Thursday, August 08, 2002

with malice aforethought

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in August 2002).

Truth, Love & a Little Malice, By Khushwant Singh. Viking, 450 pages, $9.24

KHUSHWANT SINGH'S autobiography, Truth, Love & a Little Malice, has some truth and love, but a whole lot of malice, like the popular weekly gossip column he once wrote, "With Malice Towards One and All."

Singh, now 87 years old, is one of India's best-known columnists and journalists. He has also worked as a lawyer and as a diplomat (to Canada, London and later to Paris). He was a member of the Indian parliament for six years, editor of several publications, and a writer. Among his published work is the two-volume History of the Sikhs.

"Do not expect too much from it," Singh advises readers of his life story. With a good deal of self-deprecation, he writes that it is "some gossip, some titillation, some tearing up of reputations, some amusement -- that is the best I can offer."

Nevertheless, the autobiography was much anticipated by Singh's many fans as well as his detractors. His fans looked forward to the gossip, written in vintage Singh style, while his detractors have been drawn to this book because of Singh's close ties to prominent politicians. For those unfamiliar with Indian political life, this book is a light and sometimes witty introduction to the topsy-turvy world of Subcontinental politicking.

The book was due to be published six years ago, but was delayed because Maneka Gandhi, estranged daughter-in-law of former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, took Singh to court for violation of her privacy: A chapter in the book details her melodramatic expulsion from her mother-in-law's house.

Aside from scurrilous details about the Gandhi family, Singh has anecdotes about scores of other well-known and lesser-known personalities. While age has not clouded his memory, it has made his judgments more than fuzzy. So, while flagellating others for name-dropping, currying favour and betraying confidences, Singh acknowledges, gleefully, that he has done the same.

Singh's honesty is commendable. He admits that he looked forward to a reward for his support of Indira Gandhi during the emergency rule she imposed in 1975.

"I expected to be rewarded by the Gandhi family," he writes. "Sanjay asked me if I would be interested in a diplomatic assignment. He had the post of High Commissioner in London in mind. I turned it down without hesitation. Then he offered me a nomination to the Rajya Sabha (upper house of parliament) and the editorship of The Hindustan Times," both of which he accepted.

Singh's writing shows sparks of sensitivity and nuance, but he doesn't cultivate them. The opening chapters of the book that recount his childhood in a village called Hadali, in what is now Pakistan, and his school years in New Delhi, are evocative, witty and nostalgic without being mushy.

"We spent most of the day indoors gossiping, or drowsily fanning away flies," Singh says of the long summer months. "It was only late in the afternoon that camels and buffaloes were taken to the tobas for watering. The buffaloes were happiest wallowing in the stagnant ponds. Boys used them as jumping boards. At sunset the cattle were driven back, the buffaloes milked and hearths lit. The entire village became fragrant with the aroma of burning camel-thorn and baking bread."

His other chapters are merely salacious gossip, not particularly well written. His unrelenting put-downs of those he doesn't like and constant adolescent references to bottoms and breasts and Scotch are tiresome. His short, four-word sentences, punchy at first, become trite. Then again, he writes in his prologue: "I have no pretensions of being a craftsman of letters ... I did not have the time to wait for inspiration, indulge in witty turns of phrase or polish up what I wrote. I have lost the little I knew of writing good prose."

Too bad, because Singh was capable of good prose. His unforgettable novel, Train to Pakistan, about the bloody partition of India, remains one of the Subcontinent's finest novels.

"My only chance of not being forgotten when I am dead and rotten is to write about things worth reading," he says. Singh will not be forgotten for sure.