If my name was Natha Singh or Banta Singh, I would not be writing this article. It is because my grandfather named me Khushwant, after the inimitable writer Khushwant Singh, that I have been pushed into questioning my very name.
My grandfather, Sardar Sahib Harbans Singh, a friend of Khushwant Singh’s brother in-law Jaspal Singh, named me lovingly after the man whose writings he greatly admired. But then, Bapuji could hardly have guessed that 39 years later, the very name he chose for his first grandchild would come to haunt me, even bring upon me tags of ‘impostor’ and ‘rascal’. For my grandfather, this was just a simple exercise of christening a baby after someone great. Many elders name their children Nanak, but hardly with the prospect of the child becoming another Nanak and starting a religion. So was the case with my name.
But perhaps the fault is all mine. I dared to tread the same path the great Khushwant Singh has dominated for more than half a century. But believe me, I chose the path without any destination in mind. The fact that I wrote a book (Sikhs Unlimited) was in no way an attempt to conquer someone’s territory, one that had been established through decades of literary and scholarly work. How could a farmer from Punjab even dare to think along those lines?
“He is definitely an impostor,” said his Delhi Durbar. But then to grant it to these durbaris, they didn’t bother to differentiate between the two Khushwants, and just because of the same name, they first compared our works, then styles of writing, and held me guilty of trying to ride piggyback on the name of the illustrious writer. Few bothered to read the author blurb, which, besides clearing all doubts about my real identity, included my photograph. The more intelligent ones felt ‘people could mistake the picture as one from his younger days’. One woman, I am told, even downloaded the photograph and painted a portrait for him, thinking it was one from his younger days.
“But why did you drop the surname ‘Ahluwalia’?” demanded one intellectual, “You did that deliberately to seek cheap publicity, didn’t you?” I gave up trying to explain; only I know the sincerity of my intentions. It all began in 1995. I had just joined my father at our ancestral farm at Kinnow after getting my degree in mass communications from Punjab University. I was passionate about technology in agriculture. Sitting over a drink with Ramindar Singh, then Delhi’s resident editor of The Times of India, we talked about how the onion crisis could have been avoided had Indian farmers used technology. I explained to him how I had saved 50 acres of potato crop just by altering the sowing dates after browsing the net with Yahoo! for weather forecasts. ‘Internet’ and ‘technology’ were orgasmic words for the media then, and an excited Ramindar asked me if I could write a piece on the subject for the newspaper. My first article, ‘Electronic Farming’, was published in The Times of India under the byline Khushwant Singh, for that’s how I was known.
Whether in jest or in seriousness, the next day, when I called up Ramindar to thank him for initiating me into the world of writing, he advised that I start using my last name as my namesake Khushwant Singh would be wondering when he had ever sown potatoes in his life.
I don’t know whether changing my byline thereafter was the right move or not, but I agreed that if and when I wrote another piece, I would use the byline Khushwant Ahluwalia. Perhaps I was too small a fry to even consider the options, and I went along with what the big guys suggested.
Soon, I got an opportunity to write in The Tribune and started contributing regularly for its op-ed, editorial and agriculture pages under the byline Khushwant Ahluwalia. I even wrote a piece on how my name had come to haunt me at various stages of my life and how I would remain a mere Khushwant Ahluwalia and India would never get another Khushwant Singh.
Through my writing, I came in touch with a gentleman named Nanak Kohli, Khushwant Singh’s close friend. In December 2004, he took me to Khushwant Singh’s residence at Sujan Singh Park for his 7 o’clock durbar.
Once inside, it was a pilgrimage. Khushwant shared with me his interest in pornographic movies and said he knew they were available at Pallika Bazaar. I even remember writing a feature on this conversation and mentioning how at 8 o’clock sharp, the Scotch bottles were removed as if an excise swoop had taken place.
Even as I cherished this memory of meeting the great man after whom I had been named, Nanak Singh called me to ask if some money from BBC had been wrongly credited to my account. Apparently, in this new day and age, money gets transferred through a swift code, but account statements go to postal addresses that may not have been updated, triggering all kinds of confusion at Sujan Singh Park. Mercifully, the matter was settled and I didn’t see myself being trashed as a financial fraud in any of his ‘Malice Towards One and All’ columns.
Talking about mistaken identity, I was once at Fresno, California, entering the house of Ranbir Kaur, the first Sikh woman soldier in the US army. I saw jaws drop as the family sighted a man more than 60 years younger than their expected guest. Familiar with this kind of scene, I went about introducing myself, explaining that I was interested in writing about Ranbir in my book Sikhs Unlimited. The family, trying hard not to show their disappointment, later guided me to a bedroom they’d got specially prepared on the ground floor, considering Khushwant Singh’s age. The next thing I heard was an argument between the father and daughter, with the former saying, “Dekhya, main tainu keha si ki awaaz badi jung hai.” (See I told you, it was a young voice on the phone)
Now, to the question of why I eventually decided to drop my last name. I did so, in 2005, because I regained the confidence to go back to the way I was originally known. Khushwant Singh is the name on my passport and driver’s licence. Khushwant Singh is what my friends have called me all my life. Khushwant Singh is what my wife calls me when she orders me about.
The namesake journey has been a rollercoaster ride, harrowing and funny. But, at the same time, it has left me with a yearning to seek the dirty old man’s blessing. So what if it is through his favourite four-letter word.