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It is said that a person is not dead not when he dies; he is dead when he is forgotten. Rahul Singh, Niloufer Bilimoria and their KSLF team have ensured through these LitFests that Khushwant Singh will never be forgotten.   



1. Did any aspiring writer ever visit New Delhi, and not want to be photographed with Khushwant Singh?

I confess I wanted to. My earliest photograph of him is with his son-in-law Ravi Dayal, taken in 1981, in the portico of the Sujan Singh Park complex where Khushwant had a ground floor flat.  


2. Shahnaz and I met him again in the late 1990s, and thereafter whenever we visited Delhi. 


3. Our last meeting was on 4 March 2014, a fortnight before he died. He sat in a wicker chair, his legs outstretched in the sun, the rest of his body in the shade. He wore a grey track suit and had a black woollen cap on his head. I noticed some biscuit crumbs caught in his beard.

He recognized me within a second. I gave him a copy of my book The Resourceful Fakirs.


4. ‘Inscribe it for me,’ he said, adding after I had done so: ‘Now write it in Urdu.’  He demonstrated (as if I could ever forget) his mastery of Urdu and Persian by reciting a couplet of Iqbal’s.


5. ‘You know that I am 99 years old.’ I replied: ‘May my years be added to yours.’ He looked up at me with the softest expression, and said: ‘No, but may you live as long as I have!’

I held his hand, the hand that had spent a lifetime writing books and inimitable articles, and kissed it. He brushed his cheek with mine. Both of us knew that it was a farewell. He asked me to have his ashes interred in his birthplace in Hadali (now in Pakistan).  


6.  Khushwant died exactly ten years ago, on 20 March 2014. A fortnight after his cremation, I returned to Delhi to condole with his daughter Mala. She took me into his sitting room and there, next to his favoured chair, lay my book, waiting to be reviewed by him.


7.  Mala and her daughter Naina then gave me his ashes in a steel urn.  Looking at it, I recalled words of the Roman emperor Septimus Severus:

          Little urn, you will soon hold all that will remain of him

Whom the world could not contain.


8.  Khushwant Singh’s final journey was like the title of his brilliant book - by train, to Pakistan.

I took the Shadabti Express to Amritsar, and then walked across the border at Attari/Wagah.  Khushwant had no problem crossing the border. Ashes do not need visas.


9.  His ashes were grouted in the wall of Khushwant’s first school in Hadali. The inscription ends with a line from Khushwant’s memoirs.

10.   A year later, Rahul, Mala and Niloufer were able to visit Hadali – the home Khushwant never forgot and ‘nourished with tears of nostalgia.’



Some years ago, the BBC invited me to speak on the future of the Commonwealth.

‘’How much time do I have?” I asked.

“Oh, about 5 minutes.”

‘’Well, that just about summarises the future of the Commonwealth! ”

Today, I have 30 minutes in which to Heal the World.

But before I do, let me first pay homage to the progenitor of the KSLF, to my mentor and yours, Khushwant Singh. He spent the best part of the 99 years of his life healing our fractured world.

He brought religions together. He bridged the divide between countries that should never have been pitched against each other.  He used scriptures, prose and poetry to remind us of the universality of man. And words were the instruments he employed to fulfil his mission. 

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,’ we are told by St. John. 

‘Iqra:  Read!’ The angel Gabriel commands the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), in the first revelation.  ‘’Your Lord is the Most Generous, Who taught by the Pen, taught man that which he knew not.”

Guru Nanak-ji sings in one of his compositions: 

          ‘Yet through words and through letters

Is Thy Name uttered and Thy praise expressed:’

‘In words we praise Thee,

In words we sing of Thy virtues.’

These lines are from one of Guru Nanak-ji’s hymns, translated by Khushwant and included in his book The Sacred Writings of the Sikhs


Seers and prophets are said to come down on a needs basis. The last messenger of peace Muhammad (PBUH) came almost 1,400 years ago. Before him Jesus Christ, 2024 years ago. Lord Buddha came in 563 BCE, and his near contemporary Lord Mahavira 36 years earlier. Someone looking at the fissures that divide our modern world would argue that another worldly healer is overdue. 

By the time Moses fled Egypt in about 1350 BCE, a pantheon of over 1,500 gods had already been managing ancient Egypt for over two thousand years.

We are so steeped in our own Vedic and Abrahamic traditions that we forget that ancient Chinese and the Mayans on opposite sides of the world worshipped equally powerful gods. They must have been potent to have been venerated continuously for numerous millennia.

Looking back into antiquity, has there ever been an aeon when the world did not experience the traumas of strife? Has there ever been a century not stained by war?  To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never in the history of human conflict have so many dead owed their extinction to so few.

The Spanish film director Luis Buñuel’s made a telling observation that ‘God and Country are an unbeatable team; they break all records for oppression and bloodshed.’ God is not the cause of war. Countries and their leaders are.

