Khushwant Singh: The Man Who Taught me the Importance of Replying

 (sanjay austa austa)

Khushwant Singh showing the trees in his garden in Sujan Singh Park, Delhi

(The article was published first in Mumbai Mirror, March 2014)

Back in the day we wrote letters. In my boarding school in Shimla we even had  a designated letter-writing class where we wrote letters to our parents or imaginary girl-friends.

It was in one such class that  I wrote a letter to Khushwant Singh. It was a blue inland letter which we ruled neatly before we scribbled in it with our blotchy ink pens. At that time I nursed a secret ambition to be a writer and Singh, whose short story ( The Mark of Vishnu) was on our syllabus, was the only Indian author  I knew.

Barely after two weeks,  I received a sepia coloured   postcard  with a handwriting as if there were ants crawling . After some squinting, I saw Khushwant Singh’s signature.

I had written the letter  on a whim and was astonished that a  famous writer would have the time to reply to a school-boy. I wrote some more  and even sent him some pieces    and every time Khushwant Singh’s sepia postcard would be waiting for me at the hostel room.

This was baffling.  Khushwant Singh was famously particular  about his time.  His door had this notorious notice for all gate-crashers-   ‘Please do not ring the bell unless you are expected’.    He was  a disciplinarian with a fixed schedule he never violated. Well into his  90’s he woke  up at 4 am and slept  at 9pm. Even if you were an  honored guest in his house, he would  excuse himself   and retire to bed by 9pm.  Singh was also a stickler for punctuality. There are stories of how people-some of them VVIP’s – were  refused entry, when they showed up late to his house.

 (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

Singh's letter recommending me Lee Siegel's book: ' Laughing Matters - Comic Tradition in India'


Many years later,  when I went to his house  to interview him for a paper,  I was running late. I knew I would  be turned back but I took my chance and  rang the bell. His servant opened the door and told me to wait. After a few minutes Khushwant Singh came to the door. He shook my hand and led me in.

I realized he had made the  servant make me wait so he could personally  escort me in himself.During the interview,  I told him he had replied to every letter I wrote him. He said he replied to every letter and that included the abusive ones. He  showed me  these letters with some pride. Most of them had nothing but filthy abuses.

When my interview was done he turned to me and said. ‘’ Now tell me something about  yourself. Where are you from?”.  I was taken aback. At that time I was doing a series of meet-the-writer interviews  but  no writer   had shown  the least bit of interest in me.  All artists, including writers have very big egos. The egos are fragile and you have to be very careful because you never know when you may touch a  raw nerve. In fact, I  had interviewed dacoits, petty criminals and pimps but  I was never so  afraid interviewing anyone as I was interviewing writers.

I told Singh  about my ancestral house in the orchards in Himachal. He said when he was younger he had trekked to my area from Shimla.  Those days you  walked in the hills and Singh said he would ogle at the pretty college girls on his walks to and from his  cottage in Mashobra.  He quizzed me about my life with genuine interest and finally when it was time to leave he got up and escorted me to the door.

Some laughter and some malice- Author Khushwant Singh at home in Delhi (sanjay austa austa)

Khushwant Singh at home in New Delhi in 2009

The second time I met an ailing Singh. This was in 2009. When I phoned him  he  simply said, ‘’I am sorry.  I am deaf . I can’t hear you. Can you please write me a letter?’’.  And as expected Singh wrote back giving me time to meet.This time I took my girlfriend  along. She was a conventional Shimla beauty and there was an unmistakable sparkle in Singh’s eyes when he saw her walk in. He took us to his garden, where,  as I photographed him, he quizzed us  about the  trees .  We were embarrassed, as we didn’t know the name of a single tree.

The last I wrote him, Singh replied saying  he had had a very bad fall in his bathroom. He said he was in pain and had been advised complete rest. Again,  I was surprised that considering his condition  he had bothered to reply at all.

Today apart from a barrage of queries from photography enthusiasts, I get a major bulk of mail from three types of people.

1.  Those who think I am gay

2. Those who think I am a pimp

3. Those  who think I am Virat Kohli’s bosom buddy.

I have been photographing the homosexual community in India  and many gays trolling  the internet for alliances assume I am one too. The shy ones from the hinterlands text  me ”if they can do friendship with me” and the bold one’s want to know the colour of my undies.

I did a magazine shoot with Virat Kohli once and because I have his pictures on my website,  teenage girls think I am his best pal.  Apart from flooding me with e-mails they call me up professing profound love for the cricketer and if I can please give them his number.

