Not a Nice Man to Know

Khushwant Singh

Read December 2006-January 2007

If Khushwant Singh can lay claim to being one of modern India's preeminent writers, it is surely not for the quality of his prose alone. Someone with as much output as he is bound to have several misses, and even a “best of” volume—such as this one—might include some of these, as this does. But what equally comes across is the sheer range of his interactions, and if not the depth, then at least the honesty of his thoughts.

Singh has managed to be at any number of momentous places and times, and has either participated in or interviewed them all: it is a staggering account of a life lived fully. And when he's not at something important, he is equally at home in something ribald, unafraid of wearing his libertine or coarse humor on his sleeve. Such honesty is its own reward; indeed, the character that emerges from these pages would have been offended to have left the dirty bits out of this collection.

There are, too, moments of elevation. His articles perfectly capture the rather superior, yet slightly confused, state of mind of India's urban elite, hewing a path between tradition and modernity. His profiles of people like the Bhutto's are reporting with a keen psychological edge. And even his translation of Toba Tek Singh, which I so reviled when I read it in high school, proves to be full of insight that only age can reveal. But perhaps it is telling that the best work of literature here is not his originally: it shows that, at heart, Singh is a reporter, a conveyor, a journalist. Even of that peculiar breed, few have lived such interesting lives.