Saturday, 11 June 2011

Book Review: “Absolute Khushwant”

I am a hardcore fan of Khushwant Singh’s writings and think he is the best Indian writer alive today. I picked up Absolute Khushwant in order to know more about Khushwant the human being. A simple book of 189 pages, it appears to have been dictated by 95 year old Khushwant Singh to Humra Quraishi over a few days. The narration is rambling and there are repetitions, but this book is the closest thing to Khushwant Singh’s autobiography.

Absolute Khushwant doesn’t hold many surprises. Khushwant Singh is not a reticent man and people who follow his writings would be aware of his views of topics ranging from the Emergency to Indira Gandhi to Operation Blue Star to the BJP. Khushwant Singh doesn’t hold back on his personal life either. He talks of his first love, how he visited a prostitute for the first time, his unhappy marriage (which was not an arranged one), how he had courted his wife-to-be etc.

I knew that Khushwant Singh was not a prude and I was not disappointed. “If you ask me what’s more important, sex or romance, it’s sex. Romance is just a gloss, some sort of sheen that wears off, and it loses its lustre very soon. I’ve never really had the time or the inclination for romance. Romantic interludes take up a lot of time and are a sheer waste of energy, for the end result isn’t very much. Sex is definitely more important, though sex with the same person can get boring after a while..... When it comes to sex, I don’t think looks matter much.

The Partition of India left Khushwant Singh badly wounded. Khushwant Singh feels that Partition was inevitable since Hindus and Muslims had not integrated. They did not inter-marry, did not share food or living quarters. No, Khushwant Singh does not say that they were/are two separate nations, but that would be the logical conclusion to his argument. But Khushwant Singh also suggests that Partition could have been avoided if Jawaharlal Nehru hadn’t been so keen to become independent India’s Prime Minister. According to Khushwant Singh, “having accepted the Cabinet mission plan to hand over power to a united India, he (Nehru) reneged on his undertaking when he (Nehru) realized Jinnah might end up becoming Prime Minister." Khushwant Singh thinks Nehru was the second best Prime Minister India has ever had. He admires Nehru’s secularism and atheism, but doesn’t seem to have liked him much. He tells us that Nehru had vision and charisma, but was instinctively anti-American and pro-Soviet. Nehru was impatient with people and had favourites. Like Indira, Nehru can be accused of nepotism.

Khushwant Singh liked Sanjay Gandhi, despite the damage he did to India’s democracy, something Khushwant Singh acknowledges. However, since “Sanjay was always extremely courteous towards me” Khushwant Singh continues to like him. I found Khushwant Singh’s honesty in this regard extremely refreshing.

Khushwant Singh tells us that Nirad C. Chaudhuri is the most knowledgeable person he has ever known.

Khushwant Singh also believes Manmohan Singh is the best PM we have ever had. To illustrate his point, Khushwant Singh has this anecdote about how Manmohan Singh’s son-in-law came to borrow some money during Manmohan Singh’s election campaign. The amount borrowed was just two lakhs, to hire taxis that were needed for the election campaign. “They didn’t even have that much to spare. I gave the money in cash. Only days after he had lost the election, Manmohan Singh called me himself and asked for an appointment. He came to see me with a packet. ‘I haven’t used the money,’ he said and handed me the packet with all the cash I had given his son-in-law. That kind of thing, no politician would do.” Here I find myself unable to agree with Khushwant Singh. If Manmohan Singh is incapable of effectively utilising for his campaign two lakh rupees given to him legitimately by a supporter, does it suggest a capable politician or a timid bureaucrat who his afraid of taking risks and independent decisions?

I read this rambling account in one go, in around three hours' time. Absolute Khushwant is a must-read for every fan of Khushwant Singh’s writings.

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