Khushwant Singh, born on 2nd February 1915 in Hadali, Punjab, is celebrated as one of India's most prolific and influential literary figures. Over the course of his long and eventful life, he wore many hats—author, lawyer, diplomat, journalist, politician—and made indelible contributions to the cultural and political landscape of India. His legacy is marked by his bold writing and his secularism.
Khushwant Singh was born to a Sikh family, with his given name being Khushal Singh, which means "Prosperous Lion." His early education took place at Modern School, New Delhi. His family moved to Delhi, where he would later meet his future wife, Kanwal Malik, during his school years. He went on to study at St. Stephen's College, then pursued higher education at Government College, Lahore, where he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree.
His quest for knowledge and desire for a legal career led him to King's College London, where he studied law and was awarded an LL.B. from the University of London. Subsequently, he was called to the bar at the London Inner Temple.
Khushwant Singh began his professional career as a lawyer in Lahore in 1939, practising in the chambers of Manzur Qadir and Ijaz Husain Batalvi. His legal career in Lahore was marked by associations with close friends and admirers, including Akhtar Aly Kureshy and Raja Muhammad Arif. However, his life took a new direction in 1947, as India gained independence from British rule, and he joined the Indian Foreign Service. This career change led him to serve in various diplomatic capacities, including stints in Toronto, Canada, London and Ottawa, where he served as Press Attaché and Public Officer for the Indian High Commission.
In 1951, he took on the role of a journalist at All India Radio, followed by a brief period working with the Department of Mass Communications at UNESCO in Paris from 1954 to 1956. However, it was in the world of editorial services that Khushwant Singh truly left his mark. He founded and edited various publications, including "Yojana," a government journal, "The Illustrated Weekly of India," a newsweekly, and "The National Herald."
His tenure as editor at "The Illustrated Weekly of India" saw a remarkable rise in circulation, making it India's premier newsweekly. His editorial skills and satirical commentary were widely appreciated, but in 1978, just a week before his planned retirement, he was asked to leave, leading to a significant drop in the publication's readership.
Khushwant Singh's career extended into the political arena as well. From 1980 to 1986, he served as a Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament. In 1974, he was honoured with the Padma Bhushan, one of India's highest civilian awards, which he later returned in 1984 in protest against Operation Blue Star, a controversial military operation in Amritsar.
In 2007, Khushwant Singh was recognised with the Padma Vibhushan, the second-highest civilian award in India, a testament to his immense contributions to the country.
Khushwant Singh was a self-proclaimed agnostic who held strong secularist beliefs. He openly criticised organised religion, favouring individual spirituality over dogma. He once famously declared, "In my personalised religion, There Is No God!" His writings often challenged the status quo, and he did not shy away from controversial statements, such as his assertion that Sikhism was a form of "bearded Hinduism."
Khushwant Singh passed away on 20th March 2014 at the age of 99. His death marked the end of an era for Indian literature and journalism. The President, Vice-President, and Prime Minister of India all issued messages honouring his legacy.
Despite his passing, Khushwant Singh's work continues to inspire and provoke thought. His books, including "Train to Pakistan" and "The Company of Women," are celebrated for their literary excellence and social commentary. His wit, humour, and unwavering commitment to secularism left an indelible mark on Indian literature and society.
In conclusion, Khushwant Singh's life and career were a testament to the power of words and ideas. He used his platform as a writer, journalist, and politician to challenge norms, provoke thought, and entertain readers. His legacy lives on, and his contributions to Indian literature and culture remain a source of inspiration for generations to come.