I was staying in a fishing hamlet on the coastal edge of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico when Covid-19 stopped the world in its tracks. Life came to a grinding halt and the whole state was placed under lockdown. Shops, bars, cafes and restaurants were shut down and de facto martial law was imposed on the region.
The magnificent Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Ek Balam and Coba that I was in the process of documenting for an ethnographic survey were closed to the public for an indefinite period. The locals who depended on tourism for their livelihood, many of them of Mayan ancestry, scrambled to gather their meager resources to wait out the pandemic.
It was an unprecedented event with global ramifications, and like everyone, I was completely stumped.
I stocked up on essential provisions and steeled myself for the unforeseen and the unpredictable. Life in my small hamlet was tolerable compared to the big urban centres as one could still walk the streets during the days without being sent home by patrol cops. By some miracle, the solitary liquor store in my neighbourhood remained open for a couple of hours each day and I was able to buy my weekly quota of criminally underpriced Argentinian Cabernet and Merlot without any problem. My days consisted of binge-watching streaming shows on the internet, watering the plants in my backyard and going on walks accompanied by my landlord’s three dogs.
As the days and weeks crawled by, a strange thing happened. I switched off from the relentless barrage of Corona-related news and started regressing into childhood. Vivid memories from what seemed like a past life would surface and trigger a multitude of emotions and sensations.
During the quarantine, while going through my belongings, I came across a book called fittingly, Delhi, the city where I had spent my prepubescent years. The story’s narrator is a whore-mongering, reprobate of a journalist who takes under his wing a “third gender” person from the streets of the eponymous city.
The book unfolds as a series of sexual exploits and misadventures woven seamlessly with the city’s violent and dramatic history. The narrator doubles up as a tour guide-cum-lover to rich white women who visit the city, such as the archaeologist, Lady Hoity-Toity. I dived into the book enthusiastically and discovered a wildly seductive and enticing new world, one that I didn’t know existed till that moment.
But I digress. For proper context, we need to go back a few decades. The book’s author, Khushwant Singh, was a close friend of the family. As a child growing up in New Delhi, I would eagerly look forward to his frequent trips abroad, mainly because I knew he would return bearing gifts. On one occasion, he brought me a badminton racket, and on another, a fancy geometry set, purchased from Harrods, at a time when the brand still meant something. But the most precious gift he bequeathed to me was the love of reading.
Long before I hit my teens, Khushwant presented me with a collection of abridged works of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, including Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I was not old enough to fully understand the socio-political themes in the novels but found myself being drawn into the richly described social milieus, the colourful characters and their escapades. These coming-of-age tales essaying the lives of young, troubled protagonists were strangely familiar and enticing.
The image of Huck Finn and his friend Jim, a former slave, floating down the Mississippi river on a wooden raft into the great unknown, has remained indelibly imprinted on my mind. On the raft, Huck and Jim are liberated and free to act as they see fit. Here, social conventions, including the abomination of slavery, did not apply. Though I did not consciously grasp the metaphor of the raft, the hankering for freedom, unshackled from expectations, struck a deep chord with me.
I would occasionally accompany my parents to Khushwant’s apartment in Delhi’s Sujan Singh Park for soirees and get-togethers. I did not know at the time what the life of a writer entailed, but from my visits to his place I imagined it meant living in a big house with high ceilings, being surrounded by a small army of cats and dining with loud, opinionated and often inebriated guests. They included his close friend Balwant Gargi, Menaka Gandhi and her mother, Jagmohan, Governor of the then state of Jammu and Kashmir, the writer Amrita Pritam and her companion Imroz, journalists Mark Tully and MJ Akbar, Rafiq and Fatima Zakaria, the painter Arpana Caur and her mother, and many others. At 9 pm sharp, his wife Kawal would ask everyone to leave, politely at first, then firmly if they tarried.
A family friend
I was very young, still a few years away from puberty, but for some reason can recall memories from that phase of my life quite vividly. I remember my father berating a dinner companion for “talking through her hat”, then storming out of Singh’s house in a temper. I later found out she was a daughter-in-law of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Another time, Khushwant and Balwant Gargi, their tongues loosened by several Patiala pegs, launched into a heated discussion about the merits of the Henry Miller classic Sexus.
One of them was of the opinion the feats of sexual prowess described in the book were greatly embellished while the other swore they were true. When the discussion turned graphic, one of the women reminded them that a child was present and that they should change the subject.
Years later, when Khushwant was much older, I visited him with a friend, to seek advice on a project we were working on. My friend was a devout Sikh who did not think very highly of his co-religionist. Singh’s libertine ways had not endeared him to the more conservative elements of the Sikh community. Singh graciously spent the whole afternoon with us.
While browsing his bookshelf, my friend had come across Khushwan’s celebrated compendium on Sikhism, The History of the Sikhs. When Singh saw him immersed in the tome, he gifted him an autographed copy. By the end of the afternoon, my friend had changed his opinion about the octogenarian writer and had become an avid fan.
When I moved abroad, I was barely at the cusp of adulthood and had very little knowledge or interest in India’s politics. My interests at the time ranged from psychedelic rock to Brit-pop to Frank Herbert’s Dune series and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I related to Khushwant as an elderly friend of the family, not as a prominent literary entity, who was an integral part of India’s political landscape at the time. It was only much later, after he had died, that I began reading him, ironically during the pandemic in Mexico, and was able to relate to him as an adult.
