Shankar Ghosh has chosen a rather interesting technique for his father’s biography—he has written it as a first-person memoir in his father’s words, as he writes in the preface. His father was newspaperman Surendra Nath Ghosh, who was the first Indian editor of The Pioneer, hailed as the second-oldest English paper in India. It also boasted Kipling as among its correspondents, even though, as Ghosh writes, Kipling was only there looking for stories for his novels. Ironically, given his hand in the Bengal famine of 1943, Winston Churchill, too, was one of its war correspondents.
However, Scent of a Story begins with a hair-raising pilgrimage to Hardwar by Ghosh’s grandmother, who gave him blow-by-blow details of the fall-out and the deaths along the way. Surendra Nath Ghosh’s story begins slightly later, a seven-year-old growing up in Allahabad and learning that the world of the British was not a world to be accepted lightly.
Ghosh grew up in a turbulent environment where, as a cub reporter, he had to fight for interviews against free-lancers. He must also have felt some difficulty in having to work for the British, against whom India was struggling for freedom. Eventually, he followed a long line of English editors like Edwin Howard, F.W. Wilson and Desmond Young to be at the helm of The Pioneer, which had shifted quarters from Allahabad to Lucknow. A year after he became editor, India attained independence.
Encounters with godmen get more importance than meetings with Govind Ballabh Pant who, it’s said here, was behind many scoops, and whose head shook from lathi blows.
Surendranath’s story, however, reads more like a novel than a biography and this is due to the style of memoir Ghosh has decided to use. The result is that the narrative rambles over day-to-day issues and factors like The Pioneer’s cash crunches that may have been more important to S.N. Ghosh at the time. Memoirs, after all, focus on all manner of subjective things that make up the stuff of life.
Scent of a Story covers intimate issues like the relationship between Ghosh and his Anglo-Indian secretary, Rose, and his wife, the petite Biva, or the very fancy editor’s flat that he and his family moved into once Ghosh reached the top. Rose saving Ghosh from police lathis does make for entertaining reading, but perhaps one expects more from a biography of a newspaperman of this calibre—especially at a time when the media is referred to pejoratively as “presstitutes”, with little devotion to fearless objectivity.
S.N. Ghosh, to all accounts, was one of those larger-than-life editors who made headlines after Independence. However, that quality tends to be lost in the narrative technique—encounters will godmen are given more importance than meetings with Govind Ballabh Pant. Pant, in fact, is reduced to a deprecatory sentence, saying that he was responsible for many scoops and that his head shook from too many lathi blows.
Ghosh’s intent cannot be faulted—he portrays the man he knew with sincerity and affection, focussing on the words he remembered. What he has written is a light, easy, enjoyable read; but somewhere, the magnitude of his subject slips between the lines.