It sinks, and I'm ready to depart'

Khushwant Singh was 90 when he spoke of death with Zohra Segal, then 92. The Telegraph brought the two together at his residence in New Delhi to talk about old times — and the future. Extracts from their lively conversation which appeared in the paper on Sunday, August 15, 2004, almost 10 years before he breathed his last

By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 23.03.14

Khushwant Singh: Who'll set the ball rolling? Well, Zohra?

Zohra Segal: I was being interviewed by BBC once. There was this interviewer — a dishy young man like you [she looks at Khushwant Singh]. He wanted to know the secret of my exuberance. I said: sex! The audience started laughing. Then he asked: What are your hobbies? I said I love to do crossword puzzles.

KS: Crossword puzzles! I do five or six every day.

ZS: In a week I do one — the cryptic one. I said that I like to read detective books because they are very exciting, and there's a lot of sex in them, and I like to compare notes.

KS: Oh well, I like to read pornography which is much the same. [Laughs.] I ascribe my old age largely to my parents. My father was 90. He had a glass of whisky in his hand and said, "I'll just lie down for a minute." And he went — that was one for the long road. And the last thing my mother said at 94 was: "Whisky!" I've been through what I'll describe as a near-death experience. Last year, I suddenly fell in the afternoon... I thought the time had come. So I said, all my life I have denied the existence of God. I'm not going to pray. And believe it or not, all I thought of were my unfinished assignments.

ZS: I consider religion to be like a book. There is so much strength in each of my fingers, my nerves, my veins. That's God, that's everything...

KS: Well, I call him a gas balloon. [Both laugh heartily.]

KS: Achha Zohra, tell me, have you any unfulfilled regrets?

ZS: It's not really a regret. I was a good dancer. As the saying goes, Jawaani mein aur moonlight mein to gadhaiya bhi khoobsoorat lagti hai (Even a donkey looks beautiful in the moonlight or when young). So when I was young, I was attractive in that way.

KS: I saw you young — across the stage in London. But I didn't have the guts to go up to you.

ZS: My sister, who was really a beauty, and I became well known as dancers. I'm a good actress. But I think I would have been excellent as a teacher.

KS: I have lots of regrets. As a young man I hoped to become a tennis champion. I tried swimming the English Channel, but gave up after half an hour. Then I wanted to become a great writer. That went half-way — I remained a big hack. That was a regret but other things took over — the disillusionment with the country. I was one of those who crossed over during Partition. But it didn't bother me one bit, because of a sense of euphoria. We'd create a new India on the pattern that Gandhi had dreamt of. Now that's been belied. And it's broken my heart. My book Paradise and Other Stories... is on the resurgence of irrationality, occult, astrology — all this kind of bunkum. It sucks. Bullshit.

ZS: An astrologer had once looked at my hand and told me that I was going to die at 18.

KS: 18! [Holds her hand.] Your lifeline... it's very short. [Laughs.]

ZS: Then, much later, I came to do a film from England and stayed with Papaji Prithviraj [Kapoor]. He had a famous astrologer called Mullahji. He said, "You will die at 62." I turned 62. Then I was 72. At 82, I was definite I was going to die. I have crossed 92 now. I don't know when Mullahji meant. But he died.

KS: Now tell me. We're both approaching the day. Have you thought about death?

ZS: I am preparing myself for that. When I go to sleep, I try to keep myself smiling. So that when I die, I have a smile on my lips. And I want electric cremation. I don't want any poems or fuss after that. And for heaven's sake, don't bring back my ashes. Flush them down the toilet if the crematorium refuses to keep them. I tell all, if they tell you Zohraji is dead, I want you to give a big laugh. Think about the funny things. My funny face.

KS: Well, it's somewhat different for me. I being a Sikh would normally be cremated. I've left a will, saying I want to be buried. But no monuments of any kind. Only a tree to be planted on my head. But, Zohra, do you have any theories or beliefs of life after death?

ZS: When I sit on the terrace and recite my poems I look up at the sky and say, "Kameshwar, aa rahi hoon, theher jao zara." That's my husband, who committed suicide.

KS: If you're reborn, will you be reborn at age 92, or will you be reborn beautiful, in your 20s?

ZS: I will be reborn blue-eyed, blonde, 36-26-36 and five feet four.

KS: As I keep saying, my vision has become poor and I have hardly got any strength left in me. But [looking at Zohra] aankhen abhi bhi badmaash hain (my eyes are still wicked). Just leave a flask of wine and the goblet in front of me. That's one thing I look forward to like Ghalib did. I drink scotch as a matter of principle and I enjoy it.

ZS: I love a Bloody Mary! When I went to Germany, I stayed with an aristocratic family who were strictly told that I shouldn't be given any pork or alcohol. But when I came back from Germany after three years, I remember stopping at a station where we were served lunch. There were ham sandwiches. And once I had tasted blood...

KS: I have no taboos. The day I landed in England I started eating beef. I've eaten snake in Japan and China. I've eaten dog in Korea without knowing it. Kitchen-based religion doesn't make any sense to me.

ZS: I went to Germany at 18 and I was in purdah till then. The burqah was made of tusser silk. I asked them to cut it up and make petticoats out of it.

KS: Well, I've finished my autobiography where, in summing up what I aimed at and what I achieved, I think with Walter Savage Landor's lines:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife,

Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art.

I warmed both hands before the fire of Life.

It sinks, and I'm ready to depart.

ZS: There is only one profound thing that I have said:

Life, this endless conversation with yourself

Silent, in sanity, audible in madness.

KS: [Hugging her, as she gets up to leave] Jawani mein kyun nahin mili mujhe (Why didn't you meet me when you were young)?

ZS: [Smiles impishly] I bet you say that to every old girl you meet.