Train to Pakistan 2014

By Fakir Syed Aijazuddin

Khushwant Singh’s final journey was by train, to Pakistan. He did not require documents to cross the border. Ashes do not need visas.

He was cremated in New Delhi on 20 March. A portion of his ashes were interred under his favourite tree in the garden at Sujan Singh Park. Some will be taken to his home in hilly Kasauli. The rest were given to me by his daughter Mala for interment in Hadali (now Distt. Khushab, Pakistan), where he was born ninety-nine years ago.

Train to Pakistan 2014

There is no direct train link anymore between New Delhi to Lahore. I caught the Shadabti Express that took me to Amritsar. It is a six hour journey, time enough to refresh my familiarity with Khushwant’s works. These included his autobiography Truth, love and a little malice (written prematurely at the age of 87), his evocative translation of The Japji and the Rehras – the morning and evening prayers of the Sikhs (published last year), and Death at my doorstep – a cemetery crammed with obituaries he had written of people he had known but not always liked or admired. He dismissed Lord Mountbatten as ‘Lord of Baloney’, back-handed Sanjay Gandhi as the ‘Young Dictator’, lauded his mentor Manzur Qadir as ‘The Role Model’, and described movingly Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s final days ‘From the Death Sentence to the Gallows’.

To travel from New Delhi to Lahore now, one has to go to Amritsar, catch the Samjhota or Friendship Express, change trains again at the Wagah/Attari border, and then complete the journey to Lahore in yet another train. The goodwill inherent in the train’s title evaporates even over the short 42 kilometre distance between Amritsar and Lahore.

I took the less troublesome route and walked across the border at Attari/Wagah. No officials on either side of the divisive white line seemed interested in the contents of the stainless steel urn I carried. Whatever attention Khushwant would receive would be at his birth village of Hadali, some 250 kilometres northwest of Lahore.

Train to Pakistan 2014
Art historian Fakir Syed Aijazuddin at a ceremony at the school in Pakistan where Khushwant Singh was enrolled as a child.
Singh’s ashes were covered with a marble plaque that read: “This is where my roots are. I have nourished them with tears of nostalgia”.

There, he is still a household world in a community consisting entirely of Pakistani Muslims. Hadali, in Khushwant Singh’s days a ‘tiny hamlet with less than 300 families’, is now a congested compression of almost 50,000 souls. Its most prominent building would appear to be its Government Boys’ School. Its spacious dusty grounds were overrun by six hundred boys in identical uniforms (like some detergent advertisement) with differing shades of dirt.

The main school hall is still, according to the bearded headmaster, as Khushwant left it as a young pupil in 1920. Khushwant Singh visited it sixty years later. He remembered the high roof supported by sagging timbers, the chapel-shaped classrooms on either side, and the rugged plaster. It was too much for him. He recalled afterwards: ‘Overcome by emotion, I broke down.’

Could there have been a better location for the marble memorial plaque I had brought with me? A niche was gouged out of the external wall of the school hall and the marble slab grouted in it. His grey ashes were merged and lost within the wet grey cement. The commemorative inscription read: ‘In memory of Sardar Khushwant Singh/ A Sikh, a scholar and a son of Hadali (Punjab).’

After the mason had applied the finishing touches, rounding the corners carefully with his fingers, I read the opening lines from Khushwant Singh’s translation of the Japji: ‘There is one God. He is the Supreme Truth. He the Creator is without fear and without hate.’ I ended with the Shloka or Epilogue, one line of which would have been requiem enough: ‘The toils have ended of those that have worshipped Thee.’

While I was reciting these verses, I knew Khushwant would not have objected. He was only an arm-chair agnostic. Which truly believing agnostic would have laboured as he did to translate theSacred Writings of the Sikhs?

Train to Pakistan 2014

Which agnostic would have straddled the spiritual divide and translated with such understanding Allama Iqbal’s epic remonstrance Shikwa as well asGod’s riposte Jawab-e-Shikwa?

