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VOL. XII  NOS. 3 & 4 MARCH - APRIL 2007 RS 80 UK £ 2.50 USD 5


Tributes to Sham Lal

Sham Lal remembered
by Darryl D'Monte

When I met Sham Lal the very first time in 1969, after he had called me for an interview, I had made a mental note of all the things I should remember to tell him about myself. However, the interview was over, before I knew it, in a couple of minutes – I discovered, from that very first meeting, that he was a man of very few words. He promptly hired me and then almost forgot about me. I was a junior assistant editor who had to wait several years being called to the morning editorial conference, a privilege enjoyed only by seniors.

He would later recount how he had agreed, reluctantly, to an interview with an Italian TV team. It was only after the interviewer left that he discovered, to his chagrin, that it was the famous film director, Pier Paulo Pasolini. It was probably his diffidence with strangers, particularly anyone who had anything to do with film and television, that thwarted this meeting.

The day I joined, I had the temerity to hand in an article for the editorial page. If my memory serves me right, it had something to do with non-alignment. A withering glance was sufficient to indicate what he thought of it. It was a couple of years afterwards that I published a piece on that page, which was a hotly contested site for senior commentators, a clutch of favoured columnists and contributors.

I discovered from day one that the task of junior assistant editors was to churn out two “Current Topics”, which were brief comments at the bottom of the page. I soon got used to several being rejected outright, while those that were accepted, were heavily edited by Sham Lal. When I graduated to writing the sole editorial on Sundays, which was devoted to non-political issues, I often got my edit back with another sheet pinned to it, on which Sham Lal had literally rewritten the entire text!

In our youth, we often mistook his penchant for rewriting edits as an indulgence of some kind, a tendency we felt he had developed after so many years on the desk. But he would mouth words as he edited copy, in order to get the cadence of simple, direct prose. He often recounted how it had taken him several years in the profession before he saw his name in print and how Nirad Chaudhuri used to write 16 drafts of anything that he published. A colleague used to tell the apocryphal story of how he had sent Sham Lal a leave application, which came back rewritten! Or how, in his younger days, Sham Lal refused to join a strike because he found the call inelegantly drafted. Wasn't it D.F. Karaka, the right-wing editor of Current weekly, who coined the unkind epithet, “Sham Red”?

He had no time for pedants or publicists. Prem Shankar Jha remembered how he once accompanied Sham Lal who had, much against his better judgement, accepted an invitation to dinner at the French Ambassador's residence. They were first kept waiting while the host came down. But Sham Lal's discomfiture was compounded when the Ambassador insisted on using the occasion for some sales pitch about the Airbus, a subject about which the editor knew little, and cared less.

He had a few friends, whose company he enjoyed. The writer Nirmal Verma was one of them. The poet Baqar Mehdi was another and colleagues would regale themselves with anecdotes about Mehdi coming to visit Sham Lal shortly before he left the office at 5pm, the day's editorial page done. After some perfunctory pleasantries, they would both read their respective tomes in total silence. This would continue in the car en route the editor's residence off Nepean Sea Road (where some senior manager now lives, I am told), till Mehdi would take his leave later that evening.

I was far from being one of the colleagues whose company Sham Lal enjoyed, which I suspect partly arose from my not being able to discuss books and ideas. I had to face his wrath on two occasions – one was a special Sunday magazine devoted to the Indian left, which rubbished every faction except the Naxalites. The other was an issue which Dileep Padgaonkar guest-edited, on Dalit writing and poetry. His lip curled as he read Namdeo Dhasal's expletives on the cover, but we were somehow able to salvage it from the very exacting editor.

I met him hardly a month before he passed away, with Jha. He was much warmer, almost effusive. On these few occasions when I met him in these last years, as his sight was failing, it was difficult to extract myself from his house, because he was plainly lonely and his failing eyesight deprived him of his greatest joy. They tell another possibly apocryphal story about thieves who broke into his Delhi house and were disgusted that there was nothing but books from floor to ceiling in virtually every room!

