The Telegraph is sad but also proud to doff its cap to Khushwant Singh, who died yesterday, one year short of his hundredth year. Khushwant Singh was the oldest columnist of this paper in a dual sense — he was the oldest in age and also because he wrote for The Telegraph from the year of its birth. He had fashioned himself in his column as the enfant terrible of India’s print media; as he grew older, the word enfant lost some of its sheen and appositeness but he retained his ability to shock and rather revelled in it. His sense of mischief and his playfulness often deflected attention from the more serious side of India’s most famous sardarji. In his time, Khushwant Singh had authored a multi-volume history of the Sikhs, which, till the arrival of later scholars of Sikhism and its history, was the standard reference work for anyone interested in the religion that Nanak founded. Khushwant Singh, his outward iconoclasm notwithstanding, remained immersed in the more profound and philosophical traditions of the religion of his forefathers. People inevitably tend to remember Khushwant Singh for his jokes and his provocative comments — his critics considered these to be in poor taste — but there are other things to remember him by. The jokes that he cracked, often aimed at the Sikhs, will not live after him, but his books will.
Khushwant Singh had done many things in his long life. He had worked for the Indian high commission immediately after Independence when he claimed he had been an eye-witness to Jawaharlal Nehru’s dalliance with Edwina Mountbatten. He had, of course, been an editor. He had hobnobbed with the great and the good in Delhi. For his sins, he had also been a supporter of Sanjay Gandhi. He could have been a victim of the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 in Delhi but was saved by friends. He had loyal friends who forgave him his occasional tactless remarks. He lived in a rather exclusive address in Lutyens’s Delhi but he embodied the tradition and the culture of old Delhi. He was remarkably disciplined in his work and his habits; he loved a good gossip and was a peerless storyteller. His chronological and professional perch allowed him to assume the pose that he had seen it all — and indeed, in many instances, he had. But this did not kill his zest for life. His self-fashioned cynicism and cultivated malice had not allowed the iron to enter his soul. The imp in him never grew old till God’s clock struck twelve.