Which self-respecting agnostic would have, in the final year of his long life of ostensible disbelief, translated the Japji and the Rehras with such feeling and sensitivity?

Khushwant Singh did not need to make peace with his Maker with such gestures of conciliation, no more than he needed to be a literary enfant terrible. Khushwant Singh was above that. He had outgrown his time, overwhelmed his contemporaries with his expansive humanity.

If there was anything he never outgrew it was his affection for Hadali. It was of this cradle, this crucible of his life that he wrote: ‘This is where my roots are. I have nourished them with tears of nostalgia.’

And those are the closing lines you can read on his memorial plaque at Hadali placed there on 22 April.

© F.S.Aijazuddin
DAWN, 24 April 2014

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4 Responses

  1. raj solanki says:

    khushwant was more adorable than words can describe.he was to transparent in totality.From far he was hazy but once a person chanced on his works it became a matter of enquisitiveness to dig deep in his existance and works. he was legend who always believed in portraying the trutrue form bravely.

  2. Gurdas Singh says:

    Sardar Khushwant Singh was fearless and upright, two traits that are rarely seen together. May his ashes spread the fragrance of his personality. Thank you for sharing these moments with us.

  3. Madan Chaubey says:

    A tribute which in essence is what Late Sardar Khushwant Singh stood for. He had the style peculiar to all English writers of eminence and particularly of Indian origin. Punjab its language-history-geography-culture all synthesised into one was him with a bias to Indian sub continent but also with the intoxication -‘suroor’ of the British aura.
    There would be difficulty in finding anyone of his succeeding generations to have chosen him as a role model but also hard to find anyone among the English readers among those whom his writings would not have affected some way or the other.

  4. suresh bhalla says:

    PLEASE LET ME APOLOGIZE FOR THE LENGTH OF MY RESPONSE, A LETTER TO KHUSHWANT ABOUT A YEAR OR TWO BEFORE HE DIED. CONTRARY TO THE COURIER’S ADVICE THAT I SHOULD NOT EXPECT A RESPONSE, KHUSHWANT WROTE BACK TO ME A SHORT THANK YOU NOTE APOLOGIZING FOR HIS HANDWRITING THAT WAS BEGINNING TO DECLINE BECAUSE OF HIS AGE. I HAVE HIS LETTER PASTED IN MY COPY OF “TRUTH, LOVE, AND A LITTLE MALICE”- A FINE HUMAN BEING.

    Dear Khushwant Singh Ji,
    It is with much joy, and pleasure that I just finished reading “Truth, love, & a little malice” on the island of Anguilla in the British West Indies, where I have just built a villa. My aspirations of a wannabe writer inspire me to write to you a fan letter, perhaps the only one in my life of sixty eight years. You are my kind of a Sikh – a little Scotch after the evening Rehras!
    I believe I have seen you once in my life, perhaps noticed, would be more accurate. Circa 1971, I had just come back to Bombay from the U.S., as the first turbaned Indian officer at the Bank Of America. I was working at Nariman Point, and living for the first few months at the Ambassador hotel. One day, as we strolled out after a beery lunch, hosted by a good acquaintance of mine at the Bombay Gymkhana, he pointed out to me: “There is Khushwant Singh leering over his copy of the latest Penthouse, or perhaps the Playboy”.
    In 1975, just before Mrs. Gandhi declared the Emergency, my wife and I moved to Canada. Over the next thirty years or so I enjoyed reading some of your books, “Delhi” being my favourite, since most of my childhood had been spent there. On one of my trips to Delhi, I picked up in Khan Market a copy of all your works till then, published by Penguin, with an unfulfilled intent of reading them all.
    The rather enjoyable account of your life in the autobiography provided for a little pride, a few chuckles, few personal reflections, and of course some melancholy over the events of 1984, a difficult period for all Sikhs.
    I perhaps debated only momentarily that your book’s greatest appeal to me was heightened because I was a Sikh. It is quite remarkable and most admirable how well you had captured our Punjabi and Sikh culture, with its social, economic, and religious beliefs, mannerisms, feelings, and a host of other nuances about an era familiar to me from a distance. The book truly captured the spirit of Benjamin Franklin’s words in your Prologue ‘…Either write things worth reading Or do things worth writing’ – I think you did both quite well.
    I admired you for the sentiments you expressed about your grandmother, mother, and the few for your father. I admired you for the compassion and selective consideration you showed towards most. I admired you for the “nuggets”, some bright and others not so, about the Sikh way of life in India and abroad. I admired you greatly for the legacy that you leave behind in writing “A History of the Sikhs” of which I have two leather bound copies from the Oxford University Press, in my library. I admired you for translations of the Granth that I have used for public events. I admired you for highlighting the continuing Sikh obsession with rituals and caste, in total contradiction to our founding Guru’s beliefs and teachings.

