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With malice towards one and all

Khushwant Singh has gathered both fans and detractors by the thousands over five decades of prolific writing. ADITYA SHARMA speaks to the man who has never been afraid to speak his mind... .


HE IS probably the most widely read of columnists in contemporary India. He writes with `malice', yet gets plenty of love from his adoring readers. But he gets his share of brickbats too. That does not dissuade him though. The journey which started with "The Train to Pakistan" continues. Here are excerpts from an interview with the high-profile veteran writer who minces no words, plays with plenty of them.

Q. One of the major grudges of your readers has been that in spite of your potential you produced little fiction.

A. I have written so much on so many subjects that this blame is not wholly justifiable. If there occurred any lapses, they were regarding my own metier - the short stories. In retrospect I think I ought to have written some more of them. But then I got stuck in different vocations, particularly journalism, that neither I could get adequate time nor sufficient energy to pen them.

Q. But what made you drift into other fields?

A. After the publication of my first novel, "The Train to Pakistan" and a couple of short stories, I still wasn't earning enough. All my relatives and friends used to ridicule me that I was living on my father's money. This was clearly a distasteful situation. So when I was looking forward to getting financially independent, I got a job in the foreign services. Thereafter journalism happened, and I discovered that it was more to my liking.

Q. What prompted you to write "The Company of Women"?

A. In the first place I had never planned to write it. It just occurred. One day David Davidar of Penguin happened to read a part of it, which I had some time written to please my fancy. He suggested that I complete it and that was how it came into being. But then I've never rated it highly amongst my works.

Q. Why has sex been such an integral part of your writings?

A. Just because it is an integral part of our lives.

Q. A few years ago, you suggested that the government should scrap the Sahitya Akademi. Do you still feel so?

A. Yes, I stand by my statement. It peeves me greatly to see the arbitrary manner in which the Sahitya Akademi nominates its awardees. A lot of politics and solicitations go behind the scenes, and more often than not, the award is given to a non-deserving candidate. Recently I tried to read the translated work of a Sahitya Akademi award winner, but owing to it's shoddy quality couldn't proceed beyond two pages. I feel writers should stand on their own, without any artificial respiration from the government.

Q. But the apathy of the Indian public towards its writers makes it almost impossible for them to earn a living. Don't you think, in that case the Sahitya Akademi should be restructured so it starts promoting the deserving authors?

A. What you suggest is easier said than done. I think a writer with considerable talent is bound to make his mark, regardless of all odds.

Q. Some time back in one of your weekly columns, you wrote about the organised racket in the publishing industry. Please elaborate.

A. A few foreign publishing houses have started generating a big hype regarding a particular book to boost its sales. The modus operandi of these publishers is quite ingenious. First they handpick an author and advance him a hefty amount as the royalty for his book. It is interesting to note that this author need not necessarily be highly talented, as an average one too serves their purpose. The next thing these wily publishers do is to meticulously advertise the exaggerated opinion about this book along with the exorbitant royalty in all the leading newspapers throughout the world. All this creates a favourable impression of the book in the minds of gullible readers. Many of them end up buying it, and more often than not are taken for a ride. So neither awards nor royalties are authentic criteria through which the readers can judge the quality of a book.

Q. In your autobiography you unmasked the private lives of various men and women. Do you think that served any purpose?

A. I wrote the absolute truth about those people I happened to know in my life.

Q. When you were the editor of Illustrated Weekly of India, its popularity had reached its zenith. What do you think accounted for it's sudden closure just a few years after your exit?

A. The editors that followed me could never gauge the reader's pulse. They apparently failed to understand the requirements of the patrons of Illustrated Weekly of India. The result was obvious. Its sales dropped drastically and the paper had to be shut down.

Q. What is it that makes you so dauntless and uninhibited in what you say or write?

A. Perhaps the seeds of my fearlessness lie in my upbringing. I was born and brought up in an atmosphere that encouraged me to think freely and also provided ample opportunities for self-expression. Growing up in such a carefree environment emboldened my spirit to a great extent. Then when I took to writing, I made it a point to be absolutely honest with myself. But in this process I lost many good friends and acquired a good many enemies.

Q. Throughout your life you have been an avid reader. What according to you is the purpose that books serve us?

A. Books have been my real friends all through the life. Whenever I have felt lonely or lost, I have derived solace and strength out of them. As regards their purpose, there are all sorts of books to suit different objectives. Reading quality fiction for example, not only imparts pleasure but also helps us to understand the subtle working of our emotions. In other words, it gives us some valuable insights into our own personalities.

Q. Do you have any regrets?

A. Like all of us, I too have my own set of regrets. I feel sorry for squandering my precious years studying and practicing law. Apart from that, I had in my mind a novel about my country, which could never be written. Thinking in a lighter vein, I sometimes feel how well it would have been if nature had bestowed upon me a six-foot frame.

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