Portrait of a reader as writer

For Sham Lal, a book was not an escape from real, all-too-real problems of life, but a way of dwelling intelligently in this world, questioning ideas and power. A tribute to the eminent editor-writer by Manish Chand

Sham Lal
Sham Lal (1912 — 2007)

An evening with Sham Lal, if you were lucky to have met this frail, benign bibliophile, will always burn bright in your memory. Not because he had a charismatic personality or that he had dramatic things to say. But because of his sheer pleasure in who he was: a rare solitude-loving creature who lived for books and the bliss of reading.

Life was one bright book for the nonagenarian columnist, he passed away at 95, who imparted a new resonance to the post-modernist notion of the reader as the writer and creator of texts. Neither time nor age could stale his passion for books. Till very recently, he read for anything from six to eight hours a stunning variety of books which could range from stringent sociological analyses to most abstruse poetry. I met him last a few years ago when he was not enjoying the best of health.

He complained of declining eyesight, but the moment I asked him what he was reading, he blazed into life with recollections of at least a dozen books that were creating an intellectual ferment in his beautiful mind. He spoke to me passionately about Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters and his admiration for Hughes’ brilliant but troubled wife Sylvia Plath’s "haunting and hunted" poetry. And then he took me on a guided tour of his huge library, "a paradise and a universe", in Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’ words, in his Gulmohar Park house.

Literary immortals stared at you from every corner of elegantly laid out bookshelves, mocking the philistinism of the present bestseller writer-as-product culture. Plato, Plotinus, Joyce, Proust, Camus, Sartre, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Martin Amis were all there, writers living in different centuries and masters of different genres happily cohabited in Lal’s library and his mind creating a creative frisson that found expression in the luminous prose he wrote for different newspapers right till the end of his life. The grand old man of Indian letters, who edited The Times of India from 1967 to 1978, sounded bitter about soundbyte-driven media culture and the awful state of prose in tabloidised Indian newspapers.

In the obsession with screaming headlines, he rued, journalists were missing out on details of their immediate habitat. Why can’t someone write elegant prose about garbage thrown callously by the so-called beautiful people right in front of their houses, he asked me with a mixture of puzzlement and genuine anger in his voice. As he spoke, his book-crowded mind returned to a happier and more carefree time — unlike the insanely competitive media culture of 60 TV channels — with nothing to watch — when he unobtrusively edited (edited, mind you, and not lorded over) the Times and wrote his trademark column Life and Letters.

Lal had a photographic memory and could do a better job than Google could now do on filling in the neglected tidbits about lives of authors, thinkers and politicians he had known in his decades-long career as columnist and writer. A Hundred Encounters, an anthology of his writings over several decades with some new additions, celebrates the one long intellectual feast that Lal’s life was. The book grapples with modernity and discontent, a master theme that runs as leitmotif in his critical essays. His idea of the role of critic in the age of embedded journalism and the incestuous nexus of the establishment with intellectuals is sobering and returns one to the basics of the intellectual vocation.

"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," wrote Lal.

In his thoughtful tribute to Mexican writer Octavio Paz, a friend of his and a former ambassador to India, Lal wrote: "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 gone berserk." The same can be said of this compulsive reader and passionate critic for whom a book was not an escape from real, all-too-real problems of life, but a way of dwelling intelligently in this world, questioning ideas and power and soaking in the liberation it offered. — IANS