Literary Giant Stirs Up A Hornet's Nest in India
Khushwant Singh Says Hindu Nationalism Poses Grave Threat
By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 17, 2003; Page A19
NEW DELHI -- "Are you a drinking man? Good. Come at seven."
No surprises there. Last year, after a half-century in India's literary limelight, author and journalist Khushwant Singh announced that he was retiring from public life "on my own terms, with creature comforts and Scotch."
Cocktail hour finds him sprawled comfortably in his favorite armchair, feet propped on a wicker stool and a glass of Black Label in his hand.
Few would begrudge him the right. A legendary bon vivant who abandoned a career in law to become one of India's most celebrated and prolific writers, Singh has published more than 100 books, from novels to collections of bawdy jokes to serious scholarly works such as his two-volume history of the Sikhs, now in its 20th printing.
But at the age of 88, Singh is proving that he can still make a splash.
In a controversial new book that may turn out to be his last, Singh argues that the rise of right-wing Hindu nationalism -- as manifested in discrimination and sometimes violence against the country's large Muslim minority -- poses a grave and perhaps irreversible threat to India's future as a secular, pluralistic democracy. The book's apocalyptic title: "The End of India."
Singh is hardly the first liberal writer to sound alarms about the dangers of mixing politics and religion in India, and most of his slender new book consists of essays that have already been published elsewhere. But Singh's stature as a literary giant in the sunset of his career, and the unrelenting bleakness of his predictions -- outlined in a lengthy new introduction -- have propelled the book to the top of India's nonfiction bestseller lists in less than a month.
"India is going to the dogs, and unless a miracle saves us, the country will break up," Singh writes in the introduction. "It will not be Pakistan or any other foreign power that will destroy us. We will commit hara-kiri."
The villain of Singh's narrative is the Rashtriya Sawayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, the Hindu-nationalist organization that drew partial inspiration from the Fascist movements of Europe between the world wars -- and whose many offshoots include India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. "It could be dismissed as a lunatic group as long as it remained on the fringes of mainstream politics," Singh writes. "Not anymore."
Ram Madhav, the chief RSS spokesman here, said he was "shocked" by the book when he read it a few weeks ago. "These are very irresponsible statements coming from a writer of the stature of Mr. Khushwant Singh," he said in an interview. "The RSS has never made enemies of or targeted any minorities. All we have said is that Hindu self-respect should be honored by everyone."
Singh's sky-is-falling analysis also has detractors among some erstwhile admirers. "I don't want to remember Khushwant Singh by the impression this book leaves behind," one reviewer wrote in the liberal magazine Outlook. "It would be horrible and cruel if this book ends up as his swan song."
Among other criticisms, the reviewer described the book as "trite," "unreadable" and burdened with "assertion rather than analysis."
India Today, the country's largest newsmagazine, was scarcely more charitable. "Somehow, the doomsday clock ticking away on Kushwant's desk doesn't ring right," the reviewer wrote. "Certainly recent events, most notably the rise of Hindu militancy, are a cause for concern. But no one can seriously buy his argument that the country is about to break up."
Singh said he isn't bothered by critics who find his conclusions overwrought. "India Today said it will give you nightmares -- that's the whole idea, to warn the country," he said.
Still, he added, a little clarification is in order: "I didn't say the end of India. I said the end of secular India."
So what about the title? "I didn't give the title -- the publisher did. He was trying to sell it."
Singh came relatively late to the profession that would make him famous. A member of the Sikh religious minority, he was born into a well-to-do family in what is now Pakistan and, after studying at London University, set up a law practice in Lahore. That lasted until 1947, when the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan triggered an explosion of communal violence that forced millions to flee their homes.
"I had no intention of leaving," recalled Singh, who by that time was married with two small children. "I thought it would all blow over."
Finally a British police officer, a friend from college, convinced Singh that he had no choice but to leave. He gave his house keys to a Muslim friend and "that was it."
After moving to New Delhi, where his father was a successful property developer, Singh joined the Indian diplomatic corps, taking posts in Canada and London. He never had any regrets about leaving the law. "A common prostitute renders more service to society than a lawyer," he wrote in his autobiography, published last year. "If anything the comparison is unfair to the whore."
Singh launched his literary career while living overseas, beginning work on his history of the Sikhs and writing his first novel, "Train to Pakistan," which dealt with the themes of communalism that would inform much of his subsequent work. It was published to international acclaim in 1956.
In the intervening decades, Singh has edited several leading magazines and newspapers, including the Hindustan Times, for which he still writes a weekly column. He also taught briefly at Princeton and even found time to serve in Parliament from 1980 to 1986.
Asked about his many hats, Singh replied, "Must I have only one? I wear a six-yard turban to cover a lot of sins."
Despite his record of scholarship and literary achievement, Singh has cultivated a public persona as something of a scamp. His autobiography is filled with sexual misadventures, several involving prostitutes. His 1999 novel, "In the Company of Woman," could just as well have been titled, "Fantasies of an Octogenarian," as Singh put it in an author's note.
"When you meet a woman you wonder what she'll be like in bed," he explained to an interviewer at the time. "My mind is no dirtier than most men's. I am honest and I say it. Fantasizing is a common phenomenon and there's no censorship here."
Singh's public profile has diminished in recent years. His wife, Kaval, died last year after 62 years of marriage, and since then he has largely honored his pledge to "opt out of the rat race." He spends most of his days in his ground-floor apartment, surrounded by books and paintings of bare-breasted women. An illustrated copy of the Kama Sutra sits on the coffee table.
For several hours each day, Singh works on a novel that he began two years ago, writing it out in longhand on a yellow legal pad. But the project, which deals with "bigotry and fanaticism," is "getting nowhere," Singh said matter-of-factly. He spends most afternoons in his small garden. Unannounced visitors are discouraged.
"I can be very rough with people who arrive without an appointment," he said.
But if old age and infirmity have taken their toll -- Singh gave up tennis two years ago after concluding that opponents were humoring him -- Singh's eyes still sparkle mischievously from behind his steel-rimmed spectacles. And he still has the power to provoke.
Sipping his Scotch the other day while reflecting on the themes he outlined in his book, he compared the situation in India today to that of Germany in the waning days of the Weimar Republic. When Hindu nationalists speak of restoring the country's lost honor, he said, "the targets are really the Muslims. They're the Jews, what the Jews were to the Nazis."
For evidence, he added, one need only turn on the television, where "every fourth channel is spouting Hinduism, and two or three are entirely devoted to astrology. Can anything be more backward?"
Singh voiced particular distress at the role of mainstream politicians, among them Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in promoting the nationalist doctrine of Hindutva, or Hindu-ness.
"He can be so damn sweet and convincing," Singh said of Vajpayee, an acquaintance of his. But "before a receptive Hindu audience he says something quite different."
On the other hand, Singh said, the prime minister may not be wholly beyond redemption. "He is a drinking man," Singh said approvingly. "He's more human than the others."