TALES FROM AN OLD HAND

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By KRISHNAN SRINIVASAN
  • Published 9.09.11
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InK in my veins: A life in journalism By S. Nihal Singh, Hay House, Rs 499

Surendra Nihal Singh agrees in his preface that an autobiography implies a measure of vanity; that a person’s life is of interest to a wide audience. His book falls into three parts in order of interest: the first about his own life and feelings, the second about the evolving nature of print journalism and the media in India, and the last, about political changes in various countries.

Born in 1929, Singh is mercifully brief when it comes to his grandparents, parents and siblings, unlike the papajee-mamajee tradition beloved of Indian writers, although his father was chief executive of Delhi and governor of Rajasthan. He is also commendably self-searching regarding his shedding of the symbols of Sikhism and flight from home at the age of 18, only to return to his parents sheepish and broke. His long-suffering family was later to be confronted with his Dutch wife, about whom they had received no prior information.

Singh printed his first piece in The Tribune at the age of 18, was a sub-editor in The Times of India in 1951, and then spent 25 years at The Statesman from 1954. Successively reporter, special correspondent, foreign correspondent, political correspondent, resident editor in Delhi, and editor in Calcutta, his reflections on the newspaper industry are of considerable value. Of much less interest are his narrations of political events in countries which he worked in or visited, most of which would be either already known to readers or easily ascertained elsewhere. There are also unnecessary explanations about people and places with old names and new and a fetish about precision in dating events of long ago. Singh’s Lothario-esque adventures abroad are more self-congratulatory than confessional, but there is no report of any romancing with Indian females, whether out of discretion or lack of success when playing at home.

Setting aside these quibbles, there are records of some droll incidents: the observance of Gandhi Jayanti a day late at Sukarno’s behest, an interview with the Filipino foreign minister in a nightclub, a South Korean guide faking Singh’s signature to eat at his expensive hotel, the obnoxious swagger of V.C. Shukla and D.K. Barua during the Emergency, Morarji Desai’s offer to the author of the director-generalship of Doordarshan and AIR and his offer to Nayantara Sehgal of the ambassadorship at Rome — both not taken up. More weighty observations are made on the comparisons between Rangoon and Calcutta; Yugoslav intellectual dissident Djilas’s accurate prophesy about the collapse of the USSR; and a comment on Indian correspondents abroad: that they tend to congregate in English-speaking countries because of the Indian diaspora, lack of their own language skills, availability of Indian cooking ingredients and reliance on the local media for stories. Singh observes that in Moscow the Indian diplomatic and press representatives of his day were regarded as friendly by the authorities and reciprocated with a complete lack of objectivity — the ambassador began every meeting in the foreign office “with a 10 minute prelude to friendship each time he met a high official”. Back in India, P.N. Haksar’s lame excuse of the concessions made to Pakistan at Simla in 1972 was that “it was a gamble to make friends with Pakistan… instead of perpetuating enmity”. Singh’s assessment of the Unesco as being incapable of fulfilling its mandate as the primary international intellectual organization should have been debated in the Unesco, but never was.

After his resignation from The Statesman in 1979, Singh was successively editor of The Indian Express, The Indian Post and the Khaleej Times in Dubai. Naturally, his observations on the persons and policies that dominate the Indian media are compelling, not least his portrayals of politicians, owners and journalists. C.R. Irani’s machinations between 1977 and 1979 to take control of The Statesman lead Singh to conclude that it is for the editor to run a paper within a policy framework laid down by the owner but without interference otherwise. Although an excellent principle in theory, the halcyon days of the Emergency, when The Statesman won plaudits for cocking a snook at Indira Gandhi’s autocracy, would not return. After resigning from The Statesman, Singh had problems with the fickle proprietor, Ramnath Goenka, and the BJP opportunist, Arun Shourie, at the Express and Vijaypat Singhania at the Post. But not all owners let him down; he was bailed out after being in jail for a few hours in Dubai on a charge of libel.

Singh writes: “it would be absurd to suggest that men and women in the early years of my career were angels… but there seemed to be moral certainties that are missing today… we did believe in the missionary aspect of being a journalist.” Thankfully, an honourable few in the profession are still keeping faith with the old tradition.