Surendra Nihal Singh, who died in New Delhi on April 16, was my first editor at The Statesman in what was then Calcutta, and it was also my first job in a profession which I grew up to adore, an adoration that turned into a passion. And which many decades later still exists and excites me – much like a teenager on a first romantic date. Yes, indeed, the newspaper journalism of the mid-1970s – with its Linotype machines and galley proofs – was romance all right, the romance of words and headings that Mr Singh nudged a wide-eyed fresher like me into.
He was tall, handsome – his pipe adding to his debonair good looks, which were impeccably matched by his suave mannerisms, his faultless English diction and a kind of gentleman politeness which I have rarely seen in any other editor. And I have worked with quite a few.
Out of St Xavier's College and with a political graduation degree – a subject I had then thought would get me an easy passage into a newspaper – I was ushered into Mr Singh's impressive room that stood at the end of a breathtakingly beautiful marble floor-way. His genial smile and his extremely pleasant body language at once pushed my nervousness away.
“I know” he said in his clear voice, “your father worked here for 22 years, and I would like to recognise his services to The Statesman by waiving off your six-month training period at the desk. Instead, I would like you to work for 45 days as a trainee without pay, at the end of which you would be placed on probation”. It was a great opportunity for me. Indeed it was.
And I worked at The Statesman at 4 Chowringhee Square for a decade, the first several years of that under Mr Singh's illuminating editorship. Many years later, I would reflect on one significant aspect of my years at The Statesman. It was a paper, where men like Mr Singh and Deputy Editor Lindsay Emerson helped me to literally learn English. True, I had all along been to so-called convent schools and later St Xavier's College – where I spoke in English, wrote in English. But those 10 years at The Statesman desk as a Sub-Editor helped me master the finer nuances of a language which the British gifted us with.
And a whole lot of this credit goes to Mr Singh – who tirelessly, day in and day out – marked the paper every morning, circling the mistakes. He had this rare ability to say whether it was a slip made by the reporter/writer or the Sub. If there were too many mistakes, he would summon the man concerned, but would never chastise him. “You can do better than this”, he would say. “Try harder” would be his parting words, full of hope, full of encouragement.
Six months into my assignment at The Statesman, I – with Mr Singh's encouragement and Mr Emerson's as well – started writing features, book reviews and Calcutta Notebook snippets. The good things about The Statesman was that it paid for all that a Sub wrote, because it was not part of his job. This was one of the noblest things that Mr Singh introduced.
Also, he was singularly instrumental in revamping the hitherto neglected newsroom – or the room back and beyond anybody's fancy, the reporters/writers grabbing all the attention. Mr Singh made the newsroom important and told us all that Subs were the last line of defence between the paper and the reader.
Mr Singh, who would have turned 89 in the next few days, was at the National Heart Institute, and this may sound strange, but I called him over his mobile phone not realising that he was unwell. He answered my call, and told me that he was ill and that he was in the hospital. “There is water in my lungs, and they are trying to get that sorted out” he said, his voice still strong and unwavering. “I will call you when you are back home”, I said. “Please do” he replied. But that was not to be.
Probably, the last of the editors, who believed in keeping intact a wall between editorial independence and business, Mr Singh was a fighter, who saw The Statesman through the dark, dark days of the Emergency. He was the only editor, as far as I know, who never compromised when it came to his profession. He left The Statesman (which he had joined as a cub reporter in New Delhi), The Indian Express and The Indian Post (which he founded), because he had differences of opinion with the proprietors. He would never let go editorial independence. His last assignment was as Editor of The Khaleej Times, and years later after I had left The Statesman, I kept in touch with him, walking into his spacious flat close to Asiad Village in New Delhi or into his office at The Indian Express or the Khaleej Times in Dubai. Every time I met him, my passion for righteous journalism got a boost, and this was so necessary in the kind of times we now live and work – where the ethics of journalism are no longer a priority. Mr Singh taught me this early on in my career. He taught me the value of time and space – and the great importance of balanced view.
Above all, he taught me and many of us that a world existed outside our wells. “Read your own paper, but also read other papers” , he would say. A great line, a great view.
(Author, commentator and movie critic Gautaman Bhaskaran began his journalistic career under Mr S Nihal Singh at The Statesman in Calcutta)