Monday, 13 December 2010



On a bench in Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens, Pandit Preetam Sharma, Nawab Barkatullah Baig Dehalvi and Sardar Boota Singh are busy talking about a lot of things under the sun: old age, infirmity, youth, politics, history, sex and more. And the regular twilight rendezvous of these friends results into Khushwant Singh’s latest novel The Sunset Club — a story of four-decade-old bonding shared between these men, now in their eighties.

A quick backgrounder here: Preetam was a senior government bureaucrat, and post-retirement he has become a supporter of Hindu ideals and traditions; Barkatullah is a rich person who inherited his father’s business of Yunani medicine pharmacies; and Boota had served Indian missions abroad before returning to Delhi and taking up writing for newspapers and publications.

Therefore, we learn about a wide range of experiences when these men share their worlds — past and present — with each other. And along with it, we revisit the events in India and beyond that unfold between January 26 of 2009 and January 26 of 2010. The author employs his mastery over storytelling through conversation to let the three men express their divergent views on the events: the general elections of 2009, the Nano car, the change in law to allow same-sex relationships and the like. There is cynicism, but not senility. Perhaps the author wanted to send across a message: old age need not come in the way of a person’s ability to analyse facts.

At the outset, Singh mentions that he mixed facts with fantasy. As I was reading, it seemed that the author modelled the character of Boota on himself. Boota’s non-conformist ideas remind of Khushwant Singh’s own forthright views. Some of the remarks are caustic; but they are honest nonetheless. Singh doesn’t make any attempt to sugar-coat anything. It makes the story all the more engrossing.

There is not much of a plot. But tales are told, as Singh skilfully lets the three men move in and out of the present and go back to their younger days: their past sexual adventures being the primary theme when Boota and Barkatullah recount their youth. As they do it, you may either laugh (it can be hilarious, at times), or you may just dislike the idea of old men discussing sex. But you cannot deny the role of ‘basic instinct’ in our lives. Singh shows it again without any hypocrisy.

What I found interesting is the way Singh blends the excerpts of some of the beautiful works by Kalidas, Amaru, Yogeshvara, Sudraka, Mir Taqi Mir among others, with the story. They add poetic aura to the men who look back to their lives wistfully, yet with lot of fondness.

Singh’s sense of humour, his ability to minutely observe human nature — mannerisms and foibles — are evident in all the characters in the story. His description of the historic Lodhi Gardens — the Bada Gumbad and the three tombs next to it, as well as bits and pieces of Delhi indicate Singh’s affection for the city. With all that, the author’s love for nature becomes clear: sudden rain in Delhi, the blooming of flowers and greenery, the sky, the birds... they become vivid through Singh’s words. That is where Khushwant Singh has an edge over lot of other writers: his simple language and his eye for all those things that we often overlook. This story, then, excellently exudes simple realism. Nothing seems to be imposed, as may otherwise happen due to jugglery of vocabulary, or dreary narration.

As I was riveted to the lives of the three men, the story ended suddenly, leaving me a bit disappointed. But life itself can be like that — sudden, abrupt and uncertain. Singh just portrayed that without much ado.

On the whole, this is yet another fine piece of work from one of the best storytellers of our times.