Friday, 2 October 2015

Book review: Classic Khushwant Singh

Classic Khushwant Singh
(Collection of 4 novels: Train to Pakistan, I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale, Delhi & Burial at Sea)
Penguin 2010

When it is a Khushwant Singh book, I just read.  Not because of the gossipy nature of the grand old man's writing, but because he is the grand old man of Indian literature.  Now of course, he is the late grand old man, which only adds to be appeal.

This compendium of four of Singh's best stories was initially put together 1996.  This edition is big - at 851 pages - and, like the man himself towards his end days, appears delicate and old.  Some of the thinly cut pages are coming undone, especially towards the latter half of the book.

Nevertheless, it is the content that we are more interested in.  If there is one theme that unites all these disparate stories, it is the British Raj.  And Partition.  Did I mention sex?  Yes, that too.  In fact, oodles of it!  As Singh himself says in his introduction to Delhi, the story is 'injected [with] a lot of seminal fluid'.  It appears that the grand old man could not help reverting to his favourite preoccupation, .  No wonder he turned out to be the grand old man, because sex (in addition to Scotch) seems to have increased his longevity significantly.  

Train to Pakistan is based right in the middle of Partition, and talks about the gradual deterioration of relations between neighbours of the same village, those belonging to different communities; Sikh and Muslim.  I Shall... tells the story of a Sikh family during the British Raj, in which the father is loyal to the British, and the son is a bit of a revolutionary seeking freedom from oppression.  Here, it is the character of the mother that is interesting to me, because it is reminiscent of Singh's own grandmother, who was known to be a pious lady with a lot of spiritual experiences.  

Delhi on the other hand is about his favourite city and its bloody history.  Singh apparently worked on Delhi for nearly 20 years, and has put together the accounts of the poet, Mir Taqi Meer, Timur, Nadir Shah, Aurangzeb, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the 1857 uprising (both of which remind one of William Dalrymple's searing account of The Last Mughal), construction of Lutyens' Delhi, Indira Gandhi's assassination and the subsequent massacre of Sikhs in Delhi.

However it is his interspersing of his affair with an eunuch, Bhagmati with the history of Delhi that brings his irreverence to the fore, and perhaps serves as an allegorical reference to Delhi's emasculation at the hands of various invaders and tyrants over the years.   

In the last story, Burial..., Singh appears to have based his characters loosely on the 'first' family of Indian politics; especially Nehru & Indira.  Singh's irreverence and atheistic tendencies - even though he kept the external appearance of a Sikh throughout his life - is evident here.  Hence, we have a tantric sadhvi who bathes naked in the river with her pet tiger and has a sexually charged affair with a rich industrialist, and a yoga teacher who is seduced by his student, the daughter of the industrialist.

As always, through all these stories, Singh's preoccupation with four issues is apparent: sex in its various inglorious manifestations, death and the rituals that follow thereafter, religious irreverence, and a scatological obsession with the workings of the bowels and their products.

He dedicates an entire chapter to the last issue in Delhi.  Going back to the first issue, it seems that Singh liked his women with ample tops and voluminous posteriors.  And believe me, the description of both the issues is a lot more colourful in Singh's writing!

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