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In Sham Lal's India

The ex-ToI editor's epochal writings capture how 'Imagined India' was created

In Sham Lal's India
illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
In Sham Lal's India
outlookindia.com
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In 1947, when India became independent, the United Nations had just 61 members. Today, it has 179. In the 56 intervening years, nearly all the six-score new entrants to nationhood have experienced coups, revolutions, bloodshed and anarchy. A dozen have become, or are close to becoming, failed states. By the early 1990s, says one estimate, 19 million people had been killed in the fratricidal, usually senseless, conflicts that had ravaged the 'third' world.

India, despite all its faults, has been among the few exceptions. This has allowed the Indian intelligentsia to both witness and participate in the most complex and exciting event that mankind has experienced—the birth of a modern nation. What we refer to as 'Independence' was simply the transfer of power from British rulers to Indian. An Indian nation, in the modern, European sense of the term, only existed in embryo in 1947. In the next five decades, it has slowly, often painfully, come into being. Such a transformation occurs only once in a nation's history and that too only if it is able to survive the experience.

Journalists are perhaps the luckiest of the chosen few who have both lived and chronicled the change. Their accounts of the epoch-making changes of the past half-century are literally worth their weight in gold. But there are diamonds to be found even within this profusion of gold. A collection of writings by Sham Lal, legendary ex-editor of The Times of India, titled Indian Realities—In Bits and Pieces is among these.

Sham Lal, who celebrated his 91st birthday last week, became a journalist in 1934. Armed with a BA degree in English he arrived at the office of what was then a struggling paper called The Hindustan Times. There he shared a room with a young man who had been similarly recruited a few weeks earlier, Devadas Gandhi. The paper ran hand-to-mouth but didn't die because its chief financier was none other than Ghanshyam Das Birla. And Birla was, in financial terms, also the patron saint of the Indian National Congress. Thus Sham Lal, a shy and retiring man whose consuming love affair in life was to be with books and ideas, found himself thrust into the epicentre of the freedom movement in India.

For over 60 years thereafter, Sham Lal chronicled the birth of the Indian nation, its pains, its anxious moments, its disappointments, and its rare moments of ecstasy. But his has not been a chronicle of events, or even a commentary upon them. His has been, throughout, a chronicle of the ideas that shaped the birth of the Indian nation. If nations are, in the final analysis, 'imagined communities' Sham Lal has captured how 'Imagined India' was created. No one else has done this. No one else could have. For 70 years, Sham Lal has spent a quarter of his income every month on books. Today, in a library of between 20,000-30,000 books, each carefully selected by him, he knows precisely where each is to be found. It is this voyage of his mind, fused with the voyage of India, that makes Indian Realities not just unique, but a treasure—a bible of India's nationhood—that should belong in every home in this country.

Sham Lal's method throughout has been to enter into a discourse with the authors of the dominant strands of thinking about India. "Reading," he points out, "is by no means a passive act. It is always an invitation to engage in a conversation." Quoting another great mind, he points out that "every work is rewritten by its reader, who imposes upon it a new grid of interpretation". But conversations can be dull, and weighty ones duller. That never happens with Sham Lal, for his other great virtue is the limpid clarity of his prose. As anyone who has attempted to express a complex idea knows, it is far more difficult to do so simply than couched in turgid, scholastic jargon.In Sham Lal, substance combines with clarity to yield a style that borders on poetry. Very few non-English-born have achieved this rare distinction—Joseph Conrad and Karl Polanyi spring most readily to my mind. Sham Lal is up there with them for he combines the colloquial, often the humdrum usage of English with the sublime, to create prose that is incandescent in its freshness. Let him speak for himself:

On D.D. Kosambi's troubled but brilliant attempt to interpret Indian history through the prism of Marxism: "We need not dilate too long on the slant or bias in Kosambi's judgments. All that he wants to tell us is that all we have is the earth. The sky is there, but its deep blue is a fiction. All he wants to do is debunk in his own way those who think that the dynamic of history is provided not by the way in which men make their living but by the ideas in their heads."

On Postmodernism: "There is an element of conjecture in all history, indeed in all social sciences. This is not because there are no facts, only interpretations, and no texts, only glosses, as a philosophy much in vogue today would have it. One cannot possibly interpret nothing or look into the meaning of something which is not there. The new way of thinking makes sense only insofar as it promotes a sharper awareness of the bias or caprice involved in the selection and disciplining of facts...and points to the dialectic of pregnant silence and ambivalent speech in all texts."

I am running out of space. So finally on Gandhi: "For all his whimsies, he had a clearer grasp than most of his contemporaries of the violence inherent in a hi-tech civilisation based on weapons of mass destruction and with its dynamism derived from creation of ever new technologies and ever increasing demands on the earth's limited resources.... It was no wry joke when, in answer to a correspondent's question on what he thought of western civilisation, he (Gandhi) promptly said 'it would be a good idea'."
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