How To Define An Intellectual

An Encounter with Samar Sen

Tarun Ganguly

A man with integrity and courage of conviction is a rare commodity. It is true everywhere and perhaps more so in West Bengal where run of the mill school teachers, theatre actors, minor poets or pretentious translators of foreign plays pass off as intellectual. To my understanding an intellectual is a person who refuses to bend with every passing wind. A professed non-conformist who casually ignores allurements for a better living should be considered an intellectual who undergoes poverty and humiliation to stand by his conviction. Samar Sen is the only person in my experience as a journalist for more than 40 years, who was an intellectual in the true sense. If he had agreed to bend a little in his capacity as editor of ‘NOW’ funded by Prof Humayun Kabir, or later ‘Frontier’ be would not have to die in poverty or misery.

I will not go into details of his position as an outstanding poet or editor since others will write about that. I cannot claim to have been very close to him as a journalist or an acquaintance. But I will fondly remember that it was he who brought me into this profession. To elucidate the matter, I will take liberty from readers to narrate my experience with him more than 50 years ago. After my post-graduate studies, I was restless about what to do. By the age of 25, I had worked as a school teacher, a factory hand, a trainee at a multinational corporation and lately at a central government office. My elder brother Shymal was with the Anandabazar Group. He realised my predicament and introduced me to Arun Bagchi, then a senior reporter with the now defunct Hindusthan Standard. Arun Babu told me that he would take me to Samar Babu’s room and that was all, as Samar Sen abhorred recommendations. I was practically shoved into a dimly lit cubicle in the news paper office. Samar Babu was dressed in a Hawaian shirt and loose trousers and a short man in a three-piece suit was seated beside him. Later I learnt the gentleman in the suit was Niranjan Majumder, noted columnist in the Statesman. He had also earned quite a reputation as a fantastic ‘‘word-smith’’ for his novelette Shetay Upekshita under a pseudonym Ranjan.

So much for the introduction. Samar Babu asked me three questions. First, ‘‘you have a job, why do you want to leave it?’’ I replied—‘‘I don’t like it’’. He said ‘‘bah, bah!’. Second question : ‘‘Do you know shorthand and typing?’’ I said ‘‘No’’. The third question I don’t remember. The interview was over. He said, ‘‘You can join from tomorrow without any remuneration for a month. If you shape well, we will take you’’. That was all. I reported to the Chief Reporter (I will not name him). An elderly man, the chief reporter asked me, ‘‘What is your gotra’’? I said ‘‘Sabarna’’. Rather annoyed he wanted to know who was my godfather in the Organisation. I had none. Then he quizzed me. Who is the printer of Statesman, who was the publisher and the shortcut from Writers’ Buildings to ABP office?—he failed me on all counts.

But luckily for me, an American boy with his Japanese girl friend came to the office on third or fourth day of my new job. I was asked to do a story on them. It was Friday. I did the story and being sure that I will not be taken in, reported to office only on Tuesday. There was quite a fuss in the office. I learnt I had been confirmed with four increments as Samar Babu had liked my handling of the story. He was then the joint editor.

I have dwelt at length on myself so far. But I may say that it revealed, at least to me, Samar Babu’s resolve to cut through red tape. Thereafter, as a junior reporter, I had no day to day contact with him. But every morning he would scan the paper and make one line comment on the merits and demerits of every story.

The next incident I remember was his sudden resignation from Hindusthan Standard. It was about the 1964 riots in East Pakistan where Hindus were at the receiving end. The story was filed by a Canadian reporter of ‘‘Toronto Globe and Mail’’ from the Central Telegraph Office in Dalhousie Square. He had been to Dacca, but could not file from there, so it were through the CTO. One of Anandabazar Patrika’s correspondents got it from the CTO and gave it to Asoke Kumar Sarkar, the proprietor of ABP group, on Sunday. Samar Babu never came to office on Sundays, the report was published on Monday’s paper with ‘bazaar’ headlines. Samar Sen, though the joint Editor, had no knowledge of it, not had been contacted. He had repugnance for communal issues. Moreover, it was a question of ethics. He resigned forthwith. Then he had no other job or source of income. But he had the courage to stand by his conviction.

Since I am writing it at a time most of the dramatis personae are no more, I take this opportunity to admit my cowardice. After a few years I was with The Statesman, posted at Midnapore. Probodh Moitra, a friend who used to write for Samar Babu’s paper told me to write a series of articles for the magazine on the naxalite situation in Debra and Gopiballavpur. I refrained from writing lest it harmed my career, because by that time I was married and had a child one-year-old.

My last encounter with Samar Babu was some time in the ‘80s of the last century. M J Akbar, my editor in the Telegraph, asked me to locate Khushwant Singh, the noted writer and editor, who was attending a party in Salt Lake. I got hold of Khushwant around 11 in the night and reached Akbar’s place in Ballygunge, for a night party he had arranged.

The party was almost over. I found Akbar with a frail Samar Babu in a shirt and dhoti. He smiled at me, patted me in the shoulders, and asked, ‘‘How is Life’’?

That’s all. My impression about Samar Sen is that he was a man of few words, rather bold in demeanour, but mentally strong enough to stick to his principles. Come rain and sunshine.

Vol. 49, No.13-16, Oct 2 - 29, 2016