An email from faraway Sydney, recently brought on a wave of nostalgia and fond memories for a group of us who were students in Calcutta, now Kolkata, in the mid seventies. A long time ago indeed.
We were fortunate. Our journalism teacher and guru was Sadhan Banerjee, senior editor with The Statesman and JS, a top quality magazine for young people. Sadhan had responded to a request to conduct a journalism class for young undergraduates. He agreed, on a totally voluntary basis. He had nothing to gain from this. No financial remuneration, no career motivation. They definitely don’t make ‘em like Sadhan anymore.
He did earn adulation though, and the undying gratitude of those of us who took writing seriously. He taught us the tricks of the trade. He brought in experts from the JS and The Statesman, revered names like C.S.Irani, Jug Suraiya and Desmond Doig. He took us, wide-eyed and totally green, to walk on hallowed ground, the Kolkata Statesman Office, to savour the smells of paper and ink, the wonder of watching the newspaper roll out, hot off the presses. He worked like a maniac and he expected no less from us.
As Leslie D’Gama, a friend and fellow student put it: ‘We’d all dabbled in writing. Sadhan professionalized us.’ Some of our scoops were thrown out by the Emergency (1975) censorship. I had to do a quick rewrite for the first lead article. Sadhan threw my story back at me three times. On the first attempt he came back with: ‘You, my dear, are capable of a great deal more. Rewrite it.’ Second attempt: ‘Call this writing! I want professional work. Not shoddy stuff.’ I was almost in tears. Third attempt: ‘Now, this is a story”!
When our first issue, named Insight, emerged, he beamed at us, ‘you need never be ashamed of this, your first attempt. It’s professional, can hold it’s own with the best.’ Even now, I have this habit (annoying for my editors, no doubt) of rewriting things, changing words and phrases endlessly, till the article goes to press.
We were a motley bunch of youngsters. Mostly around 18 years old, delighted to be out of school and in college. We were aware that Sadhan Banerjee was a hot-shot editor from the most famous English-language, newspaper in town. We were in awe of him and hung on every word. He had an undoubtedly posh accent. We knew he’d attended one of the most prestigious universities in Delhi, St.Stephens, could quote Greek tragedy or philosophy, and had done a stint in Fleet Street – in The Seventies, Indians didn’t pop over to London as easily as they do now.
As young people, we certainly didn’t take Sadhan Banerjee’s journalism course for granted. But neither did we fully appreciate the depth of commitment and professionalism he brought to us. Now almost 40 years later, other facts have filtered through. He worked long hours. Yet at 6.00pm he arrived and briskly went to work with us. He had three small children and an obviously patient wife. How many people with a demanding job and young family would do this kind of thing, completely gratis, throwing his heart and soul into it, into us?
The enormity of Sadhan’s precious gift, hit three of us recently, as we chatted, one from Kolkata, another from Canada. We marvelled at his patience, generosity and commitment.
He came from a generation of courteous, gracious editors. Nikhil Chakravarty another brilliant senior editor and Dr.Ashok Mitra, economist and writer, were like Sadhan though considerably older. They were old-school gentlemen who treated everyone with respect and courtesy. Very few Indian editors bother to send you a regret or answer phone calls, these days.
Sadhan left Kolkata for Sydney in the eighties. We keep in touch. It was really sad to say goodbye 20 years ago. India’s loss, advantage Oz.