New Internationalist

My writing guru: They don’t make ‘em like Sadhan anymore

spiral bound notebook
Sadhan Banerjee’s training was incredibly valuable dgrosso23, under a CC Licence.

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.

Comments on My writing guru: They don’t make ‘em like Sadhan anymore

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  1. #1 Merlyn Brito 01 Feb 13

    A beautiful tribute to a dedicated journalist that brings back nostalgic memories. True accomplishment is seen when the student can do as well or can even surpass the teacher. Mari you are living proof of the value of Sadhan Banerjee's Journalism class.I love to read your articles.

  2. #2 david cohen 01 Feb 13

    I love this blog because there are so many people who influence us.
    They may know it but don't get recognized.
    Being closer tp 80 than 70 I reference my two principal mentors regularly

    One was famous, John Gardner, founder of Common Cause, author and Secretary of Health Education and Welfare (HEW) in Lyndon Johnson's Cabinet, a time of great social change. I had a chance to write about his contributions and leadership on his centenary at a commemoration at Stanford.

    The other, while not a household name, was a master institutional architect and designer. Jack Conway developed ’Conway's way of social change. Whether it was the labor movement, community organizing, fighting poverty or opposing the Vietnam War Jack was creative and effective. I told him that many times.

    Both men are with me to this day.

    Now I have the pleasure of seeing people I have mentored carry on efforts of social change.
    Getting older has its virtues especially since I can still practise trying to create just and equitable and democratic societies.

    David Cohen,
    Washington DC,
    February 2, 2013

  3. #3 Peter Berger 01 Feb 13

    Very true Mari, I too was part of that journalism course and enjoyed and learned much from Sadhan. I did not take up journalism as a career but I still use what he taught us about organising a news report when I teach my students about newspaper report writing. He was a gentleman and a scholar who made a lasting impression on all of us.

  4. #4 Beulah kaushik 02 Feb 13

    such a sweet story, reminded me of people who shaped my life. We tend to forget them.
    Good memories Mari.

  5. #5 Aloke Surin 02 Feb 13

    Not all of us who crowded around Sadhan da, sometimes in the ghostly glow of petromax lanterns (thanks to Calcutta's erratic and undependable power supply in the 70s),went on to wield the quill and pen to make a living. However,certainly each one of us learned a lot through Sadhan about the real world beyond our academic confines. We also learned to develop a critical eye when scanning journalists' reports and articles, to identify bias, to sift through sheer propaganda and to appreciate the power of media. Thank you Mari for paying a long overdue tribute to someone who certainly inspired you to go down that long and difficult road of championing seemingly lost causes and crusading tirelessly over the last few decades for social justice and social change. As Merlyn has commented, you are indeed the living proof that Sadhan da did succeed!

  6. #6 Ludwig Pesch 03 Feb 13

    A joy to read and reminiscent of the committed teachers I had or knew in India over the years in my own field, music: never keen on quick success, always reaching for something higher than what was expected from them or their pupils. (I know, this sounds so dated today - like ’old is gold’?!)
    But it's your pieces that hold the promise that among youngsters, everywhere, similar choices continue to be made; that in search of professional perspectives, ’integrity’ isn't a vague notion but worth a personal sacrifice; and this for a greater reward than mere recognition or career opportunities, a reward that needs not even be mentioned.
    I find this reassuring and yet another good reason to keep reading your blog, just as the NewInt magazine as a whole.
    Let me add here that we still buy it in Amsterdam: there's just 1 outlet, and we want to make sure it stays available there by spreading the word among friends and colleagues. Great issue again this month, with compliments to the editorial team too!

  7. #7 Puneet Dhar 03 Feb 13

    We.enjoyed reading about him! Hope he realizes that you realize his worth and what a direct and indirect success he has been!

  8. #8 Leslie 03 Feb 13

    Mari, exceptionally well written (as usual). Thanks for doing this long overdue piece. I was fortunate to spend some time, lunch, coffee and dinner with Sadhan when he came over to Calcutta last year. Treasured memories! Yes, they don't em like that anymore.

