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Relived on last day: beloved tasks that made life well-lived

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s wife Gursharan Kaur, to whom Khushwant Singh dedicated
his book Khushwantnama, leaves his residence on Thursday after paying her last respects. (AFP)

New Delhi, March 20: Khushwant Singh shared his final 24 hours with the same companions he embraced for much of his preceding 99 years — good food, premium Scotch whisky, word games, close friends and the tumult of Indian politics.

One of India’s best known writers and columnists, Singh passed away at his residence in the capital’s Sujan Singh Park — named after his grandfather — between 10 and 11am on Thursday during a mid-morning nap.

But the grand old man of Indian literature and journalism did not end his journey surrounded only by bedpans, medicines, and caregivers, signs of helplessness that can eat away at a lifetime’s self-respect.

On his bedside table lay the book he was reading, newspapers from this morning he had scanned, an incomplete crossword puzzle and scribbled notes that are likely Singh’s last written words. And in his passing, Singh united in mourning two political warriors who otherwise never shy from rattling sabres at each other — Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and BJP leader L.K. Advani.

“I saw he scribbled something before he lay down, but I haven’t had the chance to read it yet,” Rahul, Singh’s son and a former journalist himself, told this correspondent. “But yes, his final hours encapsulate the way he lived his life.”

Singh and son Rahul had hosted a dinner at their residence last evening for daughter Mala Singh, and Nandini and Dalip Mehta — among the closest friends of the family.

For dinner, Singh had asked Rahul — who loves his kitchen — to cook some shrimps.

He had the shrimps, and he had his glass of Blue Label whisky sharp at 7pm, before retiring for the night, said Nandini, a childhood friend of Mala’s and the editor of Singh’s 1993 book Not a Nice Man to Know. “He was coughing, but that happened sometimes — there was nothing unusual,” Nandini said.

Singh woke up today at 4.30am — a schedule he has followed for decades, his friends and family members say.

He had tea — made and served by his loyal help Chandan, who has served Singh for over 60 years, the veteran writer’s nephew Pushpinder Singh said. Singh then had cereal for breakfast, scanned the day’s newspapers that Chandan had brought to him, and began solving a crossword puzzle — another daily ritual.

Singh has been reading Pakistani writer Fakir S. Aijazuddin’s book The Resourceful Fakirs about three Muslim brothers who served at Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court, Pushpinder said.

“He couldn’t talk much most days, but he continued reading just the way he always did,” Pushpinder said. “Aijazuddin had sent the book especially for him, knowing his interest in Sikh history.”

Singh’s sharp eyes will now go to someone who needs a cornea — within hours of his passing, a team of doctors from the MM Eye Tech Hospital arrived at Sujan Singh Park.

“Mr Khushwant Singh had willed that his organs be harvested by us,” Deepak Varma, the lead doctor of the team, said.

Singh’s mind too remained sharp till the end. The writer who was among the few who was close to both former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her daughter-in-law Maneka, retained his keen interest in politics.

When Rahul returned from a trip to Varanasi earlier this week, Singh asked him about the mood in the city where a Narendra Modi-Arvind Kejriwal duel looks imminent. “He wanted to know from me what people in Varanasi were saying,” Rahul said.

But Singh’s early morning exertions did occasionally tire him, family members said. Today was one such day.

Singh lay down for a mid-morning siesta around 10am, Rahul said. But when, around 11am, Chandan brought soup to feed him, Singh didn’t respond.

“That was the first thing out of the ordinary,” Rahul said. “It was the end.”

Singh’s final journey — from his bed to the Lodhi Crematorium where his body was cremated electrically — offered a glimpse of another rare quality he had that friends attest to — the ability to forge friendships with people he had sharply criticised.

Last month, when Singh celebrated his 99th birthday, it wasn’t just friends like jurist Soli Sorabjee and the Mehtas who wished him. Advani, a man Singh has disparaged, visited him.

Today, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur visited the Sujan Singh Park residence to pay their respects. That wasn’t surprising — Singh and the Prime Minister are known to mutually respect each other and Singh has frequently called the Prime Minister India’s most honest chief executive ever.

But an hour later, Advani stood with hundreds others at Lodhi Crematorium, laying flowers at the feet of Singh’s body. Singh’s cremation was not yet over, but scribes circled Advani, wondering in whispers whether to ask the BJP’s grand old man about his future in a party that appears keen to write his political obituary.