Sunday, February 25, 2007

Sham Lal -- the man of letters among philistine admirers

Many of the senior journalists who mourned the death of Sham Lal, former editor of The Times of India -- he died at the age of 94 in New Delhi on February 23, 2007 -- were almost apologetic in their praise of the man who read books, talked about them, and connected the world of ideas and arguments with the world of action. Many of them had been swimming with the tide of the times, and they had long ago abandoned the civilised moorings of a thoughtful life. That is the reason for their apologetic stance.
Sham Lal was not a bookworm in the dunce's sense of the term. Sometimes, he found ideas and arguments of no use in understanding the world of action, in which people lived. But he kept the critique going. At the same time, he did not despair of books, ideas and arguments. And he did not rationalise the real, irrational world -- the world as it is. And thankfully, he never found it necessary to explain or justify his intellectual pursuit of dealing with ideas.

In any other country, Sham Lal would have been an intellectual icon. He would have been someone like Walter Lippman or I.F.Stone of the United States, intellectuals who stood in the mid-stream of daily events. It is not the populace in India who had failed to recognise and regard him. Perhaps they would have shown genuine regard for him as is the tradition in India -- of holding the man of learning in high regard -- had they come across him. The fault for ignoring and neglecting Sham Lal lies with the so-called intellectuals in India, people who are ashamed to be intellectuals. Yes. It is a strange thing. In India, everyone wants to be the man on the street, and identifies with the common man. Intellectuals want to be populists. It is the communist legacy in this country. Of course, we need not mention the idiocy of the right-wingers because they have neither interest nor concern with matters of the mind. It is not just the politicians who play this hoax. This is a dirty game played by the intellectuals themselves, barring a few honourable exceptions.

As a consequence, Sham Lal was marginalised in India's public realm. He did not moan this nelglect. He stood alone, sagelike, on his island because he knew the riches of the realm in which he chose to live. He was revered by a small group, but they did not take seriously the work he was doing. They thought he was a curious man! That is because they were not interested in ideas and arguments themselves. They were jockeying for positions of power in the public realm. So, the trend set by Sham Lal was not continued by his self-professed admirers. There is an absence of argumentation in India's public sphere despite Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's slick picturisation of the 'argumentative Indian.'

Sham Lal was concerned with the poor man, but he saw the inefficiencies and the stupidities of socialism and communism. He recognised that market was an inevitable development, but he did not an idolise the market. He did not blindly accept the falsehoods of the market as gospel truth because he did not fear to be labelled as being "anti-reforms." The platitudinal phrase "above the fray" was never so true as in the case of Sham Lal.

It is unfortunate that it was his granddaughter who had to collect the incisive pieces of his column -- Life & Letters -- into two volumes -- "Hundred Encounters" and "Indian Realities". It was not done by any of his discerning admirers as in the case of Isaiah Berlin. It was Henry Hardy who brought out the several volumes of Berlin's essays.

Indian journalists have betrayed the legacy of Sham Lal by demeaning themselves and sinking to the low levels of politicians.

Possibly, a new and a more innocent generation of journalists and readers will rediscover Sham Lal after the slushy tide of fluff has receded.

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