Fearless and candid
I enjoyed his clear, simple prose, his bawdy, often self-deprecating humour, and how he gleefully took apart the self-righteous, the pompous and the overly religious (a description that fits the vast majority of Indians on social media).Yet, underneath it all was a deep empathy for his fellow humans, with their warts and all.
In the introduction to The Good, the Bad and the Ridiculous, a collection of essays that profile some of the most iconic figures of 20th century subcontinental history, he writes, “The truly good and great are not diminished when their faults are exposed; on the contrary, they earn greater respect for rising to admirable heights despite their human flaws”.
True to this description, he does not spare any of the colourful and controversial personalities in the book, including Dhirendra Brahmachari, Indira Gandhi, MS Golwalkar, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Amrita Shergil, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Sanjay Gandhi and others. While describing his interactions with the characters profiled in the book, he does not spare himself either, calling himself gossipy, opinionated and often biased, especially when it came to his relationships with members of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
Unlike many writers of South Asian extraction, Khushwant wrote about his secret desires and fantasies, about his affairs and his troubled marriage with unsparing honesty. “If you write fearlessly and candidly you have to be prepared to pay the price. And there’s no point writing if you’re not honest,” he wrote in one of his columns.“I’ve always written what I felt and believed to be true…there’s no secret I kept to myself… At times this has upset people, but I’ve never been bothered.”
In Khushwant, I found a kindred spirit. His prose was compulsively readable and refreshingly different from the stodgy, sanctimonious fare churned out by many desi writers. During an existential crisis, such as the one the world is currently going through, there is a need for a raw honesty that cuts through the moral posturing, and gets to the heart of the human experience.
The writing we need
We are witnessing a watershed event, one that will have far reaching effects in all spheres of human activity. Our race has never been so vulnerable, exposed and in need of the healing that good literature can provide. During uncertain times like these, when it seems like the carpet is being pulled out from under our feet, we need to hear stories from those who are not afraid to bare themselves on the page and stand naked in front of the reader.
After witnessing the horrors of the pandemic on an almost daily basis, readers may not be receptive to decorous, vapid prose. Instead, they will want authentic material that resonates on a visceral level and makes them experience what it actually feels like to be alive in this time. If mainstream publishers cannot meet their needs, they will turn to the blogosphere, which is an endless repository of uncurated, unfiltered writing, some of it shockingly original and inventive.
Where are the Indian Charles Bukowskis, the Henry Millers, the Chuck Palahniuks, the Hunter S Thompsons, the Edward St Aubyns, the Bret Easton Ellises, the Mary Karrs, or the Camille Paglias, I wondered? They were brutally honest writers, not afraid to mine the raw material of their lives to produce transformative, incandescent prose, and were largely unconcerned about how their work would be received by the self-appointed guardians of good taste. That they managed to garner some acclaim and a cult following in their lifetimes had more to do with providence rather than design.
While it was not possible for Khushwant to go full Bukowski, because such transgression would have meant the kiss of death in the milieu he was born into, he came fairly close, perhaps more than any other desi writing in English. In his sprawling, erotic 1991 historical novel Delhi, he sets out to explain “the strange paradox of his lifelong love-hate affair with the city and the woman” referring to the protagonist’s third gender paramour Baghmati. He also warns readers with delicate constitutions that the book may read like a “Fucking Ma’s Guide to Delhi: Past and Present”.
His love for Pakistan, its culture (and especially its women) invited the wrath of the Hindu right. When Singh died, Dawn, Pakistan’s leading newspaper referred to him as “the last Pakistani living on Indian soil.” Having witnessed Partition in 1947, he saw clearly the dangers of unfettered religious fundamentalism. As he would say, “So many gods, so many creeds. So many paths that wind and wind, when just the art of being kind is all the sad world needs.”
In his seminal 1956 novel, Train to Pakistan, Singh tells the story of India’s bloody Partition through the residents of Mano Majra, a fictional village situated on the India-Pakistan border. We get to know the quirks and eccentricities of each of the characters, even as they set out to butcher one another in the retributive genocide that followed Partition. The book conveys simply and powerfully the tragic madness of sectarian violence in the subcontinent, a phenomenon that continues to this day.
Today’s alleged journalists, prone to placing the blame squarely on one side, either Hindu or Muslim, would be well advised to read the book, if not for anything else but to gain an understanding of the empathy that is at the core of all great writing: “Muslims said the Hindus had planned and started the killing. According to the Hindus, the Muslims were to blame. The fact is, both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped.”
Even today, the dirty old Sardar is one of the few Indian writers that I can relate to, both viscerally and emotionally. As a writer, I try to be as honest about myself, and my world, as he was during his lifetime.
A few years before he died, Singh wrote his own epitaph. Never one for grandiose gestures, his final goodbye was as irreverent as his life had been. “Here lies one who spared neither man nor god; Waste not your tears on him, he was a sod; Writing nasty things he regarded as great fun; Thank the lord he is dead, this son of a gun.”
The one thing we are reminded of on an almost daily basis during the pandemic is that existence is like a wisp of smoke that appears, lingers for a brief moment and then dissipates back into the ether from where it emerged. Khushwant Singh, with his cheerful irreverence and zest for life, who seldom took anyone too seriously, least of all himself, perhaps best embodied the message of our times in his final goodbye.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.