As I recollect all this, I keep looking behind my shoulder to see if Sham Lal is hovering over me and poring over what I've written, pointing to the syntax and clumsy sentences. I'm sure he must be doing this, wherever he is.


SCHOLAR-EDITOR - Sham Lal (1912-2007)
Obituary by Rudrangshu Mukherjee

Man of ideas

"of whom shall we speak? For
every day they die
among us, those who were doing us
some good,
who knew it was never enough but
hoped to improve a little by living."

— W.H. Auden

In the early hours of the morning of February 23, 2007, the angels came to carry Sham Lal to his rest. He had lived his life of 94 years without any fuss and he departed without causing anyone any trouble. Thus came to an end the life of India's most erudite newspaper editor.

Sham Lal began his working life in Hindustan Times, where he worked with Devdas Gandhi, about whom he always spoke with great respect. He moved to The Times of India as an assistant editor and retired as its editor. After his retirement, he continued as a columnist for The Times of India. But in the Nineties, he decided to stop writing for The Times of India and moved his column to the editorial page of The Telegraph. His relationship with The Telegraph lasted till his death.

I first met Sham Lal in the early Eighties, when my friend, Ravi Vyas, Sham Lal's son-in-law and great favourite, took me to Sham Lal's house in Gulmohur Park in Delhi. I had already heard from Ravi about Sham Lal's love for books and I was aware of his range of intellectual interests from his writings; yet I was not quite prepared for what I saw. Each room of the ground floor had bookshelves along all the walls, floor to ceiling. The shelves were lined with books, all well-thumbed and some underlined in pencil. For a lover of reading and books, it was an awe-inspiring library. I don't think I am wrong in saying that it is the largest and the finest private library in India. My rapport with him was immediate. We sat and talked about books, the hours just slipped by. It was the first of countless visits.

When I moved away from the groves of academia and joined The Telegraph in 1993, one of the first persons I went to see was Sham Lal. After informing him about the change in career, I mentioned that Aveek Sarkar wanted me to look after the edit and books pages and had given me the onerous responsibility of making the pages very serious but not dull. I asked him for advice. He smiled and said, "Stay away from politicians". I haven't forgotten the advice. I asked also if he would write for The Telegraph. He said he couldn't because he already had an understanding with The Times of India. I told him I appreciated that but if he ever changed his mind, the edit page of The Telegraph was open for him. He smiled again.

There matters stood and our usual discussion on books and ideas continued whenever I was in Delhi. In early 1994, Sham Lal's friend and colleague, Subhash Chakravarti, called from Delhi to say that Sham Lal had severed connections with The Times of India, and was eager to write for The Telegraph. And he was waiting to talk to me. I flew to Delhi the next day, and from April that year, Sham Lal became a regular columnist for the edit page of The Telegraph. I later learnt that when the word spread in Delhi that Sham Lal would no longer write for The Times of India, other papers had approached him to write for them. To all of them Sham Lal had given a simple reply, "I gave my word to Rudrangshu Mukherjee of The Telegraph that if I moved from The Times of India, I would offer my column to him. Let me talk to him first." This small incident is testimony to Sham Lal's integrity. Not for him the lure of a Delhi audience and the illusion of influencing policy-makers. He had values and he stood up for them.

My relationship with Sham Lal deepened and through some inexplicable and ineffable chemistry he became a part of my life and my consciousness. It was, at one level, a simple mentor-protégé relationship, for in the world of journalism there was no one I respected more. At another and a more complex level, it was a bond between two book-lovers with similar interests — history, some philosophy, fiction, biography, politics and so on. I admired his discipline. He was never late with his copy and his pieces rarely exceeded the word limit. Reading his articles before publication, my colleagues and I seldom, if ever, needed to reach for the blue pencil. It was word perfect. He looked forward to my visits, and I loved to visit him in mid-morning — cold coffee in summer, hot filter coffee in winter. We would chat in his den; he reclining on his chaise, I on a chair, both talking non-stop about the new books we had read. Occasionally, I went in the evening with Subhash Chakravarti or Ravi Vyas. The whisky would always be there, the adda, especially if Subhash was present, would be more political and gossipy. Sham Lal loved political gossip and seemed always to keep abreast even though he seldom stepped out of the house.

