Obituary: Anil Dharker (1947-2021)
Anil Dharker, who died early this morning, was one of the great liberal Indian editors. He was open to the most drastic of ideas provided it was reasoned and phrased well. And he had an astonishing capacity for suffering the often wayward revolt of youth
In The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene says despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible goal. Anil Dharker, who died early this morning (26 March, 2021) after a bypass surgery, despaired little, though he had many ups and downs in life. He worked at things as if things were there only to be worked at until they were overcome, and he did this with great aplomb. And though sensitive to the point of being touchy he worked at them without showing the sweat — or the blood. Anil had the style and form of a great boxer (consider Ali in the third round of his third match with Frazier, 1975) who took his punches, and then gave them back cleanly, when it was time.
I first met Anil in 1986-87, when he was the editor of Debonair magazine, in Bombay. His office was a narrow alley off Moses Road, Worli. He had taken over from Vinod Mehta, and he honoured Mehta’s legacy. The quality of both pornography and poetry, deeply connected if only as basic human expressions, further improved. Anil, an iconoclast in his own way, respected both. Some of the best writing of the decade would be found in the pages of Debonair; and some of the best pictures.
I had just joined The Times of India, which, even then, had a grid into which people and things had to fall; you were cast as lead and came out as types. While on the desk there, I wrote a piece about TOI editor Girilal Jain, then the last word in journalism, and his alleged connections with Reliance, whose chief was the late Dhirubhai Ambani. Anil liked the piece but said it was not a good idea to publish it. I would lose my job. Of course, I had not considered that the collateral for complete honesty in any career is the pink slip. There was no absolute free speech then, or now. And it has little to do with the government in power. The Girilal piece was the only one of mine that he ever rejected.
Anil moved on to Mid-Day, which was at that time was competing with The Afternoon Despatch and Courier, run by Behram Contractor, (whose light 400-word column, Round and About, wafted off the last page fresh as a sea breeze, day after day). Anil and Behram were friends (and I know no one who had such a talent for striking friendships). But the business was the business. Mid-Day was looking for writers, and I quit The Times to join them, and despite my impetuosity, learned much — in retrospect. Even then, though, I saw Anil was one of the great liberal Indian editors. He was open to the most drastic of ideas provided it was reasoned and phrased well. And he had an astonishing capacity for suffering the often wayward revolt of youth.
As with Debonair, at Mid-Day, Anil gathered around him a collection of great individual and sharply temperamental talents. Hutokshi Doctor, Jeet Thayil, honorary inmate Jerry Pinto, Meenakshi Shedde, (and occasional visitants like Ranjit Hoskote, who was just out of college but already an outstanding art critic), and a bunch of columnists, who pretty much said what they pleased.
Jeet had his columns, slugged Notes from the Margin. Anil’s was called Out of My Mind. Mine was View From the Floor, which later, when Anil joined The Times group (Sunday Review, The Illustrated Weekly of India, The Independent) metamorphosed into Low Life (pale imitations of Jeffrey Bernard’s great vodka-laced pieces in The Spectator). The columns were pretty much what the columnists lived, and everyone wrote thinking — almost hoping — no one read them. Except for Anil. He read everything and said nothing. How did he hold together these rather radical talents? By not trying to control them, I think. Also, he understood the historic and corrective value of the out-of-place.
Once, invited to an evening at his Malabar Hill residence (he was married to the poet Imtiaz at the time) in honour of a visiting British poet, I off-kilted the hour with indecorous questions, and later slipped out through a window that looked like a door, caught the last wrong train and spent the night under the yellow sodium vapour lamps of Kalyan Railway Yard. In the morning, I was pretty sure I had lost my job. When I reached the Mid-Day office at Everest Building, Bombay Central, Anil took me out for a beery lunch, and explained each dish in detail — he was an excellent culinary critic and considered food as a highly consumable art that occupied no space on a wall or a page. The evening before was never mentioned.
Anil was partial to single malts. But he never smelt of a drop. Except once. The day when he was fired from Mid-Day; when he returned after a long lunch, some of us close to him, showed him our support by tendering our resignations as well, an exaggerated act of solidarity redeemed then and now by an utter innocence of the dark moves a career demanded. I remember his eyes welling up, and I was faintly aware of the exotic smell of martinis (an American invention as perfect as the sonnet, HL Mencken said) laced with the fumes of his aftershave cologne.
Many artists and writers believe they must cultivate an image that they must live up to. It is both an inspiration to themselves and a reference point to others. That is how we become others and never quite ourselves. It is at once a going away and a coming back to the self. Anil, though westernized — his stay in England for his graduation in engineering must have helped — early on decided to project himself as a member of the literati in a cream silk kurta, which he could be seen out of only on tennis courts at the Bombay Gymkhana. He shaved close. His hair was coiffed, or that was the impression one had. He looked so much like a fairer version of Mithun Chakraborty, I would fleetingly think. Not so tall, of course.
Anil stuck to his image through the years, a western liberal intellectual clad in eastern silk, until the image became the man he was always going to be; a man tolerant of opinions other than his, a trait missing in these days of righteousness of all sorts, Right or Left. He had a sense of direction about him, and was perhaps aware of the high-destiny-in-the-guts feeling, as Norman Mailer said, of Muhammad Ali. Anil stood out, unmistakable in his persona, at the most glittering Bombay gatherings, at home on stage, with an aura about him that was somewhat lunar in its luminosity. He was an insider but articulated what might be often construed as an outsider’s views without turning listeners hostile. The Tata Lit Fest, which he founded a little over 10 years ago with the unfailing support of his warm and generous wife, Amy Fernandes, reflected his eclectic literary taste.
Anil was supposed to write an introduction to my forthcoming book of published essays, as he gave me my first writing break. I must skip that now. We tend to think of the dead, habitués of another world, in the language of the living. But those who are beyond no longer care to speak or be spoken of in the old language. Those who are bereft fall silent, all words spoken.So long, Anil.
CP Surendran is a poet, novelist, and journalist. His forthcoming novel is One Life, And The Many Lives of Osip B.