Khushwant Singh

Sunset Club

Khushwant Singh

This was the first time I actually read a Khushwant Singh book. It was the blurb that got me. The idea of three octogenarians in Delhi discussing everything from the weather to sex to politics was intriguing. Not because of the topics themselves, but because I have wondered about the lives of old people, the daily rituals they hold dear, and their perspectives of a changing world. Khushwant Singh was 95 when he wrote this (!) and therefore this would be very close to the real thing. I wasn’t mistaken because I would be very surprised if the character of Boota Singh wasn’t at least semi autobiographical.

Pandit Preetam Sharma and Nawab Barkatullah Baig make up the remainder of the trio, called The Sunset Club, who meet at Lodhi gardens on the Boorha Binch. The book captures a year in the life of these gentlemen, with occasional rear view looks into their past. Through their discussions, the reader gets a sense of the pluralism and the contradictions that make up India. It finds a parallel in their own lives, which are themselves a showcase of many contradictions.  More

The Fiction Collection 2 (Penguin)

This book was a little ‘Inception’ of time travel. It’s been 6.5 years since it was published and commemorates 20 years of Penguin in India. It consists of excerpts from the many works the publishing house has brought out, many of them from several years back. There were a few from books I had already read, a few by authors whose other works I was familiar with, and then there were authors and works I had never even heard of – and that’s why reading this was a wonderful experience – like rediscovering a few old friends and making new ones. :)

In a few of them, I did miss the larger context, but those were a rare few. There are a few translated works too, and I was surprised by the justice they seemed to do to the original work – ‘after the hanging’ by OV Vijayan being a perfect example. The other interesting part was reading a different rendition of something I had read earlier – Indu Sundaresan’s ‘the twentieth wife’ on Mehrunnisa and Salim (the early part of which I could associate thanks to Alex Rutherford’s “Empire of the Moghul”) or Khushwant Singh’s ‘delhi’ (‘nihal singh’ is set during the first war of independence and some of the events I remember from William Dalrymple’s “The Last Mughal”)

My other favourites included works that gave a glimpse of places as they once were – Bombay in Eunice de Souza’s “dangerlok”, (a wonderful piece of work) Delhi in Navtej Sarna’s “We weren’t lovers like that” and more tragic ones like Punjab in Neel Kamal Puri’s ‘death toll’ and Kerala in Jaishree Misra’s ‘from ancient promises’.

The best part is that with more than 50 different works, you are practically guaranteed to find many glimpses that you’d like and might make you want to explore the canvas further. It also took me to a different era of story telling – before IITs, IIMs, call centres, urban angst with corporate backgrounds and cliched marital ‘crises’, packaged mythology and such. For all of these reasons, a must read.

The Non Fiction Collection: Twenty Years Of Penguin India

Celebrating Penguin’s twenty years in India, this book has a collection of 46 non-fiction works, (chapters from published works) and since there’s no specific theme that links every one of them, I’ll just list my favourites. Devdutt Pattanaik’s Myth = Mithya is probably the best way to begin the book with its premise of creation (as per Hindu mythology) and its take on the complementary forces at play in the universe. Gita Piramal’s “the old fox” gives us the ringside view of the Ambani – Goenka war that played out in the eighties. Humra Quraishi’s “from Kashmir” offers us a glimpse of today’s Kashmir, and the life of the people there, a far cry from the times when Kashmir was described as heaven on earth. Vikram Seth’s “From Heaven Lake”, in addition to its vivid description of travel in China, shows in its last page a snapshot of the human condition that remains unchanged across the globe. Amrita Shah’s “Launching Into Space” is one of those reads that take across time, and space, with its chronicling of the early days of India’s space research programme. Khushwant Singh’s “Village in the Desert” is a very personal recollection of the author’s own childhood in a village that now stands in Pakistan, and shows how people across the line really can go beyond the lines drawn on a map. Sanjay Suri’s “Near Mrs.” (that title is a good example of the humour involved) is a brilliantly funny respite from the serious content in the rest of the book, involving a bride-search in London.

Roopa Swaminathan’s “Extras” is a poignant piece of writing on the life of extras who come to Mumbai/Chennai with the hopes of becoming the next star, but who find that their life has passed them by even as they clung on to hope. Giles Tillotson’s Jaipur Nama has an account of the East India Company’s activities in the context of Rajasthan. Even as Mark Tully’s “No Full Stops in India” gives an excellent perspective on ‘development’ in India, Pavan K Varma’s “Being Indian” has a fantastic take on how India’s own way of getting things done still survives. Abraham Verghese’ “My Own Country”, while set in the US, touches upon, among other things, the idea of a home.

Pinki Virani’s “Home as hell” informs us about sickening cases of child abuse in India. John Wright’s “Indian Summers” gives us a behind-the-scenes look as well as a non-Indian’s perspective on the game that unites India, even as S. Hussain Zaidi’s “Black Friday” shows how communal forces and the merchants of terrorism try to break this unity.

There are also very interesting pieces like the Veerappan based “Face to Face” by Sunaad Raghuram, former PM Narasimha’s Rao’s version of what happened at Ayodhya in 1992.

The book also had quite a few excerpts from works that are already my favouries – Mishi Saran’s “Chasing the Monk’s Shadow”, Shashi Tharoor’s “India: from Midnight to the Millennium” and Arundhati Roy’s “The Algebra of Infinite Justice”.

The book is a few years old, and some of the works, even more so, but they are in some ways, timeless pieces too. I read them because they not only give me clues on interesting books to read, but also offer me a glimpse of worlds that I probably might not travel to in the course of my normal reading journey.