Khushwant Singh’s Journalism: The Illustrated Weekly of India

Khushwant Singh was someone I naturally gravitated towards as a young literature scholar, as he was one of the very few modern, secular Sikh writers with an international profile. (Now we have Brit-Asians like Nirpal Dhaliwal — though judging from this, I’m not really sure that represents progress.) khushwant singh editors page small.jpg But while I did read everything I could find by Khushwant Singh early in graduate school, I ended up not writing about him, barring one seminar paper that my professor at the time didn’t particularly like.

The truth is, from a literary perspective Khushwant Singh’s novels really aren’t that great. They aren’t as adventurous as G.V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr, and not quite as carefully controlled as the novels written by his contemporaries in the 1950s — i.e., R.K. Narayan. Train to Pakistan (1956) sold very well in the west, and was in print for years and years. It isn’t bad — it’s actually a well-plotted, suspenseful partition novel — but it’s just somewhat unremarkable. I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale and Delhi, by contrast, aren’t very readable at all.

After the 1950s, Khushwant Singh focused less on creative writing and more on journalism, which is where, I think, he’s made his greatest contribution. Between 1969 and 1978 he was the head editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, an ancient institution that lasted for more than 100 years, and was, until the 1980s, the biggest English-language news-magazine in India (perhaps in all of Asia). Under the British, it was effectively a colonial society magazine, and it didn’t change much under its first two Indian editors. Khushwant Singh was the third Indian editor, and he turned the ethos of the magazine on its head. He describes his approach in the preface to a collection of columns called Khushwant Singh’s Editor’s Page (1981):

Under its first two Indian editors [The Illustrated Weekly] became a vehicle of Indian culture devoting most of its pages to art, sculpture, classical dance and pretty pictures of flowers, birds, and dencing belles. It did not touch controversial subjects, was strictly apolitical and asexual (save occasional blurred reproductions of Khajuraho or Konarak). It earned a well-deserved reputation for dull respectability. I changed all that. What was a four-wheeled victoria taking well-draped ladies out to eat the Indian air I made a noisy rumbustious, jet-propelled vehicle of information, controversy and amusement. I tore up the unwritten norms of gentility, both visual and linguistic. . . . And slowly the circulation built up, till the Illustrated did become a weekly habit of the English-reading pseudo-elite of the country. It became the most widely read journal in Asia (barring Japan) because it reflected all the contending points of view on every conceivable subject: politics, economics, religion, and the arts.

I’ve spent some time looking at the magazine before, during, and after the Khushwant Singh years (1969-1978), and what he says above rings true. The earlier editors were very “respectable,” with relatively safe short stories (often with a ‘village’ theme), and relatively bland features that mostly just synthesized the news. (In the 1960s, the magazine had a special section for “Women and Children,” which says a lot about how it conceived of its readership.) Most English-speaking and reading middle-class Indians in the 1960s hadn’t really remiagined themselves in a way that challenged the dominance of English norms. Given how limited the use of the English was at the time demographically, it’s not hard to see how a continued dependence on England and Englishness could occur. (Several issues gave lavish coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s tour of India in 1967, for instance.)

Khushwant Singh has always written in English, and he was in every sense a contemporary of the “transitional” colonials: at the time of independence, he was already thirty-two, and had spent several years studying Law in Cambridge and at the Inner Temple, London. But as a journalist I think he broke the stranglehold of Anglophiliaby taking the United States as his English-language reference point rather than England. As an editor, it was wild, sometimes trashy American culture in and after the 1960s that Khushwant brought into the pages of The Illustrated Weekly: rock n’ roll, the Vietnam war protests, and the counter-culture (including the signficiant component of barefoot, Enlightenment-seeking hippies who ended up in India). Admittedly, some of the pictures of bikini-clad free-love kids in Goa splashed on the pages of The Illustrated Weekly were rather more like tabloid sensationalism than serious journalism, but there’s no doubt that these images had an effect on how Indians saw themselves in that era.

