Veteran journalist MB Lal, who passed away in New Delhi on November 2, just one month short of his 91st birthday, was widely acclaimed as a super-duper newsman, editor, commentator, columnist, author and much more. But if there was a million-dollar competition to pinpoint just one word that describes him best, the winner would be: magician.
Yes, Lal Sahab — as he was fondly called by his colleagues at The Statesman during its glorious years through the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s — was a magician with words, a naturally gifted wordsmith who cast his magic spell over readers with amazingly effortless ease. He plucked gems out of his good old Olivetti typewriter just as wonderfully as a magician would pull a rabbit out of a hat.
A little over five years ago, he and I were chatting on the telephone. He was in full flow sharing memories from years past. Just before we hung up, I said how wonderful it would be if he put down on paper all those stories — and indeed, many more from his colossal memory bank — in an autobiography. “And,” I added, “I’d buy the first copy of your autobiography whenever it comes up.”
All I heard in response was a playful chuckle, but very soon I had a surprise consignment delivered to me by courier: a brand new 300-page book by MB Lal titled Going Back To Gettysburg: Autobiography Of A Corrupt Indian. Inside the book was an even bigger surprise, a page titled “Dedication”, and below it, in fine print: “To my friend Yash Paul Narula, who planted in my head the idea of writing this book by his casual observation that if I were to publish an autobiography he would buy its first copy. With one assured buyer of his eminence I thought the project was worth pursuing.”
And no, I didn’t have to buy the book. The very first page after the cover announced — in his clear, crisp handwriting — “The First Copy to Yash Paul Narula with compliments from MB Lal”. As magical as that!
I joined the editorial staff of The Statesman in the summer of 1967, a full 52 years ago, when it was the most respected and renowned newspaper in town. As Lal Sahab’s colleague and his friend for half a century, what I remember most about him is his utter simplicity, sincerity, decency, modesty and grace. Much older than me, he extended his hand in friendship towards me with a heartwarming smile. Over the years, our bonding grew by leaps and bounds.
He retired from The Statesman in 1988. I left Statesman House as News Editor in 1991 to take charge of the Delhi edition of The Hindu. But we kept in touch over phone and e-mail and never once did he allow any “generation gap” between us to affect our equation in any way.
This is because, remarkably, no such term as “generation gap” existed in his dictionary. Even in his advancing years, he was always in tune with the times and way ahead of Generation Next in toying with new-age marvels of technology, from iPhones to iPads and much more. Much before computers came into vogue in India and Indian newspaper offices, he prevailed over the top brass of The Statesman to go in for its first computer. As cool as that!
The only occasion I remember finding Mr Cool excited like a 20-year-old was when he rang up one midsummer afternoon. He was in his 70s, going into his 80s, and he called me to share the news — surprise, surprise ! — of his “invention” of a low-cost, ice-cooled air conditioner, an offshoot of his irrepressible flair for the unusual. Thanks to his unwitting tip-off, The Hindu was able to go to town with an exclusive story splashed across its feature pages, complete with pictures, graphics and colourful insights into the making of what eventually came to be called Snowbreeze. The next morning, he had a CNN squad knocking at his Press Enclave residence in New Delhi for a full-length TV documentary.
The Snowbreeze story, of course, was just another of countless exclusives flowing from this thoroughbred professional. Back in his working days at The Statesman, he would churn out one exclusive newsbreak after another. During his innings as the newspaper’s Special Correspondent in Chandigarh, he came up with so many exclusives that his by-line became a daily feature on Page 1. And so powerful was the cumulative impact of his stories — both hard, hot news, and soft, cool human interest features — that The Times Of India and Hindustan Times found themselves forced to rush not one but several seasoned correspondents from various bureaus across cities for emergency deployment in Chandigarh to somehow match the non-stop bombardment by this one-man army!
It was no different when Lal Sahab was posted to report from Uttar Pradesh. Such was the sweep and speed of his reporting that we in the Delhi newsroom took to calling him “Lucknow Mail”. This Lucknow Mail always arrived on time and always loaded with steaming hot cargo.
Very much like his news stories in real-time, Lal Sahab’s own real-life story of climbing the professional ladder, step by step, to the top is fascinating. In his own words in his autobiography, he recalls: “I still remember the night in the winter of 1953 when Ravi Shankar Shukla, Chief Minister of what was then the State of Madhya Pradesh, came out to the portico of his official bungalow in Nagpur to see me off after an interview. He was a stalwart of the freedom movement. I picked up my bicycle parked near where we were standing and rode back to my newspaper Nagpur Times, three miles away. I had a one-room house in a chawl and used to sleep on the floor. I took my breakfast of pakodas and tea at the subsidised office canteen and had my meals in dhabas. Most journalists then were only slightly better off…”
“By contrast,” he continues, “the bungalow I lived in 20 years later in Lucknow as Special Correspondent of The Statesman had been occupied by Nehru’s sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit when she was Health Minister of Uttar Pradesh in the cabinet headed by Pandit Gobind Ballabh Pant. It was a high-ceilinged corner mansion spread over a one-acre plot facing Lucknow Zoo. It had three large lawns in one of which some peacocks had made their home. The lawn was covered with trees and situated on elevated ground. There were nine servant quarters and two garages. The kitchen itself was the size of a modern flat with a huge chimney. Every bedroom had a fireplace with a mantle piece. So had the drawing room which was large enough for a conference hall. Every bathroom had a built-in porcelain tub. The house had two large studies, verandahs on all sides, and a gallery opening into every room. Obviously built in the late Nineteenth or early Twentieth Century for a British advisor to the Governor, its tree-lined driveway alone was about 200 feet long…”
Through his three decades at The Statesman, Lal Sahab wore many hats — Staff Reporter, Special Representative, Development Correspondent, Political Correspondent, New Delhi Bureau Chief, Editorial Writer, and so on. And friend, philosopher, guide and mentor to more than one generation of journalists. So intense was his passion for his profession and so mesmerising his way with words that his writings and he will always live on.