Unparliamentary Words

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In the summer of 1980 The Times sent me to Delhi. My first foreign posting, it rewarded all my hopes of adventure. India and Pakistan were at the heart of my reporting. I also wrote from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Early on 23 June Sanjay, the politically powerful younger son of the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, crashed his sports plane in Delhi and died. It was a big story and I was only three weeks into the job.

Someone said: ‘See Khushwant Singh. He knew Sanjay well.’ Khushwant was editor of the Hindustan Times and I found him in his seething newsroom. Perhaps he saw ‘Help!’ written on my face. ‘I’ll give you ten minutes,’ he said kindly, and launched into the meaning of Mrs Gandhi’s loss.

So I got to know him. Then, as now, it was not possible to work in India and be unaware of his stream of newspaper columns, comic short stories, novels and histories. He has been India’s best-known journalist for nearly forty years and has sought always to be frank. His sexual candour sometimes dismays admirers. He is a veteran foe of religious intolerance and an Indian who accepts the unpopularity of speaking up for Pakistan. Someone in Canada once addressed a letter: Khushwant Singh, Bastard, India. It was swiftly delivered.

Before he fell into full-time writing he was a barrister, a law professor and a diplomat. He was 41 when his novel Train to Pakistan made him famous. He sent the manuscript to the Grove Press in New York which offered $1,000 for the best Indian fiction. He won the prize and the work was published in 1956.

It is a powerful story set in the convulsion of Partition in the summer of 1947. During that year mobs killed a million people. More than 15 million fled their homes in history’s greatest exodus. The novel is set in Mano Majra, a Punjab village half Sikh and half Muslim, overtaken by the spreading violence.

In 1947 railways had been integral to Indian life, a u

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About the contributor

Trevor Fishlock was a foreign correspondent for The Times and the Daily Telegraph and is the author of India File and Cobra Road.

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