I admire Khushwant Singh’s secularism, which for me is always best represented by the Mario cartoon he used on his “Editor’s Page” in The Illustrated Weekly: a caricature of himself, sitting next to a pile of books, a bottle of scotch, and a girlie magazine. This is the basis for the familiar Khushwant Singh slogan, “sex, scotch, and scholarship,” which is also the title of one of his later books of essays. Much has been made of the “sex” and “scotch,” which is ironic since testimony from people who know him has confirmed that he’s neither a womanizer nor a heavy drinker. “Sex, scotch, and scholarship” isn’t literally Khushwant Singh’s lifestyle (nor does it accurately represent his attitude towards women); it’s rather a slogan for his fiercely independent ethos. It’s something India still has need of: a willingness to publicly be something other than “respectable” and “respectful,” to tell the truth rather than wrap the world in mysticism or one or another political ideology.

That’s not to say that Khushwant Singh didn’t make mistakes from time to time. His support for Indira Gandhi during the Emergency now looks extremely questionable, in that Christopher Hitchens-has-he-lost-his-mind? sort of way. And he probably should never have gotten involved with politics (though it could probably be argued that a Rajya Sabha seat isn’t really a “political” post), though at least he knew when it was time (i.e., after 1984) to walk away.

The Sikh community has been somewhat ambivalent about Khushwant Singh over the years. Earlier, he was seen as too close to Indira Gandhi, despite his public rebuke of Operation Blue Star. During the years of militancy in Punjab, his strong opposition to the secesionist movement made things dangerous for him (I believe there was a price on his head for awhile). And even separate from these specific political questions, of course, Khushwant’s aforementioned secularism — his preference for scotch (Sikhs, remember, aren’t supposed to drink alcohol), his crude humor, and his public declaration that he has no personal religious faith, have all eroded support for him from devout Sikhs. Despite that ambivalence, it’s widely recognized that Khushwant Singh’s History of the Sikhs is still a benchmark as a written introduction to the Sikh tradition. (Patwant Singh’s recent book hasn’t really caught on.) And he has, after all, retained the turban and beard that are so important to Sikh cultural identity. In short, despite everything, for most people, Khushwant Singh is still the same old Sardar.

To wrap up. In my view, Khushwant Singh’s talent has lain not in deep or revolutionary thinking, but in the writing of his weekly columns and in a keen sense of what is timely, interesting, and important to talk about. He started doing this in the 1960s, and kept it up for thirty or more years, leaving a sizeable body of work. In a sense, this nurturing of the individualized, independent public voice is quite on par with what we bloggers ourselves do. Writing for The Illustrated Weekly or The Hindustan Times (which he took up in 1980), his voice perhaps had more authority than the average blogger’s, but his consistent egalitarianism and irreverent tone gives me every reason to believe that Khushwant Singh would have a blog if he were fifty (or indeed, seventy) years younger. But who knows: the guy is still at it — he might start one one of these days.


A final note. Khushwant Singh, at the age of 92, is still out and about. This summer he has been doing public lectures in Delhi on the history of the city (his father had a hand in the building of Edward Lutyens’ New Delhi in the 1910s and 20s). He’s also been publishing essays and books pretty regularly, though they aren’t really of quite the same quality as some of his work from the 1970s.

94 thoughts on “Khushwant Singh’s Journalism: The Illustrated Weekly of India

  1. I read Train to Pakistan…..It’s a bit filmi (more Hollywood than Bollywood), I am surprised no one has thought of making a film.

    A film of the novel was indeed made back in 1998, starring Nirmal Pandey and a couple of other familiar faces (Divya Dutta etc).

    I thought it was quite well made. Has some nice music too.

  2. Great post. I think you’re right on the money when you say that he’s good but not great. I just finished reading “City Improbable” which is a collection of pieces about Delhi edited by Khushwant Singh (some even translated by him). Would recommend it even though the quality of pieces is somewhat uneven. It has pieces by Timur Lane, Ibn Batuta, Manjula Padmanabhan and Khushwant singh himself. BTW amardeep, Edwin Lutyens, surely? cheers Ujjwal

  3. I remember being 15 and on vacation in India with my family, and walking into a bookstore and seeing his books, one of which had him on the cover. Being, like Amardeep, a young Sikh who wanted another Sikh role model, I bought all the books by him at that bookstore(I think there were about 6 or 7 of them). The one I first read was Not a Nice Man to Know which I think was a collection of his essays. I remember being mildly shocked at his confession of leering at women and enjoying a good Scotch, but I think that years later, what spoke to me most was his honesty.

