Mainstream, VOL LV No 19 New Delhi April 29, 2017
Sunday 30 April 2017
by Kumar Ketkar
Culturally and socially, Govind Talwalkar was a quintessential middle class Brahmin, who grew up in Dombivali, then a small town in the Thane district, close to Mumbai. In the 1920s and even till 1950s, it was an extended village, or a potential urban centre. Proximity to Mumbai was a kind of association of Dombivali to modernity. The town had some well-known Marathi writers and poets and playwrights, like P.B. Bhave, S.N. Navre and others. Against the backdrop of Brahminical ethos and frugal lifestyle, the town did not have a grand library with lot many English books of literature, politics and science. There was surely a good library but it mainly had classical Marathi literature.
It is necessary to understand this ambience in which Govind Talwalkar was intellectually evolving. There was little in this atmosphere to introduce him to Shakespeare and Shaw, Dickens and Trollope or Tolstoy and Tagore. To get English magazines was almost impossible. But The Times of India and The Free Press were available. Generally a loner type, he got hooked on to these newspapers and the classical Marathi literature from a local library. His uncle was a writer, so the culture of reading was there in the family. But later in his life he became a sort of living legend and well-known connoisseur of books. His personal collection of perhaps nearly 25,000 books on European history, literature and biographies could have matched with that of Sham Lal, another legendary editor of The Times of India. No wonder, they were friends.
He was 22 years old (born in 1925), when independence came. The message of the Mahatma and the image of Pandit Nehru had virtually mesmerised him. In his childhood, the only inspiring paper was Kesri, of Lokmanya Tilak. After Tilak’s death (1920), the baton was in the hands of N.C. Kelkar, whom young Talwalkar considered as the best editor with a flair for language and style. However, Talwalkar remained a “Tilakite” and often followed his style in his writings. Tilak, Gandhji, Nehru were the “Trimurti” who could not be criticised. He was a confirmed atheist and a sort of iconoclast, but this “Trimurti” was like mortal replacements of gods!
Being a voracious reader and interested in politics, as a young person he came in touch with M.N. Roy. Roy was a Marxist-turned- radical humanist and had an elite intellectual circle in Mumbai. Talwalkar began to attend his talks and study circle meetings. That is how he was introduced to Marxist polemics and developed fascination for the Russian Revolution and European communism. As exposés of Stalin’s brutal rule began to appear in the Western press, and a new intellectual class of anti-communists started writing how their “God had failed”, Talwalkar started following that line.
He had joined as sub-editor in Loksatta, in the late forties, whose editor, H.R. Mahajani, was a leading Royist and confirmed anti-Soviet journalist. Mahajani initially groomed Talwalkar, journalistically and ideologically. Though Talwalkar became anti-Soviet, he never con-demned Karl Marx, nor did he disown Nehru, despite Panditji’s pro-Soviet line. Talwalkar always believed that Nehru’s secular liberalism and commitment to Indian plural nationalism was genuine and it was the only way forward for India, and therefore his foreign policy should be seen in that context.
After a little over-a-decade with Loksatta, he joined the newly planned daily Maharashtra Times, of the Times of India Group. The editor of the MT was D.B. Karnik, another Royist comrade who was close to Y.B. Chavan. Chavan had just started emerging as a man to reckon with at the national level. Nehru had invited him to take the position of V.K. Krishna Menon (1962) as the Defence Minister. Chavan himself had come from the Royist school and hence the camaraderie between Mahajani, Talwalkar, Karnik greatly influenced the political journalism of these three.
Govind Talwalkar’s journalism cannot be understood without taking into account this politico-ideological ethos. Even his scholarship, love for books and intellectual debates stemmed from this charged environment. In the last two decades, this politico-ideological journalism with scholarship has been replaced by market-sponsored and advertorial journalism. Govindrao (as he was fondly called) could not have lived with this new consumerist-hedonistic media.
He retired and in the mid-nineties left for the US, where he lived with his two daughters. But really speaking, he had not retired even at the age of 91, when he passed away on March 21. When he left for America, he was 70 and for the next 21 years his output was much, much more than he could have given if he was here. What is more important to note is that he kept a very close watch on political developments in the country and keenly followed the cultural and social issues in india in general, and Maha-rashtra in particular. In fact, he was perhaps the only journalist who read all the contro-versial files about and of Subhash Chandra Bose.