I am also doing an  ongoing project on the  aging sex-workers and their photos on my  website gets me calls at odds hours of the day from drunk men who say ‘Internet main dektha tha. Ladkhi chaiya’-( I saw your number on the internet. I want a girl). It can get really exasperating to reply to people who mistake you for someone else. But reply I do.

One  cannot write enough how ill-mannered we Indians generally  are. Not replying  is not only a lack of good manners but is also rude and    arrogant. Khushwant Singh, on the other hand, was a man with impeccable manners.   Today every crazy email I want to trash,  I think of the good   old  Singh,  sitting at his  desk replying to every silly letter he received.


 (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)



 (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)


Khushwant Singh aged 96 at his Sujan Singh Park House in New Delhi. (sanjay austa austa)


Khushwant Singh aged 96 at his Sujan Singh Park House in New Delhi. (sanjay austa austa)


Khushwant Singh aged 96 at his Sujan Singh Park House in New Delhi. (sanjay austa austa)


Writer Khushwant Singh at his Sujan Singh Park House in Delhi in 2009. (sanjay austa austa)


Khushwant Singh aged 96 at his Sujan Singh Park House in New Delhi. (sanjay austa austa)

 (sanjay austa austa)

67 Responses to “Khushwant Singh: The Man Who Taught me the Importance of Replying”

  1. Neil Dsouza says:

    Inspirational! Will take some disciplining, but will try to do the same 🙂

  2. Suchit Nanda says:

    Sanjay, I loved this post of yours. I think as we move from pen & paper to digital strings of 1s and 0s it is only going to get worse. My other pet peeve is with the way words are written thanks to SMS. Sure I use LOL or ROTFL occasionally but reading whole lines of messages in “short text” on paper isn’t joy.

  3. Arun Sawhney says:

    This is a learning for me too Sanjay. But obviously even Khushwant Singh would not be able to handle the spam in our mailboxes. Times changes but I am still old school and love to read books in print. As for replying its a lesson learnt.

  4. Suruchi Suri says:

    loved the piece, the photos and his advice to you. it seems you did pay heed, your post had me in splits. he interviewed me and my sister once and i was touched by him escorting us out too.

  5. Ritika Kochhar says:

    Lovely piece. You’ve really brought out a very different and touching side to him

  6. Kshama Rao says:

    Such a heartwarming piece and so so so needed in today’s times when courtesy, manners and professionalism are mere words thank you, Sanjay for a lovely read!

  7. Mukta Naik says:

    I absolutely love this piece. It’s a valuable lesson to learn. I know I will be diligent about replying to letters after this and about keeping check on my pride. You never know what you will learn and from whom.
    Thank you for writing this.

  8. Ambika says:

    I do not think you belong to any of the group (described above). I found curiosity to know the reality by holding faithfulness and sincerity. There is all the energy within you what you want to be but expressing what the situation demand. Personally, I like your every documentary collection, I do not read about your personal life thus because I cant see the wrong side of my Idol. From Day1 to till now I followed you blindly. What the pic said, I made the day like that. I felt everybody live once but if you do it right once is enough. Today I felt bad, I started my work with your inspiration but never get any reply….

  9. Chirag S. says:

    Brilliantly composed.

  10. Ranjan Chauhan says:

    that was nice read…u r doing a good job…keep it up bro…

  11. Sonal Vaz says:

    truly inspiring

  12. Rakhi Biswas says:

    superrr….:-) . a very good piece indeed

  13. Maneck Khanna says:

    Austa can you please reply to my text message :-)…. jokes apart this post is awesome and teaches us that if a man of such stature can follow basic courtesies and time discipline irrespective of the person in front of him why can’t we. Very well written as usual 🙂

  14. Bhavesh Patel says:

    I am a fan of Khushwant Singh you are lucky to have met him twice. Feels good to read this post about him.

  15. Sarit Ray says:

    Touching piece, Sanjay

  16. Mukul Sheopory says:

    So cool that you wrote to him during one of our “letter writing” sessions 🙂 And that he responded.
    I also remember one of my friends from Meerut who was a junior in Lefroy house Rohit Mandhotra had written to President Gorbachev and had received a postcard signed by him back in the mail.. Do I remember correctly Rohit?

  17. Anubha Yadav says:

    Lovely piece. Heart warming

  18. Rohit Mandhotra says:

    @Dear Mukul Sheopory, you are correct in remembering the event, however i wrote both to George Bush and Gorbachev, the Cold war was its peak. however the Americans responded but the Russians in their characteristic style chose not to ……those were the days and as luck would have had it in the year 2010 i ended up spending 2 months each in the two great nations……

  19. @Sanjay,

    Had i known that Kushwant Singh replies letters written by Cottonions , i would have also send him one of those blue folding envelopes. I really enjoyed those sessions writing to my Parents though i was a bit embarrassed at my address saying Akhara Bazar Kullu and always wrote A. B . Kullu. It was amazing reading your article…less for learning the art of replying which i try best to follow but more for bringing the memories alive of the ” Letter Writing Period.”


