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Never-say-die spirit

Meet the man who refuses to be sobered by even thoughts of death: Khushwant Singh with malice towards one and all...

— Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Don't go to religious places if you want to prolong life, advises the inimitable Khushwant Singh.

IT'S ONLY fitting, isn't it, that Khushwant Singh's latest book is a collection of obituaries, Death at My Doorstep, published by Roli? Befitting a man, now stepping into his 10th decade, who has built a reputation for writing "with malice towards one and all", for writing cheeky obituaries because he has "never subscribed to the belief that nothing bad should be said about the dead".

Also appropriate that the book was released on his birthday, February 2, since Khushwant Singh at 90, as at 22, admits the only undeniable truth about life is that death is inevitable.

On scriptures

In this he echoes various scriptures and "men of God", who point out that dying begins at birth, but as sensory beings immersed in the glitter of the world, we forget this till the end draws uncomfortably near. And people, in an effort to prepare themselves for the inevitable, take recourse to such scriptures.

Having consistently denied the existence of God, an afterlife for the soul or the need for institutionalised religions. Khushwant Singh's views are selectively in sync with the scriptures of various faiths. Now he quotes from the Bhagavad Gita, now cites the views of Buddhism, and now declares his personal moral code — something he feels everyone has to develop individually instead of relying on codified religions — is "largely Gandhian, without his fads of drinking, or vegetarianism, or celibacy".

The idea of compiling the obituaries he has penned down the years for various publications was initiated by Pramod Kapoor of Roli Books, relates Khushwant. But the celebrated historian, controversial author and journalist wanted to add to the collection his views on the subject, and went ahead interviewing spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama, Osho Rajneesh, and those who had had near-death experiences.

Having examined the two main belief systems — one, the Hebraic, Judaic, Islamist branch, and the other, comprising the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh creeds — he says, laughing genially: "My judgement is that there's no basis for believing either."

If one system believes in the Judgment Day, when all the souls will rise to have their lives assessed by the Creator for everlasting reward or punishment, then "the queue must be miles long," he dismisses characteristically. "Now, the Hindu (belief in reincarnation) sounds more sophisticated," he begins, but concludes, "There's nothing in it."

He talks of his discussions with the Dalai Lama, an incident recorded in the book too, when he asked whether his Holiness could name instances of children from the Islamic faith (where they could not be influenced by people talking of past janma, etc.) recalling their past births. The Dalai Lama, he says, "roared with laughter and said, `You have a point there! But if I did not believe in reincarnation, I would be out of business!'"

How would those who reverently kiss the hem of His Holiness' robes feel reading that one? But when have thoughts of that kind ever restrained the dangerous pen of Khushwant?

Near-faith experience

He does take curious recourse to the "Miyan upstairs" from time to time. Once, alone at home, when he fell and was unable to get up, thinking the end was upon him, he says: "I thought, what the hell, all my life I have been denying the existence of God, will I have to call on Him now?" Then he recalled the verse of Allama Iqbal in which the poet tells the Lord that having banished him from Paradise, He will have to wait while the poet completes all his commitments on earth, till he rejoins Him. "I remembered all the commitments I had to complete, and I pulled myself up," he recounts. For some it might be a near-death experience that gives a new turn to life. But for Khushwant Singh, this "near-faith" experience has only strengthened his disbelief in belief.

ANJANA RAJAN

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