Patwant Singh (March 28, 1925 – August 8, 2009)
Patwant Singh was the only man I’ve ever encountered that I would describe as truly wise. This came to me more or less instantly, and as a surprise. After listening to him talk for just three hours, I asked him what the meaning of life is. He looked into my eyes, saw that it was a straight question, and gave me a straight answer: live without fear or rancour, and come from a good family.
The first two may be very hard to practice, but they are self-explanatory. I have found no evidence that Patwant did not live that way, and voluminous testimony that he did. He was a man who attacked intolerant governments and venal people in a country where violence is often the first response to criticism. He never did so lightly, and always without the sort of gleeful “gotcha”s that typify most politics. He loathed the inequities and rigidities of the Hindu religion’s caste system, but did not see it through simplifications. He did not enjoy fundamentalists of any sort. To him one kind was as evil as the next, yet each in its own distinctive way, and to be understood coldly. Fundamentalists were his enemies, wherever he found them. They diminished his family, which was much larger than the mostly wealthy and educated Sikh kinship group he was born into. Every man and woman of good will was a member of his family, provided that they were capable of the merriness that was his life-fuel. I have tried my best to earn the kinship he offered me.
At a Toronto dinner party about eight years ago, I watched Margaret Atwood, who clearly recognized both his unblinkng cosmopolitan intelligence and his fabulous charm, spend the evening sending ball after ball into the air for Patwant to spike: ideas, complex paradigms, issues of international political and cultural moment. He put away every set up she tossed him. At the end of the evening I wasn’t sure whether I was more impressed by Patwant’s intellectual range and dexterity or by the cheerful willingness of my country’s most skilled cultural celebrity to play second fiddle to a man few Canadians knew existed.
They should know about Patwant. He published at least 20 books, but two of the essential ones, Of Dreams and Demons (1995) and The Sikhs, (2000) are obtainable in North America, if not easily.
With Patwant’s death, the world has become a little smaller, more stupid, and less merry. I am better for knowing him, and I will not forget what I learned from him.
Toronto, Aug. 25, 2009, 400 words.