The ink is still not dry

MASTER RACONTEUR Surendra Nihal Singh   | Photo Credit: Scanned in Chennai_R.K.Sridharan

It is said that a politician is presumed to be dead after he stops opening his mouth. Similarly a journalist, to prove that he is alive and kicking, has to keep writing. Surendra Nihal Singh, one of the doyens of Ink Street, has come out with an interesting autobiographical account of his heyday. The publication “Ink in my Veins” (dedicated to his late wife “Ge”) brings to life yesteryear events with which the present-day generation is not conversant.

I remember meeting him for the first time some 50 years ago when Acharya Vinoba Bhave was leading his padyatra to bring about a change of heart among the outlaws of the Chambal Valley. The hub of the Acharya's activities was Agra (not far from the notorious Bah and Morena) and it was there that Nihal Singh, handsome and suave, landed up from Delhi. One met him at Lauries Hotel, then the best in the city of the Taj. He needed local guidance to help him reach Bhave in the Chambal region. So the need for a ‘moffusil' correspondent.

I accompanied him to the Agra Fort, near which was the ramshackle bus depot from which the visiting journo had to catch a bus. I fetched a ticket for him, which cost about Rs.five, and saw him off on his way to his destination, where he was to meet this scribe's father (covering the event for a news agency). I learnt from him that Nihal Singh had passed the night in the open sleeping on a table outside Bhave's tent, quite unpertubed by the teeming mosquitoes and the dacoits lurking in the ravines.The next time I met Nihal Singh was when Queen Elizabeth and the Duke came to the Taj. He was accompanying the Queen on her India and Pakistan visit, much like Desmond Doig had done when the Duke came alone for a “dekko” of the monument of love and other historical places. Vijayalakshmi Pandit was accompanying the Queen as a sort of lady-in-waiting. Singh went all the way to Peshawar with the royal party and wrote a beautiful piece on the land of Chappali kababs and Kipling's water-carrier, Ganga Din.

Blue-eyed boy

After that I met him as a sub-editor of The Statesman. The chief editor in Kolkata, Alfred Evan Charlton and his assistant, Philip Crosland, regarded him as a blue-eyed boy, being the son of the Governor of Rajasthan and a reporter who had wormed his way into their hearts by his contributions to the New Delhi Notebook, a unique column, “Yesterday in Delhi” (which included items like the Kabootarbaz of Jama Masjid) and later “Passing By”, a vivid account of interesting people visiting the Capital. After that he went away to Moscow and London as foreign correspondent writing the London Notebook and other memorable pieces. He came back as Resident Editor during the Emergency days, facing the ire of the “chief censor”, V.C. Shukla, and quite prepared to go to jail. Nihal Singh was in the limelight then and he maintained the image of a hawk-eyed journalist by keeping a close watch on the paper's editorial stuff, pointing out mistakes and shortcomings every morning, including his famous ruling that the reporters and subs were shy of using the word “because” and preferred to use “as” instead.

Singh had a colourful social life in Delhi, unlike the editors of old, Arthur Moore, Ian Stevens, Charlton and Crosland, who were not even seen at the Viceroy's parties. The last two had been drafted for World War duties, like Prem Bhatia, who became the flamboyant Political Correspondent of The Statesman and the best known journalist in town.

The Englishmen, who ran the paper then, liked smart young men like him, Pran Chopra, Mahesh Chandra, Chanchal Sarkar, Kishan Bhatia, Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, Inder Malhotra, M.L. Kotru and probably the last of the genre Saeed Naqvi. Some of these events Singh discloses with rare candour in his book but even so one felt that he should have divided his magnum opus into two volumes – one dealing with political events and the other with lighter stuff like the Queen's visit, the kababs of Peshawar. Bhave and the Chambal dacoits and so many other memorable incidents that he had witnessed and which hardly find mention. So “Ink in my Veins” is like a potpourri as diverse as the mixed bowl of pulses served by the patriarch Jacob to his elder brother Esau. The latter sold his birthright to satisfy his hunger but Nihal Singh manages to retain his literacy reputation despite leaving the reader's appetite unsatiated.

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2021 5:44:30 PM |

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