Too refined to be a journalist

Fascinating glimpses into the life and times of a fearless man

Ink in My Veins: A Life in Journalism
By S. Nihal Singh.
Hay House India. Pages 295. Rs 499.

Reviewed by Uttam Sengupta

FIVE days after S. Nihal Singh resigned as Editor in 1980, following sharp differences with the Managing Director C.R. Irani, a commentary on the editorial page and the immensely popular "Calcutta Notebook" column on the back page of The Statesman referred to his innings at the newspaper.

The commentary had this to say about him: " no other profession is the cessation of a man’s service—for whatever personal or professional reason—at once elevated into a cause with profound moral implications for the rest of society`85through cynical misuse, editorial freedom has become another of these misleading shibboleths."

The "Notebook", on the other hand, had this to say: "...We have had editors, bad as well as good, including one boneless wonder afraid of the proprietor, afraid of libel, afraid of the sack. Surendra was afraid of nothing."

It speaks a lot about the newspaper as well as the man. Indeed, Surendra Nihal Singh was immensely fortunate to have worked in The Statesman when he did. Joining the newspaper in his early 20s, he rose to become the Editor within a relatively short period of a quarter of a century. But, more importantly, which other newspaper today would allow a greenhorn to write a daily column, six days a week, in New Delhi after meeting one of the celebrities visiting the Capital?

To be fair, The Statesman too was lucky to have him in its rolls. One dare say "they do not make the likes of him any longer". He would be the only Indian correspondent in Pakistan, who refrained from fraternising with the Indian High Commissioner in order to ensure that he remained objective. Another endearing vignette has Nihal Singh telling the then powerful Information & Broadcasting Minister V. C. Shukla during the Emergency, "Your censors can certainly tell us what is not to be published. But if you want us to carry what the censors tell us, you will have to bring in a new law."

It explains why the newspaper was quick to promote him as Special Correspondent in less than five years and the reason why, soon thereafter, it posted him to Singapore as the South Asia Correspondent. Several years later but long before technology made the world much smaller, he was sent off to Moscow to start the newspaper’s bureau there. Having spent much of his professional life abroad, the book provides fascinating glimpses into the life and times in those countries where he was stationed. Unlike many well-travelled Indian Editors, Nihal Singh had the good fortune of actually living in various parts of the world for extended periods, endowing him with a remarkable worldview.

Not surprisingly, several astute observations embellish the account. How the world first could not stop gushing at the Japanese model and how it stopped even looking at it; how Indian-Americans develop right-wing views to assuage their own guilt and how the ‘Iron Lady’ Mrs Indira Gandhi gambled away the military victory over Pakistan in 1971 in the Simla Agreement.

The author’s inevitable encounters with political movers and shakers also find a place. He fondly remembers, twice in the book as a matter of fact, how the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai inquired what the letter ‘S’ in his initials stood for. That appeared reason enough for the author to conclude that the stern Morarji had a softer, human core. But on a more serious plane, he recalls Morarji tell Frank Anthony, the long-serving nominated MP, "You supported the Emergency. I will not forgive you". There are other telling quotes to tickle. The author remembers the Congress strongman from West Bengal, Atulya Ghosh, once exclaiming, "I do not know how Indira produced two sons. She is so cold", and Atal Bihari Vajpayee saying in 1978, "I wish Indira Gandhi would come back to power".

Remarkably, the author is candid about confessing about how he was buggered outside his school and how he was deflowered by an English grandmother in New Delhi. He nonchalantly mentions about his neighbour’s wife in Singapore, an Australian, turning up in bed with him and about the Polish prostitute who played Hindi film songs in his honour, not to speak of the American he met in a flight and who told him on their very first night together that they had made more love than average American couples would engage in a month. Dalliances with Indian women, however, find no mention in the book and one can only conclude that the author is being chivalrous.

The reader can be pardoned for the fleeting thought that the author must be impossibly vain. But then he does have a lot to be vain about. A perceptive and passing Egyptian journalist had told Kuldip Nayar, then an Information Officer at the Press Information Bureau, that S. Nihal Singh was too refined to be a journalist. Mercifully, the refinement, the under-stated humour and the detachment with which he writes about men and matters make for delightful reading.