The Peace Treaties of Westphalia in 1648 may have ended the Thirty Years’ War between Christian Protestants and Roman Catholics (their brothers in Christ), and also the Eighty Years’ War by the Dutch provinces against Spanish hegemony. The treaties grouted principles of international law which predicated that each state enjoyed sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs, to the exclusion of all external powers. Coeval to that were the principles of non-interference in another country’s domestic affairs, and the acknowledgment that each state (no matter how large or small) stands equal in international law.

Since Westphalia, the world has been ravaged by two world wars and countless regional conflicts. Isn’t it time for the world to convene another Westphalia? The dove of Peace deserves resurrection.


Our host SOAS, at its own level, is ‘committed to building bridges within the global communities and forging equitable global partnerships.’ It seeks to empower generations of students ‘to question the global status quo and find solutions to the issues facing the world today’.  In effect, in a phrase coined by the late Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, to complete the work that God began.

Dr. Jonathan Sacks served for 22 years as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. In his remarkable book To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, he argued: “We are here to make a difference, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make the world a place of justice and compassion.”

He cites the case of a terminally ill cancer patient who was inspired to continue her blighted life by the advice that ‘Immortality lies in not how long you live, but in how you live.’ Dr. Sacks admired her courage in a struggle which could have only one ending. In doubt was not whether she would die, but how soon.

‘Courage’, Dr. Sacks maintained, ‘is born the moment we decide not to complain but instead to make a personal protest against the evils of the world by doing good, however slight.’

‘Do not worry about moksha,’ the undervalued sage Acharya Vinoba Bhave explained in his Talks on the Gita, ‘It is enough if you attend to your effort.’ Incidentally, how many here know that Acharya Bhave, like his preceptor Gandhi, studied the holy Quran?  The outcome of Bhave’s twenty-five year tapasya resulted in his monograph The Essence of the Quran. Its avowed objective paralleled that of the KSLF: ‘to unite the hearts of men.’

Like Gandhi, Bhave saw all too clearly the flaws in our imperfect world. They both could have rejected it and disappeared into oblivion. Instead, as the philosopher Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan explains in the introduction to his book Indian Philosophy:  ‘The righteous man is not he who leaves the world and retires to a cloister, but he who lives in the world and loves the world, not for the objects of the world, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the infinite they contain, the universal they conceal.’

Dr. Radhakrishnan's advice remains true today.  We should not reject the world for what it is. We have to accept it despite what it is, and then make our contribution in improving it. 

Interestingly, as early as 1923, Dr. Radhakrishnan alluded to the demographic reality inherent in India. A hundred years ago, he wrote: ‘India even today is mainly Hindu.’  He described that during the Epic Period which spanned roughly 600 BC to AD 200:  ‘The fortunes of the Hindus [however] became more and more linked with those of the non-Hindus.’ Amongst these, he included Buddhists, Jains, Saivites and Vaishnavites. Muslims of course had yet to come.

Over time, Hindu saffron has had to share space with Islamic green and other colours in the subcontinent’s rainbow coalition. But should colour matter at all?

To the polymath Albert Schweitzer, colour had no relevance. Playfully, he defined an optimist as a person who sees a green light everywhere, while a pessimist sees only the red light. He believed that ‘the truly wise person is colorblind.’

Schweitzer (like Vinoba Bhave, another saint-manqué) combined in himself a polymath’s expertise - as ‘a theologian, an organist, a musicologist, a writer, a humanitarian, a philosopher, and a physician’. He applied his skill as a surgeon administering to sick and terminally ill African patients in a makeshift hospital in Lambaréné (present Gabon). 

In 1952, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophical thesis: ‘Reverence for Life’. His biographer James Brabazon defined Reverence for Life as:

‘Reverence for Life says that the only thing we are really sure of is that we live, and want to go on living. This is something that we share with everything else that lives, from elephants to blades of grass—and, of course, every human being. So we are brothers and sisters to all living things, and owe to all of them the same care and respect that we wish for ourselves.’

As you must have detected, Schweitzer's thought was influenced strongly by the life-affirming principles of ahimsa (non-violence).

In more ways than one, Schweitzer’s experiences paralleled those of Lord Buddha. For example, he too was traumatized by an early exposure to suffering. It heightened his awareness of the human condition and its sensitive fragility. Schweitzer underwent a life-altering catharsis as a young child. He recalled:

‘As far back as I can remember I was saddened by the amount of misery I saw in the world around me. Youth's unqualified joie de vivre I never really knew [.] One thing especially saddened me was that the unfortunate animals had to suffer so much pain and misery....It was quite incomprehensible to me.’ And for Schweitzer, animals included humans and living things.

