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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

Recruitment Genius: Medical & Economic Writer / Consultant

£23000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for a Me...

Jemma Gent: Year End Accountant

£250-£300 Day Rate: Jemma Gent: Are you a qualified accountant with strong exp...

Jemma Gent: Management Accountant

£230 - £260 Day Rate: Jemma Gent: Do you want to stamp your footprint in histo...

Beverley James: Accounts Payable

£22,000 - £23,000: Beverley James: Are you looking for the opportunity to work...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower