Khushwant Singh visited me at Ferozpur in 1998 when I was posted as Divisional Commissioner. As his visit was a big event, I hosted a dinner for the legendary writer at my official residence. The elite of Ferozpur Division — a large number of civil servants, army commanders, descendants of the Gurus, and erstwhile ruling families — vied with each other to meet the well-known writer at the large gathering in the garden. Noting the arrangements for his welcome — softly played Hindustani classical music, good Scotch served in crystal glasses by uniformed white gloved servers, Singh drew me aside and requested dinner be served for him by 9 p m. Guests were still arriving when he was served food on a side table. He had his dinner with a single drink of whisky. As we wove our way out of the party, he told me to rise early if I wanted to be a writer, and before leaving next morning he explained to me the art of writing simple, lucid, felicitous prose.
As suggested by Singh I wrote each day: at times I was pulled up for writing ‘literary pieces on the noting portions of government files’. Said an irate Advocate General with whom I could not agree regarding de-notifying a forested area:
“We all know that you are a poet and writer and, only a part-time officer, mostly missing wood for the trees; that you are unable to comprehend the serious intention of our government in cutting down forests to make place for human settlements.”
In his preface to my book titled A Bouquet of Thoughts, Singh wrote: “He is a most unusual civil servant. I have known many who made it to the ICS and went on to be appointed as Ambassadors and Governors of States… but years of penning memoranda on files had deprived them of the ability of writing simple, lucid, felicitous prose. This has not been the case with Robin Gupta who continued writing prose and poetry along with making notes on bone dry official files.”
He brought up several generations of good writers in India and, helped secular thought to bloom in the narrow vale of religious bigotry.
I believe it was the streak of madness that he detected in me that became the basis of Khushwant Singh taking me under his wing and persuading me to write for a wider audience. He posted a series of handwritten letters containing advice on how to communicate better and to his advice I owe my better understanding of arranging my thoughts within the structure of Doric columns and chiseling argument by giving up fleshy adjectives and making judgements on moral issues. Singh believed in the impermanence of human arrangements and, often, revelled in the absurd, as well as comedy of human situations. I also learnt from him the need to avoid protracted, unnecessary social interactions, believing these to be, for a serious writer, a criminal waste of time.
My correspondence with Singh continued when I was Divisional Commissioner at Patiala and in one of his letters he inquired whether I was familiar with the poem Silence written by England’s Poet Laureate Thomas Hood in the latter part of the 18th century. He even took the trouble of attaching for me extensive hand written extracts from Silence.
There is a silence where no sound may be, In the cold grave — under the deep deep sea, Or in wide desert where no life is found,…..No voice is hush’d — no life treads silently, But clouds and cloudy shadows wander free. His amazing knowledge of literature was remarkable; he knew the poetry of most of the major and many of the lesser known poets. Hood’s poem had the desired impact on me and I learnt the rhythmic cadence of writing with compelling momentum. When I sent Singh my manuscript for A Bouquet of Thoughts, he returned it with valuable suggestions in a series of brief letters. It is almost as if he had made the project of my writing the book, his own! He was a marvellous man who rejoiced in the success of others. He was incapable of prejudice or dogmatic thought and plainly understood the curious situations of life with objectivity. Far from envying successful storytellers, he had made it his life’s mission to bring out the muse in those who would write, in the belief that there is a writer in every human. However, he forbade publishing a book at one’s own expense.
Singh advised me to write a column for a known paper and build up a following by the time I retired, for he was convinced that it was writing alone that would be my profession. About one thing he was emphatetic: he disliked verbosity and name dropping, the malaise of writers of our times. He wrote for the joy of sharing his perception of the living process; and, equally, of nature and man’s inherited environment. He loved mountains and spent long summer months in his retreat at Kasauli, writing and listening to the breeze passing through the coniferous trees. He told me that a writer’s life requires disciplined living, hard work and a keen perception to which there are no short cuts. He also asked me to read carefully and extensively, saying without this the roots of writing would dry up.
After my retirement in 2008, I moved back to my home in Central Delhi, close to Singh’s apartment. I had the privilege of being invited to his residence several times and was freshly infused with the desire to start writing again. He encouraged me to write my memoir and gave me sage advice. He simply refused to accept that I had a writer’s block and could no longer write without inspiration. There is no such thing, he told me: “Just sit at your desk each day; put pen to paper and let the ideas flow. Something intelligible is bound to appear quite soon,” he said.
Recalling his astounding achievement as a writer I wonder if there is another litterateur who continued writing up to the age of 99 years! Day after day, throughout his life, though born to great wealth and an aristocratic way of life, he cast aside worldly pleasures in pursuit of knowledge on a vast, mindboggling range of subjects. Everything that happened in the world of events and in the realm of human thought was of interest to him and worth inquiring into — be it the finer nuances of Nijinsky in the Spectre de la Rose which enthralled him; or the celebration of a new bornchild in the tribal belt of Chotta Nagpur.
As the years after retirement passed by and I got distanced from the government, the only employer I could have worked for, I wrote out a synopsis of my life in service of the state and sought Singh’s blessings for the project of writing an autobiography. After three years, the Rupa Publishing House launched And what remains in the end — Memoirs of an unrepentant civil servant. The memoir had several launches all over India and was declared recommended reading for all aspirants to the civil service. The book has gone into several reprints and has done well.
Singh called the book a literary milestone and turned me into an author. Often, in recalled memory, I think of him with deep gratitude in my heart. It is difficult to imagine another man of letters quite like him, for he brought up several generations of good writers in India and, helped secular thought to bloom in the narrow vale of religious bigotry; he stands tall amongst the rain drenched forests of memory; amidst writers quibbling over nuts and bolts of nothingness; as a tall lighthouse of compassionate wisdom and objective thought.