He had condemned the marches, the hyper-debates about Bose and Nehru and the politically motivated arguments in Parliament.
The RSS, the BJP and Modi are out to destroy the legacy, image and philosophy of Pandit Nehru. It is necessary to protect that legacy if we want to keep our integrity, unity and sovereignty, he used to say every time he phoned from there. Modi’s politics is taking the country on the path of destruction and unfortunately the media is too complacent, he felt. The print media has lost historical memory and the television media thinks history is irrelevant and that is a tragedy. The philistine debates on the channels, here or even in the US, annoyed him and he preferred to read than watch channels.
Generally he did not like America, except for the fact that the country had fantastic libraries, huge collection of books, efficient retrieval systems and very cooperative library staff. Yet he kept on buying books, from regular shops as well as from special library sales. His most favourite journals were The New York Review of Books, literary journals and supplements of the US dailies and of course the London Economist. Just before he passed away, he wrote a booklet titled Dickens and Trollope, both his favourite authors. Though he wrote mostly in Marathi, he was a frequent contributor to English language dailies in India.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that he brought the European intellectual debates to Maharashtra and the truly informed and enligh-tened Marathi intelligentsia. In the seventies and eighties, he was the intellectual icon of the middle class. But as he used to say, now the intelligentsia is intellectually and culturally corrupted. It has lost its moorings. He thought till the end that it was his moral and cultural responsibility to keep the renaissance-liberal flag flying. He surely tried his best.
Though he belonged to the pre-computer and pre-internet era, he was the most regular reader of the Indian media on the net and in fact used to be ready with all the news and comments, even earlier than we all here, given the time difference. In fact, he was the first journalist in Mumbai (perhaps India) who began to use the computer soon after it came to media offices. Perhaps that was the reason that he supported Rajiv Gandhi, even when the latter came under Opposition attack. He had a kind of fatherly affection for Rajiv and when he heard the news of Rajiv’s assassination, he was totally disheartened. He also believed that Rajiv would take forward the Nehruvian legacy. Rajiv’s death for him was like “end of personal contact with history”. He would often describe in great detail when and how he first saw Nehru. That was in the thirties, and from that time till 1991, he had seen Indian politics and personages very closely. Though he kept in touch with Narasimha Rao and Dr Manmohan Singh, he had lost that warmth when Rajiv died.
He began to lose faith in the political progress as the Narendra Modi phenomenon began to catch up. He used to phone almost everyday to ask and hope that the Modi momentum would lose steam. But that did not happen and Modi became the Prime Minister. He had seen the Nehru era, the Indira years and the brief Rajiv period. He had seen the mass sentiment at the time of partition, had witnessed the catharsis after Gandhiji’s assassination, he had lived with hope and idealism after independence with Panditji as the Prime Minister, he was a close bystander to watch the turbulent Indira years with the tragedy of the Emergency, followed by the chaos called the Janata rule and the come-back of Indira. Her murder, as he wrote, forced him to sympathetically reconsider her politics. He lived with all that, but the rise of Modi he could not reconcile with.
He was not a political activist, though he was active in political journalism. No wonder, he had close friends like Nikhil Chakravartty, Kuldip Nayar, Sham Lal, R.K. Laxman, Inder Kumar Gujral and so on.
He did not have a very large circle of friends. P.L. Deshpande, Madgulkar brothers, playwright Jaywant Davi, publisher S.P. Bhagwat, cricketer Madhav Apte formed his circle. His best friends were in the nineteenth century—Mahadev Govind Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and of course Lokmanya Tilak. He wrote books about them. Indeed he could write over 25 books, despite his voracious reading. That is because he never spent time partying, playing, or going for public speeches or to TV channels. He enjoyed being alone with books and hence never lonely.
Though he spent his last twenty years in the US, his heart always throbbed for England. He would have preferred to take his last breath there.
The author is a veteran journalist in Mumbai; he has now retired after many years in political journalism. He was in regular and close touch with Govind Talwalkar till the latter’s death last month in the US.