SCHOLAR-EDITOR - Sham Lal (1912-2007)

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By Obituary Rudrangshu Mukherjee
  • Published 25.02.07

“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.