Author: Khushwant Singh (Author), David Davidar (Editor), Mala Dayal (Editor)
Publisher: Aleph Books
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I have never been a big fan of “tribute books” and especially so when they come in the form of an anthology. I feel it is the same as writing an obituary for someone – you would tend to highlight even the most insignificant successes and gloss over most of the glaring failures.
At a first glance, “99” is no different from any other member of its brethren. But what makes “99” an absorbing reading experience for me is the way it ties up all its knots – starting right at the beginning with the birth of the author and ending with an epitaph he wrote for himself – while taking us along a rich and immersive reading journey.
Let me be completely honest with the readers of this review – before reading this book, my personal opinion of Khushwant Singh was that he is a highly intelligent and articulate rabble-rouser who thrives on controversies. After reading the book, I realized that much of my opinion about him is true – he is a compulsive liar and a self-confessed addict of sharab and shabab (wine and women). To him, nothing is sacred – if Charlie Hebdo were a publishing house, they would be mighty proud of having him on their roll.
But there is also the more humane, and I dare say, emotional side to him. The first three sections are dedicated to his family and his patriotism – both for his country and his community. The last mentioned is more of a historical account but the dexterity of the author prevents it from becoming an overtly boring narrative.
The next two sections are dedicated to his views on religion and his days in Pakistan. Both of them can be considered to be an exercise in the highest standards of journalism – the author combines facts and opinions to come up with some very high quality reads.
The fun begins with the section “Singular People” where he talks about the famous people he has crossed paths with. While the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and RK Narayan would pique the interest of most people, the real gems according to me are the articles where he talks about Krishna Menon, Amrita Shergill and Nirad Chaudhuri. This is soon followed by “Sex on My Mind” – I guess I need not talk more about what this is about.
The Non-Fiction sections ends with his take on humour, a few rants & soliloquies (including a hilarious read on the different types of farts) and a preachy finale titled “How to Live, How to Die”.
The section on Fiction takes some interesting excerpts from his highly successful novels as well as his short story collection “The Portrait of a Lady & Other Stories”. This is followed by some of his translated works – the finest amongst these being the ones originally written by Saadat Hasan Manto and Khwaja Ahmed Abbas.
The book ends with “A Passion for Poetry” – a short collection of poems translated from Urdu. Claiming that I enjoyed this section wholeheartedly would be too much of snobbery but what I did like the detailed character sketches of Ghalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz as well as the short poem “Mangoes” by Akbar Illahabadi.
“99” is not a genre-redefining book by any stretch of imagination but it gets its basics correct as an anthology. Couple that with the natural dynamism of Singh’s writing and you get a good bedside companion for many a long winter night.