His comments on anything he chose to speak on were always perceptive. His mind, despite his advancing years, was ever alert and inquisitive. He epitomized what Amartya Sen has called the argumentative Indian. He was learned without being arrogant, and opinionated without being dogmatic. These are rare qualities. He made the discussion of ideas respectable in the pages of Indian newspapers. He was matchless in the range of his reading.

Sham Lal's politics up to the early Nineties had been left of centre. In the Forties and Fifties, he had been close to the CPI. When Rajani Palme Dutt visited Bombay and stayed as Romesh and Raj Thapar's guest, the card for the official party reception for RPD went out in Sham Lal's name. P.C. Joshi was a frequent guest in his house, as were many left-leaning artists, intellectuals and writers. Once, when she was on the comeback trail after the post-Emergency debacle, Indira Gandhi invited herself to tea to Sham Lal's house and even supplied the guest list. Among the guests were Sukho- moy Chakraborty, Bipan Chandra and André Béteille. Given this political orientation, Sham Lal undertook a remarkable review of his own intellectual positions once the facts about communist regimes in Soviet Russia, China and elsewhere came to be known. He read deeply on this subject and had no hesitation in admitting that he had been wrong on many important issues. Not for him the refusal to face facts, the self-delusion and the despondency that informed the responses of so many left intellectuals to the epoch-making events of the early Nineties and their aftermath. It was an act of breathtaking intellectual courage.

That courage was on display in his last years when he was unable to read because of the condition of his eyes. The radio became his companion and his mind did not stop working despite the frailty that came with age. A few months ago when I went to see him, he said his mind was all there. I asked him teasingly how was he so certain. He replied, "This morning to test myself, I recited Hamlet's 'To be or not to be' speech, and I could say it word for word." What can one say of such a man except that only the angels could have claimed him. Good night, Sham Lal.

— Courtesy: The Telegraph, Kolkata


Blend of Style and Scholarship
by Hiranmay Karlekar

I met the late Sham Lal at most a dozen times in my life. Yet, I have no hesitation in saying that he had influenced my evolution as a journalist. I first came across his writing in 1957 as an undergraduate at Presidency College, Kolkata. Professor Amales Tripathi, one of the finest historians this country has produced, had asked me to read his three-part review of DD Kosambi's An Introduction to the Study of Indian History saying, “Read it and you will learn how informed historical criticism can also be eminently readable”. Looking up the Times of India at the National Library, during one of my visits there in search of reference books, I read all the three parts at one go.

That was at the time of the summer vacation. There was a break thereafter. Cricket, student union politics, debating and an assortment of other pursuits made my visit to the National Library a rarity after college resumed. I renewed my acquaintance with his writing in 1962 when I became a regular at the Writers Workshop, Kolkata, over which Professor P. Lal, among the first to encourage me to take to creative writing, presided. A sensitive poet, critic and writer, who did much to put Indo-Anglian writing on India's literary map, he often referred admiringly to the column Life and Letters, which Sham Lal signed off as Adeeb.

Profoundly impressed by his elegant prose, wide-ranging interests, incisive analysis and the lightness with which he carried his vast scholarship, I made sure there was no break after that. It was, therefore, only natural that when I became a journalist after joining Ananda Bazar Patrika as a staff reporter in 1963, I began ardently hoping to be able to write like him one day. Sham Lal's journalism spanned a tumultuous period, convulsed as much by cataclysmic events and mass slaughter as by great expectations, swept by winds of radical change and ideologies that sought to move mountains.