  4. A true blue blooded liberal..He used to write a column “With malice towards one and all”. The title intrinsically suggests the irreverence of the contents. Bold and brazen. A pioneer, in that sense..quite a lovable old fella..its funny..one always remembers him as ‘old’ (not many of us have seen him young I guess) and incorrigible. Would have made a fascinating blogger.

  5. KS has a very kinky side to him as well. I bet he could beat any of our esteemed Mutineers in a horndawg contest.

  6. I didn’t know Sikhs were forbidden to take whiskey!

    It is recommended for devout Sikhs to refrain from drinking alcohol, smoking/ingesting tobacco, along with a couple of other activities.

    However, overall the faith places much greater emphasis on certain other behaviours and attitudes in comparison to the above (eg. one’s own conduct and treatment of others), except in the case of Amritdhari/baptised Sikhs, for whom the above is absolutely mandatory.

  7. khushwant singh’s weekly was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise moribund world of desi english journalism. he did a series of profiling some of the various communities of india. he brought chemmeen to indian audiences through serials. also another noted writer of tamil, t.janakiraman. his editorials were a delight. the weekly quickly sunk to its old dead roots soon after dr.k left. too bad he did not do any good succession planning.

  8. Kritic, you are welcome..

    To add, JOGENDRA NATH MANDAL later migrated back to India.

  9. At 92, Khushwant is a bit like my great grandfather. Much as I want, I cannot afford to be as irreverent as Khushwant himself would want me to be. For, all his life, KS has lived by a strategically created contradictions around his own persona and it is this quality – nearly unique among Indian authors – that has made him so endearingly enigmatic. However, there are two major faux pas in which this veneer of intrepid complexity begins to crumble. His uncritical and at one time quite cearly sycophantic relationship with Indira and Sanjay Gandhi which involved his unpardonable support to the Emergency was one such. The other, though less noticed and not quite as reprehensible, is his History of the Sikhs where he comes across more of a Sikh – even a devout Sikh – than a historian. It is not as if he has not pored over facts and archival material. It is that his writing of history is simply not convincing as credible history writing. His translations of Sikh scriptures are similarly handicapped by the lack of a credible knowledge of either the Punjabi language or the Gurumukhi script. But, of course, he remains highly extolled. And one cannot fight with such statured eminence. In his relationship with women authors, Amrita Pritam and Ajeet Caur being two prime examples, he has invariably assumed a tumultuosly ironic schism: ‘I love you. I even love your dog. But don’t stop me from saying outrageously unsavoury things about you and your books!’ Bravo KS!

    I would hesitate to venture an opinion on his merit as a writer of consequence on Punjab and the partition for fear of being ‘encouraged’ to air such musty views on my own blog. However, those who have read Laxman Tandon,s Punjabi Century, Bhisham Sahni‘s Mayyadas ki Mari and Tamas, Chaman Nahal‘s Azadi, Krishna Sobti‘s Zindaginaama, Mohan Rakesh‘s Malbe Ka Malik or Manto‘s Toba Tek Singh etc. would already know how and where to place him.

    One of the biggest disservices rendered by him to the Sikhs is perpetuating the stereotype of the Sikh scholars as more of accidental village intellectuals rather than serious commentators on contemporary cutural formations. With a turban on your head in India, you have not even an outside chance to succeed in India to find pan-Indian acceptance as a scholar of consequence. If you have a turban on your head, you have to have residual traces of buffonery which is symptomatically injurious to genuine scholarship. How else does one explain the glaring absence of Sikhs from the field of cultural studies from Indian Universities? Even the most liberal, democratic and left-oriented intellectuals and experts have known to have turned down the Sikhs as possible professors in the various departments of arts and aesthetics. Not one in Delhi University, not one in Jawaharlal Nehru University, not one in Bombay, Calcutta or Jadhavpur (don’t forget Partha Chatterjee began from the Guru Nanak University of Amritsar!) Bangalore in the last 60 years. There is either something wrong with the Sikhs or us?

  10. Not one in Delhi University, not one in Jawaharlal Nehru University, not one in Bombay, Calcutta or Jadhavpur (don’t forget Partha Chatterjee began from the Guru Nanak University of Amritsar!) Bangalore in the last 60 years.

    Some serious hype there.

    Manmohan Singh (himself considered a serious economist) daughter is a faculty at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. Manmohan Singh himself was a Profesor in Punjab Univeristy, and then Delhi School of Economics.

    Dr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia is currently Dy. Chairman, Planning Commission, India. He worked for IMF too, and his wife is a judge.

    I can personally vouch that Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Roorkee have sikh male faculties. Sure, it is a technical University. I do not keep track of liberal arts faculty in India, but I have a feeling neither do you.

  11. Mr Kush in your enthusiasm to feel euphoric, you have chosen to ignore the crucial comment which pertains to cultural studies. Not economics. And for God’s sake do not cite names of lecturers or Assistant Professors. I know there are many lecturers but even there not one in the field of cultural studiesM/b> which would include popular culture, literature, film studies. As for the Professors it would take another 50 years maybe.

  12. Also, understand clearly the semiotics of the look. Your case becomes a lot easier if you do not have a turban on your head or if you are a woman. By the way Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s wife – she with a lovely bob-cut – Ishar Ahluwalia is not a judge but an economist. Do you know that the first ever Ph.D in film studies in India is a regular surd and that while he was engaged in doing his Ph.D he was not allowed or shall we say encouraged to make use the services the National Film Archives at Pune? That he is languishing as a marginal lecturer in an inconsequential college in Delhi University even as he nears retirement? That in the past 20 years he has never once been invited to lecture on cinema or film related subjects?

  13. Also in the genre of partition literature is Azadi by Chaman Nahal

    Winner of the Sahitya Akademi prize several years ago, it was also translated into Tamil by Prema Nandakumar as Viduthalai.

  14. I notice that Mr Kush Tandon mentions Sabiha Sumar‘s Khamosh Pani and Bhisham Sahni‘s Tamas, the surd lecturer I mentioned in my earlier mail has earned name as a music composer and singer and the music of Khamosh Pani is in fact done by him. He has also done a film on Bhisham Sahni for India’s Sahitya Akademi. Recently, he composed music for another film on partition, Beyond Partition, by the London-based film scholar Lalit Joshi. He also wrote the well-know film on the great Bengali filmmaker, Ritwik Ghatak, called Ekti Nadir Naam and another one on the legendary classical musician, Mallikarjun Mansoor, called Rasayatra. Moral of the story is that you cannot stop genuine talent and scholarship. I cannot resist mentioning that I am a proud student of his.

  15. Do you know that the first ever Ph.D in film studies in India is a regular surd … he is languishing as a marginal lecturer in an inconsequential college

    oy! panini. well can you blame them if your prof is as hard to work with as you suggest. it’s really hardworking with such complex unresolved surds, not with that radical gear the guy has on top.

  16. Hairy_D you speak about how ‘hard it is to work with complex unresolved surds’ and that there is no problem whatsoever with “that radical gear the guy has on top”. If that indeed be the case, how come our great country has failed to acknowledge even one ‘cultural studies’ scholar from the sikh community “with that radical gear on top” in the last 60 years or so? A

  17. Hairy_d ji, I have finally been able to locate one professor of pan-Indian eminence from the field of humanities – political science to be precise which has little to do with cultural studies. He succeeded(?) despite the “radical gear on the top”. His name, as you may possibly know, is Professor Randhir Singh. Poor chap had to sell off his house and eventually settle down in Chandigarh after the riots. But of course you would probably have noticed he is nowhere near as well-known as his student, Prof Rajiv Bhargava – scion of the rich and famous Rajkamal Prakashan and Chinar Exports. By the way my teacher is not a ‘prof’ as mentioned by you. He is just a college lecturer.

