at a steady pace and his columns continue to appear, the ‘Sardar in the Bulb’ (immortalised by the cartoonist Mario Miranda) continues to light up the life of countless Indians with his deep insight into human nature.
After several best-selling books in a career spanning six decades, comes his newest offering: The Freethinker’s Prayer Book and Some Words to Live By (Aleph, 2012). Only someone who does not believe in God yet recites the Gayatri Mantra without fail when he gets up before dawn every day, who proclaims to be an agnostic yet knows large chunks of the Bible and the Holy Quran by heart, who has consistently tossed his hat at the windmills of the gods yet evidently draws his strength and inspiration from some hidden source somewhere could have written such a book. The words of Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Kabir, Marcus Aurelius, St Thomas Aquinas, Lalan fakir, Shah Abdul Latif and many more merge seamlessly and effortlessly. Prayers and snippets by poets, philosophers and prophets ranging from William Blake to Maulana Rumi to Lao Tsu, passages from religious texts as diverse as the Vedas, Upanishads, Avesta, Granth Sahib, as well as verses from Tagore, Ghalib and Keats make this an eclectic and individualistic culling from a man who has sipped long and deep at the fount of learning. Yet, in a manner typical of Khushwant, he remains characteristically irreverent:
‘Once you have decided not to bow to any gods, and if you have a good bullshit detector, it is possible to separate the sublime from the ridiculous and derive inspiration from the words of prophets and poets, gurus and rogues, grave men and clowns. There is a lot to be learned from both the sacred and the profane. I have done that nearly all my life and put down in my notebooks hundreds of lines from different sources that appealed to me… I offer them to you as life codes from an ancient and unrepentant agnostic. Read them with an open mind and an open heart.’
Justifying this wide-ranging selection, Khushwant concludes thus:
‘Since I am not obliged to hold any scripture as sacrosanct, I think I have been able to cull the valuable and memorable from each holy book, ignoring a lot that is of indifferent literary quality, illogical or contrary to a humane and liberal world view.’
At 97, Khushwant has been saying that it is time for him to hang up his boots and go. But those of us who have grown up on a steady diet of Khushwant Singh’s writings – be they in the form of columns, editorials, translations, book reviews, books of fiction and non-fiction -- can only wish him long life and good health, and say: ‘Allah kare zor-e-qalam aur ziyada…’
1. Train to Pakistan, Chatto & Windus, 1956: a historical novel that placed Khushwant among the finest chroniclers of the partition
2. A History of the Sikhs, Princeton University Press, 1963: it established Khushwant’s reputation as a serious, even scholarly, writer.
3. Sex, Scotch and Scholarship, Harper Collins, 1992: the title says it all; the selection comprises vintage Khushwant with dollops of readability.