India's Debt to Khushwant Singh

03/20/2014 11:30 am ET | Updated May 20, 2014

Khushwant Singh, who died on Thursday in New Delhi, was either 97 or 99. News reports have him at both ages -- an uncertainty that would have delighted the humorist in Khushwant who always loved to keep people guessing. He would often cackle that he wasn't quite a centurion, but was getting there.

He didn't quite make it, of course, but he left a body of fiction and nonfiction that would suggest that Khushwant had been writing since the age of four, an age at which -- in his own words -- he began his lifelong appreciation of women. Women figured prominently in Khushwant's work, and they figured prominently in his eclectic life. They provided much material for society columnists who were always linking him to one beauty or the other.

All the titillation aside, his was a life of erudition that embraced literature, politics, history and sociology. Khushwant's work on his community, the Sikhs, remains the definitive tome on that martial clan. His newspaper columns offered deep insights about India's clangorous politics.

He was always readable. He never pretended to be polite, and his dislikes were on open display. But Khushwant rarely wrote to wound.

His readership spanned five generations; even today's young, whose attention span is often disorderly, sought out his writings. Men and women of a certain age -- myself included -- were addicted to his prose.

That addiction extended to his son Rahul Singh, a close friend of mine, and a writer in his own right. Rahul has dedicated a considerable part of his own career to examining the works of his father, and his findings make for delightful -- and comprehensive -- reading. One conclusion that Rahul reached, which I share: Khushwant often relished playing the agent provocateur. I rather suspect that his spirited -- and much debated -- defense of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when she suspended India's Constitution in the mid 1970s was less an endorsement of autocracy than Khushwant's inimitable way of deliberately inviting public attention to himself. He subscribed to the old saw that there's no such thing as bad publicity. In time, even his fiercest critics forgave him for defending Mrs. Gandhi, who said her hand had been forced by malicious political opponents intent on sowing chaos in the polity.

I last saw Khushwant at his apartment in New Delhi a couple of weeks ago. Rahul had invited some friends for dinner, but more people than the invitees showed up -- as was often the case when it came to grabbing a glimpse of Khushwant. I presented him with a copy of my new book, a biography of Dr. Prathap Chandra Reddy, founder and chairman of Apollo Hospitals, Asia's largest medical system.

Khushwant was not his usual sharp self, nor was he cheerful that evening. He barely acknowledged the warm hugs from some sprightly women at the soiree. It was evident that his frailties were getting the better of him. Yet, he sat gamely through the early part of the gathering, and retired to bed only when urged by his son.

My last glimpse of Khushwant was of him being assisted by a manservant to his bedroom. But he still managed to look back at the guests, his eyes photographing who'd come to pay him homage.

Now all India is paying homage to a man who led a full life, one that spanned nearly a hundred years of the country's emergence from a British colony into modernity. Khushwant Singh chronicled much of that extraordinary story, and I think it would be fair to say that India owes him a lot for that.