  18. This bit will probably interest both Kush and Hairy. The former (and by now conclusively indicted by an inquiry commission for his proactive intervention in Iraq’s ‘food for oil‘ programme) Minister for External Affairs in the Manmohan Singh Government, Kunwar Natwar Singh, declared in a press conference yesterday that he was going to write to the Guinness Book of Records aboutout PM with a “radical gear on the top” as the only PM in world’s history to have been so chosen even without winning a municipal election. I just thought to myself how truly extraordinary such luminaries would be to have risen this high without the mediation of the electoral process. I do not agree – not even ever so slightly – with Manmohan-Montek economics but heaping ridicule upon them merely because they have been perceived to be human beings of exceptional calibre and chosen to lead the country without the elections seemed to me to be quite predictably in keeping with the “wise-but-undeserving-buffoon” image of the Sikhs which as I had said earlier Khushwant helped promote. And what about these Kunwars and Rajas and Maharajas – did they not also graduate from petty highway robberies to reach where they have? I wonder if KS has ever written about the acquisition of wealth by some of these highly privileged members of society – including, if anyone remembers, his own father, Sir Sobha Singh

  19. Panini: I never found KS’s sikh humor politically incorrect. If anything, I though he was having the last laugh. Similarly, I have known quite a few sikhs who are experts at telling sardar jokes.

  20. ‘It is better to laugh at yourself than be laughed at by others.’ This is the self-defence mechanism which is meant to save others from the ignominy of being labelled, to put it mildly, as proto-racists. Sikhs be praised for that! Or, did I speak out too soon? The ability to laugh at oneself is indeed laudable but even that should not degenerate into a naturalized talent, as is so blatantly the case with KS, to project and promote communal stereotypes. It sounds strange but some of the brightest minds I came across during my undergraduate and postgraduate studies happened to be Sikhs – of course, there were others as well – but it is even more strange that their intellectual potential has remained largely hidden from the public domain for reasons not always rationally explanable. Only such of my teachers who discarded their tubans and openly smoked bidis – teachers such as JPS Uberoi (sociology), Harjit Gill (linguistics) – could manage a semblance – only a semblance nothing more – of pan-Indian recognition. This argument is regrettably extendible to creative writing as well. For instance, some of the finest poets of the 20th century happened to be both Punjabis and Sardars – poets such as Puran Singh, Mohan Singh, Harbhajan Singh, Harnam, Amarjit Chandan etc – but their poetry remained largely unrecognised unrepresented even when Adil Jussawala came out with his highly partisan anthologies of Indian Poetry. These poets are comparable to the best of Bengali poets such as Jibnanand Das, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Sankho Ghosh or even Tagore and I would make bold to say that their poetic charge is far more emotionally saturated than their Bengali counterparts. But who has ever heard of them in India?

  21. Similarly, I have known quite a few sikhs who are experts at telling sardar jokes.

    An analogy would be Chris Rock or a similar African-American comedian telling jokes about black people, to a predominantly black audience, and using the “n” word, compared to a white or non-black person attempting the same thing.

    There is a difference between the two situations I’ve just described. The same thing applies to Sikhs telling sardar jokes compared to non-Sikhs doing the same, especially if the latter is targetted towards a predominantly non-Sikh audience or even deliberately aimed at a Sikh (or a couple of Sikhs) who may be numerically in the minority in any given social situation.

  22. I just wish to correct an impression created by Panini. He mentions JPS Uberoi and HS Gill in the same breath as smokers. Yes, Uberoi did smoke publicly before 1984; it was the time when he did not wear a turban. At present, Uberoi wears a turban and smokes no more, at least not in public. As far as I know, Gill never smoked – privately or publicly. Out of the two, only Uberoi can be regarded as an outstanding scholar, who has made solid contributions to a variety of subfields within sociology and anthropology. Gill is good but not first-rate. I also disagee that Amarjit Chandan and Harnam are great poets or that they are of the same calibre as Puran Singh and Mohan Singh. Sarban Malhans

  23. I was just searching for Khushwant Singh on yahoo and came across this website.I am an avid reader and I just finished reading Truth, Love and a Little Malice. This was the first piece of writing by Khushwant Singh that I came across but mentioned very often his brilliance and honesty applealed to me immensly.If possible I would really appreciate if someone could send me a list of the books written by him;I know of a few but not all.Thank you. Rida ridaaf@hotmail.com

  24. I realy appreciate the great journalist and writer Mr.Khushwant Singh for all the great work in the magazine, The Illustrated Weekly of India. I thank him him for the good teaching the public to achive good education and know-how.

