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Truth Without Malice
A review of Truth, Love, and a Little Malice by Khushwant Singh.

Rukun Advani is the author of Beethoven Among the Cows and runs a publishing company, Permanent Black, in New Delhi. W. Hew McLeod's Discovering the Sikhs: Autobiography of a Historian has been published by Permanent Black.

The Hindu, Feb. 24, 2002

When you read a sentence in Khushwant Singh's recent autobiography which begins 'the most fulfilling thing I have done in my life was . . . ,' you expect it to conclude with the name of some beautiful woman he long desired and finally seduced. Alternatively, you expect to learn the name of some smooth single malt he savoured after a prolonged delay. But you'd be wrong. The second half of the sentence reads: '. . . working on Sikh religion and history.' This reminds us that there is much more to Khushwant Singh than Truth, Love, and a Little Malice.

Sex and scotch may have provided the central juice to this sardar's roaring rhetoric and disguised the core of scholarship he possesses, but with sentences such as this, his autobiography frequently betrays the persona of a drink-and-desire-bum, which he has cultivated. This is a sardar who knows that, metaphorically speaking, what has meant most to him is not carnal knowledge of a virgin but intellectual knowledge of Virgil. Alongside his ability to call a spade a spade when everyone else is calling it a pitchfork, this bedrock of learning is the basis of his self-respect. It underlies all the fluff he has churned out to please the millions and earn himself roughly the same. Without it he would have ended up as the male Shobha De.

This non-salacious side of Khushwant Singh's early career is what gives even some of his present gossipy utterances the ring of substance and integrity. A journalist's views on society and politics are taken more seriously when he is something of a learned man and historian, or if he enjoys some degree of credibility in the world of higher learning. Political journalists such as Achin Vanaik, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, and Prannoy Roy are, in this sense, the inheritors of Khushwant Singh, Ajit Bhattacharjea, and Sham Lal, who moved with ease between the university and the newsroom.

In recent years, as the cultural and financial capital of the Indian university has shrunk while that of the media has risen, academics and thinking people have increasingly written for the large audiences reachable only via the press: Mahesh Rangarajan, Mukul Kesavan, Ramachandra Guha, Arundhati Roy, Rajeev Dhawan, Amit Chaudhuri, Amitav Ghosh, Rajeev Bhargava, and Mushirul Hasan have supplemented and enriched Indian political journalism with insights from the world of learning. Most writers who have found great fulfilment in academic writing will, however, go only as far as penning analytic commentary or an essay in a newspaper or magazine, but no further. They will certainly not, for instance, follow Khushwant Singh's career graph and compromise their intellectual credibility by purveying lurid stories about their friends in print (though they do this orally all the time), nor write joke books which sell only on railway platforms.

It takes a headstrong sardar who is almost insanely unembarrassed, stupidly courageous, and admirably wily to go as far down the journalistic tube as Khushwant Singh has done, when he might have followed up the academic success of his two-volume History of the Sikhs with a glittering career in some American university. As a journalist too he has played down his learning, not out of any insecurity about it but perhaps for commercial reasons.

His achievement, in fact, seems to consist in the shrewdly vulgar realisation that most Indian readers of newspaper English don't want to be improved, they only want to be entertained. The Khushwant solution has been to arouse them with small, pleasantly titillating doses of electric shock in the region of their private parts. His everyday administration of masala is the newspaper world's equivalent of the larger doses provided by television serials and Hindi movies which focus on marital triangles and domestic squabbles. E.M. Forster once said of Rudyard Kipling, 'he is our first authority on the second rate.' This could be said of Khushwant Singh. If he had possessed a more refined imagination, he could have been our David Lodge. Instead, he occupies the exact centre spot between the high-minded editorialising of Dilip Padgaonkar and the pure-armpit columns of Coomi Kapoor.

It is interesting to contrast Khushwant Singh's spectacularly successful plunge in the direction of lowbrow journalism with the lowkey academic success of another fine historian of the Sikhs who is almost unknown outside India's academic circles. Hew McLeod, only about 10 years younger than Khushwant Singh, is a New Zealander and the author of perhaps the best short account of Sikh history that has ever been published. His book is called Who is a Sikh? and McLeod has done more for Sikh history than anyone now alive. In fact, if there is a Father of Sikh History, it is Hew McLeod, an opinion with which Khushwant Singh would agree.

McLeod first came to Punjab in the late 1950s as a missionary teacher but soon realised his real interest was history. Within a few years he had published his first book, a pioneering work called Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion (1968). At the time that McLeod started his career, Sikh history in English was largely made up of colonial gazetteers and accounts of the martial nature of Sikh peasants. Sikh history was also mixed up with theological issues. Historically verifiable facts were confused with beliefs propagated by religious leaders in the interest of unifying their community.

Sikh leaders, gurus, and elites were written about, but not dissenting movements, religious mobilisations, and the diversity of cultures within Sikhism itself. Over roughly the same time that Khushwant Singh dived downhill to divert the Indian masses, Hew McLeod began writing a series of books, which changed the face of Sikh history. McLeod also nurtured a small band of scholars of Sikhism in Western universities who are now renowned in their own right.

He has been responsible for modernising Sikh history and putting it on a more scientific footing. Murli Manohar Joshi would loathe him, which is now our surest proof of a genuine historian. For anyone who wishes to understand the essence of Sikh scriptural writing - the janam sakhis [hagiographic accounts of the Sikh gurus], the rahit nama, the gur bani and the Adi Granth - as well as how the Indian sardars such as Khushwant have evolved into the distinctive shape they possess today, Hew McLeod, much more than Khushwant Singh, is the historian to read.

A few days ago, just after the death of Khushwant Singh's wife, I got an e-mail from Hew McLeod in New Zealand. He wanted to convey his condolences to Khushwant but didn't have Khushwant's e-mail address. McLeod also said his own autobiography, which I had been urging him to write, was coming along fine, and he wondered if Khushwant could send him a review that he, Khushwant, had written of one of Hew's books, many years ago.

Khushwant dictated a reply: he was delighted to hear from Hew and he remembered the review very well; unfortunately he couldn't trace it. The review is not in Khushwant's autobiography, nor does Hew McLeod feature in it, which seems a great pity. Perhaps the review and Khushwant himself will appear in McLeod's forthcoming autobiography. It seems to me that, at some point about 40 years ago, two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . . Khushwant took the one leading towards yellow journalism, Hew took the greener one leading to a higher pasture. True or not, there is little doubt that Hew McLeod will echo the sentence on page 206 of his sardar friend's autobiography: 'the most fulfilling thing I have done in my life was working on Sikh religion and history.'

Related Links:
W. Hew McLeod: Historian of a Living Faith, By RUKUN ADVANI, The Telegraph, Jul. 17, 2002