Sunday, December 14, 2003

A bubble-buster at his unsparing best
M.L. Raina

Indian Realities in Bits and Pieces
by Sham Lal. Rupa, New Delhi. Rs 395. Pages Xiv+524.

Indian Realities in Bits and PiecesI have been a Sham Lal addict ever since my adolescent days when he used to write under the pseudonym Adib. My debts to him are many: his writings in the Times of India initiated me into Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse and other thinkers. His feature National Scene shaped my understanding of India and his comments on Indian art and literature have continued to help me cope with the diversity of our cultural life. Sham Lal has made a seminal contribution to Indian journalism. Reading the present collection is like reliving those days when the issues he tackled were of utmost concern to us in India. Fifty years on since I first read him, his observations matter still.

Part of the pleasure of reading these pieces all over again is in witnessing a man chipping away so elegantly at the totem poles of our social and intellectual life: fundamentalist religion, all the habits, attitudes and hidebound views parading as ideological constructs of the Right and the Left. His mild iconoclasm (remember the editorial The ignominy of it all as the Emergency collapsed!), his understanding of our traditional mores as well as the demands of modernity, his immense reading and his mandarin yet wiry prose still unrivalled in our journalism have consistently marked his commentary on Indian life and letters.

Sham Lal is a congenital bubble-buster. Nothing that is orotund and pretentious escapes his scalpel pen. Even when he admires an author or is sympathetic to a cause, he does not hesitate to expose the worm under its shiny verbal dressing. I think his method can be summed up as marmoreal irreverence. Without giving palpable offence, he can be cutting and harsh — all in the name of what his mentor Gramsci would call a deep historical sense. Here is what he says of the Marxist historian R.S. Sharma after acknowledging his contribution to Indian historiography:

"It is banal to argue that before a religion like Buddhism can flourish, society must be able to produce a sufficient surplus to sustain a large body of monks. The crucial question `85is how did a creed which dismisses life as an endless tale of suffering, get hold of people’s mind at a time when the economy, on Sharma’s own showing, was doing rather well."

In a similar vein he questions the claims of western modernity and post-modernity to speak for India. "What the `85postmodernists celebrate is `85 partial and unstable truths and conflicting histories`85this makes postmodernists sound more and more nihilistic. Perhaps some of them will regard the badly fractured society in India `85as a sign that it may have skipped modernity`85 not even aware where it has landed."

Whether he is talking of subaltern histories, the political gyrations of Indian Communists, the disruptive roles the media plays in our culture or the glib schemes of educational reforms in India, he always throws a damper on the grandiose pronouncements of ideologues and soothsayers of various hues. He does this politely, with a smirk on his face, in a note of pervasive skepticism that stops short of stridency.

He stands in a position that affords him a view of both sides in any argument and is able to prick the balloons of many a current shibboleth. He is excellent on globalisation, but has equally considered insights into other issues of importance to us. This explains his equable tone and an occasionally intriguing frog-in-the-throat hesitancy to avoid controversy.

He enters into dialogue with writers and artists to elicit the substance of their creations. He admires Ram Kumar’s paintings for the absence in them of "seething rage or any hint of protest". He likes Satyajit Ray for his "deep roots in the soil". He responds to Mukhtibodh’s sense of solitude with as much sympathy as to Nirmal Verma’s detestation of those "who claim to know what is good for others". For him, Prem Chand is relevant because even if somewhat dated. He sifts Tagore the public man from Tagore the poet and hitches his star to the latter for "he speaks in private accents".

For Gandhi, he preserves a deep reverence this side of idolatry. Gandhi is praised for prescience and for being less burdened with ideological baggage than card-carrying ideologues. In the face of Left-wing criticism, he compliments the Mahatma for forcing a "formidable nationalist alliance the strength of which was revealed in the number of epic agitations against the British government".

In this collection, we are looking at a private person embodying a public ethical/intellectual position. In this respect, Sham Lal is a civilised conscience of our intellectual fraternity — unsparing to those who flatten out reality to suit their notions, but hospitable to liberal, unencumbered currents of thought from all directions.