Breakfast in Chowk with Khushwant Singh
Kahkashan Naqvi recalls her first meeting with the late sardar in Lucknow
Mr Khushwant Singh became Editor of The Hindustan Times when my husband was covering Uttar Pradesh for the same paper. Mr V.P. Singh was the Chief Minister (CM) of Uttar Pradesh. Mr Khushwant Singh was commissioned by Penthouse to do a piece on Phoolan Devi, the dreaded dacoit of the Chambal ravines, who was in the news, with both the Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh police baying for her blood.
The Hindustan Times office kept approaching the CM’s office to organize the trip without any success. That is where my husband, Lakhte Hasnain Naqvi, stepped in and asked his editor if it was alright if he organized the expedition for him.
In our colony lived a bureaucrat, whose sister-in-law, didi to us, was married to Gopalda or to put it formally Mr S.K Dutta, who was then the DIG Jhansi range. He organized the tour and made arrangements for Khushwant Singh’s stay at the beautiful Kalpi Guest House inclusive of his favourite single malt whisky.
My first meeting with the legendary editor was unforgettable. My husband asked me to get ready as we were taking Mr Khushwant Singh for breakfast. We reached Clarks’s Hotel where we had booked a suite for him. I was certain we would have breakfast at a fancy joint. Imagine my consternation to find myself in the by lanes of Chowk where I had to literally lift my sari to prevent the edges from getting wet. Before I could understand what was happening my husband bundled me into a nahari breakfast joint frequented by conservative muslims (all men) for their first meal of the day. All the inmates left in a jiffy. The three of us had the place entirely to ourselves. Mr Khushwant Singh enjoyed his breakfast. He questioned the proprietor about the recipe. I think we must have been the only people to have fed the boss, on a really shoestring budget.
We drove him to the airport. His wife had asked for the famous navratan chutney and stuffed red chilli pickle from the famous Arora pickles of Aminabad. He carried these unselfconsciously in a plastic bag.
Just before we left he returned chuckling from the counter asking my husband to check the form he had been asked to show. It was in Hindi and obviously the clerk had not recognized him.
The confident editor that he was, he asked my husband to first write a piece for the Hindustan Times, and he would do his assignment for Penthouse later.
As luck would have it, Ms Nandini Mehta who was looking after the Sunday Magazine left to join her husband who was in the Foreign Service and was transferred to Paris. Khushwant Singh was on the lookout for someone to replace her. After reading Naqvi’s features in the Hindustan Times he offered him the job.
I was very reluctant to leave Lucknow. We had three small children. The presence of both our parents in the city made it a wonderful place for them to spend their formative years. My husband painted dreadful scenes of having to live in a barsati and getting up in the wee hours to fill water in Delhi.
Sensing my reluctance he offered to try for one of the Pusa Road houses reserved for the Hindustan Times and for which there was a really long queue. in the meantime Khushwant Singh offered us his Rajya Sabha accommodation at 16, Lodi Estate. He handed me the keys to the house with the following words, “I can only give you this house for six months. After that it depends on my wife’s approval “.
We needed a school for two of our children. Again he was very helpful. He was willing to write a letter for Modern School but asked me to visit Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, attended by his grand-daughter, Naina. I liked both the school and its dynamic principal, Vibhaben. Not only did our children get into Sardar Patel but I too got a job. Can you imagine a school for tiny tots, five minutes walks away from home in Delhi!
And all this bliss because of two really large hearted people who embraced us with so much warmth and affection.
Even when their son came to Delhi and needed a place to stay they did not ask us to leave. We just vacated a one room set on one side for Rahul and all Aunty asked me for was to arrange bed tea for him.