Sham Lal’s century of reading

(Published in the Business Standard, February 27, 2007)

For a certain generation of writers, thinkers and intellectuals, Sham Lal was not a man, but an institution. For another, younger and more fashionable set of “intellectuals”, Sham Lal was a half-remembered name, his integrity almost old-fashioned in a time when it was normal to change one’s opinions as casually, and as frequently, as you changed your clothes.

Sham Lal, who died on Saturday at the age of 94, was not to be found on Page 3 or among the rent-a-quote intellectuals who make their names on television shows. He had been the editor of The Times of India in an era when the measure of a newspaper lay in the quality of its writing and reportage, rather than the quality of its marketing campaigns. He was one of the founder-editors of Biblio, the literary magazine that functions as an oasis of intelligence in a desert of fatuity, and many of us looked forward to the essays he wrote for The Telegraph well into his nineties.

I was a junior dogsbody at Biblio when I was taken to Sham Lal’s house to meet the editor. Like many other first-time visitors, it seemed to my dazed eyes that the house was constructed of books. Bookshelves reached from floor to ceiling in every room, their contents neatly ordered, spanning several centuries of human thought and creativity. He had original issues of The Paris Review, Criterion, and of defunct but once-great Indian literary magazines, vast collections of poetry and drama, and what appeared to be every important work ever published in the fields of history, criticism and the humanities. It was one of the best private libraries I had ever seen, and being there was like being inside a particularly well-stocked, curious and disciplined mind. Sham Lal himself was lying on a couch, reading Isaiah Berlin while columns of books rose up from the floor to spill over couch, keeping him company.

He was not a hoarder of knowledge. The book-lined house in Delhi’s Gulmohar Park functioned as a superior literary saloon for many years, with some of the greatest and most interesting figures of the age, from Octavio Paz to Bipan Chandra, dropping in to spend time with Sham Lal.

I am often saddened, and sorry, when I meet younger writers or colleagues in journalism who don’t know of Sham Lal, even when I know this amnesia is not their fault. They have missed out on so much. Most of his writing retains its freshness, clarity and incisiveness, and he wore his erudition lightly. His intellectual engagement with the world stemmed from an enormous respect for ideas, beliefs and the language that provided the building blocks for argument: “At a time when political rag chewing, hack writing, mass media banalities and high pressure sales talk do as much to corrupt the language as industrial wastes to pollute air and water, it is the poet’s job to preserve the integrity of the written word.” This may have been the poet’s credo, but it was also Sham Lal’s own.

I still remember his piece on Kafka and Thomas Mann, which begins: “For long, I have had the uneasy feeling that the doctrine of karma takes us straight into Franz Kafka’s world. For, when most religions which had their birth in this country seek release—whatever the name by which they call it—from the cycle of rebirths, and explain away all that the individual suffers as a consequence of his or her deeds in a previous life about which he or she knows nothing, the story is not very different from what the Czech writer tells in The Trial.” Sham Lal drew his philosophies from the world he was born in, and reached out with equal assurance to the wider world of Beckett and Kafka, Sartre and Berlin while columns of books rose up from the floor to spill over couch, keeping him company. Some writers escaped him: he found Jack Kerouac’s world of dharma bums vapid, he recognised Ezra Pound’s insanity, but not his genius.

There is a term that has fallen into disuse these days, when hyperbole has turned every writer inexorably into a genius producer of masterpieces and every reviewer into a critic of searing insight and intelligence. It used to be honourable to be considered a man of letters—it stood for someone who was deeply engaged with the life of the mind. If you look at the index to A Hundred Encounters, a collection of Sham Lal’s writing, you gain some sense of the generous breadth of his world. It begins with Adorno and Akhmatova, moves through Baudelaire, the Bible and the Bhagwad Gita and traverses via Vishnu, Vidal, Van Gogh and Vyasa to, finally, Andrei Zhadnov. If one generation of thinkers had every reason to remember Sham Lal, the next generation has every reason not to forget him.





One response to “Sham Lal’s century of reading”

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    Moving. I had the good fortune of reading aloud to Sham Lal in his last few months (his eye sight always bad, had become worse). In those days he would recite Eliot and Shakespeare from his amazing memory of texts, historical events and even family history. The book he asked to be read aloud was very difficult: Habermas' On Modernity. In about two months we never got beyond a heavily pencilled thirty pages of text since every para or two would inspire a twenty minute riff from him about the world around us. It was as if he thought we took the challenge of modernity too lightly. As you say, he wore all this erudition and insight lightly. Even in the preface to his collection, Sham Lal called himself a dabbler!

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