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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 13, March 22, 2014

The Godfather {par excellence}

Sunday 23 March 2014, by Uttam Sen

TRIBUTE

I had met the famous Sardar of “... malice towards one and all” fame under trying circumstances in Mumbai, then Bombay. It was an otherwise pleasant winter afternoon but the occasion was as fraught as any associated with one’s first job interview. The Times of India’s trainee journalism scheme in the early seventies set the bar for the profession in India. After a written test in one’s city of origin, selected candidates were invited to the “Old lady of Bori Bunder”, The Times of India’s head office, in the area then known as VT (Victoria Terminus) and now CST (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus).

The powers that be kept up the suspense through the day in which a fairly sizeable drove of candidates was interviewed and the ten successful names announced in a roll-call of expectants at the end. While the moments fleeted by, hope and disappointment were alternately displayed on the visages of candidates who emerged from the board room. Some transpired to be unfounded by the end of the day when dismay turned to joy and vice versa. Persona-lities who later became household names in the world of journalism, then rookies in the TOI stable, more often than not Khushwant Singh protégés, also dropped by, and heightened an already charged atmosphere. The stormy petrel was waiting inside.

When my turn came I found myself seated directly opposite Khushwant Singh, then the editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, flanked by the similarly illustrious Ajit Bhattacharjea and an endless array of management personnel. If memory serves, Khushwant Singh was the Chairman of the Board. Along with Bhatta-charjea, he conducted the major part of the interview. Old hands like us today feel grateful in remembrance of the unstated supportiveness throughout the interview. The morning papers the day after his death were full of acknowledgement from the notables whom he had nurtured. Sure enough, their oeuvre contains the risqué and the bawdy alongside the salt of the earth that were Khushwant Singh’s indefinable signature.

 In keeping with his reputation, Khushwant Singh was amenable to, probably provoked, light banter. He asked me to give him one good reason why I would take the job if offered, and I hopefully responded that the stringent terms and conditions (which included a fairly sizeable deposit by the standards of those days) assumed something correspondingly special. He laughed and said that if I lasted the mandatory five-year period he would launch me into the big league. I found out later that most trainees migrated to greener pastures within a few years, inferen-tially through Khushwant Singh’s good offices.

It is secondary that one qualified but opted out owing to the turn of events; the primary point was underscored by a contemporary from college who had joined the scheme the previous year and went on to win considerable laurels. This was just after I had come out of the interview, feeling good with what appeared to be avuncular hospitality rather than the hostility of a competitive world. I was, however, uncertain whether the generous reception would translate into tangible results. But my inter-locutor was clear in his mind that Khushwant Singh had not minced words, because he was not known to do so. I could even take his promise of the big league quite literally. But, he had warned, I would be a fish out of the water without total and unflinching commitment.

Not only was Khushwant Singh an icon, stand-alone writer and historian, (his book on Delhi and two-volume history of the Sikhs, inter alia, bear testimony to that), he could be straight-forward, and at the same time, a discerning judge of people and character. He enriched the profession as a clairvoyant talent-scout. There were many red-letter episodes in his long and distinguished career, and there are equally eminent people to recount them, but even the distant reader benefited regularly from his deft literary touch and sometimes deceptively robust humour. His raconteuring was seminal. People, places and events came alive in ways they had not quite before.