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Khushwant Singh releases his last book

Associated Press
Jan 03, 2011 at 12:11pm IST

New Delhi: This book, he insists, will be his last.

It's a novel about two old men, written by a 96-year-old who says he can't have much time left.

So after this one, the man who has been a force in India's literary world for more than 60 years, a famously grumpy writer known for everything from beautifully wrought novels to fart jokes, vows to go silent.

Khushwant Singh releases his last book

The 96-year-old has been a force in India's literary world for more than 60 years.

Khushwant Singh says it's time to try something different.

"I have to teach myself to do nothing. In the last phase of a man's life, according to the Hindu tradition, you're meant to be a forest dweller."

Then Singh, sitting beside a fire on a cold winter evening, in an elegant colonial-era apartment building built by his father and named for his grandfather, began to laugh. It was a low, gravelly, heartfelt laugh; the laugh of a man who enjoys his life.

Because he knows he can't really go silent, let alone retreat into the forest. Old age is slowing him down, he acknowledges, with its medicines and hearing aids and constant doctors. His long flowing beard flows in every direction these days, and he talks to visitors with his gnarled fingers pressed against his forehead, as if he can barely stay awake. He lives much of his life in his blue chair by the fire, with his travels largely limited to visits to the bathroom and the bedroom.

But there will still be his newspaper columns and the occasional interview. He knows there will still be a constant stream of visitors who dare to face his apartment door despite the sign beside it warning: "Please do not ring the bell unless you are expected."

"I am trying hardest to see no one, because I find it tiresome," he said. He sighed: "I have people descending on me and flattering me. I fall for flattery."

They come because Khushwant Singh has been a loud and very public presence in India for decades, coming onto the scene just after India got independence from Britain in 1947. A lawyer-turned-diplomat-turned-writer, Singh ran one of India's great magazines, wrote one of its great 20th-century novels and has opined about everything from masturbation to government incompetence.

He is, very proudly, India's great provocateur.

"With Malice Toward one and All," his column is called, and along the ways he has denounced: right-wing politicians, left-wing politicians, the supreme court, corrupt businessmen, corrupt politicians and corrupt businessmen-politicians. He has ridiculed actresses and publishers. During a slow news week, he might rant about desk calendars or firecrackers.

And in a country where kissing is still rare in Bollywood movies, he has been talking openly about sexuality for decades.

His books, particularly his later ones, are full of lengthy, graphic sexual descriptions, and his greatest regret is that he didn't sleep with enough women.

"It's considered bad form to write about these things," he said, in a voice brimming with disdain. "But I've never bothered about such things."

"I've been called a dirty old man and it doesn't bother me one bit," he said.

His wife, predictably, was well known for her public patience before she died in 2002. Now his daughter and granddaughter, who live just across the hall, take care of him.

"Someone's got to give me my medicine," he said, grimacing.

He's written so many books even he's not sure of the count. It's somewhere around three dozen, though the final number depends on whether the collections of newspaper writing are included in the total. He is a regular on Indian best-seller lists.

Not surprisingly given his output, Singh has had a few critical flops along the way — and in some quarters he's dismissed for being more buffoon than intellectual these days. His latest, "The Sunset Club," a slim but enjoyable look at old age among the Indian elite, was welcomed by some critics but savaged by others.

"A book of surpassing dreadfulness," Mihir Sharma wrote in the Indian Express newspaper, dismissing it as a "sludgy morass."

Even worse, Sharma wrote, the book simply reflects the repetitiveness of so much of Singh's writing, a view that some in Indian intellectual circles quietly hold but few openly voice.

"The constant ... triumphalism, the smirking misogyny of the self-declared ladies' man, the historical detail shot through with wishful, Gandhi-loving politics — one begins to wonder why he is read at all," he wrote.

Singh, not surprisingly, doesn't worry much about bad reviews.

"I couldn't give a damn," he said. Writing "is where I succeeded. I was a flop in everything else."

His biography spans modern Indian history. He was born in what is now Pakistan, to a contractor father who grew wealthy building modern New Delhi. His early career was full of dabbling: work as a lawyer, a couple of tours as an Indian diplomat, with postings in London and Ottawa, and brief jobs in radio and with the United Nations.

It was in writing, though, that Singh finally found his way. He wrote deeply researched and highly regarded histories of the Sikh religion and history (Singh was born a Sikh, though he's been agnostic for years), and became a journalist. In 1956, "Train to Pakistan" was released. It is a short, powerful novel about the horrors of partition, when colonial India was carved into modern India and Pakistan and about 1 million people died amid the chaos. Singh's book became a classic.

He turned "The Illustrated Weekly of India," a small magazine, into a major presence in Indian journalism. Its circulation rose "like a victorious phallus at an obscene angle," Singh wrote gleefully in his memoirs "Truth, Love and a Little Malice."

For the past few decades, he's written more books — everything from serious novels to joke collections — and untold opinion pieces. More than once, he's promised to retire.

His memoirs, which came out in 2002, included a note that the book "would inevitably be my last."

He's put out 10 books since then.

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