A reporter with curious queries

Ian Jack allows shifting perspectives from different points of India’s recent history to reflect in his writing.
By Devina Dutt

First Published in The Hindu on 30th July 2013.

Ian Jack’s book Mofussil Junction has the crackle and unpredictability of new places and unexpected situations as well as periods of quiet. This is the pattern that makes a reporter’s life, but Ian Jack brings empathy as well as distance and an unobtrusive intelligence to the business of travelling and writing.

Ian Jack arrived in Delhi in December 1976 towards the end of the Emergency. It was a subdued start to nearly four decades of writing about India. Right from the moment he landed, he started noticing things, forming impressions, and allowing everything — the smell of disinfectants in the corridors and lobbies of hotels, Mrs. Gandhi’s photo behind the concierge at the Claridge’s Hotel in Delhi and the slogans “Be Indian Buy Indian” — to percolate into his writing.

Preparing the ground for interplay between fact and impression, he allows shifting perspectives from different points of India’s recent history to reflect in his writing. Writing the prologue in 2012, he remembers there were fewer cars on the road than today. For a traveller from the West it was clear that not only was this “a poorer country but also a more austere one.” His writing has a wonderful openness and an absence of the more practised journalistic devices and defences. As he points out, he realised early on that India was a “rewarding place to practice the habit of curiosity...”

The book is divided into sections, but the reports in each are put together without any chronological order. The disorderliness of a reporter’s travels, and the subtexts of each experience are intact and become part of the reading experience.

Visiting Serampore on the banks of the Hooghly near Kolkata, he retraces the legacy of that Northamptonshire shoemaker turned missionary, William Carey. Carey had turned the settlement into a home for his band of English Baptist missionaries, setting up a college, a library as well as botanical gardens. But there is also a contemporary perspective to his report. He meets an old man, a converted Brahmin, whose briefly revealed uncertainty at the end of his life is moving. In contrast there are the steady rhythms of the Knorr household, a Baptist missionary couple who live and work in Serampore at present.

In search of Orwell

Jack’s travels and encounters feel somehow more real, lacking the homogenised worldview of reporters operating in a more globalised world. He goes to Motihari in Bihar looking for traces of George Orwell who was born there. He shifts his gaze to the East India Company and its history of poppy cultivation and storage all along the Gangetic plains in towns like Motihari. Once again history becomes lighter and more immediate even as he unflinchingly describes the entire episode as the “greatest pieces of double-thinking in the last 200 years which laid the economic foundations of the British Empire in India”.

There is plenty of humour too and an enjoyment of comic detail. Still looking for Orwell he meets two stock characters from an Indian small town, an advocate journalist and a zamindar and gun dealer with many paans between them.

“Who is this writer?” asked Professor Singh.

“Gerorge Orwell. He wrote a famous book called 1984.”

“John Orville ... he wrote a book about next year?”

But ever the fair reporter, he adds that probably 0.1 per cent of the people of Bristol would have heard of Raja Rammohun Roy though he was buried there.

When British film director David Lean decided to blast some ancient granite rock formations between Bangalore and Mysore to make a cave for the film he was making on E.M. Forster’s, A Passage to India, Jack was at the shoot. The eminent film director was then 76 and irritable. There are deceptively mild descriptions of his white Mercedes coming up the dusty roads, the bottled water, meat pastes and tinned kippers imported for the crew. All of this is mixed up with Lean’s troubles with the director of mines and technology. The shoot was controversial for other reasons too with actor Victor Bannerjee disagreeing with Lean’s attempt to increase ‘the Peter Sellers’ input’, as Jack reminds us delicately.

He is there to cover Chandra Shekhar’s Bharat Yatra in 1983 when Indian politics had started to become irreversibly cynical. As a guest of G.D. Birla in India in the same year, he is sent a Dakota to fetch him to the Birla Institute of Technology where he is treated as a VIP. There is real warmth as he recalls his friendships with Sham Lal, the former Editor of The Times of India in whose home he was a paying guest for a year and R.P. Gupta a writer and collector from Kolkata who could “shame Europeans with neglected corners of their own cultures”. There are also encounters with Osho, a young Benazir, Ruth Prawar Jhabvala and Nirad Chaudhuri.

In Night Trains, he writes luminously of past journeys. The decline of the gracious BNR hotel with its Anglo Indian menu in Puri that he first visited in 1983 is a sign of a new India in 2008, filling up with the tinny sound of Indian consumerism, but it is a point softly made.

There are portraits too of Indira Gandhi, Sanjay, Rajiv and particularly the Emergency, which make for disturbing reading today. In 1977 he travelled through Uttar Pradesh speaking to small farmers and teachers about their disenchantment with the Congress. The tone becomes darker in his reports on the Bhagalpur blindings of 1980. During the Sikh riots of 1984 he is in Delhi and reports Hindu mobs watching indifferently as the southern suburbs of the new rich go up in flames.

Unsteady People, in 1989, is a report on the low-grade corruption which has ceased to be news in India. Jack meets Mr. Bachcha Singh, the steamer tycoon of Bihar after an accident involving his steamer had killed 400 people. But it is his portrait of the tycoon’s son, ‘ferry profits having dispatched him to the United States when he was an infant’ which is an example of marvellously suggestive writing. The junior Singh is studying business administration at Princeton and Jack says, “his language crackled with the abrasive nouns of the new capitalism ... cashburn, buyout...”

This collection of reports offers the main facts of the story with perfect judgment every time. But it is Jack’s ability to stray away from the centre and allow additional perspectives to filter through his writing and simultaneously to withhold judgment but be present in all that he writes that make him an exceptional reporter.

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