Friday, August 04, 2006

Khushwant Singh's Journalism: The Illustrated Weekly of India

Khushwant Singh was someone I naturally gravitated towards as a young literature scholar, as he was one of the very few modern, secular Sikh writers with an international profile. (Now we have Brit-Asians like Nirpal Dhaliwal -- though judging from this, I'm not really sure that represents progress.) But while I did read everything I could find by Khushwant Singh early in graduate school, I ended up not writing about him, barring one seminar paper that my professor at the time didn't particularly like.

The truth is, from a literary perspective Khushwant Singh's novels really aren't that great. They aren't as adventurous as G.V. Desani's All About H. Hatterr, and not quite as carefully controlled as the novels written by his contemporaries in the 1950s -- i.e., R.K. Narayan. Train to Pakistan sold very well in the west, and was in print for years and years. As partition novels go, it isn't bad -- it's actually nicely plotted and suspenseful -- but it's just somewhat unremarkable. I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale and Delhi, by contrast, aren't especially readable.

After the 1950s, Khushwant Singh changed gears, and became more and more involved in journalism, which is where, I think, he's made his greatest contribution. For nine years, between 1969 and 1978, he was the editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, an ancient institution that lasted for more than 100 years, and was, until the 1980s, the biggest English-language news-magazine in India (perhaps in all of Asia). Under the British, it was effectively a colonial society magazine, and it didn't change much under its first two Indian editors. Khushwant Singh was the third Indian editor, and he turned the ethos of the magazine on its head. He describes his approach in the preface to a collection of columns called Khushwant Singh's Editor's Page (1981):

Under its first two Indian editors [The Illustrated Weekly] became a vehicle of Indian culture devoting most of its pages to art, sculpture, classical dance and pretty pictures of flowers, birds, and dencing belles. It did not touch controversial subjects, was strictly apolitical and asexual (save occasional blurred reproductions of Khajuraho or Konarak). It earned a well-deserved reputation for dull respectability. I changed all that. What was a four-wheeled victoria taking well-draped ladies out to eat the Indian air I made a noisy rumbustious, jet-propelled vehicle of information, controversy and amusement. I tore up the unwritten norms of gentility, both visual and linguistic. . . . And slowly the circulation built up, till the Illustrated did become a weekly habit of the English-reading pseudo-elite of the country. It became the most widely read journal in Asia (barring Japan) because it reflected all the contending points of view on every conceivable subject: politics, economics, religion, and the arts.

I've spent some time looking at the magazine before, during, and after the Khushwant Singh years (1969-1978), and what he says above rings true. The earlier editors were very "respectable," with relatively safe short stories (often with a 'village' theme), and relatively bland features that mostly just synthesized the news. (In the 1960s, the magazine had a special section for "Women and Children," which says a lot about how it conceived of its readership.) Most English-speaking and reading middle-class Indians in the 1960s hadn't really remiagined themselves in a way that challenged the dominance of English norms. Given how limited the use of the English was at the time demographically, it's not hard to see how a continued dependence on England and Englishness could occur. (Several issues gave lavish coverage of Queen Elizabeth II's tour of India in 1967, for instance.)

Khushwant Singh has always written in English, and he was in every sense a contemporary of the "transitional" colonials: at the time of independence, he was already thirty-two, and had spent several years studying Law in Cambridge and at the Inner Temple, London. But as a journalist I think he broke the stranglehold of Anglophilia by taking the United States as his English-language reference point rather than England. As an editor, it was wild, sometimes trashy American culture in and after the 1960s that Khushwant brought into the pages of The Illustrated Weekly: rock n' roll, the Vietnam war protests, and the counter-culture (including the signficiant component of barefoot, Enlightenment-seeking hippies who ended up in India). Admittedly, some of the pictures of bikini-clad free-love kids in Goa splashed on the pages of The Illustrated Weekly were rather more like tabloid sensationalism than serious journalism, but there's no doubt that these images had an effect on how Indians saw themselves in that era.

I admire Khushwant Singh's secularism, which for me is always best represented by the Mario cartoon he used on his "Editor's Page" in The Illustrated Weekly: a caricature of himself, sitting next to a pile of books, a bottle of scotch, and a girlie magazine. This is the basis for the familiar Khushwant Singh slogan, "sex, scotch, and scholarship," which is also the title of one of his later books of essays. Much has been made of the "sex" and "scotch," both of which are somewhat ironic since testimony from people who've known him has confirmed that he's neither a womanizer nor a heavy drinker. "Sex, scotch, and scholarship" isn't literally Khushwant Singh's lifestyle (nor does it accurately represent his attitude towards women); it's rather a slogan for his fiercely independent ethos. It's something India still has need of: a willingness to publicly be something other than "respectable" and "respectful," to tell the truth rather than wrap the world in mysticism or one or another political ideology.

That's not to say that Khushwant Singh didn't make mistakes from time to time. His support for Indira Gandhi during the Emergency now looks extremely questionable, in that Christopher Hitchens-has-he-lost-his-mind? sort of way. And he probably should never have gotten involved with politics (though it could probably be argued that a Rajya Sabha seat isn't really a "political" post), though at least he knew when it was time (i.e., after 1984) to walk away.

The Sikh community has been somewhat ambivalent about Khushwant Singh over the years. Earlier, he was seen as too close to Indira Gandhi, despite his public rebuke of Operation Blue Star. During the years of militancy in Punjab, his strong opposition to the secesionist movement made things dangerous for him (I believe there was a price on his head for awhile). And even separate from these specific political questions, of course, Khushwant's aforementioned secularism -- his preference for scotch (Sikhs, remember, aren't supposed to drink alcohol), his crude humor, and his public declaration that he has no faith, have all eroded support for him from devout Sikhs. Despite that ambivalence, it's widely recognized that Khushwant Singh's History of the Sikhs is still a benchmark as a written introduction to the Sikh tradition. (Patwant Singh's recent book hasn't really caught on.) And he has, after all, retained the turban and beard that are so important to Sikh cultural identity. In short, despite everything, for most people, Khushwant Singh is still the same old Sardar.

To wrap up. In my view, Khushwant Singh's talent has lain not in deep or revolutionary thinking, but in the writing of his weekly columns and in a keen sense of what is timely, interesting, and important to talk about. He started doing this in the 1960s, and kept it up for thirty or more years, leaving a sizeable body of work. In a sense, this nurturing of the individualized, independent public voice is quite on par with what we bloggers ourselves do. Writing for The Illustrated Weekly or The Hindustan Times (which he took up in 1980), his voice perhaps had more authority than the average blogger's, but his consistent egalitarianism and irreverent tone gives me every reason to believe that Khushwant Singh would have a blog if he were fifty (or indeed, seventy) years younger. But who knows: the guy is still at it -- he might start one one of these days.

* * *

A final note. Khushwant Singh, at the age of 92, is still out and about. This summer he has been doing public lectures in Delhi on the history of the city (his father had a hand in the building of Edward Lutyens' New Delhi in the 1910s and 20s). He's also been publishing essays and books pretty regularly, though they aren't really of quite the same quality as some of his work from the 1970s.

[Cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny]


Chandra said...

I remember reading The Illustrated Weekly of India when I was child. I didn't know about Khushwant Singh or his editorial style until much latter. Actually I was disappointed how Illustrated Weekly turned out. It used to be such a sober magazine that one could leave it on the coffee table in the living room.

I am not sure what is wrong with respect and respectable. I am not sure what's wrong with keeping private sexual matters private - as most Indian did and still do. I am not sure how transferring from anglophile to american-phile with all the sleaze and US-related topics made it more Indian - one imperialism to another (nothing new there).

I know my dad is not ultra conservative - perfectly at home performing Vinayaka puja one day and betting on a favorite horse few weeks latter and enjoying ice cold Chivas Regal another weekend. He had to cancel the unending nude magazine when it had to be under brown cover wrap in newsstands. That's why there is Playboy (and Debonair). In any case, when Khushwant was done with it, it was surely not The Illustrated Weekly of India, as it were.

2:45 PM  
Anonymous said...

I also remember the Illustrated weekly. That and National Geographic. Of course, I only read the articles of course. I remember my favorite english language book for a long time was a Khushwant Singh short story collection called Jasmine, which featured a photo of a nude lady in front. You have no idea how difficult it can be to hide a book in a large household with no room designated to oneself.

I liked his Malice towards one and all column for the Sardarji jokes in them. But I remember the piece in the NCERT textbook by him on Mother Teresa pissed us all off because he called Bengalees Xenophobic. He clearly didn't understand it wasn't hatred of the other, its just that no one else mattered.

Hmm.. I think I'll turn off my ID on this comment. Who knows who might be reading this.

3:03 PM  
Anonymous said...

i've always enjoyed khushwant's verve for life, his irreverence,and most of all his desire to be not taken sooo seriously.

5:58 PM  
Pratap said...

"It's something India still has need of: a willingness to publicly be something other than "respectable" and "respectful," to tell the truth rather than wrap the world in mysticism or one or another political ideology."

This is ridiculous! What do you want India to project itself as ?!? Globalization itself has eroded Indian values and ethics. Now what you have in mind is to let the Indian people publicly proclaim that they want to sleep with women and 'try them out' before marriage, father and son sitting and drinking at the dinner table, and so on and so forth.

Atleast some facade of respectability will assure continuity to some of the values that India has been known for! An American Professor here once told me that he was "surprised to see Indians going the American way in social habits after leaving India... Pity", he said. India with all its glorious traditions is entitled to more than that!

1:32 AM  
Amardeep said...


I am not sure what is wrong with respect and respectable. I am not sure what's wrong with keeping private sexual matters private - as most Indian did and still do. I am not sure how transferring from anglophile to american-phile with all the sleaze and US-related topics made it more Indian - one imperialism to another (nothing new there).

I see your point -- total tabloidization is not exactly where one wants to go. But the represiveness of the earlier era was unhealthy. I would rather India (and the U.S. for that matter) as a free country where people have the option to buy slightly sleazy tabloids if they want, than a hypocritical one, where it's all black market/under the counter.

On the imperialism question. My reference to the U.S. was more a speculation about the origin of Khushwant's language and attitude than about this broader question of 'neo-imperialism'. He spent some time in the U.S. in the 1950s, as I recall, and it had an impact on his outlook.

A lot of Europeans have said the same thing: the U.S. at the time was a much more open and intellectually egalitarian place than Europe.

7:47 AM  
ana beynaam said...

amardeep, if you are able to find it (or if i can get it to you) i think it is khushwant singh who's done a translation of iqbal's shikwa and jawaab-e-shikwa, (the long poem with the words "khudi ko kar buland itna. ." if i'm not mistaken) i think he may have written a preface as well, along with rafique zakaria's introduction which is quite interesting, and seems to be in line with K.S's secularism.

11:20 AM  
Dev Kumar said...

I remember The Illustrated Weekly of India from my pre-teens and teenage years in Alwar (Rajasthan) and Shillong. Raju Bharatan's articles on cricket, Mario Miranda's cartoons, the comics page, the jokes page, the short story, and of course the nangi tasveeren (nude pictures)as my classmates decribed them. Maybe it was because the Indian Army has always been more liberal than their civilian brethren that the Weekly (as it was known) was never hidden. And KS was very popular in the Army for his no-nonsense approach and his attitude towards life. Many in the Army also liked him because of his open admiration for Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. The librarian of Central School Alwar would often try to bowdlerize it with a pair of scissors when the nangi tasveeren were beyond a certain number in any issue or if there was a hint of pubic hair. The results could be hilarious. In Shillong we would buy the Weekly from Chapala Book Stall in Laitumukhrah bazaar. Sunday's issue would reach Shillong on Thurday or Friday. But we did not complain. In Alwar we would often get the issue a day before. The Weekly was never the same after KS left and MV Kamath took over.

12:33 PM  
Panini Pothoharvi said...

MV Kamath who succeeded Khushwant Singh as editor of the Illustrated Weekly of India and openly admired the RSS ideology is currently the director of the Prasar Bharati - the autonomous body that runs the Doordarshan. He is the person reponsible for blocking Anand Patwardhan's Pita, Putra aur Dharmayudh (Father, Son and the Holy War) and Jang aur Aman (War and Peace)

10:09 PM  
sana said...

Hi, I was wondering if you can help me. I have to write a paper on how multiculturalism realtes to the bok "Burnt bread and chutney" and I am having a hard time with my thesis, and what to talk about in my paper. I noticed u have read the book... so i was wondering if you can give me some help/ideas.
thank you.

1:40 PM  
Panini Pothoharvi said...

