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
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Life and Style
A general view during the 2014 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show at Earl's Court exhibition centre on 2 December, 2014 in London, England
fashionIt's not all about the catwalks: the big changes of the past year can be summed up in six clothing items
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: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?