The words of good authors speak to their readers, and keep doing so for ages. Khushwant Singh was not merely a good writer. He was the Chronicler of Indian Nonsense, which he embedded into the Indian essence while recording his thoughts, drawing his caricatures and pen-portraits, writing his stories and columns. The secret of his abiding popularity is that his words do not merely speak, but also give the feel of flesh, smell of farts, are sodden in scotch, promise coarse and ribald humour and deliver uncomfortable truths about we, the people, while keeping us amused and titillated at the same time.
The Grand Old Sardar claimed to have written 89 books. I have read his autobiography, and most of his novels (about half a dozen), the history of Sikhs, as well as collections of his articles and jokes. Then there are re-tellings or compilations based on his writings like the marvellous book on obituaries, and Women & Men In My Life. It is this book, published by Harper Collins when Khushwant Singh was 87 years old, that I intend to discuss here. Women and Men is not erotic fantasy like The Company of Women was, nor is it as funny as Delhi was, but is as enjoyable a read as one lays his hands upon.
In his own words, Khushwant Singh was a moohfat bugger, but not a besharam matlabee, a principled man with all his inherent flaws, yet a man of faith in God, humanity and goodness. He draws pen portraits of 12 women and 8 men who had been his friends and acquaintances. This list of people is quite an eclectic mix- there are hot and beautiful women, journalists, lawyers, authors, filmmakers and artists. Khushwant goes on to describe their saucy details, physical features, nasty habits, affairs, break-ups, successes and disappointments in his trademark revelatory style, whereby he also does his fair share of mocking and patronizing of the grandees concerned.
As per the Sardar, the great half-Punjabi, half-Hungarian painter, Amrita SHERGILL, was a nymphomaniac and had once sworn to seduce Khushwant to rile his wife. Alas, she tragically passed away before making this conquest. CHETAN ANAND, author’s collegemate and khaas buddy of youth, has been dismissed as the bigger taker and sponger Singh had met in his life. AG NOORANI always wore a suit and tie, socks and shoes even on the warmest of summer days like his role model, ML Jinnah. He tried to imitate the Jinnah approach to problems, analysing their pros and cons with cold logic and expounding them in measured tones, but while Jinnah was courteous towards everyone he met, Noorani either kept aloof or got into angry arguments with his clients, solicitors and judges. As a result, he won a lot of admirers for his brilliant journalistic pieces, books and legalese, but hardly any friends. Even his career in siyasat, or vakalat plateaued much too early, although shihaafat (journalism) has brought him fame.
SADIA DEHLAVI, columnist, was his good friend and almost like a daughter to him. ANEES JUNG, columnist, and author of Unveiling India, was a nosy socialist and go-getter-par-excellence who managed to invite herself to Presidential bouquets and exclusive events and parties. The author used to write lyrical letters to one Dharma Kumar, professor of economics, and dedicated I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale to her. There are some women whose beauty lies in their bulk. This is how Khushwant describes DEVYANI CHAUBAL, a film journalist who was his good friend. INDRANI Aikath Gyaltsen, the author of Daughters of the House was accused of plagiarism for her second novel, Crane’s Morning. Khushwant was a close friend, and throws some light on her struggle with depression, and later suicide. He also writes about Reeta Devi Varma who was married in the Cooch Behar royal family, Kamna Prasad who was MF Hussain’s muse , and Nirmala Matthan.
Among men, Khushwant gives accounts of Prof.Balwant Gargi (dramatist and novelist in Punjabi and English), Romesh Chander, IS Johar (actor, filmmaker), historian and judge GD Khosla, Air Force officer Pratap Lal and his oldest friend, Prem Kirpal. Stray anecdotes about Balraj Sahni, Krishna Menon, S. Radhakrishnan and others also fill up the narrative.
In his inimitable style, Khushwant Singh also recalls a fair, beautifully proportioned beggar maid about whom he fantasized long into the night. The destitute woman was slightly disturbed in her head and lived on alms on the streets of Bombay. He once saw her stark naked in the pouring rain, washing herself with dirty water, rubbing her bosom, arms and legs. This, for the author, was the vision of Venus arising out of the sea. Who else but the Sardar could have written such racy stuff and passed it off as respectable literature. For those who like his style, this book is a good read. For the fussy ones, the whole library awaits.
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