At 92, Khushwant is a bit like my great grandfather. Much as I want, I cannot afford to be as irreverent as Khushwant himself would want me to be. For, all his life, KS has lived by a strategically created contradictions around his own persona and it is this quality - nearly unique among Indian authors - that has made him so endearingly enigmatic. However, there are two major faux pas in which this veneer of intrepid complexity begins to crumble. His uncritical and at one time quite cearly sycophantic relationship with Indira and Sanjay Gandhi which involved his unpardonable support to the dark days Emergency was one such. The other, though less noticed and not quite as reprehensible, is his History of the Sikhs where he comes across more of a Sikh - even a devout Sikh - than a historian. It is not as if he has not pored over facts and archival material. It is that his writing of history is simply not convincing as credible history writing. His translations of Sikh scriptures are similarly handicapped by the lack of a credible knowledge of either the Punjabi language or the Gurumukhi script. But, of course, he remains highly extolled. And one cannot fight with such statured eminence. In his relationship with women authors, Amrita Pritam and Ajeet Caur being two prime examples, he has invariably assumed a tumultuosly ironic schism: 'I love you. I even love your dog. But don't stop me from saying outrageously unsavoury things about you and your books!' Bravo KS!

I would hesitate to venture an opinion on his merit as a writer of consequence on Punjab and the Partition for fear of being 'encouraged' to air such musty views on my own blog. However, those who have read Laxman Tandon's Punjabi Century, Bhisham Sahni's Mayyadas ki Mari and Tamas, Chaman Nahal's Azadi, Krishna Sobti's Zindaginaama, Mohan Rakesh's Malbe Ka Malik or Manto's Toba Tek Singh etc. would already know how and where to place him.

One of the biggest disservices rendered by him to the Sikhs is in perpetuating the stereotype of the Sikh scholars as more of accidental village intellectuals rather than serious commentators on contemporary cutural formations. With a turban on your head in India, you have not even an outside chance to succeed in finding pan-Indian acceptance as a scholar of consequence. If you have a turban on your head, you have to have residual traces of buffonery which is symptomatically injurious to genuine scholarship. How else does one explain the glaring absence of Sikhs from the field of cultural studies from Indian Universities? Even the most liberal, democratic and left-oriented intellectuals and experts have been known to have turned down the Sikhs as possible professors in the various departments of arts and aesthetics. Not one in Delhi University, not one in Jawaharlal Nehru University, not one in Bombay, Calcutta or Jadhavpur (don't forget Partha Chatterjee began from the Guru Nanak University of Amritsar!) Bangalore in the last 60 years. There is either something wrong with the Sikhs or us?

8:40 PM  
anya said...

I had enjoyed a handful of Khushwant Singh's essays and writeups, until a friend ..due to what reason god knows .. gifted me 'In the company of women'. That is the one book I could not complete as I couldnt really find the story, nor the narration up to the mark. Sadly, this is the thing that comes to mind first upon mention of Khushwant Singh.

12:56 PM  
Anil P said...

I particularly liked his Train to Pakistan. One might argue that it is no good enough as compared to the works of his contemporaries as you mentioned, but for its conversational style, the dialogues that carry the story forward is the clearest indication yet that he probably had the pulse of what the people might have felt during partition. I believe that dialogues best communicate how close the writer's approximation of the real can be. True, there wasn't much 'thinking' assigned to the characters in the book, instead they talked, communicated, and conveyed, which is fair enough. Not for him the lengthy 'treatises' and scholarly discourse that some writers bring into the passages, ending up doing the thinking for the characters rather than letting the characters do the thinking that is necessary. I suppose that is what made The Train to Pakistan readable, and 'relatable' if I may say so.

I particularly remember the fresh voices he introduced during his stint at the Illustrated Weekly, in those 1000-odd word pieces, particularly one Rayomand Framroze.

8:47 AM  
Narayan said...

In the 70s and 80s I would visit my sister every few years. My sister's family lived in a flat in Sujan Singh Park directly above Khushwant Singh's. Every morning he would be sitting in a wicker chair on his lawn, no larger than my own ten foot square, in true Sikh dishabille -- kesh washed and unfurled to dry in the sun, reading the newspaper and helping himself from a pot on a teapoy by his side. Servants drifted in and out of this alfresco scene, hanging out the wash, de-stoning the daily rice ration, squat-sweeping the tiny patio, complaining and otherwise mucking about, ably marshalled by his dignified statuesque lady-wife. "What's he doing, what's he doing now?", my nieces would ask, too shy to do their own prying. Probably posing for a Laxman cartoon is how I remember it. My bird's eye view of the grand old man was one of tame domesticity, far removed from the sexual persona he professes too often.

1:45 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home