A Review of The Sunset Club
Khushwant Singh. ISBN: 978-067-00851-54. Penguin Random House India, 2011
'Boorha Binch' is the term used by walkers and wanderers in the historical urban jewel that are the Lodhi Gardens in central New Delhi. Who are the three wizened old men who regularly seat themselves on a particular bench (Old Men's Bench) facing the Bara Gumbad (Big Dome) monument built during the fifteenth century by the ruling Lodhi dynasty? The get-together occurs during the sunset hour throughout the year, for years on end. "English-speaking Indians call them the 'Sunset Club.'" And so we have the setting of Khushwant Singh's novel. The narrative starts on 26th January 2009 and ends a year later. The changing seasons reflected in the flora and fauna of the Lodhi Gardens is the natural canvas on which we turn chapters. In "'May of the Laburnums', "a mass of canary gold dripping down like bunches of Kandahar grapes. You gape open-mouthed at this miracle of beauty. No fragrance, only gaudy showers of gold..."
In “Apologia,” he remarks: "I had no intention of writing this novel. I had turned ninety-five and was not sure I would be able to finish it. Having nothing to do I became restless. Then Sheela Reddy of Outlook magazine suggested I record memories of my dead friends about whom I talked so much. The idea germinated and I got down to doing so. I mixed facts with fantasy."
The product is pure Khushwant Singh; containing all the classic ingredients of his large literary sphere: the master story-teller, the quoting scholar, the signature humour, the wicked wit, the insightful commentator and the racy and ribald narrator. One may be forgiven if one interprets the principal protagonist Sardar Boota Singh (also known as 'Rangeela Sardar' according to Begum Baig) as Khushwant Singh himself. In a thinly-disguised self-portrayal, in a fictional place; Boota has a real-life counterpart. Having met him a number of times at his Sujan Singh Park flat, New Delhi as well as at his Himalayan home in the hills in Kasauli; 'Sunset Club' may be read as real and fictional literature.
The other two characters include the eldest Pandit Preetam Sharma, a Punjabi Brahmin and a retired educationist chairing a number of cultural and social organisations. "He is in good health but needs glasses to read, hearing aids to hear and dentures to eat." He is single and lives with his single sister. Sharma is "Sabjantha" (Mr. Know-it-All). Nawab Barkatullah Baig Dehlavi is a "Sunni Mussalman whose Pathan ancestors settled in Delhi before the British took over the country." His father set up a chain of Yunani dawakhanas (pharmacies) in Old Delhi. Residence is at Baig Manzil mansion in Nizamuddin in New Delhi. The Aligarh University graduate is in his eighties. "Baig is in good shape: no glasses, no hearing aids. no false teeth, though he is occasionally short of breath." As for Sardar Boota Singh, "He suffers from many ailments: chronic constipation, incipient diabetes, fluctuating blood pressure, enlarged prostate and periodic bouts of gout. He has been wearing glasses since his schooldays, half a denture as all this lower teeth are gone, and for some years, hearing aids as well." A brief on his health.
Although a wily provocateur, Boota Singh, remains challenged by his two friendly debaters. Each one needles the others while contesting one-upmanship; turning all three into argumentative Indians. Provoked to retaliate, the fierce debates often end in 'Chalo ji, let bygones be bygones.' "Boota, what are those lines about truth that you often quote? Quoting other people's words of wisdom is Boota's favourite pastime. He clears his throat and recites":
Truth is good
If someone else dies for the truth
It is better
You are no martyr who should
On the gallows be hung
Hold your tongue.
'Sunset Club' explores the inevitable process of aging; the twilight years of three firm friends whose friendship has spanned more than four decades. Their past recollections, their current opinions and their future thoughts all come into play in this touching and tongue-in-cheek narrative. 'Boorha Binch' has been privy to discussions on health and wealth; the sacred and profane, politics and politicians, love and lust, corruption and cronyism, life and death - the essence of what brought and what brings meaning and pleasure to lives that now see the final curtain descending. Much of what is happening in India in 2009, gets a mention by the three musketeers as they seat themselves on the 'Boorha Binch' during the dipping westerning sun. Manmohan Singh and M.F. Husain, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, Maneka and Varun Gandhi, mangoes and monsoons, the new Nano car produced by Tata, hilarious episodes on Valentine's Day and April Fool's Day, 'Baara baj gaye' (the Sardarji joking line) and Death. (Mirza Ghalib's couplets).
Life goes at a galloping pace
Where it will stop, no one knows;
Our hands are not on the reins
Our feet not in the stirrups.
There is a day fixed for death
Why then spend sleepless nights thinking about it?
Thus Boota Singh leaves clear instructions to his 'bearer' staff member that upon his demise; there is to be equal distribution of his stock of scotch whiskey to his two bosom buddies.
Morning papers rarely bring cause to cheer. Pandit Sharma does not subscribe to papers. After all, they are freely available at the Library of the India International Centre. Baig Sahib "turns over the pages of the Hindustan Times. He spends a few minutes looking at pictures on the obit page to see if he knows anyone who has departed and puts the paper aside before asking his Begum to tell him what is happening in the world." The Voice of Begum' is up-to-date on all news. Sardar Boota subscribes to six newspapers that are home-delivered early in the morning. The punch-lines keep coming. Effortlessly, without rancour or malice. And I find myself chuckling through the reading. A word on obituaries. I suggested to my husband why not replace subscription for Newspaper A to Newspaper B - for a change. He is on the phone with Friend A about Friend B. Only to hear that Friend B had passed away. Invariably, I am told that he would have known about his friend's death, if it had not been for my intervention. He did have the last word. Papers serve many purposes.
Should any one cringe at the hilarious and detailed descriptions of certain body functions; eg. bowel movement or sexual anecdotes; Boota Singh has cautioned the reader early on in his 'Apologia.' "My readers may find what I've written to be in bad taste - unacceptable in polite society. So be it. I have never been known for politeness or propriety. If you are offended by some things in the book, cast it aside." Well, reader you have been warned!
Profound and poignant, hilarious and full of homilies; in parts gentle and affectionate and elsewhere bold and raucous, Khushwant Singh continues his legendary wit, insight and commentary in Sunset Club. Believing it to be his last book, I was gratified to discover Khushwantnama: The lessons of my life (2013). In full form, a brilliant title. The word-master completed his magnum opus at the productive age of ninety-eight. The man must have prayed hard to reach a century. However, he died a year short. Khushwant Singh passed away in 2014.
Raana Haider is an eclectic reader.