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The perch that became a perk

All companies have their unspoken rules. When I moved to Penguin as their publisher two years ago, I was immediately apprised of the primary one — I had to make a regular visit to Khushwant Singh.

Khushwant by then was 97 but his daily 7pm salons in his flat were bustling and full of gupshup. You would find L.K. Advani in his flat in Sujan Singh Park one day and Vikram Seth the next.

Alongside the VIPs were the acolytes and old friends, bureaucrats and journalists, munching on salty crackers and sipping their whisky soda, while in the background his daughter Mala hovered protectively over the scene.

In the midst of this, Khushwant was like the aged Sun King seated by his fireplace — with everyone getting a favoured few minutes by his side. He didn’t talk that much and often seemed exhausted by the buzz and chatter that swirled around him. If you were very important, you were seated in the sofa to his right. I would often find myself, as the youngest in the room, perched on the mora to Khushwant’s left, being urged by Mala to shout louder as he seemed to get harder of hearing each day.

Within the hour, he had tired and would wave his hand at us all to leave, and having had our darshan, we would disperse.

This is how I got to know him — at the tail end of his life when he was frail and yet full of an inexplicable vitality. And just like everyone else at Penguin, I fell in love with him so that the rule became a perk of the job.

What made Khushwant special? Lots and lots and lots of things. He was gossipy and twinkly and warm; he liked dirty jokes and good books and people, especially the ladies. But to me, and to everyone at Penguin, he was, above all, a great lover of books and writers. A month or so ago, when I dropped by for his birthday, he told me he still read a book each week and that he was currently rereading the great Urdu poets, quoting to me a beloved couplet.

He was generous to writers and was lavish about giving them quotes and writing about them in his columns (very useful for us publishers) and would always ask to meet a promising young author whose book he had liked.

He had played a very important role in Penguin’s formative years and had been on our editorial board — and he still received every book we published (complaining sadly if we failed to send him anything).

I often thought what a brilliant publisher he would have made. He had, it seemed to me, all the right ingredients — catholic taste, good judgement and a genuine interest and enjoyment in people. It was this that made him the Sun King of the literary world and almost every author who visited Delhi would try and drop into his court at Sujan Singh Park to pay their respects.

Khushwant was, of course, much more than this — though the generosity and largesse were an essential part of the magic. He had had a legendary career in journalism as editor of The Illustrated Weekly and the best novels were very, very good — both Delhi and Train to Pakistan are classics.

I’ve always thought that the most beloved Indian writers in English have two qualities that bind them and explain their popularity — a direct way of telling a complicated story and incredible simplicity of style. Khushwant’s writing had both these qualities just as Ruskin Bond does and R.K. Narayanan did.

It was, I think, the reason why his columns and his books have been so successful. For him, writing was like breathing and even during the past two years, as he got frailer and less sociable, he continued to write his columns. A dear friend of his once told me that she would really worry about Khushwant only when he stopped writing.

The vitality I had sensed in him at those evenings in Sujan Singh Park came from this spring of words. He might have got old and tired and hard of hearing, but the most essential part of him — the part that loved to read and write — remained alive till the very end, reading a book a week, writing the columns. I sensed it most not in that precious hour that he would grant me but at the end of our sessions, when he would give me a big, warm, soft hug and send me on my way.

And I would leave Sujan Singh Park, under a darkened sky feeling how lucky I was to have had this time with him, and how much I loved what I did. Penguin and I will miss him a great deal.

• Chiki Sarkar is the publisher of Penguin Random House India