    Mano_tractors

  25. I realy appreciate the great journalist and writer Mr.Khushwant Singh for all the great work in the magazine, The Illustrated Weekly of India. I thank him for the good teaching the public to achive good education and know-how.

    Mano_tractors

  26. Does anybody have some old issues of Illustrated Weekly when Khushwant Singh was editor? I am willing to pay for it. Particularly, I am looking for issues dealing with Kayasthas and regarding Indian education but I am interested in other issues as well.

    Vijay Kumar

  27. My composition on Mother

                  Mother 
    

    Mother in your womb you nursed me Never in your life you cursed me Under your warmth of affection I spent my entire childhood All this became possible because You were infact to me very good Oh my mother I am not praising you Infront of anyone I am not raising you Mother I had a chequered past With depression still to last With your tears you made my stand up Not only this was last of it You went on to share my mental agony You are the only one perfect Of the millions and millions of people many Nobody can just count your affection And for this I firmly believe That you will lead me into perfection

    Navin Khetar Pal 100B,GH-10,Sunder Apartments, Outer Ring Road Paschim Vihar, New Delhi-110087

  28. @78 Vijay- did you get any responses? If I can get a copy of Illustrated weekly of India, I will keep it for ever. I am specially looking for one with the comic strip- “Inspector Azad”. he was my hero growing up along with The Phantom ( Ghost who walks) and Inspector Vikram. All three appeared in Illustrated weekly in the 70′s.

    thanks

    Cliffy

  29. I recently read his autobiography Truth, love & a little malice. I must say KS has not lost his wits. An excellant read. I too grew up getting the illustrated weekly along with other comics which my father ordered, but couldn’t really make any sense at that time. Is there any archive where one can read those articles in the present context?

  30. Hi Cliffy

    I didn’t get any responses. I too liked the comic strips mentioned by you.

    Regards,

    Vijay

  31. someone tell me about Rajika Kripalani who used to write in Illustrated Weekly of India when Khushwant Singh was Editor?Where is she now and what is she doing?I tried so many searches.Finally I found Rajika Kripalani Young Journalist Awards.

  32. there is no mention at all o Khuswant’s extraordinarily brilliant articles “Delhi You do not know” in Illustrated Weekly of yesteryears. How does one get hold of them???

  33. In the 70s, I have enjoyed the Illust.weekly…under the Editorship of Hon’ble Khushwant Singhji and for many years I preserved the various articles including the Malice and Ha! columns. I salute the GREAT KARMAYOGI. I love the atheist in Him but I wonder in which way he would like to perform his last rites.

  34. RAJIKA KRIPALINI’S BIOGRAPHY Rajika Kripalini was a very young, very talented and very sensitive journalist in the 70s. Unfortunately she is no more. i do not remember her exact date of her death. But India has lost a very good author. she started writing in school and college days.She was a lecturer, a law student in addition to a writer.

  35. Thanks Mr.Ravi Torane.I am from Goa.There was one more Torney family in Goa.Shashi and Ajit and their elder brother(No More).Please tell me more about Rajika Kripalani.Her name Rajika fascinated me and I named my first daughter,Rajika.Please tell me more about Rajika Kripalani and yourself.Regards.

  36. I wonder why there is no Biography about great writer and scholar Rajika Kripalani.Can someone tell me if there is one?Please.

  37. Khushwant Singh is a man of reality and great scholar of rare wisdom.He is a born scholar and more real and true than Mahatma Gandhi.

  38. Khushwant Singh is a man of reality .He is a born scholar and have a unique and rare wisdom.He can be taken as more real than even Mahatma Gandhi.

  39. I would say, “With Malice towards One and All” as a statement, is better. ( not stating in any sense or portraying it as good or bad, just saying that the selection process of the word “malice” , has a very very good accuracy. )

    Regards, Abhinav Ahuja A.R.M