One of the forgotten figures of Indian journalism is a man named Syed Abdullah Brelvi. Google ‘SA Brelvi’ (as I just did), and all that comes up is a road carrying that name in south Bombay. The road was so named in a more enlightened age, when Mumbaikars were free, and willing, to praise those who were not Hindu, and not Maharashtrian either. For Brelvi’s contributions to his adopted city were of a very high order. Originally from the U. P. (as his last name indicates), he came to Bombay to find work as a journalist. In 1924 he was appointed editor of the Bombay Chronicle, which had been set up, a decade previously, as a nationalist rival to the English-owned Times of India. He stayed in that job until his death, eighteen years later.
The role of Brelvi and his newspaper in promoting the freedom struggle is documented in Milton Israel’s book Communications and Power. The Bombay Chronicle gave early support to Gandhi’s campaign against untouchability. It reported sensitively on the living conditions of the textile workers of the city. Like the metropolis of which it was part, the newspaper’s concerns were not merely political—thus its sports pages were superb, and it extensively covered the Hindi film industry as well.
Brelvi became editor of the Bombay Chronicle at a time when the freedom struggle was at a crossroads. During the non-co-operation movement of 1920-2 Hindus and Muslims, North Indians and South Indians, had all flocked to the Mahatma’s call. But now that unity was coming apart, with individuals returning to the comfort, and insularity, of the communities to which they had originally belonged.
As a patriot whose own life transcended his personal identity, Brelvi was particularly despairing of this trend. In an editorial published in the Bombay Chronicle on 26th May 1926 (and quoted in Israel’s book) he asked this poignant and still profoundly relevant question: ‘If a modern Diogenes were to hunt out for Indians with his lantern in these days, he would be sure to come across fervid Hindus, bigoted Muslims and fanatical souls deeply engrossed with the problem of tirelessly finding out how unjustly their own particular community was being treated, and he would have to ask in sorrrow: “Where are the Indians”?’.
I was reminded of Brelvi’s question when reading a letter recently published in Outlook magazine. The magazine had carried an obituary of that other freedom-fighter-turned-editor, H. Y. Sharada Prasad. The correspondent complained that the tribute had overlooked what to him was Sharada Prasad’s greatest flaw—namely, his lack of commitment to his fellow Kannadigas. In forty years of living in Delhi, he grumbled, twenty of those spent working with Prime Ministers, Sharada Prasad had never granted any special favours to those who spoke his own language.
What that correspondent saw as a weakness, some others had come to see as the deceased man’s singular strength. Born in 1924, Sharada Prasad was a toddler when Brelvi asked that question: ‘Where are the Indians?’. But from his days in high school until his death sixty-five years later, Sharada Prasad’s conduct was such as to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about his principal identity: This was an Indian. This did not mean that he was not attached to his own culture and traditions. Indeed, he had forgotten more about Kannada literature than that correspondent to Outlook had ever known. He had translated Shivarama Karanth’s works into English, thus rendering a far greater service to his fellow Kannadigas than he would have done by getting them government jobs or appointments with Indira Gandhi.
Sharada Prasad’s background was musical as well as literary. His father was a famous composer in the Carnatic tradition; his nephew is a leading member of the popular band, Indian Ocean. Sharada Prasad had a fabulous knowledge of Hindustani classical music himself. The greatest writers and singers of modern Karnataka—Shivarama Karanth, D. R. Bendre, Gangubhai Hangal, Mallikarjun Mansur, et. al.—had often stayed at his home, and partaken of his friendship and his wife Kamala’s hospitality.
Apart from his mastery of Kannada, Sharada Prasad was fluent in English, Tamil, and Telugu, and he knew some Hindi and Sanskrit as well. In his life and work, he deepened the ties that bound his own state to the states that bordered it, even as he more strongly embedded the South in the great if sometimes troubled country of which it was a part. This was a good Kannadiga who was a better Indian.
The quality of Sharada Prasad’s Indian-ness was beautifully expressed in a letter he wrote his parents on his 19th birthday. He was then in jail, as a consequence of his participation in the Quit India movement. The excerpts that follow are from a translation by Sugata Srinivasaraju:
‘Many did not expect my life to take this turn. However, inside me, I often felt that I would one day be a soldier in the freedom struggle. … Whatever pride I can justly corner for my new life I shall stake claim. But this pride shall not be misplaced or cause self-love. On the other hand it will only strengthen my sense of self-dedication….… When we met sometime ago, you had expressed concern that the environment of constant strife in the prison may have an adverse effect on me….On the contrary, I feel prison life has led me to dispassionately think about human nature and its various attributes. Through this I have begun to understand more clearly the greatness and importance of human decency and the devotion with which one needs to pursue it.’
Once he came out of prison, and finished his studies, Sharada Prasad went to Bombay and became a journalist. Later, he moved to Delhi, first to edit the journal of the Planning Commission, Yojana, and then to serve as information adviser to successive Prime Ministers. In retirement he began a newspaper column that acquired a devoted readership. Here, rarely spoke of his time close to power—rather, he wrote about literature and music and the arts, his knowledge made accessible and humanized by an understated tone and a self-deprecatory wit.
A friend of mine once described Sharada Prasad as ‘the thinking man’s Khushwant Singh’. The characterization was accurate as well as incomplete. For the scholarship was subordinated to an integrity of character and a selfless commitment to the country that he shared with his readers. This quiet, learned, dignified, and always decent man was, above all else, an Indian.
Published in The Hindu, 15/2/2009