But the planet we inhabit has more occupants than just us homo sapiens. It contains more species of animals and fish, more varieties of vegetation, more millions of living organisms that we cannot see nor discern with the human eye. Schweitzer’s reverence for life meant not just the will-to-live [.] It required a conscious admission that ‘this will-to-live existed in all creatures and was to be respected.’  


Ever since Man (like Napoleon) crowned himself master of this planet, he has minimised the god within himself. He has presumed to challenge divinity. The poet Allama Iqbal in his epic Jawab-e-Shikwa questioned this unconscionable arrogance: 

[Man] even rails against Allah, he has become so proud;

Is he the same Adam before whom the angels bowed?

[trans. Khushwant Singh]


Modern Man has no time and even less money for the environment. Incidentally, while I was browsing through SOAS’s website, I was impressed to learn that SOAS has a flourishing Centre for Development, Environment and Policy. Perhaps, though, someone could have another look at SOAS’s list of core values and push the topic of Environment up a few notches. At the moment, it appears at the bottom of the list – ninth out of nine.

I am proud that my granddaughter Raeya will be joining SOAS this autumn. But I ask myself: What kind of a planet am I bequeathing her? A La La Land of pious promises? Or a Waste Land, the stubble of a misspent inheritance and a sewer of contaminated natural resources? 

Today and tomorrow, experts in every field of intellectual endeavour will be offering ideas and solutions on how we can reverse degradation of our precious planet, and how to heal the world.

We have an aggregate of authors, artists, playwrights, poets, professors of Politics and of Colonialism and Heritage, even a child psychiatrist for those of you in urgent need of treatment. 

This year 2024 has been an election year in Bangladesh and Pakistan. The results of the Indian general elections are to be declared in a couple of days, on 4 June. At a local level, they have been conducted here in the United Kingdom.

It is timely therefore that we have with us Mr.  Shahabuddin Quraishi, the 17th Chief Election Commissioner of India. Incidentally, I was privileged to know his predecessor Dr. Manohar Singh Gill who served from 1996-2001. He narrated to me once how, when he was planning the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the Indian Election Commission, he asked the then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee whether he would have any objection to an invitation being extended to the Congress party.

PM Vajpayee’s reply was unequivocal: ‘You have to. As the CEC you must remain neutral, equidistant from all the political parties, regardless of their affiliation or ideology.’        

Among our speakers at Cambridge will be Simon McDonald, Baron McDonald of Salford. He served his country for five gruelling years (from 2015 to 2020) as a former Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and former Head of the HM Diplomatic Service. He survived a dozen senior ambassadors, six foreign secretaries and five prime ministers.  

I am tempted to quote an anecdote which I have lifted from the memoirs of the late Baroness Thatcher. She narrates how a foreign visitor stopped a Britisher in Whitehall to ask: ‘On which side is the Foreign Office?’ Startled, the local replied: ‘Well, I hope, on ours!’ 

I should mention that his successor and present Permanent Under-Secretary Sir Philip Barton had served as High Commissioner both to Pakistan between 2014 and 2016, and later as High Commissioner to India - all too briefly - between June and August 2020. 


Earlier I had referred to Albert Schweitzer’s optimist who saw green lights. Khushwant Singh, like Schweitzer’s inveterate optimist, saw only green lights and perennial greenery everywhere. 

He conveyed such hopes in this verse from Iqbal’s Jawab-e-shikwa:

          Let not the sorry plight of the garden upset the gardener;

Soon buds will sprout on the branches and like stars glitter.


Weeds and brambles will be swept out of the garden with a broom,

And where martyrs’ blood was shed, red roses shall bloom.


Look, how russet hues have tinged the eastern skies!

The horizon heralds the birth of a new sun about to rise.


Niloufer and Rahul have asked me to read a poem I had composed for KSLF 2019, which we could not attend at Kasauli because of bureaucratic intransigence:

There was a time

when Time evoked tomorrows.

Today, it speaks only of yesterdays.


Where has the promise gone

of fraternité sans frontières?

Where are the tears we shed,

the blood to irrigate an earth,

once yours, now mine,

once mine, now yours?


Why must my only view

of you be through

the barrel of a gun?

Why must I search for you

in the debris of a divided sun?


How long will this daily suicide last?

Will we have separate heavens there,

or find ourselves sharing

another common hell?



 Let the last word, though, be not Iqbal’s nor Khushwant’s nor mine. Let them be from someone who came much earlier, whose humanity and wisdom and inspirational hymns will live long after such festivals are held.

Guru Nanak-ji once sang: 

‘It is in the words that we write and speak about Thee,

In words on man’s forehead

Is written man’s destiny,


But God who writes that destiny

Is free from the bondage of words.’     


It is time for us to loosen the bondage of words that bind us into inaction, and to perform the deeds expected of us by future generations.


We owe it to the unborn.



02 June 2024
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