Life Lessons I learned from Khushwant Singh

There are few people who have lived Life on their own terms, who have been brutally honest about themselves, as they have been of others, and who will live on through their Life’s message. Khushwant Singh was one of them.

I know there are far too many obits, tributes and memoirs out there celebrating the grand ‘ol man of India – his Life and his times. One more from me may hardly seem to matter and it may even appear to be an overkill. But let me share what I have learned from him.
Khushwant Singh
Picture Courtesy: Internet
26 years back, my wife and I met Khushwant Singh. My wife lived in New Delhi at that time and we were to marry the following year. I was visiting her on a vacation. We had some time to kill one afternoon. We looked up the phone directory (well, there was once a time we all depended on that big, fat book!) and called Khushwant Singh’s home. He answered the phone himself. I introduced myself as a journalist from ‘The Indian Express’, Madras, and I asked if I could interview him for our weekend magazine. He gave me an appointment the next day. So my wife and I landed up at his Sujan Singh Park residence. He answered the door himself, was very cordial and offered us ‘chai’(it was around 4 pm in the afternoon, so Scotch was out of the question I guess). Although he may not have been expecting someone with me, he was extremely nice to my wife. When he heard that we were engaged to be married he said, “Companionship is very important in Life. Be happy with each other’s presence and be there for each other.”He must have been 73 or so. And I was just getting to be 21. That advice, unsolicited though it was, has stayed with me, and with my wife, all these years, and has served us both very, very well. That’s the first Life lesson I learned from Khushwant Singh – and wasn’t I blessed to have learned it live, directly from him?
It was a good interview he gave me – he spoke about writing, shared his own views on the writer’s block and about journalism in India. He was very down-to-earth, dressed in home clothes with an unkempt turban on his head. Honestly, I was too overawed to be in his home, in front of him, that none of what he said really mattered to me then. I was keen on staying on for as long as we could because I wanted bragging rights that we spent so much time at Khushwant Singh’s home. So I kept on asking him questions. He soon got bored. But he did not hide his feelings or drop hints suggesting that we must now leave. He simply came to the point. “I am afraid you are taking more than the hour I had set aside for this interview. You have to excuse me. You will have to leave now,” he said in the most honest way anyone can say such a thing to visitors without sounding rude. We quickly apologized, packed up and left. That was the second lesson I learned from him – Be direct, in-the-face and truthful about whatever you feel. He surely lived his Life that way, but for young 20-something me, it was a big learning. I did not put this learning into practice effectively until about a decade ago. But ever since I have started being in-the-face and speaking my mind to people, I have been a lot more at peace with myself.
My interview with him appeared in The Indian Express’ Weekend section in Madras in a few weeks after our meeting. I sent him a clipping of the piece with a note thanking him and apologizing for our poor etiquette that afternoon. I didn’t expect him to reply. But he did. He thanked me for the clipping. He said that he enjoyed meeting me and my wife. He wished us both a wonderful married Life. It was a simple, short note. But there was a warmth and blessing in it. That was the third lesson I learned from Khushwant Singh – Take time to respond to whoever reaches out to you, no matter who they are. I treasure this lesson and live it every single day of my Life. I was not surprised, therefore, this morning when I read his son Rahul Singh’s tribute “My father Khushwant” in The Times of India where he says, “Above all, he was a great communicator. As the Kipling poem goes, my father could walk with the kings and yet had the common touch.”
Much fanfare has been made about how Khushwant Singh wanted his epitaph to read: Here lies one who spared neither man nor God; Waste not your tears on him, he was a sod; Writing nasty things he regarded as great fun; Thank the Lord he is dead, this son of a gun.” But typical to the man, not too many people have known (even I would not have known had it not been for former India cricket captain Bishen Singh Bedi’s passing mention in his piece in The Hinduthis morning) that as per his will, Khushwant Singh’s eyes were donated before he was cremated yesterday. Through this compassionate wish of his, I learned yet another significant lesson from Khushwant Singh, albeit through his passing – Always, be useful!
What a way to live and what a way to go. If we can imbibe the spirit of his Life’s message, we will all live happier – and peaceful – lives!  

