The only way to describe the late Amar Singh (he passed away in Singapore on August 1) is as a “loveable rascal”. No matter what he did or said, no matter how outrageous his conduct, there was something most endearing about the man. I clearly remember taking two steps backwards when he arrived unannounced at our home, with a common acquaintance, for what was a private dinner for close friends. Far from being embarrassed, he made himself right at home, mingling freely with our guests and regaling everybody with his vastly amusing and highly gossipy tales. Mumbai not being Delhi, and this being more than 20 years ago, nobody knew what to make of this upstart who was so at ease, throwing big names around and making bombastic claims. Somehow, I warmed up to his rustic, raw, unfiltered personality and admired his chutzpah. Nothing and nobody can keep this man down, I remember thinking at the time.
That is pretty much an accurate view, given Amar Singh’s highly controversial political career which saw great highs and abysmal lows, including a judicial custody stint under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Nothing fazed the man, not even serious allegations of corruption, not even being expelled from the Samajwadi Party by his mentor Mulayam Singh Yadav in 2010 for facing widespread scorn for contributing $5 million to the Clinton Foundation. For a man born to humble parents—he told us about his father’s modest locksmith stall in Kolkata’s Burrabazar—Amar Singh’s mind-boggling rise in public life is the stuff only masala movie scripts can rival. Oh yes, he tried his hand at movies, too, acting in a Hindi and Malayalam film.
He enjoyed power play at all levels and got his high from cultivating wealthy, well-connected, influential individuals. If they were also glamorous and flashy, Amar Singh’s ecstasy became almost palpable! He fancied himself as a kingmaker, but behaved more like a college groupie around the rich and famous. I would watch him as he worked the room, hobnobbing and networking brazenly, shaking countless hands, air-kissing gorgeous socialites, flashing starlets on his arm, dropping names galore not bothered by snubs or sniggers. It was his rhino skin that kept him afloat, particularly when his chips were down and he was treated like a political/social pariah. The very same people he had gone flat out to help after cultivating them meticulously, shunned him publicly and blatantly. Like a whipped schoolboy who had been rusticated by the principal, Amar Singh licked his wounds in private and sulked openly. He gave countless interviews bad-mouthing those who he said had “betrayed” him. I had spotted him in Mumbai a few times during this period and wanted to gently tell him he had passed his sell-by date by then and had become more of an embarrassment, a huge liability to his old “close friends”. Mumbai society can be harsh and cruel to people like Amar Singh, who come up the hard way from the streets, become power brokers, but are regarded as nothing more than street hustlers.
The last time I ran into him was at my own book event in Delhi. He was half his size and looked visibly sick. I failed to recognise him, and frankly, I was not sure whether or not his name was on the guest list. Not that any of this bothered him—he came up to chat and once again I marvelled at his gung-ho spirit. I recalled him telling me about starting his career in Delhi as a young graduate, working for K.K. Birla’s Hindustan Times as a liaison officer—the standard euphemism for “fixer”. He had chuckled: “I know all the big journalists in India and abroad because of my first job.” His candour was disarming. So was his “never-say-die” spirit. Amar Singh, adieu. In your own unique way, you will always remain amar in our memory.