What does it take to create great literary and journalistic works that impact a generation, a region, a society, a nation? And what does it take to keep creating such works? How does one stay relevant in changing times?
It was 1996. I was 25, hauling my life out of a deep abyss, single-minded about making a living out of writing and I had no place for any advise from outside of myself.
I was a student of the post-graduate degree program at the Department of Communication and Journalism at Ranade Institute, University of Pune.
He was the Head of Department of the institution. He was 55 years of age then.
The program was one year long, and we met every day. For the first couple of weeks, we did not interact beyond curriculum (he also taught a class). Then one day, a classmate and I climbed to the rooftop of the building in search of baby owls perched high up on a tree. The experience was great, and it earned me an interview with the HOD. It lasted 35 minutes. The first 15 minutes we talked about what I wanted to do, his observations on my work, skills. The next 10 minutes we spoke about his life, his work, thoughts, his learnings. In the last 10 minutes he explained why the degree program was tailor-made for me. The new curriculum was 70% practice and 30% theory, so it fit my approach. “Concentrate on your writing and let it lead you to your goal, and let public interest temper your work. And don’t pay heed to the accolades and critics – both will endeavour to bring you down.”
That was Arun Sadhu. He looked into me, and shared a part of himself that he knew would get through to me. And it did. I can quite honestly say that he freed me of any need I may have had to prove myself and enabled me to practice my craft.
Of course, it was only a couple of weeks later that I realised that my HOD was the Arun Sadhu. I grew up in Mumbai, and since I read, write and speak Marathi, I was aware of his novels and journalistic work, but I just hadn’t made the connection. It was a canteen discussion among classmates that brought it home – this was the Arun Sadhu, author of monumental works such as Mumbai Dinank and Simhasan, among others. He had also worked with the Times of India, Indian Express, Statesman, Free Press Journal – as one of my classmates said: “He is a legend.”
But that’s how I remember him – completely unassuming, stylish, soft-spoken, razor sharp mind, and even sharper pen. He was a good orator, a very good teacher, an able leader, and a very down-to-earth human being. In college, he provided insights on little things that shaped our minds. The importance of the ‘ticker’ (PTI, AFP, AP), the necessity of efficiency (as opposed to speed, which is a product of efficiency), the value of brevity, the virtues of eloquence, the need for a stable foundation of research and facts, and of course the diligence of continuously putting your art to craft. If you consider Arun Sadhu’s literary work alone (his generation was prolific with quality output), it is a vast and varied repository – his journalistic work is a completely different world, and his voice of reason shall echo in these empty halls that we now stand in.
I was fortunate to have him as a professor, guide, and also fortunate that we kept in touch even after I left college in 1997. A few years later, he was kind enough to invite me (along with some of his other students) to a screening of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar at the National Film Archives of India, a movie he had co-written with Daya Pawar and Sooni Taraporevala (it was directed by Dr Jabbar Patel) on the life of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. It was a definitive evening in my life since I had the opportunity to be a fly on the wall and learn about the art of scripting and movie making from a very accomplished set of ‘who’s who’ artists and thinkers.
We had many conversations over the years, about the role of journalism, the future of media, the evolving nature of communication, state of society, the arts, and so forth. Usually these conversations happened on the sidelines of an event, most were debates, some were discourses, always at length because he enjoyed a good exchange of ideas.
One of the enduring lessons he taught me was the art of writing an obituary and the importance of writing one, including one’s own. I made it a habit to write my obituary periodically (still do) because as he pointed out: “It is a very honest technique for introspection and goal-setting.”
And so here I am today writing an obituary for voices that represent humanity, balance, dialogue-over-diatribe, co-existence-over-subjugation, et al. And it seems a good time to write that obituary given the times we live in. And I say this in global terms. Whatever happened to sarcasm, mirth, teasing, argument, debate, discussion, dissent? When did we go from layers and hues of language to a Like-Diatribe polarity? Are we in the midst of a Communication Breakdown even though we live in a time of 24/7 Communication? Are we heading for a time when the only heroes will be the ones who voice a balanced opinion? Are we heading for a time when the only heroes will be dead ones? Whatever happened to the role and output from the arts? When I look at the last 20 years and when I look around me now, I see that we were heading here. And I see that we are heading towards a society of voiceless societies, each led by one radical voice of a leader. And I see that there is intuitive technology that can free us all to communicate instantaneously with everyone in the world, and yet we are all silent because the same technology is also an invisible shackle.
The rules of free speech, balanced reporting and democratic responsibilities and obligations, haven’t changed. In every time, in every age, in every society, there have always been voices of reason, voices that said what they had to without prejudice or fear and without being disrespectful and without engaging in diatribe. And such voices have always been few. And one such rare voice has now left the building. Dearly departed, have a safe flight home.
(In memory of Arun Sadhu, journalist, writer, humanist, 1941-2017, who passed away on 25 September, 2017).