  20. farah khan says:

    It really nice message from Mr.Khushwant Singh,he is my father favorite Writer . We have so many books of Mr, Singh.I try my best to replay all my friends.Because i feel gud to ans.its such a nice experience .no problem its later or delay .i know its time consuming but not replay is such a irritating for me.try to ans in short n sweet but i replay.

  21. Amrita says:

    Hi Sanjay,

    This is the first time I came across your website and I am really glad and feel fortunate that I did. This post is just awesome.

    Thanks a lot for inspiring.

  22. Rahul Kapoor says:

    Hi Sanjay

    I’m not sure how to add more adjectives to your very touching article, especially after reading all the above comments.
    I can only remember the time when we use to communicate with distant relatives by writing letters,an activity which i can proudly say i indulged in but sad to admit that I lost it growing up 🙁
    Your article brought back all those childhood memories.

    Thanks a lot for writing such a lovely article.
    And also to thank the legend himself who gave all of us such sweet short stories which we cherished in our schooling days.. 🙂

  23. Vijay Singh says:

    Khushwant Singh…..aha…there cant be another like him. Thanks. I got to know a new facet of his personality.

  24. Rachna says:

    Loved the post. Used to enjoy his column in ‘The Tribune’ in Shimla….long ago.

  25. Ritesh Reddy says:

    Sanjay, thank you for sharing these insights of the glorious Mr. Singh. It’s nice to know there’s another writer (Murakami comes to mind) who followed a disciplined schedule (4am – 9pm) and that creativity doesn’t belong only to the graveyard shift scribblers. Cheerio and Bravo to that brilliant soul that was Khushwant Singh!

  26. Vidya says:

    Very moving, Sanjay. A tribute to good manners, which cannot be bought.

    Among the tribe of what I think are the real “dirty old men” in journalism, who profess suavity but don’t hesitate to misbehave, Khushwant Singh was unabashed about his admiration of women but he was – as far as I know – a gentleman in his actual behaviour.

  27. Monica Arora says:

    Wow! Loved reading it, Sanjay! But, few of his thoughts surprise me as to what kinda person he was, one being …..”I have never been able to conform to the Indian ideal of regarding women as my mothers, sisters or daughters. Whatever their age, to me they were, and are, objects of lust,” Khushwant Singh..

  28. Akhil says:

    I’ve never read Khushwant Singh before;but maybe I will, after reading this memoir.What am taking from your article is a reminder of those elements which make one’s life elegant and worth remembering.I wish I could’ve acquire a bunch of those before I die.

    Great one Sanjay!

  29. Shweta Modgil says:

    This article felt real-just like Khushwant Singh’s elegant manners.Thanks for sharing!

  30. Tonmoy says:

    A heartfelt bit of writing Sanjay. Some of the photos, especially the black & white one in the end, really capture the man.

    Just one thing, must you have that watermark running through the middle over his face?


    • sanjay austa says:

      Hi Tonmoy. Thank you. Yes I agree -thats sort of very distracting . But it comes on automatically on all photos I upload. . Watermarks are a necessary evil- they are the only way to get those who need the photos to contact you rather than steal them directly when you upload them.

  31. Rajini Dasgupta says:

    Dear Sanjay,

    this could not have been better timed. One observation i have made is that most “important” people TAKE the time to reply/respond/communicate. Its the ones who actually have the time, and are not doing very important things in life,like to pretend otherwise….


  32. Sachin Bhatnagar says:

    My Uncle would often write to Khushwant Singh to enquire about his health. Here is a photograph of a thank you post card we received from him in 2011

    A prized possession in our family.

  33. smriti singh says:

    It is really amazing.m speechless sanjay.. 🙂

  34. Akanksha says:

    Beautifully written Sanjay. The best thing about this being you’ve not restricted this article to just being about Khushwant Singh and you’ve connected the dots as to how he has been a person to you who has taught you the importance of replying.

    I have been a personal fan of Khushwant Ji.. I love “Delhi – A Novel”, “A Train to Pakistan” and “The End of India”.. And I read his novel “Delhi – A Novel” at the young age of 10 and hardly understood the things portrayed in it. Three years later I read the same book again .. And I know what he is about. Loved how he’s been so candid and yet he told about his stringent life he’d lived through.

    Great work !! Keep them coming Sanjay ..

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