Death at my Doorstep
Yep, its too painful to write a review on a book, so I am going to quote one already done :
‘Obituaries – Death at my Doorstep’ by Khushwant Singh
January 2005, Lotus Publishers–Books, Delhi
Reviewed by the-south-asian
Omar Khayaam’s dictum “The moving finger writes and having written moves on” is a very apt one for Khushwant Singh’s latest book [January 2005, Lotus Publishers–Books, Delhi] “Obituaries- Death at my Doorstep” . Singh’s moving finger/prolific pen never runs out of ink. Khushwant Singh explained in an interview; “Nobody has invented a condom for the pen.” The reason for his stories success, Singh answers “I know the art of communication. Basically, I don’t talk down to my readers.”
Khushwant Singh the irreverent, humorous, writer-provocateur has done it again after writing his classic best sellers such as Train to Pakistan, Delhi, etc. Taking the topic of Death, he puts together a collection of essays on a broad range of people whom he knew well in his life. He then proceeds to tear them apart and put them through the wringer. Wise, good, wild, grave, affectionate, lovable, admirable, sexy and dangerous people such as Mountbatten, Z.A.Bhutto, writers like Mulk Raj Anand, Nirad Chaudri, personalities such as Dalai Lama, Nargis Dutt, Amrita Shergill, Prabha Dutt, Sanjay Gandhi, Mathai –Nehru’s secretary, Faiz Ahmed Faiz the great South Asian poet who was two years his senior at Government College, Lahore, the humble Shimla gardener Chajoo Raam, and Simba his pet Alsatian dog. All are written with the same honesty, humour and attention to detail.
Khuswant Singh does not believe in after life. Death for him is the end of the line. No vestal virgins or Houris for him, gardens of paradise or “doodh ki nehrain”. He makes the Dalai Lama laugh by asking him “Can you tell me of a Muslim child recalling his earlier existence.” He recalls Nargis Dutt’s secret of eternal youth as her laughter and writes of the incident when she had to stay in his house in Sanawar for her children’s Founder day at school; ” Provided thereafter I have your permission to tell anyone I like that Nargis slept in my bed.”. Humour with Khushwant Singh as with Woody Allen is “man’s defence against the universe”.
He offers the reader innumerable vignettes/stories of incidents with such people. For example, readers learn that one Alys Faiz, an English woman, married Faiz Ahmed Faiz on the rebound, after losing Harkirat Singh – later a General who graduated from Sandhurst; that her elder sister married Taseer – mother of present day Salman Taseer , the Pakistani businessman and aspiring PM.
Khushwant is perhaps the last of his generation, who can and prefers quoting with the greatest of ease, poets such as Allama Iqbal, and Ghalib. He proceeds to amuse, shock readers and cut these famous people to size in his latest book “Obituaries- Death at my Doorstep”.
The chapter on Lord Mountbatten has a rather hilarious title “Mountbatten: Lord of Baloney”. Mountbatten, Khushwant Singh writes “did not have much education”; Mountbatten’s favourite expression being “tickety boo”. His Lordship was full of pomposity, and was habitually cuckolded by his wife Edwina who was “enormously wealthy, partly Jewish”. Khushwant Singh had the misfortune of being treated to the royal snub by Mountbatten once at a reception in the Indian Embassy in London in the 1950s when he asked him if the 1947 Partition was not done too hastily. Singh writes of his Lordship as “..being of limited vision, he could take bold decisions without being unduly concerned with their consequences”.
Khushwant Singh lived through the horrors of 1947. He grew up, studied, and worked in pre-1947 Lahore [at 12 G Model Town] and devotes a chapter [ “Manzur Qadir:- The Role Model”] to his favourite colleague, the famous Pakistani lawyer , Manzur Qadir, who lived in Singh’s house after 1947. Manzur Qadir, we learn was instrumental in getting Singh’s family safely to India in 1947 with “every book in my library, every item of furniture and even the remains of liquor in my drink cabinet”. Khuswant Singh sent Manzur Qadir a congratulatory telegram when he became the Foreign Minister of Pakistan during Ayub Khan’s martial reign with these words ” Greetings from Dr.Sun Yat Sen , the Bengali Doctor.” Such was the humor between these friends.
What then shall one make of Khushwant Singh’s latest piece of writing? He embodies Pindar [ 518?–c.438 B.C – generally regarded as the greatest Greek lyric poet] with his famous saying “Oh my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible”. The Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas in his famous poem written for his father, may sum up this review of Khushwant Singh’s work. What else can one say; this is one hell of revelry of 90 years of Singh’s wisdom- great and balanced book on South Asian larger than life characters. We wish Khushwant Singh a long life and request that he please give us more of the same
” Baagh-e Bahist say mujhay hukm-e-safar diya tha kyon?
Kaar-e-Jahaan daraaz hai , ab meyra intazaar kar”
Why did you order me out of the garden of paradise?
I have a lot of work that remains unfulfilled :
Now you better wait for me.
And thus ends the review. The book keeps you occupied and makes for a quick read. My favourite part was Khushwant Singh’s version of his own epitaph. It was apt.
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 God he is dead, the son of a gun.
Sure, a cynic might say its also a case of the dirty laundry of famous people washed in public. But we’re all admittedly or secretly, suckers for gossip !