NEW DELHI: Khushwant Singh (pictured), one of India’s best known writers who won fame for a searing book on partition of the subcontinent, died yesterday aged 99.
The country’s most prolific author, who died at his home in New Delhi after suffering breathing problems, had only recently stopped writing despite his advanced years, his son said.
“He was having some breathing problems. He hadn’t been too unwell in his last few days and had only stopped writing recently. He was still reading newspapers and books... was mentally alert, and led a full life,” Rahul Singh told the NDTV news channel.
Singh, nicknamed King Leer for his legendary roving eye, was a household name who wrote more than 100 books and countless newspaper columns, including one called “With Malice Towards One And All”.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called him “a gifted author, candid commentator and a dear friend” as tributes poured in for a great writer with an even greater sense of humour.
“The world will always remember him as a lovable human being,” author and veteran BBC journalist Mark Tully said on NDTV.
Fellow authors including Vikram Seth and former cricketers were among those who visited his Delhi home to pay their respects to a man hailed by President Pranab Mukherjee as a “fearless intellectual”, the Press Trust of India said.
In an interview with AFP in 2005, Singh described his passion for writing as compulsive.
“I don’t know what to do with myself if I don’t write, I have lost the art of relaxation,” he said.
Singh, a Sikh born on February 2, 1915 in what is now Pakistan, occupied India’s literary centre-stage for half a century with his novels. Some in his early decades scandalised India with their explicit scenes.
He is best remembered for his historical novel “Train to Pakistan”, which recounts the tragedy and bloodshed of the partition of the subcontinent in 1947 into India and Pakistan.
Singh, who penned his books and columns on yellow legal pads, became a writer relatively late.
Born into a well-off family, he initially practised law in Lahore. But partition was the trigger for him to change professions.
“I loathed the law. I thought I can’t waste my entire life living off other people’s quarrels,” he said.
After coming to New Delhi, where his father became a prosperous property developer, he entered the diplomatic service in 1947 but soon tired of this and became a journalist and writer.
His philandering fame was mainly self-cultivated and he looked after his wife devotedly until she died of Alzheimer’s disease in her mid-80s.
But a rakish reputation could still get him into trouble even late in life. In 2001 he triggered diplomatic uproar when he pecked the Pakistani High Commissioner’s (ambassador’s) teenage daughter on the cheek at a New Delhi party when tensions between India and Pakistan were high.
The high commissioner was recalled to Islamabad to explain what was seen in some Pakistani circles as a lapse in propriety.
Singh was cremated in Delhi later yesterday. AFP