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Life in Letters

Over the past half century or so, Sham Lal has remained unequalled in literary criticism. ZIYA US SALAM speaks to the grand old author whose book, "Indian Realities: Bits and Pieces" was released in New Delhi the other day.

WORDWISE: Veteran writer Sham Lal undertakes a literary trip. Phot: R.V.Moorthy.

HE FERRETS out words with the care of a man chiselling his diamonds. Yet his words, measured as they are, can be so disquieting. As he writes in "Indian Realities: Bits and Pieces" - brought out by Rupa and Company recently - "Nobody is so daft as to go to TV for lessons in history." Yet, there is an old world grace about him that is difficult to fathom, still more difficult to ignore. Surrounded by some 15,000 books, he is clearly more at ease with the written word. Remarkably, when Sham Lal speaks cluttered thoughts seldom intrude into his speech. At 91 all that this former resident editor of The Times of India needs to do to make himself heard is refashion his thoughts, restructure his words. In the autumn of an eventful career - never mind he has been in the autumn longer than people have had their career - he refuses to pamper himself with the beguiling luxury of nostalgia or endeavour to extend enchantment to ugly events long gone. He is no purveyor of the past, riled with the present. He just says things the way they are. Or were. Simple. "I was friends with M.F. Husain, Tyabji and others. From the beginning, I was into arts and literature," he offers, sipping tea at his South Delhi residence. Later, much later, in the course of an enlightening conversation, one learns that the likes of Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi and Ali Sardar Jafri, etc, the doyens of Urdu poetry, would gather at his place in the evenings when he was quite young. "We used to have sessions of good poetry. However, Urdu poetry declined because there was a contradiction. Many of the poets were Leftists, yet depended on Hindi films for their survival. It weakened their poetic nerve," recalls Lal, adding, "However, Ghalib has to be a personal favourite. His poetry had personal anguish, personal fear, yet it was not bound by any poetic clichés."

It was this early beginning that led Lal to pen "Bits and Pieces", brought out as a companion volume to "A Hundred Encounters" released in December 2001. "I have no idea to give an expert's view. It is more of dilettante's view. The first book had nothing of India. I had kept back certain pieces from the first issue for this book. I chose the pieces which had some durability and would last for another 10-15 years. They were all based on a set of ideas. This book is used as peg to hang my reflection," says Lal, whose column, `Life and Letters' was mostly about arts and social sciences. "In all my 50 years as a columnist, I never encountered any interference. I see no reason why there should not be space for such pieces in today's papers. It is not difficult to give two pages a week to literature out of 20-odd pages a day. Every reader selects the pages of his interest. Nobody reads newspapers cover to cover. Even fashion columns are followed only by a minority. A villager won't be interested in them," he says with reference to changing contents of newspapers.

He moans, "Image is more important now. You have to say in one-two words. Readers cannot sustain interest beyond 800-900 words", and blames the media for "fissures" in reporting. "Now they point out that Jats, OBCs or SCs will make a difference in a certain constituency. Earlier the differences of caste and community were not as sharp."

If he is quite unhappy with the changing media scene, he is sadder still at this tendency to rewrite history. "Every age rewrites its history. You discard the irrelevant. Take for example the meaning of the word, `Jehad'. It had another meaning during the time of the Prophet but is an anti-West term now. However, it is very disquieting in our country. Mass rioting will hit the whole country and not just one community. With every Gujarat there has to be a reaction. Above all, the country gets a bad image." However, if you thought he is one old man clearly ill at ease with our unscrupulous politicians, he springs a surprise. "Despite all the distortions, some institutions like the Supreme Court are taking corrective action."

Meanwhile, life goes on as usual, reality, bits and pieces and all that. "My reading has been reduced but from what I gather the modern world will disintegrate due to its own excesses. Technology has become a weapon. They can destroy a nation but cannot create it. The bargaining power of the poor is reducing." Meanwhile, Sham Lal has a mini library to forage.

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