Truth, Love and a Little Malice : An Autobiography
By Khushwant Singh
Paperback: 423 pages
Publisher: Penguin Books India (May 30, 2003)
I have observed that with most people, the fascination with reading autobiographies comes from reading the little nuggets of information about someone else’s life. They are partly interested in a man’s view of a war or some historical event, no doubt. However, if the truth be told, before one even picks up a book, questions which form in a reader’s mind are often about the most intimate parts of a person’s life. For instance, “What did Bill Clinton really say about Monica?” or “What did Hilary think of Monica?”. If honesty is to prevail, the need to know the subject’s account of history is really secondary to this innate desire to know about the human elements of other great people. With this book, this particular aim was achieved. Yes, I was interested in the account of one man who was witness to Independence and Partition but what fascinated me was the very personal account of one man who, with his words, showed me his compassion and indeed, great courage. From the very start, what drew me to this particular autobiography was this one sentence in the inside cover of the book:
Among other honours, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1974 by the President of India (he returned the decoration in 1984 in protest against the Union Government’s siege of the Golden Temple, Amritsar).
I knew from that moment on that I wanted very much to read the story of a man who had the courage to return an award which stands third in hierarchy of civilian awards to recognise distinguished service of a high order to the nation. What was his background? Who were the people who provided him with such a sense of identity and pride in the man he had become? What manner of courage was this?
Presented in chronological order, this story is one that begins safely ‘with the beginning’, after an apology is made for writing an autobiography at all. Born in 1915 in pre-partition Punjab, Khushwant Singh has been a witness to most of the major events in modern Indian history – from Independence and Partition to the Emergency and Operation Blue Star. He came into contact with not only political leaders of the time such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, there were also meetings with people like Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. In a career spanning over five decades as a writer, journalist and editor, he also came into contact with some of the more interesting people in the arts field. However, it is his association with the ‘common’ people and the stories he wrote about them with clarity and candour which most impressed me.
The writing style, from the moment go, has been one of the most forthright, honest and above all, compelling. Khushwant Singh writes with unwavering honesty, with deep perception and the tales he tells are most entertaining indeed. He talks of his first awkward sexual encounter, his phobia of ghosts and his fascination with death. He talks of the friends who betrayed him and also the ones he himself failed. The humour with which Khushwant Singh serves up his life’s story is very entertaining indeed. I would unreservedly offer this book as a gift to anyone interested in a good read but in particular, the following three sets of people:
Firstly, the lawyer who has become disillusioned with legal practice and needs some words of comfort; Khushwant Singh writes:
The most important thing that happened to me with the partition of India was that I was able to get out of the legal profession. I swore I would never back to it. Some temptations to continue were thrown my way … My view of the legal profession and those who live by it has not changed. …They were overgrown children with minds of juvenile delinquents. The poet Akbar Ilahabadi summed them up neatly:
Paida huaa vakeel, to Iblees nay kahaa:
‘Allah nay mujhey Sahib-e-awlaad kar diya.’
(The day a lawyer was born, Satan exulted:
‘Allah has blessed me with progeny of my own.’)
Secondly, for a pet owner who is teased mercilessly about allowing his dog/cat to sleep in the same bed; Khushwant Singh writes of his dog, Simba:
Among those who greeted me at home was a one-month old Alsatian pup … I decided to name him Simba … He was as human a dog as I have ever known and shared our joys as he did our sorrows. By the time we moved into our own ground-floor apartment in Sujan Singh Park, he had got over his frisky puppiness and grown into a powerful full-sized German Shepherd. He still shared our bedroom, where he had his own cot. And for his sake more than ours we had an airconditioner put in the room. Often at night, he would sniff into my ears and ask me to make room for him. I did. He would heave himself on to the bed with a deep sigh of gratitude, and take over more than half of my bed for the rest of the night. … If I had to talk of my close friendships, Simba would be amongst the top in my list. We never kept another dog. One can’t replace friends.
And finally, for those writers who are feeling the brunt of a nasty reviewer’s comments about a recent work; he writes :
I also wrote a novel, The Company of Women (Penguin-Viking). I was not very eager to see it published as it was about the sexual fantasies of an octogenarian (i.e. myself). … Without exception, all the critics panned the novel. Nevertheless, it became a bestseller and remained on the top of India’s bestseller list for over six months. It earned me more royalties than any of my other books. So much for the critics! They can stew in their own juices.
In conclusion, Khushwant Singh need not apologise for creating his autobiography at all. It has been a pleasure reading his story.