    I admired you for being so fluent, honest (not sure about the women you claim you did not bed!), humorous, perceptive, and articulate in your writing. I admired you for so successfully having retained predominantly the culture of the country of your birth, despite all your exposure to the western world. Last, but not least, I admired you for being a proud Sikh.
    Over the past fifteen years or so you were very occasionally the topic of some sibling rivalry jibe that a dear friend of mine Patwant Singh, enjoyed about you. Amongst last of the “Brown Sahibs”, Patwant was introduced to me by a nephew of his in Canada, Satjiv Chahil, from a Patiala family, with an ancestral home in Kasauli. Patwant became a dear friend, with a most amusing Oxbridge accent, despite having barely finished high school. Highly opinionated, with the usual dash of Sikh arrogance, and quite articulate, Patwant was a passionate Sikh and very patriotic. I was quite touched by an obituary you wrote for him, that I stumbled upon in an in-flight magazine. I sent a copy of the same to his wife Meher. After I read it, I reminisced that you were kinder to him in death than he was to you in life!
    Another Khushwant moment I recall was your reaction to an elaborate wedding in India of Sant Chatwal’s son, Vikram that my wife and I had attended. You used a rather appropriate Punjabi word “Hotcha” (silent ‘t’) to describe the event. Sant was a good friend, to start with many years ago, with the relationship descending to a good acquaintance, as his fortunes climbed.
    It is quite unfortunate that the terrorist threat on you in the aftermath of 1984, resulted in your refusal to accept an invitation to visit Toronto for a Sikh Conference at the University of Toronto, that I was quite instrumental in organizing. The same may have provided an opportunity to meet you in flesh and blood, live of course!
    It is such a coincidence that just after finishing your book in Anguilla and returning to Toronto last week, to write this letter to you, I received by e-mail, the following from my brother:
    PICKLED IN RUM

    The horse and the mule live for 30 years,
    And know nothing of wines and beer;
    The goat and sheep at 20 die,
    And never get a taste of Scotch and rye.

    The cow drinks water by the tonne
    And at 18 is mostly done
    Without the aid of rum and gin.
    The cat in milk and water soaks,
    And then in 12 short years it croaks.
    The modest, sober, bone-dry hen
    Lays eggs for others, then dies at 10.

    All animals are strictly dry,
    They sinless live and swiftly die.
    But sinful, ginful, rum-soaked men
    Survive for three score years and ten,
    And some of them, though very few,
    Stay pickled till they’re 92.
    (Courtesy Khushwant Singh, himself 92)

    I am likely to be in Delhi this February and will be glad to bring you a bottle of your favourite scotch, not that you need one with all those royalties overflowing your coffers, to share one with you before you grab that last one for that uncertain road ahead, that we must all walk down on some day. I believe “Pickled in Rum” could be an appropriate Epitaph at your Baha’i grave for someone who lived a full life.

    With fond regards,

    Suresh Bhalla.