It was witness to the Stalinist betrayal of the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of Nazism and Fascism, the holocaust, World War II, the coming of the nuclear age, the ascent of Communists to power in China, the blooming and prompt squelching of the hundred flowers, and the launch and collapse of the Great Leap Forward. It saw Korean conflagration, the onset of the cold war, de-Stalinisation, the ferment in the East European countries against Soviet domination, Soviet interventions in Hungary, Poland and, later, Czechoslovakia, and the rise of polycentric communism and Eurocommunism. It was a period that saw the Sino-Soviet split, the Vietnam War, and the waxing and waning of the non-aligned movement, the lunacy of China's Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong's passing and the economic reforms piloted by Deng Xiaoping.

The developments, spanning seven decades, included the creation of Israel, Arab-Israeli wars and tension, the resort to terrorism by Palestinians, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, partisan warfare by Mujaheedin militia controlled by Pakistan and aided by the United States, the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, 9/11, the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

In India, the freedom movement, which Mahatma Gandhi turned into an irresistible mass upsurge, had to contend with the communal politics of the Muslim League, which culminated in the demand for Pakistan. Independence, preceded by the upheaval of the Quit India movement in 1942, came with the partitioning of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, which, again was preceded, accompanied and followed by riots of primordial savagery.

Partition did not bring peace between neighbours. Pakistan's invasion of Kashmir, Indo-Pakistani tension exploding in four wars, the liberation of Bangladesh, the rise of Islamist fundamentalism in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the emergence of both as bases of cross-border terrorism against India and the worsening of Sino-Indian relations over a bitter border dispute that led to the 1962 clashes, have all added to a scenario of prolonged unquiet. Internally, India has witnessed both change and conflict. The assassination of the Mahatma, the era of Jawaharlal Nehru and economic planning, Nehru's passing and the end of the Congress's hegemony in Indian politics, the rise of Indira Gandhi, the creation of Bangladesh and the Emergency were part of a procession of events that also included the Green Revolution, the assassinations of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, the advent of economic reforms, India's emergence as an Information Technology giant, the rise of India Incorporated. It included the India's acquisition of nuclear teeth and missile capability and the acceptance of this reality by the US and the West.

Much of all this happened when the print media was dominant. Its ethos was shaped by the written culture which, as Alvin Gouldner (The Dialectic Between Ideology and Technology) has shown, spawned what he calls the elaborated discourse marked by careful verification of facts, elaboration of references and sequential, logical unfolding of arguments from premise to conclusion. The development had a profound epistemic impact, leading to the rise of long, carefully-structured tracts embodying philosophical and political systems of thought.

All this had created an ambience in which journalism came to have a distinct intellectual content. Discourse was as integral a part of it as news, television had not equated the quest for bytes with the quest for truth, and the reading habit had not withered perilously. It was a time of stalwart editors whose ranks included, besides Sham Lal, Frank Moraes, S. Mulgaonkar, Lindsay Emmerson and Girilal Jain in English, Santosh Kumar Ghose and Saroj Acharya in Bengali, Rajendra Mathur in Hindi. It was a time when a set of brash, upstart proprietors had not sought to turn editors into non-entities and proclaimed the supremacy of brand managers and markets, when the increasingly ubiquitous and vacuous faces of page 3 people had not announced the triumph of trivialization.

Even after he had cut down on his writing with the passing of years, Sham Lal stood as a reminder of what journalism was and should be. When I first heard the news of his passing, I thought I would attend his cremation. Slowly, I began to think otherwise. Attending would mean finally acknowledging his death when, in reality, men like him never die. They live in their work and in the thoughts of many they had inspired. So Sham Lal lives and will live, inspiring and enchanting all those who enter the magic world of his writing, some of which Rupa has done well to bring out in two collections—Indian Realities: In bits & pieces and A Hundred Encounters: with modern, thinkers, poets, playwrights and novelists.

— Courtesy: The Pioneer, March 1, 2007