Sardar Khushwant Singh died last month, on 20th March, just missing his 100th birthday. He would be remembered for his wit and acerbic writing; for his attempts to promote Urdu once again in the Country and sincere efforts to bring Pakistan and India together, in both of which he failed. He was a proud Sikh without practising Sikhism but for the turban, unshorn beard and love of Kirtans. He was a prolific writer, but his small poignant novel, Train to Pakistan, is, to my mind, his sole work of some literary merit. But that is subject to debate.
Khushwant Singh confessed to hating Menons. Post-independence, VK Krishna Menon as the High Commissioner for India was his top boss in England. Sudhir Ghosh, the Public Relations officer who was his immediate superior under Menon used Khushwant Singh, (then the Information Officer under Ghosh), to get at Menon. Though Menon tried to be friendly after dressing him down at the first meeting , Khushwant Singh never forgave him for ticking him off now and then. He believed that Krishna Menon deliberately made him a prey to Pandit Nehru’s ire. He spewed venom on Krishna Menon in his later writings.
Next there was NC Menon, first his Junior in Hindustan Times, who insisted on correcting his proofs, cutting his t’s and dotting his i’s, and eventually finding better favour with Birlas and having him (or so Khushwant Singh thought) ousted from the job. If he had confrontations with the several civil servants with that surname, I do not know.
His column, “Malice Towards One and All” continued to be published weekly in the Hindustan Times and later in some other publications. ‘Malice’ was a fake mask; the column mostly praised his friends, Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay, The ill fated lone Maruti car that Sanjay Gandhi designed, Urdu writers of the past , friends, great poetry, beautiful women he met, and tribute to those whom he knew when they departed, but also occasional acidic comments on politicians and persons he disliked. At least two of his columns, I recall, were targetted at Menons.
Malice was a well chosen phrase, for sure, it enhanced the column’s popularity among gossip mongers. Startling titles were Khushwant Singh’s forte : one of his works was titled “I Will Rape The Nightingale”. The epitaph he wrote for himself many decades before his death was : “Thank the Lord he is dead, the son of a gun”. He enjoyed being hated by those whom he hated.
He minced no words in describing his dislike for Menons in general and , Krishna Menon and his own erstwhile subordinate NC Menon in particular. NC Menon reciprocated the feelings in his later writings. Khushwant Singh had the the last word : He outlived NC Menon, 19 years younger, by three months and two days, and Krishna Menon, 19 years older, by over 36 years.
I met Khushwant Singh – actually saw, not met – in Lodhi Gardens once when Door Darshan, the only television channel in India then, was shooting a serial on nature with Khushwant Singh as the anchor. When I found the crew resing, I walked up to greet him, to score a point by appreciating his works, but he gave me a cursory look and turned away. Perhaps he sensed the Menon in me. Every time I passed by the gate of his Sujan Singh Park House on my way to Khan Market, I wondered if I couldn’t go in and say Sat Shri Akal. I never dared.
He told many acidic jokes about Menons, and quite a few on gullible Sikhs. This one is the best; probably I read it in one of his malice columns. I don’t remember the way he told it; so I am saying it in my own words:
A Sardar went to Malbar for one of its famous Ayurvedic massages. He liked the massage, but hated being enveloped in sticky oil.
“Take a bucket and go to the sea shore”, advised the masseur. “Bathe in the sea water and you will be fine.”
The Sardar, who had never seen the sea before, bought a bucket from the bazaar on the way to the beach. He found a Menon sitting on the sands as if he owned the sea while high-tide waves reached up and caressed his stretched-out legs.
“How much for a bucket of this water?” asked the Sardar.
Menon, being Menon, thought here was an opportunity to part a fool from his money.
“Fifty Rupees a bucket,” he said, trying not to giggle.
“Too much,” said the Sardar. He had been warned by well-meaning friends in Patiala that Mallus cheat; one must always bargain with them.
“All, right. Special discount for you, twenty-five rupees”. Offered Menon,
The Sardar blessed his luck and paid the cash, filled his bucket to the brim when he thought that Menon wasn’t watching, and went to his room. After the salt water bath, he felt refreshed.
An hour later, he went to the beach again for another refreshing bucket of water. The jobless Menon still sat at the same place on the beach, mulling his good fortune.
It was now low tide; the waves had receded far.
“Wahe Guru, “ said the Sikh in amazement, “you sold so much water in just an hour?”.
“If a dozen more Sardars like you come to this beach, I will sell the whole sea,” replied Menon.
Perhpas it was Khushwant Singh who inititated the Menon (later generalised as ‘Mallu’ ) jokes in retaliation to sardar jokes. Yet I wouldn’t thank the Lord for his death even at this ripe old age. He would have continued to entertain, even through the feeble months and years, if he was granted a century and more.