Sitting on a pedestal or mourning in self-pity – both are in vain

Through victory or defeat, stay unmoved.
Two interesting perspectives, and learnings, came up after the recently-concluded World Chess Championship in Chennai, where Magnus Carslen, 23, became the new World Chess Champion, defeating Viswanathan Anand, 43.
After the emphatic win, Carlsen spoke of Anand to The Times of India’s Susan Ninan: “Although he’s an all-time great player, his results lately have not been too good and he’ll need some time to readjust to be able to come back. In this match I showed him in a way that although he’s taught me many things in the past, it’s probably now my turn to teach him. So, it’s safe to say I’ve surpassed him now.” I was not surprised to see Carlsen’s statement or his conceit. It’s his age, I told myself, to think and express himself that way.
This morning, I read what Anand told The Times of India’s Chidanand Rajghatta, in response to a question if Anand really believes Carlsen can teach him: “I wasn’t expecting him to be gracious, so fair enough. The winner can say anything when he wins… so I guess we will just have to swallow it for now.” Considered as one of the greatest chess players of all time, and given his equanimity, it was but expected of Anand to be accepting and graceful.
I can relate to both these attitudes.
I once had the misplaced brashness of Carlsen – when I was his age! In those times, I used to imagine that you needed to display your aggression, that you needed to be “seen” as a doer – that, only through such visibility, you could build a reputation as “someone to reckon with”. As I became more and more successful, I vainly believed that “I” was causing all that success. I remember, as a young, firebrand, civic journalist, I was mandated by my mentor and boss, “Master” C.P.Seshadri to run a weekly column in The Indian Express’ Chennai (then Madras) edition. My stories reported the lack of amenities in the suburbs of the city. The nature of coverage, and the newspaper’s reach, made the column and me very popular. I began to assume that I was all-important and, therefore, over time grew irreverent. Now, I was on the editorial team in the paper and so, was technically not liable to report stories. The head of the reporting team was a very senior journalist called Rmt.Sambandam – his experience was my age at that time! Sambandam was a stalwart in Chennai media and everyone in our paper, and among competition, looked up to him. But I remained irreverent and did not greet him or even acknowledge his presence when I saw him in the hallway or when we rode in an elevator together. Somewhere in my mind, I had developed this holier-than-thou feeling – that made me believe that I was delivering stories that Sambandam’s team was “incapable” of reporting. Years passed. I went my way in Life. I built my career in the media. And then I quit the media world to join the corporate sector. Eventually, after almost a decade of work experience behind me, I went on to set up my own consulting practice. Sambandam, in this time, grew within the Indian Express Group. And eventually went on to edit the Group’s Tamil paper Dinamani. I was not aware of this development though. So, I was dazed when, one afternoon, when I landed up at the Dinamani office, to meet someone “senior” to seek some information I needed, I was ushered into Sambandam’s room!!
Sambandam greeted me with a beaming smile!
“AVIS! My boy! How are you?” he exclaimed.
I tried to mutter a reply but I could not. I had never expected him to be there. I quickly recalled, in a flash, the innumerable times that I had looked away from the man. I wondered what he may be thinking of me. To be sure, over those years, I had sobered down and had realized that to behave haughtily was petty. But I could not undo what I had already done. Especially with Sambandam. And here I was, in front of him, and I did not know what to say or where to begin.
Sambandam made things easy as he humbled me. He said: “It’s grrrrreeeeaatttt to see you. You know after you left us, I often used to wonder where you were. I would occasionally make enquiries and would be delighted to hear that you have grown in your career and are doing very well. You had to. You are one of the finest journalists I have known and are also one of the most ethical and hardworking people in your generation.”
I was speechless. With my raw ambition, as a rookie journalist, I had run roughshod over this man and his team. Not that it affected them. But I imagined, vainly, that it had! Here I was being feted by the man himself. It was both humbling and embarrassing. In fact, I was ashamed of my past conduct. In that brief meeting Sambandam, unwittingly, taught me “how vain it was to sit on a pedestal”.
That’s perhaps why I related to Anand’s sagacity, in response to Carlsen’s bombastic claim,  when I read his interview this morning.
I have learned from Life that “Victory” and “Defeat” are labels that we pin on events that happen in our lives. When you understand and examine Life deeply these labels have no consequence. You and I are mere specks on this vast cosmic landscape. We neither engineer our successes nor do we cause our failures. We keep on acting, doing what’s within our control and what we think is right. Sometimes, these actions lead to results that meet or exceed our expectations – we call these results our successes. At times, our actions backfire and intended results are not achieved – we call these moments our failures. That’s simply it. There is no need, therefore, to sit on a pedestal when we succeed or mourn in self-pity when we fail. Being unmoved in either situation is an intelligent choice. Irrespective of what others may say or think, this is a choice that can surely guarantee your inner peace!