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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 10 New Delhi February 27, 2016

Tribute: Kewal Varma

Sunday 28 February 2016

by Sankarshan Thakur

Kewal Varma, the veteran journalist who led The Telegraph’s team of reporters in New Delhi through the tumultuous 1980s and 1990s, passed away on January 25. He was 84.

Kewalsaab was a guru. Kewal Varma rings wrong, he was forever and for everyone Kewal-saab. For those of us who had the fortune of apprenticing in his shade, his passing is the opening of a void that won’t be filled.

I came to this tribe of ours callow and quite collegiate in 1984. Delhi’s Indian Newspaper Society (INS) building was a forbidding portal, roving with the profession’s eminences. Among them was this striking likeness of Michael Foot—darting eyes behind professorial glasses, a mop of snow-white hair, an air that told you this man knew things you didn’t.

Kewalsaab’s great and salient quality was how ever-ready and willing he was to share his accumulated richness with anyone willing to receive it. Some of us from a different generation got extremely lucky.

Unlike most editors of his time, Kewalsaab never believed in sitting moated from mortal reporters in his ivory tower; he came to you with

an energy you wouldn’t normally expect of a portly white-haired elder. But then you wouldn’t expect a man of that description to walk into office in white sneakers. It didn’t matter if he was in grey flannels or a pin-striped three piece, he only ever wore white sneakers. “Keeps you active,” he’d say. “On your toes.”

He walked to and back from Parliament each day that it sat, he would often make more than one sortie a day. And each time, he’d return with

either a crackling anecdote or a provocative idea. Few people were as proactively and consistently engaged as he. “Khabar kya hai? Ho kya raha hai? (What’s the news, what’s happening?)” he was forever asking, forever willing to hear.

Except when he donned those leather ear muffs to shut himself off the permanent clamour of The Telegraph’s bureau room to write his piece, there was never a dull moment around Kewalsaab. When it threatened to get dull, he could be trusted to fire things up. One afternoon he said something so outrageous, a junior colleague picked up a Remington portable and flung it in his direction. She missed; Kewalsaab ordered gulab jamuns from the canteen to douse her anger. There was a time when so many young ladies populated Kewal-saab’s bureau, someone cheekily stuck a bill on the entrance to The Telegraph offices. It read: “Kewal Mahilaayen”.

When V.P. Singh was rallying the Opposition against Rajiv Gandhi on the Bofors issue, Kewalsaab thought it an alarming moment. He knew he was running against the prevailing political temper but that barely seemed to bother him. Blind anti-Congressism, he would tell us to exasperation, was a bad idea for India. “You don’t realise it but such politics will eventually strengthen communal forces, it is not about the Congress or Rajiv, it is about what a weakened Congress will unleash.”

In his departure, those words echo eloquently today. Kewalsaab never thought much of V.P. Singh’s politics—“phukre hain”, bunch of losers. But he had emotional investments in the Left, and he appeared deeply disappointed the Communists “don’t realise the perils of what they are doing by pitting themselves against the Congress“.

To many it seemed an overblown analogy to make, but when the Babri Masjid was demolished in December 1992, Kewalsaab called it Gandhi’s

second assassination. “This is another death blow to the idea of India... it will be an uphill task to recover from this.“

He was obdurately unwilling to be persuaded he was wrong. It cannot be Kewalsaab ever tuned off the world around him, even in what had become a reclusive retirement. It cannot be he went away pleased his dire prophecy had begun to ring right.

(Courtesy: The Telegraph)

The author is the Roving Editor of The Telegraph daily, Kolkata. He was among several journalists mentored by Kewal Varma.