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Ian Jack’s long Indian journey

British journalist, who died at the age of 77, always recognised his personal life and his career were transformed by the country
Ian Jack in Calcutta in 2011.
Ian Jack in Calcutta in 2011.
File picture

Amit Roy   |   Published 31.10.22, 01:11 AM

Ian Jack, the British journalist who died at the age of 77, always recognised his personal life and his career were transformed by India.

Ian worked for The Sunday Times in its heyday when Harold Evans was its campaigning editor. It was Evans who first sent him to India in 1976 but Ian stayed on to cover the Emergency. Ian enjoyed travelling on Indian trains and developed a special affection for Calcutta and its trams. He was also married to a Bengali girl, Aparna Bagchi, from 1979 to 1992.

I spoke to Ian when Evans, named as “the greatest newspaper editor of all time” in a poll conducted by the Press Gazette and the British Journalism Review in 2002, died at the age of 92 in September 2020.

“Harry was, of course, a formidably courageous journalist, rightly remembered for his campaigns against social injustices and the secrecy of government institutions and big business,” said Ian.

“The late Murray Style once said that The Sunday Times had two kinds of story. The first — ‘We name the guilty men.’ The second — ‘Arrow points to defective part.’

“But there was more to Harry than that,” Ian went on. “He had an almost Victorian belief in the capacity of journalism to improve and enlighten its audience, and went to great lengths to make complex subjects intelligible to the lay reader. Clarity was an obsession. As an editor, he was inspirational, sympathetic and generous. I and many others were lucky to have worked with him and for him. He gave me opportunities — reporting in India was one of them — that changed the direction of my life.”

There was also a link to The Telegraph in India through his friendship with Aveek Sarkar, the paper’s former editor in chief and now editor emeritus of the ABP Group and chairman of the Press Trust of India. Ian wrote a column for the paper.

“I don’t know how often Harry went to India, but he was a good friend of Aveek Sarkar and had quite a big influence on him,” recalled Ian. “Aveek came to the Sunday Times around 1971, when I was a sub-editor there.”

“Later, The Sunday Times’s designer, Edwin Taylor, was hired by Aveek to design The Telegraph; another former Sunday Times man, the news editor Adam Hopkins, was enlisted to contribute his thoughts on good reporting. So in one way or another, Harry had an impact on The Telegraph. He and Aveek were friends for almost half a century. ‘How is Harry?’

was the first question he asked me whenever I came to Calcutta.”

Ian and I spoke about Indian train journeys in April 2021 after the publication of a book on American train journeys, Logomotive: Railroad Graphics and the American Dream. One of its co-authors, Jonathan Glancey, confided he had been encouraged to write about Indian trains by Ian, when the latter was editor of the Independent on Sunday from the launch of the paper in 1991 until 1995.

Ian was clearly nostalgic about his train travels in India as a young reporter.

He insisted: “There’s really no comparison between the railways of India and the USA. Outside the commuter belts of the big cities and the line that links New York to Boston and Washington, passenger trains in America have become the reserve of prosperous old people, eccentrics and tourists. Famous lines and handsome stations have been abandoned; the on-board food isn’t great; fares are expensive and booking a journey can be troublesome. In India, by contrast, trains are still a vivid part of rural and urban life. More and more people use them, even though the upper middle class has abandoned them in favour of domestic flights. My most recent journey was Mumbai to Delhi via the Western Ghats and Gwalior. The vegetarian dinner was warm, plentiful — second and third servings if you wanted them — and delicious, and I woke up trundling across the misty fields of UP. If you can spare the time, they remain the best way to go.”

I was familiar with Ian’s journalistic terrain. His first big paper was the Glasgow Herald, which was also the case with me. I joined the Sunday Times after Ian left in 1986 but it was a very different paper under Andrew Neil.

I always thought that of his own generation of British newspaper journalists, Ian was probably the best writer on India, an accolade that had belonged in the post-Independence era to James Cameron. Like Cameron, Ian was also Scottish.

Ian was quiet and understated. He was pleased to discover an Indian connection in his family: “My great grandfather Birmingham was an Irishman (nobody knew from where, or of what religion) who joined the Royal Artillery and went to India, where most of his children were born, including my father’s mother.”

Ian was named Journalist of the Year in 1985; Reporter of the Year in 1988; and Editor of the Year in 1993.

I talked to Ian in 2011 when Sunil Khilnani, author of The Idea of India, came to London from America to set up the India Institute at King’s College London. The plan was for Ian to give some lectures in journalism.

“As a correspondent in India, I was lucky and unlucky,” he said. “Lucky that I worked for a Sunday newspaper and had the time to go places and meet people; unlucky because India then didn’t command the space and importance in the western media that it does now.”

I have a copy of the Indian anthology that the literary magazine Granta published in 1997 to mark 50 years of Independence — it was called India! The Golden Jubilee — when Ian was its editor from 1995 until 2007.

When he returned as guest editor in 2015 to bring out a sequel, India: Another Way of Seeing, he commented perhaps a touch ironically: “This time you don’t have so many white people writing. Most of the reportage of 1997 came from journalists in Britain or foreign writers who lived in India, like Mark Tully. In this issue Sam Miller is the only non-Indian writer and he is anyway living in Delhi. This issue shows how narrative journalism has become more common in India, with more people writing long form. There is also a much bigger audience in India for Indian writing in English.”

Ian often felt at home in a Bengali milieu. For example, in 2001, writing the introduction to a new edition of Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, he described the book as “an astonishing work of self-discovery and the revelation of a peerless and provocative sensibility. Describing his childhood in the Bengali countryside and his youth in Calcutta — and telling the story of modern India from his own fiercely independent viewpoint — Chaudhuri fashions a book of deep conviction, charm, and intimacy that is also a masterpiece of the writer’s art”.

Ian’s books include Before the Oil Ran Out: Britain 1977-86 (1987); The Crash That Stopped Britain (1987); The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain (2009); and Mofussil Junction (2013).

The late Alexander Chancellor, who had been deputy editor during my Sunday Telegraph days, picked up on Ian’s references to Serampur, “the Victorian headquarters of British Christianity in West Bengal” when reviewing The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain.

The essays in the book “all somehow work in their different ways as reminders of a lost British civilisation”, Chancellor noted. “Why West Bengal, you might ask?”

To Jack it seemed to be one of “the last places on earth which preserved the old industrial civilisation of Britain, people as well as scenes, manners as well as objects, frozen in the Victorian economy of the lower Ganges. Sometimes it even seemed, particularly in a place such as Serampur at dusk, that I had come home; or if not home, then to some tropical version of the time and country that my Scottish parents and grandparents knew.”

Chancellor admitted he found this very moving: “It makes you want to cry.”

What I found moving was Ian’s piece on Patna, where I had grown up a small boy before my father left the Indian Nation to join BBC Bengali in London.

“When I was travelling by train through India thirty and more years ago, so much of India’s present life was unimaginable. The change has been swift and is sometimes hard to take in. Patna, the capital of the eastern state of Bihar, for example: it was then a byword for all kinds of corruption and cruelty, usually described with the portmanteau adjective ‘backward’. In 1983, I had my appendix removed there in an emergency operation at a private hospital staffed by Christian nurses. ‘Thank God you weren’t taken to the state hospital,’ said a knowledgeable friend in Delhi. ‘You would never have come out alive.’

“Now I’m going to Patna again. Of all the things it needed — decent sanitation, drinkable water, honest policemen — who would have guessed the latest aspect of its public life? To a city where I once bought Treasure Island as the most interesting book in a bookshop, I am returning for the Patna Literary Festival.”



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