Most of us knew Khushwant Singh as an eccentric, avuncular pillar of Indian journalism. His fame was built mainly on his stewardship of The Illustrated Weekly of India, the country’s classiest magazine at one time. His death two years ago was much mourned. But it seems this image was not universal.
I found this letter by A S Raman, the first Indian editor of the Weekly, in the magazine’s August 4, 1984 issue. I don’t have the full background to the rift between Raman and Singh, but the piece is colourful. It is the kind of piece Singh enjoyed writing about others. You can strain your eyes over this print or read my transcript of it below.
“For Principle or Publicity?”
“I have just read Vir Sanghvi’s piece on Khushwant Singh in your issue of June 24. Khushwant Singh came to the Weekly in 1969 with the dubious reputation of a third-rate fiction writer and he has lived up to it. He has no respect for facts at all. First, he didn’t take over from me. His immediate predecessor was Subrata Banerjee under whose editorship the Weekly nearly collapsed. He was in charge of the paper for about 11 months. Secondly, Khushwant Singh considered my Weekly bright and classy. A couple of months before assuming the editorship of the paper he wrote to me from Swarthmore, USA, thus: ‘I wish I had the confidence to match your ability.’
Singh came to the Weekly in 1969 with the dubious reputation of a third-rate fiction writer and he has lived up to it
“When I left the Weekly, the circulation was about 100,000. The peak figure under my stewardship was about 140,000, which in the mid-60s was considered the highest for any popular journal in English. In my time there were very distinguished byliners such as Arnold Toynbee, Eugene Black, Allen Ginsberg, Graham Greene, Aubrey Menen (who wrote our Letter from Rome), V S Naipaul (who wrote our London Letter), Raja Rao, Nirad C Chaudhuri, etc. In fact Nirad started writing for the Weekly only after I had joined it. The fact is that Khushwant Singh has not forgiven me ever since I ‘sacked’ him as our Delhi Correspondent. Rejecting his copy as thin and trivial, I suggested to him that he step down so that someone more responsible and professionally more sophisticated could take over from him.
The fact is that Khushwant Singh has not forgiven me ever since I ‘sacked’ him as our Delhi Correspondent
“Thirdly, about my drunkenness and art collection. How mean! I did drink but spent my own money, whereas he drank the whisky supplied by his diplomat friends. Once he kept his guests waiting for two hours because the expected quota of liquor from the German (FRG) Press Attache was late in coming! Every journalist in Bombay and Delhi must be by now familiar with Khushwant Singh’s generosity with other people’s liquor. My experience has been that he is not generous even with the liquor gifted by diplomats, movie artistes and hoteliers, the principal source of his patronage.
I did drink but spent my own money, whereas he drank the whisky supplied by his diplomat friends. Once he kept his guests waiting for two hours because the expected quota of liquor from the German (FRG) Press Attache was late in coming!
“As for my non-existent art collection, I have just two paintings bought at negotiated prices, the artists being those who had never appeared in the Weekly. Khushwant Singh is an internationally known wangler of invitations for foreign trips.
Khushwant Singh is an internationally known wangler of invitations for foreign trips.
“Lastly, his so-called success at the Weekly was at the expense of good taste, sound judgement and professional integrity. Anyway, he couldn’t repeat his success at New Delhi or National Herald or The Hindustan Times. What he is extremely good at is the technique of filling space with contrived obscenities. I say contrived, because he is basically a weak man who resorts to aggression in sheer self-defence and who wants to remain in the limelight by hook or by crook.
What he is extremely good at is the technique of filling space with contrived obscenities.
“Jamini Roy and M Chelapathi Rao also returned their Padma Bhushan papers. But they made no noise unlike Khushwant Singh. I’ll not be surprised if he resigns from the Rajya Sabha, not for a principle but just for publicity. Don’t I know him?”
— A S Raman