New Delhi, March 20 IANS | 7 months ago

"He was known nationally as a celebrated lecher but for the past thirty years at least it was a hot-water-bottle that warmed his bed," author Dhiren Bhagat wrote in a mock obit of Khushwant Singh in 1983, a full 31-years before he died. But the "victim", as it were, had the last laugh!


"Contradictions surrounded Khushwant at every stage of his life. He strove to give the impression that he was a drunken slob yet he was one of the most hard-working and punctual men I knew. He professed agnosticism and yet enjoyed kirtan as only few can and do," Bhagat, who died in a road accident in 1988, wrote in The Sunday Observer on Feb 13, 1983.

"He made a profession of living off his friends' important names and yet worked single-handedly to diminish that very importance. Empty vessels make the most noise but Khushwant was always full of the Scotch he had cadged off others....

"Khushwant was always a great raconteur so it is difficult to know what to believe (about him)....

"In '55 he shot to fame when a novel of his won a large cash award set by an American publishing house in order to attract manuscripts. It was a mediocre Partition quickie called 'Mano Majra' (later published as 'Train to Pakistan').

"Years passed. Khushwant kept writing books, on the Jupji, on the Sikhs, on India, stories, translations: many of them provocatively titled and indicative of his deepest desires, 'I Shall Rape the Nightingale', 'I Take This Woman" etc. Some of these attempts were successful.

"But success and cosmopolitan living did not spoil the earthiness of the robust Jat. He continued to down his Scotch with a ferocity that made his hosts nervous. He continued to tell stories that revealed his deep obsession with the anal. He had a theory that all anger was a result of an upset stomach and instructed his son to ask his mother if her stomach walls troubled her whenever she scolded him. In his more smug moments he attributed his own iconoclastic calm to the severe constipation from which he had suffered since childhood.

"In 1969 Khushwant took over the Illustrated Weekly and embarked on the most controversial phase of his career. On the editor's page Mario drew a bulb and Khushwant sat in it, along with his Scotch and dirty pictures. Sitting in that cross-legged position Khushwant took the ailing magazine from success to success, all along illuminating millions of readers on the more outre aspects of the world's brothels. Once in a while he tore into a friend's reputation. So great was our prurience that he became a household name in a short while. Fame he had, honour he sought....

"Then came the Emergency. Khushwant's friends and admirers were very troubled by his stand: Mrs Gandhi was Durga incarnate, Sanjay the New Messiah and the highways of the land were clogged with smoothly running Marutis. Many explanations have been offered for his position but I believe I am the only person to know the right one. (Khushwant in an unguarded whisky-sodden moment once opened up to me and told all.) And since it is only in obituaries that it is proper to disclose the little-known details of a man's personal life I shall come out with it now.

"Impotence had claimed Khushwant back in the fifties. At first he had been sorely troubled by this condition (most Jats are) and had tried several remedies, mostly indigenous. This accounted for his immense knowledge of jaree-bootees and his disillusionment with quacks. When he had finally given up all hope of lighting the wick he had turned to other pleasures with a vengeance. (Exposing his friends' affairs was a favourite pleasure: it was envy compounded with righteousness.) It must be remembered that Khushwant's lechery was of the mildest order: he as a voyeur, he could do nothing. Scotch was a palliative, but in the end even that failed to make up the loss.

"It was Sanjay's power that finally did the trick. So great was the vicarious pleasure the ageing Sardar felt that it went to his head. And after Sanjay's death Khushwant lost his vitality, his vigour. He grew listless. And then the quiet end. A lively man all in all. Even as I write this I am sure Khushwant is busy looking up the angels' skirts. And since angels are constitutionally condemned to celibacy that should suit
Khushwant fine," Bhagat concluded.

Over to Khushwant Singh. He wrote Bhagat's obituary in December 1988.

"The score was more than settled in my favour as I, 40 years older than him, am alive: Dhiren had met his end in a car accident a month earlier in November," Khushwant Singh recalled in India Today December 31, 1990 in a review of "The Contemporary Conservative: Selected Writings of Dhiren Bhagat. Edited by Salman Khurshid".

"I have yet a score unsettled," he wrote of the Rs.20,000 he had persuaded Penguin India editor David Davidar to give Bhagat as advance royalty for a book on the Punjab - which never got written.

"It was the first and the last time we gave an advance to any of our authors. Perhaps the sales of his posthumous collection of articles, short stories and poems may compensate for our loss. But nothing will compensate for the loss that Indian journalism suffered on the death of this bright, erudite, but unpredictable young man in the prime of his life.

"The Contemporary Conservative fairly represents the maturing of Dhiren Bhagat's talent from infancy to his last days. He started composing rhymed verses at the age of eight, continued doing so in school in Ajmer and college in Oxford. They show that though he may not have flowered into a major poet or a writer, he might well have become one of India's top journalists. He was hardworking, abstemious, a teetotaller who didn't even drink tea or coffee: he was a vegetarian and a non-smoker and ambitious. After a brash start trying to attract attention by writing rude articles about established writers, he soon acquired self-confidence and turned out some memorable pieces. He strove for excellence and achieved it in some measure," Khushwant Singh wrote.

(Posted on 20-03-2014)

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