By Harsh A Desai | 19 May 2014
Khushwant Singh was best known for his trenchant secularism, his humour, and an abiding love of poetry. But how was he as a father? Rahul Singh shares reminscences about life with his famous father.
Renowned journalist Khushwant Singh passed away recently, just after he started his 100th year. The family moved from Lahore in Pakistan, after the partition riots. Khushwant Singh, a barrister, who obtained a law degree from London used to practice law at that time, but gave up after moving to New Delhi and joined the diplomatic service. But after several international assignments and a stint in All India Radio, he turned to journalism and writing. In this interview, his journalist son Rahul Singh, reminisces about life with his famous father with Harsh A Desai.
Harsh A Desai (HAD): Rahul, Khushwant passed away recently at age of 99. He changed several jobs lived in several countries including England, France and Canada. Can you tell me what that was like?
Rahul Singh (RS): Well living in many countries including India, Pakistan and three you have mentioned was disruptive but very fulfilling. My dad was a great believer in children being independent and even at the age of seven I used to go alone to school by tube in London and I used to distribute newspapers to earn some pocket money. It was also fulfilling that you met children with different backgrounds and it helped build character and you learned about different cultures. I also went to Doon School for a few years but did not like that. Unusual things happened to me. I started losing my English when I started studying in a French Lycee in Paris and my father had to hire an English tutor for me.
HAD: Your Dad was a very frank person and sometimes very blunt. What was he like in private life?
RS: He was far more conservative than what people think. He was liberal to the children of his friends but he was far more conservative where his family was concerned. He was a strict disciplinarian with his family. I remember an occasion before I went to Cambridge a group of us had gone to a party and were supposed to return by ten o’clock. But the party went on and on the parents of a girl in our group kept calling our home. My father gave me a big dressing down when I came home. Dad was very conscious of honour and keeping up appearances.
Dad was very keen on nature. We used to go to Kausali and he loved the birds and the trees and he used to be part of bird watchers society in Delhi and I used to go out bird watching with him. Believe it or not, he and I used to go on shooting expeditions those days in Delhi and shot rabbits, partridge, wild boar and deer. This was in our young days, but it stopped later. Dad loved walking; he used to walk from Shimla to Kausali and Kausali to Kalka, a distance of more than 70 kms. He played tennis till he was 85 with friends at the Delhi Gymkhana.
HAD: Tell me about his Lahore days. As a lawyer, he seems to have become disenchanted with the law and lawyering. Is it true that his mother thought he would make a good lawyer because he was argumentative?
RS: Dad was basically a very straight and honest person. One of the people he admired till the very end was Mahatma Gandhi, who was completely honest and would reveal himself to anybody. The other person he admired greatly was Mother Theresa. He admired people who gave to society. Though Gandhi was also a lawyer, dad’s experience as a lawyer was very negative. He did not think that lawyers were serving society, they were out just to make money and he became disillusioned with it. Also, he was not successful. He did not get many briefs and he admitted that he lived off his father, who bought him a house in Lahore and supported him. That is when he decided that he would start out on his own and joined the diplomatic service, but he got disillusioned with that also. I was too young to remember about his law days because he stopped being a lawyer when I was seven.
HAD: I hear that Mohammed Ali Jinnah had offered him judgeship if he returned to Pakistan?
RS: He may have been tempted but he did not take up the offer. The person he admired immensely and who is a very good friend was the person called Mansoor Kadir – an outstanding and straight lawyer. Dad always said, when he was in a dilemma he would go to Mansoor Kadir and ask him what to do. The partition embittered many people against Pakistan but that never happened to Dad and he was actually very fond of Pakistan and Pakistanis.
HAD: What was his relationship with his father who was a legendary builder and among other things was responsible for building South Block in Delhi?
RS: His relationship with his father was very formal. They did not confide in each other; actually his father was closer to my mother.
HAD: Your father became the legendary editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India. Did his fame cast a long shadow on your career in journalism though you did pretty well yourself?
RS: Not really. By the time he joined the Illustrated Weekly of India, I had been assistant editor in The Times of India for five years. To avoid any conflict of interest, I left the Times to become Editor of the Readers Digest. I had quite a fulfilling career of my own and became the Editor of the Indian Express in Mumbai and The Sunday Observer among others so there was no shadow so to speak.
HAD: Did his decision to support Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi during the emergency cause any conflict between you and him?
RS: The whole family was critical of him but he tends to get emotionally involved and was politically naive. He acted from his heart and genuinely believed that Sanjay Gandhi was trying to improve the country. My mother, my sister and I were all unhappy and I had to convince the Readers Digest of India to remain in India because every article was being censored by the government. I don’t think the Illustrated Weekly was being censored as it was not a political magazine but he did convey to the Prime minister that censorship was wrong. I believe that the Prime minister Morarji Desai put pressure on the owners of the Illustrated Weekly not to renew his contract after the emergency. Mr Ram Tarneja suddenly told him that he should resign the next day because it was believed that he was going to write an editorial.
HAD: I was told that you created quite a stir when you cut off your hair and your beard so much so that your father removed all your photographs from his house.
RS: I and my sister Mala did not have a religious upbringing and Dad, although he was agnostic, held the symbols of Sikhism close to his heart. When I first decided to cut my hair, I was dissuaded by my mother. She told me that there would be a big controversy because my father was writing the history of Sikhs and the conservative Sikhs were already opposed to my father writing it. But in 1968 when I turned 28 and was in England I had a rash on my neck and my doctor told me it was caused by the sweat from my turban. So I went to Vidal Sassoon and he lopped off my hair. It was the first time he did it. My mother was very upset and my Dad when he saw me told me to put on my turban.
HAD: I am told your grandfather was so upset that he wrote you out of his will.
RS: Actually not. My grandfather left the family house in Janpath to me but when the Will was read out my Grandma was very shocked and my father relinquished the bequest on my behalf.
Reprinted with permission.
Harsh Desai has done his BA in Political Science from St Xavier’s College & Elphinstone College, Bombay and has done his Master’s in Law from Columbia University in the city of New York. He is a practicing advocate at the Bombay High Court.
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