Dileep Padgaonkar went very much the way he lived his life, quietly and without any fuss. To say that India has lost one of its most sparkling journalistic talents is to diminish his many talents and the myriad dimensions of his personality. For me, this is a huge personal loss as we have been friends virtually all our adult lives. We got particularly close after I began working with him in the Times of India, first putting together the Sunday Times of India and then as Resident Editor of the Times of India in the early nineties, but our friendship which began well before lasted till his all too early exit from this world on Friday, November 25, 2016. He was my closest friends and a great mentor to my sons.
For those who did not know him or know much about him, he began as a cub reporter at the age of 24 in what was then called the Pune Herald. Over a “couple of stiff ones” of an evening he recalled his great scoop that traced the antecedents of one Dr Stephen Ward to Pune. Ward was a key figure in the celebrated “Christine Keeler” sexcapade case that brought down the government of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1963. The scoop brought the then sensational Blitz weekly to Dileep’s doorstep, in the shape of one Captain Colabavala investigative journalist par excellance who eventually parted with a 100 rupee note, a princely sum in those days and now once again in high demand. He told me: “My old school friend Farook Dhondy found out and we first drove around in Colabavala’s ship sized American convertible astounding Poonaites all round and then proceeded to drink and eat our way through most of that 100 Rupees.” That was Dileep all round.
After his doctorate from the Sorbonne in June 1968, he joined the Times of India as its Paris correspondent, from where he chronicled the epoch-making May ’68 Movement that spread swiftly through all of Europe---East and West. With a few years between us and then unknown to each other Dileep and I were witness to a world in joyful ferment often with tragic endings be it anti-Vietnam war protests worldwide or Naxlaites being shot dead in fake encounters in India.
Dileep took off from Times of India to serve a stint at Unesco (1978-86) --- first in Bangkok and later at the HQ in Paris. A close aide to Unesco’s colourful secretary general, Amadou-Mahtar M’bow, he was instrumental in setting up the controversial non-aligned newspool much despised by some Western powers and embraced warmly by newly emerging nations.
He returned to the Times of India in 1986 and became its editor two years later. As editor, he presided over what was arguably India’s finest editorial team, representing viewpoints that encompassed virtually every conceivable political, economic and indeed philosophical angle. The Times saw great changes in this period including the introduction of the Sunday Times, a second section covering lighter areas and so on.
Dileep and some of us left the Times in 1994 in a restless search to do something of our own and that naturally in journalism. We did a lot of television for Doordarshan in our early days as a fledgling media venture. We had adventures galore producing a breakfast show in Kashmiri with Kashmiris in Srinagar. The adventures continued in Nepal and Mauritius with three newspapers in English, Nepali and French. A Legion d’Honneur (France’s highest civilian award) he floored everybody in Mauritius with his many different accents in French. With a pretence of contempt on his face he told me the French-speaking “aristocracy” in Mauritius were nothing more than provincial Bretons who fled during the French Revolution and never returned long enough to acquire the unparalleled (for him) qualities of modern France. He deliberately spoke to them in the slang spoken only by people in Paris.
Dileep was twice selected to examine the issues affecting Jammu and Kashmir, once in a team headed by Ram Jethmalani when Atal Behari Vajpayee was PM and later in 2010 in a three-member panel of interlocutors. Sadly the recommendations of the latter which entailed full-fledged devolution of powers, especially financial, right down to the Panchayat level all over the state, was not implemented either by the UPA government nor the present BJP-led one. But then that’s the way of all governments.
He and I along with others set up our own independent media venture in 1994 and it was his presence that saw us through difficult days. The success of our venture is a testimony to his efforts and inputs through all these years.
I have rarely come across anyone with such a vast and eclectic taste in reading. His fluency in French meant he could read most of the original works of France’s great thinkers in their language. He was a personal friend of some of the greatest thinkers of our time like Andre Malraux, Isaiah Berlin and Claude Levi Strauss. His friends among academia, the world of film, gastronomy and politics are too vast for me to enumerate. His knowledge of music too was stupendous. His ability to mimic in a variety of languages and accents used to keep us in stitches in our evenings all over from Delhi to Kathmandu to Rose Hill in Mauritius and Bangkok in Thailand! My colleagues and I were the privileged few who enjoyed the wit and humour of Dileep Padgaonkar, a rare honour since oftentimes he maintained a poker faced solemnity before the outside world.
One of the things that bound us was a common love for food. Dileep was ever in search of that elusive recipe and it was his plan to create a map of India based on dals, achars-murabbas and papads, similar to the wine and cheese maps of France. Food was a subject which fascinated him and about which he would speak with rare eloquence. For a man who had eaten at the high table of the finest gourmet chefs in Europe, he could be remarkably simple in his taste on occasion. Much of our time before we visited each other would be spent on discussing where to eat to which Dileep would add his dazzling knowledge of the right wine pairing.
Writing on someone with whom I had made many plans, most of them impractical but enjoyable to discuss, like buying land on an island in a river in Goa and waking up to the bicycle bell of the daily fish seller is the most painful task for me on this most difficult of days in my life. Dileep was a raconteur extraordinaire and his stories enthralled his peers and juniors alike. His vast knowledge of Hindustani classical music, he was a fine singer, and intimacy with the Vedas earned him unlikely admirers across the globe. Yet, he was a secularist to the core, a person who understood the real meaning of Hinduism so unlike the interpretations by so-called scholars we hear and see today. He had a magnificent sense of humour and his seemingly laconic manner hid a deep concern on a gamut of issues ranging from the rise of the far right across the world to the growing alienation of Kashmir against which he fought so hard to be heard.
Both journalism and public life had a lot more to gain from Dileep Padgaonkar but that is not to be. I can see him in my mind’s eye, ever the Francophile, with his jaunty beret and omnipresent muffler, sometimes replaced by a Peshwa pagdi or a Rana topi, his favourite books clutched in one hand. Well Dileep, au revoir till we meet again drink in hand, song on lip and mischievous glint in eye!
Anikendra Nath (Badshah) Sen is chairman, Asia Pacific Communication Associates and a senior journalist