Khushwant Singh is dead. Long live his works. When he passed away at 99 in 2014, the "Sardar of Sex and Scotch" as he was notoriously known had more books, novels, short story and poetry collections to his name than were easy to count. All written in his lively style, packed with humour, dripping sarcasm. And with malice towards one and all. But you cannot have too much of a good thing, as a Delhi publishing house is out to prove with its new book -- Me, The Jokerman -- of essays by the bawdy Sardarji regarded as one of India's greatest writers. I am curious to read it; the essays are bound to be as entertaining as they will be insightful, and each will tell a story. For Khushwant Singh was a master storyteller. Not in person, of course. If he didn't know you well, or didn't take to you, he could be decidedly boorish.
"This is my 'mucche-gilli-ho' peg," he announced. "I like my moustache soaking in the whiskey."
I didn't know him at all. But the newspaper I edited used his column. That was reason enough for me to call him one winter evening when I was in Delhi in 2000. I requested a meeting. "For what?" Khushwant Singh rudely asked. "Just to have a drink," I suggested. He must have been without entertaining company that evening, for he reluctantly agreed.
I had heard that visitors to his Sujan Singh Park residence were encouraged to stay between 7 and 8.15pm only. He opened his bar at 7, and four or five pegs later, he kicked them out at 8.15 to sit down for dinner. Like in everything he did, there was discipline in the style Khushwant Singh entertained. I went a little before 7. A small wooden sign on his door said, "Ring the bell only if you are expected." He was sitting before the fireplace, one leg on a footstool, dressed for the winter. I watched him toss the Telegraph into the flames, one eye on a small time-piece hidden on a bookshelf across the room.
At 7, with great suppleness he hoisted himself out of the chair, gratefully accepted a key that his wife Kawal gave him, and shuffled off into another room. There, in a wooden cupboard built into the wall, was Khushwant Singh's bar. I had heard stories about it. Curiously, I went with him. He opened the door a crack and closed it swiftly after selecting a bottle of Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey. But I got a dekho of several bottles of Scotch inside. He poured a generous slug into an antique glass, plonked in two cubes of ice and topped it with soda. "This is my 'mucche-gilli-ho' peg," he announced. "I like my moustache soaking in the whiskey." For me, after some hesitation, Khushwant Singh poured out Scotch. Johnnie Red. It was his favourite drink.
"I had returned from England in 1939 to get married, the drinking began soon after that," he said, as if marriage had done him in.
I was under the impression he only drank Black Label. He frowned. "I drink any Scotch, as long as it is not bottled in India," Khushwant Singh said. "Perforce, I have tried Indian Scotch. But then I have drunk all the poisons available here, so what's Indian Scotch? At one time I only drank Red Label. It was the cheapest and hit me the quickest. Now I prefer Black. Occasionally, I also drink Johnnie Walker Blue Label."
He did not pretend to be a connoisseur. "If you ask me, I don't think I will be able to recognize the different labels by their tastes. Or the blends from the single malts. People who say they can are talking bakwas! But, yes, I can tell between Indian, Canadian, Irish, English and Japanese whiskies. They are just not Scotch. Even this would be difficult to do after two, three drinks," admitted the committed Scotch drinker.
He talked about his love for Scotch. "I had returned from England in 1939 to get married, the drinking began soon after that," he said, as if marriage had done him in. "My wife Kawal," he nodded at the distinguished, white-haired Sardarni drinking a vodka-tonic, "used to habitually drink me under the table. Now she cannot." He made it sound like he came from a family of drunks. "But it's almost true," Khushwant Singh protested. "My father enjoyed his drink. Till half an hour before he died at 90, he was drinking Scotch. I taught my mother to enjoy Scotch when she was in her 80s. She resisted. 'Log kya kahenge!' she said. I told her to damn them all. Mother died at 94. She went into a coma, came out of it and feebly said, 'Whisky', then spoke no more. The doctor said, give it to her. We did. But mother threw it up and died. Everybody in my family is into drinking, except my youngest brother, and he was the first to go!"
"Why Scotch?" I asked in farewell. "Because," replied the Sardar of Scotch, "it gives me no hangover."
What else had he drunk, I asked? Had he visited an Aunty's bar in Bombay? "No, no Aunty's bar, but I have been to country liquor bars elsewhere in the country and had their santras and mosambis. They are too strong and raw for me. One sip, that's all I've had," confessed Khushwant Singh. He had also been to the tribal areas in the North-east and had their rice beers. "It's not a sophisticated drink, I get high on it." He was once hooked onto sake. "I spent one winter in Japan, and, apart from the hot sake and Korean food, there was little else for me." He'd had beer all around the world and "exhausted more Italian wines than that country produced." In Germany, he drank Unterberg. "It's a liqueur that's like a digestive. It settles the stomach." And he liked feni in Goa. "It is a nice, clean drink. Not the cashew. It stinks. I prefer the coconut, it's cheaper."
"Why do you start drinking only at 7 pm?" I asked. "I'm particular about this. I don't eat much, although I am quite a foodie, because I want to enjoy my drink on an empty stomach. If you have a huge lunch and tea, you ruin your drink." Three "mucche-gilli-ho" pegs was his limit. "I don't want to get drunk, because I have work to do next morning," Khushwant Singh said. "I like to drink like a gentleman. Have you heard this one...
I hope I drink like a lady
One or two at the most
The third puts me under the table
The fourth under the host."
He was on his third drink and his legendary bawdiness was showing. But Kawal Singh was on her feet. It was 8.15 p.m. Without so much as a bottoms-up, Khushwant Singh tossed the peg down his throat and led me to the door. "Why Scotch?" I asked in farewell. "Because," replied the Sardar of Scotch, "it gives me no hangover."