I am often asked, ‘What is it like being the son of Khushwant Singh?’ Quite a mixed fare, I should say. There have been occasions when I have been asked to preside over a function and the person introducing me has made it a point to mention that I am ‘the son of the illustrious writer, Khushwant Singh,’ then made haste to add, ‘but he is well known in his own right.’ I confess I find myself cringing on such occasions. But I do not really mind being displayed at social gatherings as ‘Khushwant Singh’s son’. Though I might not show it, I am proud of my father.

At times being his son has its distinct advantages. Once I was in the Kashmir Valley, interacting with some of the militants. They were rather wary of me at first but on learning who my father was, the veil of suspicion lifted immediately and they warmed up to me—an indication of how widely he is known, read and liked.

Despite some of his controversial views, almost everybody I have met admires his honesty, his great sense of humour and his sincerity. ‘He often writes nonsense but he genuinely believes it,’ is a common reaction even from his detractors. On a couple of occasions when I have been to Pakistan—or met Pakistanis outside Pakistan—I have been treated like a celebrity, solely because my father is liked and admired there for firmly believing that there should be closer ties between the two countries.

Being Khushwant Singh’s son, however, has its flip side as well. I was in Washington in 1976, at the height of Indira Gandhi’s notorious Emergency. Ashok Mahadevan, then deputy editor of the Reader’s Digest, had been invited to a party thrown by an Indian who lived in the USA. I tagged along with Ashok. When we arrived at the party, he made no mention either to the host or the other guests, most of who were Indians but who did not know who I was, of my parentage. Inevitably, the conversation veered to the political situation in India and virtually everybody condemned the Emergency, with the choicest expletives being showered on Sanjay Gandhi. And just as inevitably, my father’s name cropped up since he was one of the few intellectuals who had supported Indira Gandhi. In hindsight, I should have, at that point, come out clean and mentioned that it was my father they were talking about—and made light of the matter. But I didn’t and one of the guests then proceeded to say, ‘I wish somebody would shoot that bastard Khushwant Singh.’ My friend, Ashok Mahadevan, who had brought me to the party in the first place, looked at me apologetically. His embarrassment was evident. ‘Actually, Rahul here is the son of Khushwant Singh,’ he announced to the gathering. There was a stunned silence. The host mumbled some apologies. I smiled, somewhat foolishly I think, and said, ‘It really does not matter,’ or words to that effect. But the party was a complete disaster. The earlier animated discussion petered out, replaced by polite natter.

Though good at heart, my father does like to shock Indian society. Let me quote a critical appreciation of him written in the Indian Express by Mushirul Hasan, an academic. After saying that he was neither a friend nor a follower of my father, he wrote: ‘But, all said and done, he has kept intact his image of an iconoclast and a nonconformist. That is because he questions conventional wisdom incessantly, challenges political and religious orthodoxies fearlessly (for which he got into trouble with the high priests in the Akali leadership), and flouts established norms and time-honoured conventions, relentlessly. Yet, he is not self-righteous as the late Nirad C Chaudhuri was. Besides, he is tolerant, eclectic, and intellectually committed to pluralism and multi-culturism. He is the quintessential liberal, one of the dwindling tribe in India of today and I find his outlook much closer to Jawaharlal Nehru’s worldview than that of any other public figure in the 20th century.’

Mushirul Hasan also praises him for promoting Urdu: ‘He is amongst the very few who, unmoved by the linguistic claptrap, has introduced the richness and bewildering variety of Urdu to English-speaking leaders.’

He concludes that, ‘Some people may have complaints about Khushwant Singh, yet they would find it difficult to deny that this man has done so much to enrich our cultural and intellectual life for well over three decades. As an outsider to the capital of India, it is hard for me to think of Delhi without him.’

My father often likes to quote a poem by James Henry Leigh Hunt entitled Abou Ben Adhem and the Angel. It touches a sensitive chord in the humanist in him:

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw—within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom—
An angel writing in a book of gold.
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
‘What writest thou?’—The vision raised its head,
And, with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, ‘The names of those who love the Lord.’
‘And is mine one?’ said Abou, ‘Nay, not so,’
Replied the angel, Abou spoke more low,
But cheerily still; and said, ‘I pray thee then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.’
The angel wrote and vanished. The next night,
It came again with a great awakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.

Despite my father’s ability to befriend people from all walks of life, he has made many enemies. But he takes their onslaughts in his stride with his inimitable humour. He loves to show visitors a letter sent to him from Canada by a Canadian Sikh. It is not the contents of the letter, however, that he enjoys showing but the envelope in which it arrived. It was addressed to: ‘Khushwant Singh, Bastard, India.’ The letter was delivered to him! Well, the ‘Bastard’ is now pushing ninety and continues to infuriate his foes and delight his admirers alike.

Extract courtesy: Khushwant Singh: In the Name of the Father by Rahul Singh, published by Roli Books.