  9. #9 jocelyn keyes 03 Feb 13

    Ah! your column brought back such memories. I did not take Sadhan's journalism class, but I remember him as being the very best quiz-master Calcutta had in the 70s. And who could forget JS - the first magazine that catered to teens. I wish him well.
    PS All of us thought he looked like Dilip Kumar too!!

  10. #10 Maureen Lobo 03 Feb 13

    You surely have made Sadhan proud by being and excellent student!

  11. #11 Stan 03 Feb 13

    I met Sadhan through Mari - and though we met only a couple of times I feel I know him very well because Mari would always speak of him over the years - the person that set her off on the journey of becoming a writer. Started her off with not just a set of skills but with values that go with being a journalist and writer. Having been happily married to Mari over 30 years I guess I owe a debt of gratitude to people like Sadhan who have contributed to her being who she is. So Sadhan THANK YOU! Its people like who give meaning to the word ’teacher’. May your tribe increase.

  12. #12 Mamta Chaudhry-Fryer 07 Feb 13

    Dear Mari, what a fine tribute to a fine person. As a teenager, I was one of Sadhan'€™s students as well and remember the excitement of getting my articles published in JS during his tenure there. Since then, in a career as journalist, teacher, writer, I have often thought of him--€”generous reader, uncompromising editor, inspiring mentor. An outstanding guide leaves one with outsize footprints to fill.



  13. #13 Sadhan Banerjee 11 Feb 13

    Guru? Never. We all had one guru. Gerard Beckers SJ. Insight was his idea. I was a mere facilitator who had a ball with some very bright kids whom I consider my children.
    If you read any of their writings, you will realise the world, certainly India, is poorer that Aloke, Leslie, Cheryl and the others are not professional journalists. Some day I will expand on this theme.
    For the moment allow me to let you into a little secret. Guru I was not but Cupid I was, quite unintentionally.
    I first met Stan Thekakara at a seminar in Dhayan Ashram in the mid '70s at which Mari Marcel was present,
    Stan and I were in animated debate about the the relevance of the English language in India and both of us were getting hot under the collar. I, quite innocent of any implications, asked him if we had to ’throw out’ people like Mari just because they were English-speaking. Stan's short reply was ’Yes’.
    The rest if for Stan to tell, with a little help from Mari

  14. #14 Stan 22 Feb 13

    Wow! Sadhan what a memory! I don't remember the incident but it was at a time when everything was black and white - the joys of youth and inexperience.

  15. #15 mari 23 Feb 13


    Your memory is indeed amazing!! I'd forgotten this totally till you reminded us.
    Well the arguments were good and generated a lot of heat..though not the cupid-kind!!
    And we both went our separate ways and didnt see each other for years till end 1980....
    but perhaps your journalistic assignments left a long lasting imprint..because you sent me off to Chaibasa on my first serious story and I stayed in Stan's hut..(though he was in Bangalore then!!) who knows!!!! the Chaibasa story certainly left a serious impact on me, my thinking etc...and created a political link between me and Chaibasa...and all the people there..

    so it was not the end of the Insight story!!


  16. #17 Satyajit Chakraverti 02 Aug 14

    Hi Mari

    Good day!

    It was nice reading your blog. IThe stirred few moments I cherish.

    I am a cousin of Mr. Sadhan Banerjee and last met him when he visited our home at Kolkata in 1998/ 99. I have faint though pleasant memories as a child of attending his marriage. For me it was a novelty for it was the first Christian marriage I attended. And of visiting him in his flat just above Jimmy's Kitchen. He was amongst the favourites of my mother. I have misplaced his contact details and would be grateful if you can forward his email address to me as also kindly convey mine to him. He was a pioneering quiz master too and created the 'North Star Quiz Contest' which was sponsored by his later employer Bata India. Looking forward


    Satyajit Chakraverti

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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