Thursday, May 03, 2007

Khushwant Singh - Delhi

I knew of Khushwant Singh when he was at the prime of his career. He was editing the Illustrated Weekly of India and wrote some pretty irreverant stuff. He took a lot of flak for being an exhibitionist and mouthing (penning) controversial stuff. His writings seemed to revolve around wine and women and seemed to be deliberately contrary to what people said. That is the image I had of him. His columns were generally trashy and pieces of trivia, laced with jokes and shairi. I read a short story or an excerpt of his novel here and there. The pulled out pieces were usually erotic and simply reinforced the general image of him as a boozing womanising old man. A Dirty Old Man he was called.

Years later he happened to visit my office with his wife. I was surprised to see an old man walk in with his wife. There was no bulb over his head and no glass of whiskey in his hand. About a year or so back I read an interview where he had described his daily routine. Early to rise, he listened to direct telecast of kirtan from Darbar Sahib on the radio, ruminated on some shabd or kirtan, wrote some mandatory pages each day, and generally seemed to lead a very disciplined, sedentary life. Highly commendable from someone who is an nonagenarian.

Then I took out a book called Delhi from my library. I am going to digress a little here. I don't have much fondness for pulp fiction. Sometimes I have picked up Mills and Boon romances, some books that seem like light hearted read to pass time. I have even tried to read some Shobha De but found her insufferable. Her book, Sultry Nights, wasnt pulpy or interesting enough to keep me engrossed. But this book is the mother of pulp fiction. Khushwant Singh turns all the rules on their heads. The hero isnt a handsome rich dude, but a middle-aged, ugly Sikh. His heroine isn't a beautiful woman with a thousand virtues like Tess, she is a hermaphrodite, Bhagmati. He lays bare his soul, his lover's warts, and through them both he lays open the grandeur and the grime of Delhi.

The magnificent, the merciless, the munificent, the marauder, these are the people who uplifted and raped Delhi in quick succession. We are taken from the times of Balban to 1984 when Delhi was shaken by the anti-Sikh riots post Indira Gandhi's murder. Of course not in detail, or it would take a number of books. Rather than relate the history of Delhi to us in a mundane manner, he chooses to let some character of those times tell us the story. Therein lies the beauty of the novel. It is extremely readable, the first requirement of anything that passes through the printing presses.

KS is totally irreverent, liberal with erotic descriptions, and busts many historical myths. He does not fear to call a spade a spade and that is what makes his novel such a great read. I realise now that the fearsome reputation he garnered was probably bestowed upon him by jealous colleagues. He was ahead of his time by decades and stood by whatever he said and believed in.

Of all the pulp fiction I have read, he is the best. He is so good that he threatens to invade into territory usually occupied by Literature.


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