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Bare honesty and profound unease

By November 5, 2018No Comments

Source : The New Indian Express

Four years ago, Khushwant Singh, the Grand Old Man of Indian journalism, died at the age of 99, one year short of his century.

Four years ago, Khushwant Singh, the Grand Old Man of Indian journalism, died at the age of 99, one year short of his century.  The man, as they say, needs no introduction. Known for his explosive journalism, his controversial politics, his hard-hitting Partition narratives, his legendary scotch-drinking, and infamous weakness for women, Khushwant Singh always made news. While one can argue with his politics, cringe at his brazenly self-declared persona of a ‘dirty old lustful man’, no one can quite question the depth of his monumental work on Sikhism. Punjab, Punjabis and Punjabiyat: Reflections on a Land and its People is a collection of Singh’s best writings on the subject. Edited by his daughter Mala Dayal, most of the pieces in the collection have appeared in many volumes and journals over a period of many decades.

Published by Aleph, the collection provides a portrait of a community and land through the eyes of Punjab’s best known son. Divided into three parts, the collection deals with three broad themes. The first and the longest traces the history of Sikhism—the context of its emergence, its poetry and philosophy, its many aspects and denominations, its followers and detractors, its beauty and terror, and the people who embraced and nurtured it .

The second part deals with the violence of Partition and its traumatic aftermath. Singh’s Train to Pakistan is second to none in its exploration of the pain and madness of Partition. In the section ‘My Bleeding Punjab’, Singh recounts his early but foundational memories of his village Hadali in undivided Punjab—his grandmother and neighbours—and the cautious yet peaceful intimacy between people of different religious persuasions, his career as a lawyer in Lahore and finally the time when the world that he had known for so long ceased to exist and was torn asunder.

The deeply personal tone of this part is counter-poised by an honest, objective assessment of post-Partition politics that led to the Khalistan movement, the siege of the Golden Temple, the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi followed by the anti-Sikh riots. Though never a conservative follower of faith, Singh nonetheless was very proud of his Sikh identity. The vile machinations of the Congress and what he read as a lack of political will to address the disaffection of the Sikhs was what led to the insurgency and the masscare of innocents.

Khushwant Singh remained as strident a critic of the Akali leadership and extremist politics as he was of the political establishment at the Centre. In the latter years, Singh found Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani more sensitive towards the Sikh cause.  Despite this temporary cosiness with the BJP, Singh never seriously veered away from his support of the Congress because of what he understood as its fundamental commitment to secular ideals.

There are many opinions in the collection one can disagree with, prejudices and biases one can expose, yet one can’t help but admire Singh’s bare honesty and uncompromising directness. There is one particular piece here which is from his unpublished journal of 1984, a record of the months that led up to the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. That piece remains with you, makes you profoundly uneasy.  It reminds you that justice is still denied to the victims.

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