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Author Sadia Dehlvi on Delhi’s legendary writer.
[Text by Sadia Dehlvi; pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]
If you ask me about the women in author Khushwant Singh’s life, I would say I am the only one. That’s how special he makes all those around him feel. Women are drawn to him because he doubles up as confidante, friend, father and mentor.
For women afflicted with heartbreak, Khushwant readily provides his shoulders to dry the tears and at celebration time he shares the cheer. He has the remarkable ability to suffer all kinds of people, often getting bullied into inviting them home to his evening durbar. I know many women whom Khushwant helped get jobs, admissions, transfers, and senior government posts. Many authors including me owe their career to his mentoring.
I first met Khushwant thirty years ago at the Arab Cultural Centre where my friend Ameena Ahmed happened to be exhibiting her calligraphic paintings. He walked up to me and said “Why are you so beautiful?”. I laughed replying, “Because I am a beautiful person.” Khushwant asked me to come to his house the next evening and the visits to Sujan Singh Park have continued ever since. His flat became my window to the world of the rich, famous and the absurd. Here I met presidents, parliamentarians, religious zealots, intellectuals, artists, poets, businessmen, harassed women, ambitious men and proud transvestites.
Very soon Khushwant began to mention me repeatedly in his newspaper columns and I too openly wrote of my love for him in my columns. It furthered his notoriety and capitulated me into the public arena. Saying, “I want to show you off”, he took me along to people’s homes and to public functions. When there were special invitees for dinner, I played hostess at his home, ensuring guests were comfortable. Khushwant’s wife Kanval was fond of me so my presence in the living room was never a problem. The women Kanval disapproved had to be entertained in his study and were not welcome to stay for dinner.
In 1993, Khushwant dedicated his book Not a Nice Man to Know to me: ‘To Sadia Dehlvi, who gave me more notoriety and affection than I deserve.’ Many amongst his women friends turned green with envy and to our amusement, some began to accuse him of ghost-writing my columns. We grew to share an incredible bond, a friendship that continues to nurture me intellectually and emotionally.
We share a common love for the city of Delhi and Urdu poetry. Khushwant has a soft spot for Muslims and Muslim women in particular. His house is adorned with calligraphies from the Quran and the Muslim greeting ‘Salaam Alaikum’ is printed on the curtains. One thing that he despises is dishonesty and religious prejudice. I know many well-known people harbouring communal biases who have been dropped permanently from his circle.
Despite the celebrity status, Khushwant answers the phone himself, replies to letters and till recently was accessible to all those who wished to meet him. Taking a prior appointment used to be the only criteria for visiting rights.
With age and exhaustion, the numbers of those invited to the evening Durbar e Khas has shrunk and one rarely encounters a new face. Conversations are shorter and the poetry is usually Ghalib's. Khushwant now find it stressful to meet new faces and I have been ordered not to bring friends any more. I try explaining my helplessness with people seeking access to him. He says, “Just tell them that I'm an irritable, senile and nasty old man.” The truth is that at ninety plus, Khushwant is maashallah just as alert, lovable and wonderful as ever.
[Sadia Dehlvi is the author of Sufism - The Heart of Islam]