Yes, I know that India doesn't formally recognize such people as does Japan but if India did, Khushwant Singh (above) would be in the initial group of those so designated.
For those of you who may not recognize the name — and if that is the case you are certainly not Indian — he is, at age 90, India's most celebrated man of letters.
Every week the author of "The Train to Pakistan,"
considered by many the best novel ever written about the terrible partition of India in 1947, writes his celebrated newspaper column: "With Malice Towards One and All."
In the past five years, since turning 85, he's brought out four books, including his gripping autobiography.
Edward Luce of The Financial Times recently interviewed the great man at his home in New Delhi.
The hugely moving and amusing result appeared in the March 19 issue, and follows.
I had twice confirmed my appointment with Khushwant Singh, India's most celebrated man of letters.
But I still paused for a moment after reading the sign outside his door: Only ring the bell if you are expected.
We were to meet for lunch.
But New Delhi's most mischievous nonagenarian instead asked me to come to his home one evening, since he had been in and out of hospital all week with bad knees and other ailments.
I poked my head gingerly around the door.
An old man, wearing a woolly hat in place of the traditional Sikh turban, was sitting beside a crackling log fire.
There was a tartan blanket covering most of his body.
"Ah - do come in, I was expecting you, do pour yourself a whisky," said Khushwant, indicating a drinks tray.
"I've had a terrible week," he continued.
"They forced me into a wheelchair in the hospital and everyone ogled at me. It was terribly humiliating. Now I am on a heavy course of antibiotics. Would you be so kind as to pour me a very stiff whisky?"
I laughed and said only if I could have a large rum.
I held up the crystal tumbler so he could stop me when I had poured the right amount.
"It's a complete myth about not mixing alcohol with antibiotics," he said with authority.
The Black Label was approaching the halfway mark.
"No, a little more, if you please," said Khushwant, with a faint hint of remonstration.
"Yes, that's more like it."
There was still room for a drop or two of soda in the glass.
Thankfully, there is still plenty of room in India's newspapers and on New Delhi's bookstands for the Khushwant Singh byline.
Although he is 90, and suffering from "a declining body, impaired vision, impaired hearing and soon, no doubt, mental degeneration", Khushwant's output, both written and spoken, remains uninterrupted.
Every week the author of "Train to Pakistan" - probably the best fiction to come out of India's terrible partition of 1947 and one of the most moving novels I have ever read - writes his celebrated newspaper column: "With Malice Towards One and All".
In the past five years Khushwant has brought out four books: a gripping autobiography; a political tirade against Hindu nationalism; the sixth in his popular series of joke books; and a collection of obituaries he has penned over the years, some of them highly irreverent.
"I have never been reverent," Khushwant explains, as we nurse our tumblers.
His homely flat, which is on the ground floor of a redbrick complex, was built by his father, Sir Sobha Singh, a builder commissioned by the British in the 1920s to construct much of imperial New Delhi.
"If you're born irreverent you don't worry about what people's reaction will be. You can tell them to go to hell. You either write what comes out of your genuine self or you don't write at all."
Khushwant's writing is rarely free of sex and sometimes even borders on the smutty.
Yet it is never, even now, anything other than crisp, to the point, well crafted and thought-provoking.
There is probably not a judge or cabinet minister in the country who doesn't read his column.
It contains an inimitable mixture of serious politics, rank gossip, risque jokes, Urdu poetry and the occasional character assassination - often fatal.
Will he ever lose the impulse to write, I ask?
Although he was briefly, before Partition, a lawyer practising criminal law in Lahore (having studied at the Inner Temple in London), and also a diplomat posted in London and Ottawa for several years after independence, Khushwant pleads poverty of attributes.
He also misunderstands the question.
"I don't know what else I can do," he says, looking wistful.
"I have no other skills. I have to do something. I can't cook and I can't garden. I can only scribble."
But even now, I say, in an attempt to shift back to his age, you fall out with friends over what you write.
"Oh, always," Khushwant says.
He tells me to pick up the next issue of a magazine in which he has reviewed a book by Shobha De, a glamorous Mumbai-based columnist and author of steamy novels.
I tell him you can text- message a Shobha De number on your mobile and receive an endless stream of "love tips" in return.
Khushwant lets out a full- throated, prolonged chuckle.
"Oh you must read the review," he says.
"I have made fun of her in the most merciless way."
I did. He has.
But Khushwant is also living proof that you can combine the serious with the frivolous, without one contaminating the other.
Although Partition was 58 years ago and it is 20 years since thousands of Sikhs were massacred after the murder of Indira Gandhi, India's prime minister, by her Sikh bodyguards, Khushwant's hatred of communalism and religious intolerance is as sharp as ever.
I ask him if he is feeling more optimistic after last year's general election, in which the Hindu-nationalist BJP was unexpectedly ejected from office.
Khushwant tells me about a little-known episode in the 1960s when he was persuaded by L.K. Advani, the BJP's deputy prime minister until last year, to sign his electoral nomination papers.
Khushwant did so because he saw the young Mr Advani as "clean, honest and able".
Nowadays Mr Advani is Khushwant's bete noire, as the chief architect, in his view, of India's most recent phase of communal hatred.
A few years ago, Khushwant confronted Mr Advani in public.
"I said, 'Mr Advani, I will never get this chance again. You remember I signed your nomination papers? I did not understand your real agenda. You sowed the seeds of communal hatred in this country. You are a puritan: you neither drink nor womanise. Such men are dangerous.' There were gales of laughter."
Our chat is interrupted by the entrance of Naina, Khushwant's twenty-something granddaughter, whose birthday it is the following day.
Khushwant creases into an affectionate smile.
"Your present is on the mantelpiece," he says.
"Go on, it only comes around once a year," says Khushwant.
Naina picks up the cheque.
"Well I suppose it's extravagant by your standards," she says, struggling to conceal a smile.
I felt an urge to ask Khushwant about Delhi, the ancient city in which he grew up before the British (assisted by Khushwant's father) built the new one.
In those days Delhi's population was fewer than 200,000.
Today it is 15 million.
Khushwant used to bicycle the 10 miles from what is now central Delhi to the ancient monument of Qutb Minar without seeing one person.
Now he would pass three or four million.
Most 90-year-olds have an odd relationship with time, I supposed.
But yours must be unusually perplexing.
"It is fresh in my memory like yesterday," Khushwant said.
He mentioned Sunder Nagar, a pleasant housing estate round the corner.
"I remember in what is now Sunder Nagar, I used to see herds of deer, occasionally a leopard or a tiger, and wild boars," he said, his voice softening.
"Every summer in Delhi after the first monsoon shower, the night was alive with the croaking of frogs and fireflies. They are all gone. And moths, the whole place there was an absolute cloud of moths. All gone. And snakes. I think the last snake that I saw in Delhi was 10 years ago."
But this is inevitable, I said.
Delhi is the capital of a continent-sized country.
"I just sit back and watch," he said. "This is for the next generation, not for me."
And what is in store for Khushwant?
Usually I would be reluctant to ask someone about their mortality, but Khushwant has never been shy of asking anyone about anything.
Khushwant was also a founder member of India's Die with Dignity, a lobby group for euthanasia.
Earlier, we had briefly been interrupted by Heidi, a German friend, who, before leaving, held Khushwant very closely, as if saying goodbye for the last time.
He told her: "If it reaches the stage where nurses are putting bedpans under my bottom, I am not going to hang around."
Did you mean what you said, I asked?
Khushwant looked solicitous.
"I have been trying to find out where people buy cyanide capsules, where terrorists get them - as soon as the police catch them they swallow them. I don't think you can go to a chemist and ask for cyanide. Do you know how to get some?"
I did not.
Nor was I entirely sure that he was joking.
But he was enjoying the topic.
"Somebody told me the thing to do is use gas: is that the quickest? But where do you get the right gas?"
We were both, by now, laughing over his conundrum, although the humour, I felt, was a mask.
He continued: "If I became totally dependent, I wouldn't want to live. A time will come when you think enough is enough."
I felt we had also given enough to the topic.
And it was nearing 8pm, when all visitors, expected or otherwise, are required to leave Khushwant in peace for the rest of the evening.
But I had to slip in a final question.
Apologising for the cliche, I asked what moments in Khushwant's life he dwelt on most?
This is a man who has befriended and made enemies of prime ministers.
He has edited distinguished newspapers and received honorary doctorates the world over.
Khushwant did not even pause.
"Oh that's easy," he said.
"I think about all the opportunities I missed of seducing women because I didn't have the nerve. Some of them were more than willing, as they told me later: 'You are such an ass,' they said. 'I was waiting for you to do something.' They tell me now because I can't take advantage of the opportunity."
Helpless with laughter or rum, or both, I bade Khushwant goodbye.
His parting comments - I had no doubt - were made in total earnest.