March 31, 2020
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Icarus In The Hooghly

The first Indian owner of the ToI was no saint

Icarus In The Hooghly
Icarus In The Hooghly
Father Dearest—The Life And Times Of R.K. Dalmia
By Neelima Dalmia Adhar
Lotus/Roli Books Rs 395; Pages: 262
In 1988, The Times of India celebrated its 150th anniversary. British-owned for its first 110 years, the paper was bought, on the morrow of Independence, by R.K. (Ramakrishna) Dalmia, unquestionably one of the most unscrupulous, if also equally colourful businessmen/industrialists of this country. He started the paper’s Delhi edition primarily to further his own grandiose, sometimes bizarre, political and personal ends. But he was not destined to own the paper for long. He had to sell it to his son-in-law, Shanti Prasad Jain, in circumstances that did far more discredit to old Dalmia than to then young Jain whose family has owned the lucrative newspaper chain since then.

Dalmia’s daughter and biographer, one of his 18 children from six wives, Neelima Dalmia Adhar, complains in this book that at the ToI’s "ostentatious celebrations" on its sesquicentennial the name of its first Indian owner did not merit "even a fleeting mention". She is wrong.

I wasn’t present at the function but Mani Shankar Aiyer was, as an aide to the chief guest, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. He records: "Girilal Jain was the main bowler from the ToI end. His most choice abuse was reserved for an interim owner of the group, an usurper, the odious Seth Ramkrishna Dalmia (who, Giri reminded us, was the most dreadful Mughal in the business because he tried to get editorials and op-ed pieces written in the same two sets of ink he used for colouring his accounts ledgers)."

This gives only a mild flavour of the malodorous personality that is the subject of this biography. Dalmia’s megalomania was monumental, so were his sharp practices and transgressions of both law and decency. The two years’ imprisonment that he had to undergo ultimately was grossly inadequate, considering the magnitude of his crimes.

It is to his daughter’s credit that she has not tried to hide the seamy, sleazy and obnoxious side of his life. But torn between filial love and her duty as a biographer, she has failed to resist the temptation of putting a spin on Papa’s misdeeds and to exaggerate his undoubted achievements. The latter included his phoenix-like ability to rise from the ashes and rebuild his empire, ruined by his own errant ways. For instance, she holds that her father’s troubles and eventual incarceration were the result of Jawaharlal Nehru’s "vindictiveness".

It is doubtless true that Nehru and Dalmia disliked each other intensely. It is equally true that, in response to Dalmia’s vicious attacks on him, Nehru did call him an "ugly man with an ugly face and an ugly mind and a ugly heart". But to infer from this that Nehru felt "threatened" by her father is absurd. The seth did have hallucinations about his grandeur. Egged on by a "charlatan astrologer", Haveli Ram, he was confident that he would be India’s finance minister. He also believed, as the daughter apparently still does, that he was the "messiah of miserable refugees". But surely the thought of Dalmia being the nemesis of Nehru, the only Indian prime minister to have won three general elections in a row and to have ruled for 17 unbroken years, is laughable. Only someone born in the 1950s and ignorant about the era would pass the judgement that "post-Independence India saw Nehru personally troubled and politically uncertain".

There is no point labouring this further. Khushwant Singh says of Dalmia in the publisher’s blurb: "Like a meteor, he flashed across the firmament in a blaze of glory before being reduced to the ashes of ignominy in a prison, convicted for fraud. An odd mixture of puritanism and profligacy, and a sadist who tortured his family...he broke all the laws of God and man". Khushwant adds that Adhar’s biography of her father is "gripping" and makes "most compelling reading". I agree with him on both counts but with a caveat.

Adhar is candid about many matters, including the sordid family intrigues as well as extra-marital peccadilloes of neglected wives; the insistence on a division in the family by Dalmia’s two lieutenants, brother Jaidayal and son-in-law Shanti Prasad, followed by a scramble for prized property. She also writes well and has a command of the language. But she has needlessly compromised on both these qualities by making untenable and outlandish claims on her father’s behalf such as that he was the "only man who could have prevented India’s partition". And sadly she has sometimes done so in prose so purple as to border on the breathless.

A classic example is her three-page account of Dalmia’s dive into the river Hooghly when he was 13. It describes, among other things, his "bare torso" arching upwards, "defining his flat stomach and the muscles on his long legs tensed with pulsating energy. He looked like lcarus with his wings spread wide, ready to fly". Evidently—and mercifully for all concerned—the sun was not shining on Calcutta that day in 1906.

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