When I first started out in my career as a reporter, most of the journalists I admired were from America or Europe. There were very few English-language journalists in my homeland who really stood out. Khushwant Singh was an exception.
Singh died Thursday at his home in Delhi. He was 99 and by all accounts, he’d led an incredibly full life. Still, he will be missed in so many ways.
Singh was undeniably India’s most prolific writer. From countless newspaper columns to more than 100 books, Singh penned words that people remembered. He was uninhibited in his writing. Witty. Funny. Acerbic. His column was called “With Malice Toward One and All” and he made a reputation of sparing no one. He also was known for his love of poetry, something that endeared him to me.
Singh served as editor of several publications including The Hindustan Times in the early 1980s. They were positions that kept him surrounded by controversy. He was close to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi but that relationship soured after she instituted a state of emergency in India in 1975 and censored the press.
Singh even served in parliament — he was a member of the Rajya Sabha or upper house. But as a Sikh, he was deeply affected by the anti-Sikh riots after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. He received many honors, among them the prestigious Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award in India, which he later returned in protest of the Indian Army’s siege of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
On Twitter Thursday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called Khushwant Singh “a gifted author, candid commentator and a dear friend.. He lived a truly creative life.”
Writer and politician Shashi Tharoor tweeted this: “Mourning the passing of the irrepressible, inimitable Mr Original himself. A great loss for the world of ideas&letters.”
Singh was mourned by millions in India. Even Bollywood stars came out Thursday to say Singh had made their lives richer.
I never had a chance to meet Singh. I wish I had. But I wanted to share with you something my friend Harmeet Shah Singh posted on his Facebook page today.
Harmeet, now a producer in CNN’s Delhi bureau, was an up and coming journalist in 1998. He was looking for a break, took a chance and called Khushwant Singh. The latter took the time to write him back.
“He didn’t know me but wrote back to a cold call on this sweet 15-paise postcard,” Harmeet said.
That to me was so telling of Khushwant Singh’s greatness. That even after all those years, after establishing himself as India’s top journalist, he took the time to respond to a young man just starting out in the business. Believe me, this sort of stuff rarely happens in India.
Khushwant Singh, RIP. You are a man who was on the top of my list way back then. And you’ll always remain there.