For Khushwant Singh who wrote his own obituary in his twenties, death is not sacred but he reflects on it increasingly these days. In Death At My Doorstep, a collection of obituaries written over the years, he presents the dead in death, as in life-good, bad or ugly. Be it on the twilight hours of Bhutto, the gory end of Sanjay Gandhi, the sycophantic M O Mathai, the Marxist millionaire Rajni Patel, the overbearing Lord Mountbatten, or on his pet Alsatian Simba, each obituary bears out his irreverence or affection.
Cocking a snook at death, he has also penned his own epitaph. Yet outliving those whom he admired has moved him to tears, and many of his obituaries have left the reader with a heavy heart.
While Death At My Doorstep is Khushwant Singh’s demystification of death, it also ferries his message to Badey Mian, in the words of Allama Iqbal:
Baagh-e-bahisht say mujhay hukm-e-safar diya thha kyon?
Kaar-e-Jahaan daraaz hai, ab meyra intazaar kar.
(Why did you order me out of the garden of paradise?
I have a lot of work that remains unfulfilled; now you better wait for me.)
During the last meeting between Bhutto, his wife and daughter, Benazir’s request to embrace her father or at least touch his feet before going was firmly turned down.
At 6 p.m. he asked for hot water and his shaving set saying, I don’t want to die looking like a mullah. After he had erased the growth on his chin, he looked into the mirror and said in self-mockery, Now I look like a third world leader. Then the bravado went out of him. He lay down on the mattress and went into a kind of coma.
Before Tara Masih the hangman put the black hood over his face. Bhutto’s lips moved, and according to one version he mumbled, Finish it! According to another his lips moved but no sound came from them. He was dressed in a salwar kameez. He had a gold Zenith watch on his wrist and a gold ring with three diamonds on his finger. After his corpse had been bathed somebody noticed that the diamond-studded ring was missing. The ring was found in the pocket of the hangman. Both the watch and the ring were handed over to Benazir Bhutto the next morning.