Saturday, March 22, 2014



I have often wondered what ‘a full life’ means. Is it to be understood in terms of longevity in years or does it mean a fulfilment arising out of achieving all that you wanted to and living life on your terms? The death of Khushwant Singh brings home the point that a ‘Full Life’ is a combination of both and he achieved it. He was a man who was loved and hated but no one could ignore him. While some hated him for his guts and his candid admissions of his fantasies the others loved him for those very things. It is not that I have been an admirer but over the years as I read about him and became familiar with some of his writings, I found an echo of my own feelings about life and other things. I can only claim to have read his ‘Train to Pakistan’ completely and snippets from his other books and other literary articles, but I have read reviews of his works by literary personalities.

A lot has been written about his literary achievements, in fact in the newspaper today it is stated that his work ‘ranged from scholarly to imaginative, journalistic to downright bawdy’. What if in later years he wrote about burps and farts, what if he openly declared his love for ladies and better things in life like his single malt whiskey, he had the courage to admit what he was rather than hide behind a veil. His strong likes and dislikes and his open airing of his views could have upset many but everyone spoke only of ‘The Genial Sardar’ his generosity. As the genial sardar’s girth grew and his beard long with a mix of white, black and perhaps a mix of brown and his mane flowed down to his shoulders (when he was not wearing his turban) he could have been anything from a lion to a prophet.

But what was it that made me want to write about him today? Since he passed away yesterday this could even be an obituary but that is not my intention. It all started with my ruminations as to what a full life was and now I believe that this is it. His son Rahul Singh wrote in The Times of India “In fact, as was his habit every morning, he was doing his usual crossword puzzle, when he felt tired and lay down on his bed. He did not get up again”. When I read this I remembered what he had written in his ‘How to live and die’ (Excerpted from Absolute Khushwant: The Low-Down on Life, Death & Most Things In-Between) -

“All that I hope for is that when death comes to me, it comes swiftly, without much pain, like fading away in sound slumber. Till then I’ll keep working and living each day as it comes”.

And that was how it came. In fact he allowed death to come to him on his own terms.

In my post dated 15th March 2012 ‘The Finality of Death’ I had written

“He is more than ninety years old and has reached a stage when he has to accept the fact that death is inevitable. He says that he has lived a reasonably contented life. Yes he can well afford to say that having lived a full life and well provided for by way of means, intellect and fame. In his own words he says:

‘I don't believe in rebirth or in reincarnation, in the day of judgement or in heaven or hell. I accept the finality of death. We do not know what happens to us after we die but one should help a person go in peace, at peace with himself and with the world. I've lived a reasonably contented life. I've often thought about what it is that makes people happy-what one has to do in order to achieve happiness.’

Khushwant Singh says that he often thinks as to what it is that makes people happy and what one has to do to achieve it. He in fact lists out nine requisites – good health, a healthy bank balance, your own home, an understanding partner, avoid comparisons, don’t let people encroach on your time with unwanted gossip, cultivate a hobby, spend time in introspection and do not lose you temper. Isn’t this what all of us strive for? What about the others who are not fortunate to achieve these requisites? What about those suffering from debilitating diseases like cancer etc. people who have not lived a full life and see death approaching them in the prime of life. No man can be completely happy in the context of the requisites listed out by Khushwant Singh. The question of death and the acceptance or non acceptance of its finality is what constitutes our entire life. We spend our time trying to justify one or the other. Man is pursued by insecurity throughout his entire life searching for the requisites for a happy life.

How does it matter as to whether you are buried or cremated after death? Khushwant Singh has written as to how his obituary should be announced, as to how he would like to be buried instead of being cremated. Does it really matter if you have accepted the finality of death?

He wonders why death is rarely spoken about in our homes. It is obvious no one wants to accept the inevitable. Also in our way of life we have been made comfortable by belief in God, religion and rebirth. It at least brings us solace, when we are confronted by the fact that it is not possible to achieve all the requisites for happiness. It gives us hope, which is good and helps us forward, for who can be sure that one will live up to a ripe old age.”

But looking back now I feel I had been less charitable to him when I remarked that how does it matter whether you are cremated or buried after death once you had accepted it’s finality, for in the same piece he admits that it does not really matter but it would be nice to be buried in a corner of the graveyard with a peepal tree next to his grave, a simple wish like a child asking for a piece of chocolate, a small gesture of embracing death with joy. I thought it would be necessary to reproduce a section of what he wrote in ‘How to Live and Die’ to really understand the thought process of a man who as he aged accepted the reality of death and embraced it on his own terms –

At 95, I do think of death. I think of death very often but I don’t lose sleep over it. I think of those gone; keep wondering where they are. Where have they gone? Where will they be? I don’t know the answers: where you go, what happens next. To quote Omar Khayyam, 

 ‘There was a Door to which I found no Key
There was a Veil through which I could not see
Some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee
There seemed—and then no more of Thee and Me’.

It would be most a appropriate ending to anything written about Khushwant Singh in his own words –

“I believe in the Jain philosophy that death ought to be celebrated. Earlier, whenever I was upset or low, I used to go to the cremation grounds. It has a cleansing effect, and worked like a therapy for me. In fact, I’d written my own epitaph years ago:

“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.”


Varsha Nagpal said...

To die without the agony of going in and out of hospitals and getting subjected to all sorts of investigations is what one must wish for. A quick death which will not cause much inconvenience to your family would be good. Khushwant Singh lived life as he wished to. His first pre requisite for happiness is good health, I agree with him. In youth all of us learnt "Health is wealth" and I didn't agree then. I thought if you have wealth your health can be taken care of. The follies of youth!!
I read Khushwant Singh and I really liked his writing. I loved his columns and the Illustrated Weekly when he was Editor.

R k garg said...

Death is as inevitable as an etching on a rock, whether one is an atheist or a believer. To die peacefully, without giving trouble to your family is the best way to pass away, leave this body for another journey, a meeting with the FATHER. Not everyone gets it. Many would wonder how KS, with all sorts of supposed ills could get such a noble death.,mysterious are the ways of The Lord. May his soul find peace with the LORD .

Suprabhat Ganguly said...

Very well written. Khushwant Singh claimed himself to be an agnostic but it appears that God had given him almost everything that one longs for and for which many of us pray to God day in and day out without much result.Somebody gets everything even without asking while many others continue to toil all through their lives without getting the fruits of their work. Strange are the ways of destiny.