Nihal Singh: the wordsmith wedded to the word till late in the evening

When you went for a walk or jog in New Delhi’s fabulous Lodhi Garden in the late evening, there was a sureshot way of checking if all was well with the world.

As you slid past India International Centre towards Gate No. 3, a familiar figure in a white shirt would be sitting by the window in the Reading Room on one of its two tall chairs.

The shirt’s design Malaysian, probably Singaporean, certainly South East Asian.

Surendra Nihal Singh was in the “Centre”, as he called IIC, reading the newspapers—and catching up with the world as purveyed to him by ‘FT’ and ‘IHT’ and ‘The Guardian’.

As a sight, the stooped frame of Nihal by the window as night sneaked in, was most reassuring.

Reassuring, to see a childhood hero happily active and amidst us. Reassuring, to see an Editor still wedded to the printed word. Reassuring, to see such discipline when there was no need to.

Every morning, around ten, he would be driven—for the longest time in his BMW; lately in his Audi—from his home in upscale Gulmohar Park to IIC.

After a short break for lunch, he would be back again, to a familar ‘adda’ full of friends, old and new, and all the great books, ideas and events IIC is home to.

Nihal, as he insisted on being called much to my discomfiture, was well into his 70s when I got to meet him in flesh and blood. But it was almost as if one had known him for much longer.

Growing up in smalltown Mysore, his media column in ‘India Today’ was one of the few things to look forward to in the fortnightly magazine. An early colleague had even named his nephew ‘Nihal’ as a mark of respect.

It was, therefore, an honour to call on him to write for us. Or to seek his advice on matters professional. Or to push him to get the Editors Guild to act on this or that attempt to curb journalistic freedom.

Eventually it was a matter of pride to chair a discussion on his memoirs.

Nihal was without a doubt one of our classier editors, oozing pedigree, style, cosmopolitanism: lunch was always continental or mediterranean; the music at home jazz or Western classical.

In the last couple of years, as the intimation of mortality reached him, he started giving away his prized collections. The books went to Panjab University. A prized marble chess board from Iran to my wife.

But ever the romantic, Nihal retained his wife’s beautiful collection of artefacts.

My most vivid memory of Nihal, the epicurean, is on Valentine’s Day in Bhaichand Patel’s home a couple of years ago.

A fine, cultured man past 85, on the dance floor, while people half his age were headed out of the door.

Tonight, I will play Mozart at full blast just like Nihal would have liked.

Over a single malt.

On the rocks.