What young journos can learn from Khushwant Singh

21 Mar,2014


By Ranjona Banerji


Khushwant Singh personified that one thing that all journalists ought to have: irreverence. Add to that a refusal to take oneself too seriously and you have a winning combination. And like the contradictions in journalism, these are lessons from a man who did not start life as a journalist. He was already a renowned author when he took over editorship of The Illustrated Weekly in 1969.


Is it an exaggeration to say he defined or redefined what journalism and editorship has meant to us ever since? People may not always realise this, but the Khushwant Singh effect is still with us. He took a fuddy-duddy publication and gave it lightness and life and humour, which should not be mistaken for fluff. He encased himself in a light bulb – or was sentenced to it by cartoonist Mario Miranda – but by doing so he freed journalists from boring strangleholds of dead habit.


Certainly, Singh increased sexy content in the Weekly and his witty but risqué jokes were looked forward to. He understood the influence of cricket and films on the Indian psyche – so I guess we can blame him for so much of the bilge that passes for journalism today? Kidding! But such was his hold over the reader that for decades after he left the Weekly his columns had to be carried in newspapers because of public demand. All those editors who dreamed of themselves captured for perpetuity in a light bulb had to bow down to the allure of Kushwant Singh and his wit. I know several people for whom he was still India’s foremost columnist long after his prime.


Many of today’s young journalists (ah yes, here comes the old person’s lecture) would do well to emulate Singh. He was not afraid of taking on the high and mighty, he was not afraid of admitting his mistakes and he was not afraid of being contemptuous of hypocrisy. Indeed, he thrived on the last! His admiration of Sanjay Gandhi and the Emergency he would deeply regret but he did not hide it. One might argue that those who acknowledge their errors and transgressions are far more admirable than those who refuse to accept they ever made them. He objected to Operation Bluestar and made his objections public but he was no fan of Sikh extremism either.


Singh was also a serious historian especially when it came to Sikh history and India’s Partition. His Train to Pakistan remains a seminal work on that painful subject. Singh was always intensely secular as well – regardless of how insulting that term is to rightwing India. He spared no punches when it came to communal elements either. His many novels are varying in excellence and his sex writing was somewhat tedious. But his autobiography and his books about himself and his writings though are must-reads for every young journalist and excellent examples of honest, scathing and witty writing. I would also suggest them for all our older journalists as well – especially those dripping with self-importance.


Singh’s life in journalism leaves behind a rich legacy. We can immediately pick up that if you get too close to any political dispensation, you will pay the price for it or regret it or both – as happened with Singh and the Gandhis. And you cannot under any circumstances take yourself and any passing pomposities too seriously. What a lot of balloons to puncture when you look at all the fat-headed pundits around.


I suppose the third lesson is that journalists who make plenty of jokes and drink a little single malt everyday live long and fulfilling lives? Khushwant Singh lived a life to be celebrated and we need to raise a glass to that!




Understandably, today’s newspapers have devoted pages to the Grand Old Man. Bachi Karkaria’s piece in The Times of India speaks from the heart and personal experience – she and Singh joined The Illustrated Weekly the same year; indeed she is one of Singh’s many protégés.  TOI also had Rahul Singh, son and journalist himself, writing on his father. TOI’s institutional memory remains dominant, whatever other criticisms can be chucked its way. Vikram Seth’s poem in Hindustan Times – written some years ago – is apt. Though one wishes Hindustan Times had collected all the Singh recollections on one page rather than scattering them around. Indian Express got LK Advani to talk about him – a change from all the seat woes for the political veteran. Mid-Day pulled out relevant extracts from Singh’s writings about Mumbai people like Dom Moraes and Protima Bedi. DNA had photographs and recollections. Economic Times went with Shobhaa De.


Fitting tributes all. But none more so than Singh’s own epitaph for himself:

“Here lies one who spared neither man nor God

Waste not your tears on him, he was a sod

Writing nasty things he regarded as great fun

Thank the lord he is dead, this son of a gun.”

Unlikely though that too many will agree with that last line.

We need to raise a glass to that!


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One response to “What young journos can learn from Khushwant Singh”

  1. havewala@gmail.com says:

    beautiful homage.