The Tribune - Spectrum


, March 3, 2002

Analysing a modernity gone haywire
Vikramdeep Johal

A Hundred Encounters
by Sham Lal. Rupa & Co., New Delhi. Pages 536+xiv. Rs 395.

A Hundred Encounters‘‘OH, East is East, West is West and never the twain shall meet’’, proclaimed Kipling. Much before satellite television invaded our homes. Much before Sham Lal became a columnist. However, while television — that chewing gum for the eyes and sleeping pill for the intellect— has brought the West closer by bombarding us with inane, feel-good images, Sham Lal has done the job creatively by presenting profound, even disturbing ideas.

For the past five decades, this enlightened, well-read man has been introducing Indian readers to influential writers and thinkers from the West, making their thought accessible without oversimplifying it and highlighting its relevance. And in an age of crass consumerism, his writings have provided much-needed intellectual stimulation and food for thought.

Sham Lal is one of our most experienced and distinguished journalists. He joined The Hindustan Times in 1934 and had a 12-year stint. He shifted to The Times of India in 1950 and soon after started writing the weekly literary column, ‘‘Life and Letters’’. Since 1994, he has been writing for The Telegraph and Biblio, a literary journal. "A Hundred Encounters" is a selection of his critical pieces centring on the theme of modernity. The writer endorses the view of some social scientists that the process of globalisation is widening the chasm between rich and poor nations. Far from sounding antediluvian, Sham Lal maintains that modernity should benefit all societies, not just the prosperous ones, and that the means should justify the ends, not the other way round. Predicting the fate of the nouveau riche society, he says: "It may come to grief because of its dizzy success in adjusting to it (the technological revolution) too well and its hubris."


The book under review can roughly be divided into two parts. The first deals with the works of social scientists and historians who have made their presence felt in the post-WWII era. The second, which is about modern poets, playwrights and novelists, is likely to be of greater interest to most readers. Talking of these writers, Sham Lal says: "It is they, in contrast to social scientists, who are primarily concerned with existential problems and seek answers to questions which bug the more sensitive today, who wonder why, even in affluent societies, people look so distraught, personal reactions get so skewed and so many are afflicted by ennui, and a sense of loneliness or of loss of meaning."

In addition to scores of incisive book reviews, "A Hundred Encounters" contains memorable obituaries of Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, Octavio Paz, Boris Pasternak, Ernest Hemingway, all Nobel laureates, and Herbert Marcuse. In a moving tribute to Camus, Sham Lal writes: "We may quarrel with him and in anger may even charge him with betrayal of the cause. All the same we shall always cherish the memory of this lonely man in whom both hope and despair were touched with poetry as well as passion." Mourning the loss of Paz, who was a friend of his, he says: "In his death, the world, with large parts of it under the sway of moral cretins, has lost a sane voice sensitive to the ignominy of a modernity gave berserk."

Written in a lively, readable style, Sham Lal’s pieces reveal his lucidity and erudition, besides his grave concern at a modernity gone haywire. Though the perspective is unmistakably Indian, objectivity never takes a back seat. If he comes down on Western powers for their hegemonistic designs, he also does not spare India, which he accuses of having "developed the knack of importing all the problems afflicting the affluent societies." The writer is very clear about the role of the critic. In the introduction, he says: "He (the critic) interrogates the writer and looks for answers in the text. It is for him to point out where the author fumbles or takes refuge in silence, evasion or ambiguity, and locate the points of tension between his different selves." More often than not, he manages to play this role to perfection.While most critics are too overawed by literary icons to pick holes in their works, Sham Lal is always on sure ground while taking on the intellectual heavyweights. According to him, Erwin Schrödinger ‘‘only deepens the mystery by mixing up science and philosophy rather badly’’; reading Jacques Derrida’s "Spectres of Marx" he finds that there is something spectral about the book itself, that the writer ‘‘never comes to grips with the issues he raises’’. He is particularly severe on Francis Fukuyama, whose "end of history" declaration he dismisses as a sales gimmick.

This book can be an eye-opener for all those who are smugly satisfied with the status quo, provided they bother to read it and not just let it gather dust in their showcase. It is an invitation to savour the work of an exceptional man of letters who, though he must be pushing 90, has not yet reached his creative menopause. One hopes he never does.