Winter 2005
The Last Journey to Paradise
A review
by Anjana Basu
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by Khushwant Singh
Penguin Viking/Ravi Dayal Books. Rs 295

There is a story about Samuel Johnson and a lady who came to him after his Dictionary was published. "Dr Johnson," she gasped, "your Dictionary is full of naughty words!"

"Madam," he responded, "you must have been looking for them."

Tiptoeing through Khushwant Singh’s new collection of short stories, one feels a little like that. Four-letter word to the right…oops, four-letter word to the left. Oh, oh, sex scene. A quick flutter and a turning of pages, oops, another sex scene. One tries very hard not to be like Johnson’s lady and also not to be unsophisticated at the same time. Sex scenes complete in every detail are rare in Indian writing in English. Shobha De made a name for herself by being the first Indian Jackie Collins, but even she never went to such hard- core detail. Or perhaps the detail isn’t hard-core at all, and it’s just the effect of finding scenes like these in a book written by a ninety- year-old man.

Khushwant Singh is the ninety-year-old man in question, the grand old man of Indian literature and one of the best known writers of English in the country. Born in 1915 in Hadali, Punjab, a city that is now in Pakistan, he began his career as a novelist with Train to Pakistan, a novel that was considerably in advance of its time. Train to Pakistan is the story of the Partition told with pain and honesty. With that book he made a name for gritty realism and for an accurate documentation of middle-class Indian life, especially that of the Sikh community to which Singh belongs. 

Singh was a journalist, edited Illustrated Weekly, one of India’s most respected magazines when it was in print and was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1974 by the President of India, but, in a gesture reminiscent of Tagore, returned the decoration in 1984 as a protest against the Indira Gandhi’s Government's besieging the Golden Temple in Amritsar. In July 2000, he was given the "Honest Man of the Year Award" by the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation for the courage and honesty displayed in his "brilliant incisive writing." At the Awards ceremony, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh described him as a "humorous writer and incorrigible believer in human goodness with a devil-may-care attitude and a courageous mind." The Indian external affairs minister said that the secret of Khushwant Singh's success lay in his learning and discipline behind the "veneer of superficiality." 

All very well, no signs of sex left or right there, but then his estranged son Rahul recently called Singh "the sex, scotch and scholarship icon of India." Which summed up the way Khsuhwant Singh seemed to want to project himself in many of his writings, especially in the eccentric column that he himself wrote. "Not a nice man to know." Singh has made a name for spicy commentary laced with sexual innuendo. There was more than innuendo in Delhi, an ambitious novel that swept through 600 years of history with a eunuch as its narrator, Singh’s metaphor of the city in all its ambiguity. And more in the novels that followed. 

Paradise & Other Stories was launched on Singh’s ninetieth birthday by Penguin India. On releasing the book, Penguin India owner Aveek Sarkar called him, "The Peter Pan of Indian letters." And Singh swore that this book would be his last. "No more, I must say this. No more. There will not be any more books." 

Is this a question of famous last words, then? 

The book begins with a prologue about the false beliefs raised by astrological predictions and goes on to rollick through the answers to various questions that have obviously been preoccupying Khushwant Singh: Why do we believe in miracles? Can a horoscope guarantee the perfect wife? Is the Kamasutra a useful manual for newlyweds? Sex, scotch and scholarship float through the stories – his protagonists are ordinary everyday people who find the things that they believe in letting them down again and again. The Kamasutra fails the Hindi scholar as a sex manual. The purity of the Indian ashram escapes the American woman seeking refuge.

At the heart of the book is a preoccupation with Indian hypocrisies – Singh has always maintained that as a race Indians are sexually repressed. Sex, of the untie-the-pyjama-string-and-let’s-get-down-to-it variety is central to every story, beginning with the Pahari miniature on the cover. Acts of coition, if you like, involving the hungry woman and the relatively inexperienced male. In "Wanted: A Son," he writes of a young woman who goes to a guru to pray for a son and ends up sleeping with the guru and so gives birth to a son. A great blessing, say all her in-laws.

Singh also writes about a nation's unique relationship with a god whose blessings are supposed to be responsible for the benefits of everything from adultery to bribery. 

Titillating the book most definitely is, with all those sex words scattered around. The question is, should we call Singh a grand old man or a dirty old man? Paradise & Other Stories certainly reminds us what he has become famous for. If, however, Train to Pakistan is the quintessential Khushwant Singh novel for you, or even if  Delhi is, then you may find yourself looking to the past with regrets. 

(Anjana Basu's novel Curses in Ivory was published by HarperCollins India in January 2003. She is also the author of The Agency Raga, a collection of short stories [Orient Longman], and her poems have been featured in an anthology published by Penguin India. Her work has appeared  in Wolfhead Quarterly, Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)