Book Review: The real achievement of The Sunset Club is simply that it exists

Last Updated: Tue, Nov 30, 2010 09:27 hrs

Name: The Sunset Club
Authors: Khushwant Singh
Published by: Penguin Books
Price: Rs 399

Few of Khushwant Singh's books have travelled well outside of India, and few of them have needed the foreign chaap of approval. Across the decades when international hype, prizes and careers have come the way of Indian writers in English, Khushwant Singh has remained a rarity - an almost completely home-grown success.

The Sunset Club, his most recent novel, is an achievement in great measure because of his age - to produce a novel at 95 is testimony to how far a lifetime's pursuit of sex, Scotch and scholarship can take a man.

The plot is spare and simply told: in the twilight of their lives, three men spend a year in Delhi sharing their memories, commenting on the headlines and scandals of the day, sharing the same metaphorical park bench. 

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One of them, Boota Singh, bears a suspicious resemblance to the author; all of them are obsessed in varying degrees with memories of past sexual trysts, and Singh inserts a few homilies about religion and contemporary India.

The novel, slight as it is, will inspire affection in his legions of fans, and awe in younger writers who aspire to the extreme productivity Khushwant Singh has demonstrated in his twilight years.

At its best, The Sunset Club is a very beautiful homage to the Delhi found in Lodhi Gardens and in the environs of Sujan Singh Park, where Khushwant Singh has lived much of his life.

But the real achievement of The Sunset Club is simply that it exists.

It's the kind of book that few writers would attempt today - gentle and unambitious in scope, tender in its recollections, the prose bald and unpolished in parts. What it stands for is a life, and how that life has been lived.

Khushwant Singh's greatest achievements as a writer came early on, with his monumental and still unparalleled History of the Sikhs, and with the Partition classic Train to Pakistan.

The hold he has on our minds, and the claim he has on our hearts, comes from the rest of the life.

He is the most unhypocritical of writers, confessing to his preference for tanpura-like buttocks and his enthusiasm for Scotch and women (in that order, I think) with tremendous zest.

His home in Sujan Singh Park has always been open to a stream of writers and publishing insiders who want either his blessings or his gossip, both of equally powerful effect.

His weekly column - carried without a break, except in rare cases of illness, for decades - has made Santa and Banta Singh jokes famous. And he retains, and is proud of, the dirty-minded schoolboy humour that seeps into all his novels, from The Company of Women to The Sunset Club - the Bara Gumbad as bosom friend to dirty old men was a new, and unfortunately indelible, metaphor.

Few writers remain prolific into their eighties and nineties, and sadly, The Sunset Club doesn't offer the kind of insight you might hope for after the richness of the life Singh has led.

For that you must turn to Diana Athill who wrote an award-winning memoir at the age of 91 earlier this year. Somewhere Towards The End, Athill's collection of essays on growing old and the indignities and small triumphs of the ageing process, should be read alongside The Sunset Club.

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Athill spent most of her life in publishing, editing writers of the calibre of Jean Rhys and V S Naipaul. She came to her own writing career quite late, with a couple of remarkable novels and the wonderfully funny, sharp publishing memoir Stet.

But Somewhere Towards The End became one of my favourite books of 2010 because of the way it approached a subject that is, perhaps, the last taboo subject left to us: we are uncomfortable contemplating old age, unwilling to accept that it will some day happen to us, too. About death she is matter-of-fact, hoping that when it comes to her turn, she will remember that "it is simply what one has to pay for what one has enjoyed".

And on old age, Athill is wryly humorous: its pleasures lie in acceptance of the inevitable indignities, but also in a broader, comforting acceptance of one's own life, recollected in tranquility.

"Book after book has been written about being young
 but there is not much on record about falling away." Why not, she thought, and with that, she produced one of this year's great memoirs.

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And that is where, perhaps, the real value of The Sunset Club lies; in its silent insistence of the pleasures of productivity well past the allotted years of creation, in its tribute to the value of discipline, and the gentle affection that rises from this small portrait of old men in the winter sun, sharing their lives and memories.

It is not, by any standards, a great novel, but it will make Khushwant Singh's legions of fans glad that the "sardar" retains his zest for writing, single malt and ripely-endowed women.

You can mail the author at 

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