Comrade, are you listening? I am keeping my promise made to you a few months ago. Like most of the evenings spent with you, there was nothing unusual about that evening when you made me make this commitment, though, I must add, we both did not take it too seriously then; it was one of the many things we talked about nonchalantly.
I was learning this “survival skill” from you and, in your own words, I was learning it fast. That evening, after a couple of drinks and singing a few of your favourite oldies, you suddenly became serious. It was quite unlike you. People who know you can vouch that the word “serious” figured in some forlorn and forgotten page in your lexicon. “I don’t think I would last another four-five years,” you said. I was stunned for a few seconds, but then I noticed that mischievous glint in your eyes. We both started laughing. “If that happens, allow me to write your obituary,” was my reply to your quip.
Chief, the least you could have done is to give me some more years before I could fulfil my commitment. Wish we never had that conversation. And wish you were here with me, guiding me on how to write an obituary for someone we loved and admired and looked up to. Surely, to sum up in an obituary what you meant to us all — your friends, your family, your colleagues, your critics (there are hardly any) — would be almost impossible.
Comrade, did you ever realise that you were an institution in yourself? Thirty-five — an age-barrier that, as we lovingly pointed out, 80 percent of Tehelka staff has yet to cross — was the number of years you had put into journalism. I vividly remember how seven months ago, when I began my second stint at Tehelka after six years of working elsewhere, you were the first one to walk to my desk and extend your greetings. With that one act you won my heart and earned my everlasting respect. That was typical Pradyot Lal. A gentleman to the core. A journalist devoid of any false pride. A writer who knew only too well that he was untouched by the kind of narrow-mindedness that is a typical foible of many a journalist who has spent a few years in the profession and grabbed a few bylines.
You always shrugged away praise and, confronted by it, would always steer the conversation to some other topic. Yet, let me tell you this: Ask any young Tehelka staffer — all of them were your favourites — and they will insist that you made a lasting impression within the first few minutes of interacting with them. These youngsters found it almost unbelievable that something akin to Google — the saviour of 21st-century armchair journalists — was in the newsroom, breathing, moving and “exuding nervous energy” (that is how your wife Manjula described your restlessness).
In the past one year Tehelka has been through many highs and lows. We functioned and delivered with the bare minimum resources and, through the thick of it all, you stood rock solid behind the organisation and the people it was made up of. Your childlike keenness to be at the forefront of dealing with any challenge would always be an inspiration.
And how can one fail to mention the colourful life you led. Your friend and our former colleague Harish Nambiar got it just right when he described you in these words: “Pradyot Lal, the remarkable busybody, a frugal bon vivant of the educated proletariat and erudite journalist. His obsessive love of cricket and Dilip Kumar was a contagion few escaped.” I couldn’t agree more. Your love for music, cricket, Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar, Tiger Pataudi (the list is endless) was indeed “contagious”.
Frequent were the times when in the midst of frenetic work to meet pressing deadlines, we would suddenly start a conversation on some old movie you loved. You would explain some nuance of how you remembered the film, in a way that only you could, and we would listen mesmerised.
And comrade, there is no need to dwell on something all your avid readers are only too familiar with: your felicity with words and the distinctive turn of phrase that made your lines sing. But there is something that most of your fans would not know if they have never been in a newsroom with you and here I take the liberty to mention it. You were indispensable as a last resort in any situation where words had to be strung together into a coherent piece at the last minute and there was too little time for research and so no one else would dare attempt it.
My only grievance with you is that you chose to keep your share of woes forever close to your chest. There was something unfulfilled and yet to be achieved that always bothered you. And sometimes, even during lively conversations, we caught a fleeting glimpse of that ache inside you. You wanted to do so much more than you have done. The last time we met, I asked why you don’t write a memoir. “If I do that, I would have to keep away from the mainstream media for a while. I don’t want people to forget me during that period,” you said.
Comrade, were you serious when you said people might forget you? I am sure that was your last joke.