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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 31 New Delhi July 25, 2015

The Unsung, but Not Unmourned, Death of a Journalist: The life and times of Pradyot Lal

Sunday 26 July 2015, by John Dayal



One can’t see memorial lectures in his honour, nor medallions at convocations in schools of journalism. Some would say he wasted his life. He was not a celebrity. And most young contract workers in the print and electronic media of today would perhaps have not even heard of Pradyot Lal who died earlier in July. But one has to be careful that a requiem to him does not become a dirge on the death of honest, critical, romantic journalism where truth still matters and the ordinary person is still important even if he, or she, is not a unit in the market.

Pradyot Lal was that kind of a journalist, among the breed who entered the profession just in time to see the passing away of the generation of editors who had reported the freedom struggle, or perhaps had participated in it. Journalism of integrity, courage and conviction is not a contagion one can contract by contact or shared editorial space. If anything, it could survive after the Emergency of 1975-77 only in the insularity of inner strength. Pradyot, bred in a family of immensely talented siblings, an alumni of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and specially of its Library, retained his innate shyness but flowered in the editorial environment provided to him by the Patriot newspaper, now long defunct. That is where one first met him, part of an immensely exciting group of young men and women who wanted to use the written word to explore the times, and document the powerful and the powerless. In Patriot and later for a decade or so in The Asian Age, as reporter, feature writer and leader writer, Pradyot brought precision, veracity and intelligence in deciphering developments and critiquing the social and political discourse. His editors knew they could trust him as much on the quality of the content, as on his ability to meet the deadlines, often unreasonably short.

Among the generation that was the first to switch to the personal computer for its writing, Pradyot was slow to espouse the social media. When he did, his friends were surprised that he never mentioned anything political in his posts on Facebook. His wife and fellow-journalist Manjula, also a JNU person who he first met not on the campus but in the editorial offices of Patriot in Link House, explained the reason. Writing on politics was his day job. Social media became an outlet for his other loves, the music of the golden age of Hindi cinema, from the 1950s to the mid-1970s when poetry and music married, and cricket when the straight bat of a Salim Durrani or a Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi explained the meaning of style and grace of the game. He was, of course, a personal friend of the two. He googled hard and long to find rare photographs of Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, alone and together, and put them on Facebook in the dark hours of the night, to delight his friends next morning with a mix of history and nostalgia. Snatches of a song or that rare photograph of Yusuf Khan spoke of painstaking research.

Not surprisingly, the man faced life with a straight bat too, whatever googly it served him in the 35 or so years he worked, dodging deadly blows with a smile. He went away as suddenly.

Pradyot Lal would have liked the intimacy of the memorial meeting for him on the rooftop of the office of the Delhi Union of Journalists in New Delhi’s Shankar Market. The hooting from shunting railway engines interrupted colleagues and friends —and many were the rare combination of old colleagues who remained close friends over the decades. They celebrated many things about him, his skills with the English language, with the processing of information, data and developments, with making sense out of contemporary politics. But the lump in their throat was in the recounting of his humour, gentleness, his civility, and his decency. All those will be missed.

The author is a senior journalist, human rights activist and member of the National Integration Council.

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