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Death at my Doorstep

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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 !

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Written by Nash

April 23, 2005 at 11:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Nice review, fellow blogger. I have read a few articles by and an interview of Khushwant Singh in Outlook magazine. Unlike his usually percieved image of a lascivious old pervert (which I am told was created partly due to his own racy writings in a certain period in the past, which being too young or not born at that time, I have no idea about), he came across as a man with an astute intellect and who was extrememly well read. Moreover, his agnostic attitude was a refreshing change from most religion and God-centered people of his generation (which I do respect wholly). Reminded me of Salman Rushdie (his shunning religion and the concept of God). Wish I can get my hands on this book sometime soon.
    BTW- At the expense of sounding desperate, I hope you drop by my blogs- http://namratajoshi@blogspot.com and http://wonderouswords.blogspot.com
    Cheers
    N

    Casablanca

    August 2, 2006 at 7:39 pm

  2. […] In recent times of course, the name of remarkable obituary writer which easily comes to mind is that of ‘Khushwant Singh.’ and I have a copy of his ‘Death at my my doorstep’ […]

  3. […] You may think I am a queer sort of a guy if I confess I read the obituary column first whenever I lay my hands on a copy of “The Economist“. Here you will find some of the best of the genre. You may not have even heard about the dead but it is interesting to know how the character is made alive in just a page length. These obituaries are nicely drafted and well-researched. When Boris Yeltsin died, the column wrote : “…Though Mr Yeltsin was a Communist Party boss, he never turned into Homo sovieticus; he preserved the qualities and sensibilities of a Russian man. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it, he was almost too Russian. He was spontaneous, erratic, frequently drunk, talented, sincere, witty, full-hearted. His hugeness as a character matched the scale of the changes in his country…” You may like to read the full text here. See what the column says about Benzir Bhutto: “… In one debate, an opponent described her father as “a tradesman of some description. A butcher, I gather.” Benazir looked as if she had been slapped in the face. Her father earned this sobriquet from the slaughter in East Pakistan as Bangladesh struggled to be born…. …After her assassination, a handwritten will was produced. Foreseeing her own untimely end, it bequeathed her party, like the dynastic heirloom it has become, to her husband, who said he would pass leadership to their 19-year-old son. For a woman who claimed to be driven by a burning desire to bring democracy to Pakistan, it was a curious legacy…” You may like to read the full text here. The New York Times is yet another publication where you get to read good obituaries. When Narsimha Rao died, Amy Waldman wrote…”Not known for his charisma, and loath to give interviews, Mr. Rao was a wily, even ruthless politician capable of outfoxing rivals in a faction-riddled party…” and you may like to read the full text here. Acharya (P K) Atre was known to write well-remembered obituaries. I also recollect some leaders from “Kesari” Selections penned by none other than Lokamnya Tilak in the honour of the well-known of his times. For somebody who died young after a remarkable contribution, he would write मुहूर्तं ज्वलितं श्रेयो नश्चिरं धूमायते In recent times of course, the name of remarkable obituary writer which easily comes to mind is that of ‘Khushwant Singh.’ and I have a copy of his ‘Death at my my doorstep’ […]


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