Khushwant and his snooty wife

Khushwant and his snooty wife

Khushwant And His Snooty Wife. I once read in his column that Shobhaa De and her husband had brought him a bottle of Chivas Regal when they came for...

A brief encounter between a young gynaecologist and aspiring writer (Amrinder Bajaj, a popular columnist now) and one of the most celebrated and enigmatic author Khushwant Singh, good and sometimes ill-humoured mentor, garrulous yet grumpy friend and reclusive, but outspoken old man

I once read in his column that Shobhaa De and her husband had brought him a bottle of Chivas Regal when they came for dinner. The brand name rolled pleasantly on my tongue and conjured up images of royalty, riches and chivalry. Impulsively, I made bold to buy him one too, though the price was a bit steep and I wasn`t as rich as the aforementioned lady. I could almost hear the ice tinkle in a crystal glass filled with the fiery fluid, and taste every sip that Khushwant Singh swirled in his mouth with relish before he let it glide down his throat.

I sincerely hoped that it would not be construed as a bribe. Little did I know then that Khushwant Singh could take `bribes` and yet not deliver the goods. He was evidently pleased and asked me if I drank.

‘No.’“It’s a pity.’

‘It isn’t as if I haven’t tasted hard drinks. I even visited the Glenfeddich brewery in Scotland. We saw the entire process. After the tour, every visitor was offered a peg in crystal glasses. I almost puked.

It was terrible!’

‘Whoever drinks for taste? (But how does one swallow something so unpalatable? ‘You do not know what you are missing.’

‘Does your wife drink?’

‘She used to, more than me; but not now.’ ‘Have you ever passed out or behaved badly in general after you have ...’ As always, words better left unsaid escaped and as usual they did not offend.

‘No, never!’ Returning to the purpose of my visit, he said, ‘I’ll send your manuscript to Penguin.’

My face fell. I wanted him to read it first and give his opinion, but I dared not ask him to do so.

‘When shall I contact you?’

‘You will not contact me. I will ring you up.’ And that was that.

As I was leaving, Khushwant Singh’s wife asked me if had become a good girl again.

‘What do you mean?

‘Your uncle said that you have got over your bad phase and have returned to the righteous path.’ ‘Did he? I wonder why? I am as bad as ever, but see no reason to update him.’ Though I had let dear uncle down by tearing apart the cloak of respectability he had covered me with, I could see that I had risen considerably in Khushwant Singh’s esteem. In a later letter, I also had the temerity to tell him that ‘though my uncle was the epitome of goodness and I respected him, you, who are so delightfully wicked and brutally honest, are the man after my heart’.

True to his word, Khushwant Singh rang up after a few days, He had read the first part of the novel and asked me to come over to discuss it. My face was flushed and my throat dry as I perched my rear on the edge of the sofa. His wife sat some distance away. It was rumoured that she was jealous of the stream of pretty visitors he received and tried to be around as much as possible. I had no intention of flirting with her husband, but I couldn’t speak freely in her presence. They were having tea and Khushwant Singh asked if I would like some.

‘Can I have a glass of water first?’

I drank half a glass and began to sip my tea. ‘You have wasted the water,’ accused his wife. I felt as if I had been slapped. With reddening cheeks, I apologized profusely.

‘I’m sorry. I did not know ...’

‘We do not drink tap water.’

The day had begun on a bad note and Khushwant Singh’s announcement that he had good news and bad news for me did nothing to allay my apprehension. I swallowed hard and waited for him to proceed.

‘Whenever I go through a manuscript, I look for three things — the English, the matter and manner of presentation. The good news is that you have good material. You write well. In fact better than me.’

Indeed! ‘Your writing is almost lyrical in places.’

Considering the number of poems I had dissolved into prose, my writing had to be lyrical. ‘The bad news is that you will have to rewrite it. It is full of trivia that needs to be heavily pruned. No good publisher will take it in the present state. Moreover, a pseudonym is out and you cannot present this as a novel. It has to be converted into a novel or presented as an autobiography.’ ‘But most first novels are autobiographical.’ They are heavily fictionalized. You will have to do the same. I have written my comments on a piece of paper inside the first volume. Go through it. There was no point reading the other volumes before the correction. It would be an unnecessary waste of time.’

‘I understand.’ ‘I think you should take a month off from work and concentrate on your writing. Do nothing but correct it. My house in Kasauli is at your disposal.’

Even as I was ingesting this wonderful piece of information, he asked, ‘Does your husband drink?’

‘Only when he gets it free.’ Again, like a true sardarni, I had spoken without thinking.

‘You know, I have been awarded an honorary doctorate. Even I am a doctor now. There is a cocktail party in my honour at Le Meridien. Coming Monday. Will you come?’

‘l’ll try.’

Too many good things were happening all at once, but I was wary.

What would an unescorted woman, a teetotaller, a nonentity, do in a party of eminent ‘drinking’ people? Perhaps he had asked about my husband’s drinking habits to invite him too; but he did not say so.

I had brought a camera along and, pushing my luck, I asked ifI could get myself photographed with him.

‘No.’ It was the second slap on my face within a span of twenty minutes. I furiously blinked back my tears. Seeing my face crumble, he relented.

When I handed the camera to his wife to take the picture, it was her turn to refuse. I left, burning with humiliation.

My petty vengeance resurfaced. I hoped that there would come a day when he would ask to be photographed with me. As for his, wife’s meanness over a glass of water, I felt like emptying a tankard of chilled mineral water over her head. Had the brown sahib and his lady forgotten the basics of Indian hospitality or was it reserved only for those that mattered? Only when the likes of Khushwant Singh and his snooty wife stopped looking down their noses at me would I know that I had arrived.

(From After - Noon Girl : My Khushwant Memoirs, By: Amrinder Bajaj, Publisher: HarperCollins, `399)

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