Khushwant Singh: Politician, journalist and award-winning author both feared and revered for his sharp-tongued authority

‘Writing is where I succeeded,’ he said in 2010. ‘I was a flop at everything else’

At home, Khushwant Singh was a model of Indian deportment, the serious paterfamilias, the elder statesman of Indian journalism, revered and feared for his political knowledge and ability to attack where attack was justified. But he was also a man of the world, with a deep affection for Western Europe in particular.

He had been partially educated in England, held an LLB from London University, and had attended King’s College and the Inner Temple. As a barrister he practiced at the High Court in Lahore from 1939 until the end of the Raj in 1947. Much of his fiction used those heady and dangerous days as its background, especially Train to Pakistan (1956) – a short novel about the horrors of the Partition – and I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale (1961), but he was a prolific author in every sphere, a historian of authority whose massive and exhaustive work A History of the Sikhs in many volumes remains the standard work.

He did, however, write many other books about the Sikhs, other aspects of Indian history and many biographies – often finishing what others had started. A listing of his published works would take much space.

The son of a wealthy builder, he joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1947 and was posted to London and then Ottawa, being in charge of the press office from 1948-51. He spent two years at Unesco and became a Member of the Indian Parliament; he was also editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, then of the Hindustani Times and The Times of India. Never inactive, he travelled widely, accepting short-term teaching posts and visiting lectureships at Oxford, Rochester, Hawaii, Princeton, Swarthmore and elsewhere.

As a parliamentarian, he was decisive, fluent and witty, seeing himself largely as the conscience of the nation – and he was never afraid to criticise his allies as well as his opponents. His scathing tongue was feared almost as much as his pen; his editorials carried great weight. He also wrote articles for all the world’s major newspapers.

But those who met him in the West knew a less formidable figure, a friendly, civilised lover of all the good things the West had to offer: its food, its fine wines that he would not allow himself to drink back at home, its theatres, conferences and social meetings. On one occasion, in the 1950s, dining at a famous London restaurant with Richard Crossman, then a Minister in the Labour Government, his host was taken aside by the manager who told him that they would say nothing on this occasion, but usually they did not admit coloured gentlemen. Crossman went to the telephone and within half an hour an official came to inform the restaurant that their licence to sell alcoholic drinks had been revoked. It took them some months to recover it, and their “policy” was instantly liberalised.

Although famous as a libertarian, Singh had conservative and restrictive sides to his character. He was not opposed to the permissive society as it developed in the 1960s, but at the Edinburgh Festival Conference of 1962, where he proved himself a formidable debater, he came down heavily against homosexuality – not its practice, but its validity as a form of love, crossing swords in particular with Angus Wilson. He loved controversy and played the devil’s advocate on several of the topics discussed, siding with Rebecca West on many issues to counterbalance a conference heavily weighted towards liberal social reform – but supported Henry Miller and Norman Mailer against censorship.

Khushwant Singh received many awards and honours, which in India are usually given with a sum of money attached. In 2007 he received the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award. Besides novels, histories and biographies, he wrote and translated much poetry and many classics from Indian languages. His outspokenness and the fanaticism of many fundamentalist and nationalist groups meant that during his last years he had to be under constant police protection, which seriously hindered his mobility and freedom.

He was one of the first modern Indian novelists to openly discuss sexuality, and write about it graphically. “I’ve been called a dirty old man and it doesn’t bother me one bit,” he said in an interview in 2010. He was aware that some younger writers and critics considered him as something of a relic, but he was unperturbed.

“I couldn’t give a damn, he said of an extremely critical review of his 2010 novel The Sunset Club. Writing, he said, “is where I succeeded. I was a flop in everything else.”

He was married to Kaval Malik, with one daughter and one son, who was educated at Oxford.

Khushwant Singh, statesman, journalist, novelist and lawyer: born Hadali, Punjab 2 February 1915; married Kaval Malik (died 2002; one son, one daughter); died New Delhi 20 March 2014.

News
people
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
Arts and Entertainment
Armstrong, left, and Bain's writing credits include Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and The Old Guys
TVBain and Armstrong have presented their unique view of 21st-century foibles in shows such as Peep Show and Fresh Meat
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes