The Time of India (February 24) did itself proud by devoting the entire editorial page of the day to the life and times of Sham Lal, its longest?serving editor (1967-1978) who passed away a day earlier. It is just as well that it did so considering that for almost twelve long years Sham Lal had become a brand name for The Times of India. He gave it distinction that was unique in its own way. His weekly column ?Life and Letters? was must reading for India'sintellectuals and scholars interested in literature and the arts, not to mention history and sociology.
He reviewed books but he had his own inimitable style of reviewing. He would put the author in the docks and raise questions that few reviewers would even have dreamt of. He dissected ideas and concepts with a sharpness of mind that called for immediate attention. He spared none, even if he had his own favourite writers and thinkers like Joyce, Proust and Camus not to speak of Sartre. Legend has it that he had the largest private library belonging to any one person in all of India. And Strand Book Stall, the largest bookseller in Mumbai will stand witness to it. He had little respect and less time for philistines and conversation with him could be scintillating if one were on his same intellectual wave length.
He had no time for gossip, much less for political goings on in the country. He was not an obsessive conversationalist because one suspects he was basically shy and introverted and left to himself, he would have preferred to hide his face behind a book and rejoice in its contents. In that sense he was not the average reporters? editor but a literary editor. He would have been out of place at a reporter'sdesk and for an editor?often considered as a public figure?he stayed away from public life and is not known to have addressed a Rotary Club, unlike a predecessor of his, Frank Moraes. Comparisons between the two would be odious and they were as different from each other as cheese and chalk. Moraes had one of the sexiest of voice and was frequently heard on All India Radio.
Moraes had his own litrerary style and wrote a most readable column. But Sham Lal belonged to an utterly different genre. His fans, too, came from another world. But his writings have stood the test of time, as when in 2001 a collection of his columns was published under the title A Hundred Encounters. The columns took on contemporary leaders whether in the field of politics, literature, art or philosophy. Few ever dared to challenge him, so wide was his reading and so profound his knowledge. One could say with hand on heart that there was nothing superficial about the man. He wrote with authority and because he was such a recluse and shunned publicity for himself, he commanded respect from even those who disagreed with him.
He lived at a tune when journalism invited a different audience. Though he made his name as an editor and columnist, it wasn'tthat he had stayed away from the news desk. As he would say when he was in a more confessory mood, he had while on Hindustan Times staff for a dozen years edited reams and reams of copy and no doubt made up the pages as well. But times were different. Even after he retired he kept up his writing but stuck to literary journals like Biblio: A Review of Books though he also wrote for the Kolkata-based The Telegraph. He was selective. One supposes that he deliberately kept away from writing a syndicated column, not because he disliked publicity but because, as one close friend of his was to reveal ?he found writing difficult?! And this, coming from a man whose writings invariably drew high praise. One suspects that this was because Sham Lal was writing not for the common but for the intellectual and the committed and that calls for and entirely different kind of approach.
His idealism was tempered with realism though he fought for the implementation of plan than merely theorising about it. My own relations with him were rather cool though when I was once in Delhi he invited me to lunch and showed me his vast library and we talked about books. He was not very happy when Bennett Coleman'sBoard of Directors named me as The Times of India'sWashington correspondent though, several months later, he wrote to tell me that the Vietnam Ambassador in Delhi had come all the way to Mumbai to see him and thank him for the Washington Correspondent'scoverage of America'sVietnam blunder. It was gracious of him to do so.
Sham Lal'sstrength lay in his convictions which he never tried to cover under wasteful verbiage. One had to accept him all in all or not at all. But either way one doesn'tthink it bothered him. He was above praise. As a journalist he richly deserved government recognition for the contribution he made to the journalism of his times. But he was one who did not look for recognition. It would have puzzled him. But those who read him and digested his thoughts would remember him for what he was: A man who deeply cared for his country and its people and challenged those in power with probing questions.