By Elizabeth Sunny Poovathunkal
When Khushwanth Singh passed away, the world did not need to write him an obituary. He had written one for himself, in his book “Death at my Doorstep.” In it, he said, “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.”
But justa one-hour session with Tisca Chopra and Humra Quraishi gave us insights into the kind of man he really was. “Unfortunately, for people who become well known, the public image stays sharper than the private. He was always very outright, and did not really look about who was there.”
This is what both panelists attributed to be the prime reason for his unpopularity among the masses.
Khushwanth Singh believed he had chosen the wrong profession. He should not have become a lawyer because he could never lie. Something that bothered him about the judicial system was that 75 per cent of the jailed people were under trial. The thought that they had to be in jail, when they could be a 100 per cent innocent weighed heavily on him.
Singhbecame a writer to write against the political injustice that was taking place, wrecking democracy. “He was aware of the role he played in forming opinions in the country and so he took it very seriously. He was against fundamentalism of any kind, and it bothered him deeply,” said Tisca Chopra.
“He did not need a provocation to write. He was very encouraging to young writers,” she continued.Khushwanth believed that the only way one could get away from pain in life was by writing, and writing daily. He believed it to be a form of therapy and promoted many young writers.
“When he told me I should be writing, he also told me ‘Each word carries weight. Be very careful when you choose which word goes where.’ To him, it came naturally. For many others, we have to work on it.”
Both panelists vouched for Khushwanth Singh’s generosity and the consideration he had for others. In both subtle and not so subtle ways he tried to propagate peace among religions- especially betweenMuslims and Sikhs, whom he tried to bring together.
“He was a non-believer but he did the most, for the Sikh community with his writings,” said Humra Quarashi, who worked as his assistant on one of Singh’s books that recounted the history of the Sikhs. She remembers how meticulous and thorough he was in his writing, and how in the process, he also introduced her to the religion.
“One day, twelve years back, he asked me if I’d ever been to the gurudwara.” As Humra is a Muslim, she had not. Why,Singh asked her and offered to take her.
“I’ll wait outside, but you need to see it,” he said.
And true to his word, Khushwanth took Humraand sat outside on the steps. When Humra emerged and Khushwanth noticed how peaceful and content she looked, he said “jab bhi man chahe, aana chahiye (whenever your heart desires it, you should come).”
Singh also very considerate of other’s sentiments and beliefs, and Quarashi recounted how he firmly believed that nobody should have to celebrate any festival alone. And so, for every major festival, she was promptly invited to his house. On one such Eid, when his cook was not available, Khushwanth asked one of his helps to order food from outside. When the food arrived, he noticed that one of the items was pork. “Pork,” he yelled at her angrily. “Today is Eid, Humra is Muslim, and you get pork?”
Quraishi remembers the many curtains in Singhs house that had Islamic verses written on them. He once said to her, “I believe that every religion has something to offer.”
Although Singh was offered the fellowship at King’s College London, he chose to register at Aligarh Muslim University, “to do away with the uneasiness that’s come between Muslims and Sikhs.
“He was a good man with a very good heart,” said Quraishi concluded.