Friday, April 01, 2016

Khushwant Singh and Humra Qureshi - The Good, the Bad and the Ridiculous

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Khushwant Singh belonged to the upper echelon of India.  He was the son of Sobha Singh, a rich building contractor of Delhi.  It was rumoured that most of Connaught Place belonged to him.

Khushwant Singh studied in the best of schools in undivided India and completed his law studies in King's College in London.  He practised law in Lahore for some years before joining Foreign Service.  Later, he moved to journalism.

His elite education ensured that he was already networked with the top people in India.  Hence, he is well placed to write about all the famous people of the past century.  His USP was writing about people with frankness and refusing to pander to them.  This won him many enemies and he was as reviled as he was feted.

It is a fact that his books have sold very well despite not being always very edifying. The only book of his that I have truly liked is Delhi, his tribute to the grand old city.

In this book, he writes portraits of many luminaries of India and its neighbouring countries.  He has profiled Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, General Tikka Khan, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jarnail Singh Bhindrawalan, Giani Zail Singh, Indira Gandhi, Krishna Menon, Amrita Sher-Gil and Bhagat Puran Singh among others.

Even though the profiles are not always very detailed, they do throw up an interesting angle from time to time.  For instance, he describes the difference in viewpoints of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi.  MA Jinnah was, according to Khushwant Singh, inclined towards secular politics.  He was all for keeping religion and politics unmixed. Also, he wanted to keep voting and governing very upper class.  Only those who paid taxes deserved to have a say in running the country.  When Mahatma Gandhi arrived from South Africa, he mixed religion and politics.  He also involved the common man in the political process.  He preferred Nehru among the other leaders and Jinnah was forced to become the voice of the Muslims.

Khushwant Singh is particularly scathing in his dismissal of Jawaharlal Nehru and Lord Mountbatten.  He pussyfoots around Sanjay Gandhi whom he admired a lot at one time and cites loyalty to a true friend as a reason for not bad-mouthing him.  He has mixed opinions about Indira Gandhi, in any case his profile on her is not very exhaustive.  I liked his portraits of Giani Zail Singh, Jarnail Singh Bhindrawale, and Bhagat Puran Singh. The profile of Krishna Menon is perhaps the most candid of the lot.

I gleaned from most of his profiles that politicians, from the time of Gandhi, used religion to whip up hysteria in masses in favor of a particular political party.  They played on religious identities to draw the attention of the people. (Giani Zail Singh is credited with whipping up Sikh fervor to counter the Akalis which ultimately led to Bhindrawale.) This can explain the state our politics is in at the moment.  People are pushed, like MA Jinnah was, into retreating into a niche of labels.  You are either a Liberal or a Right-winger, a Commie or a Congressi.

The book can be taken as a light manual of some prominent personalities of our region.  There is humor, sex and politics in the book.  The usual combination that Singh favored.

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