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In praise of Govind Talwalkar — a great editor every city, state in India needs today

For editors of his time in Maharashtra, Talwalkar was a model and exemplar. Yet his legacy speaks to editors outside Maharashtra, and to our own time too

columns Updated: Mar 24, 2018 18:25 IST

I never met Govind Talwalkar, but in the last decade-and-a-half of his long (and very distinguished) life I corresponded with him. This began with his writing to me about my biography of Verrier Elwin. He liked the book, but said I was mistaken in claiming that Elwin had a role in the making of the English edition of Mahatma Gandhi’s My Experiments With Truth. I had based my attribution on the translator, Mahadev Desai, saying in his preface that ‘from the point of view of language [the translation] has had the benefit of a revered friend, who, among other things, has the reputation of being an eminent English scholar. Before undertaking this task, he made it a condition that his name should on no occasion be given out’.

Reading between the lines, I thought this person must be Elwin. He was English, he was a scholar, and he was a close friend of Mahadev’s. Talwalkar, however, believed that the person who helped revise Gandhi’s autobiography was the Madras liberal VS Srinivasa Sastri. Would I, he now asked me, check again?

Some years later, working afresh in the archives, I found some letters between Mahadev and Sastri confirming that Talwalkar was right. For Mahadev had meant ‘an eminent scholar of English’ rather than ‘an eminent English scholar’. Fortunately, I was able to make the correction in the second edition of my Elwin biography, while also crediting Srinivasa Sastri with his help in the second volume of my Gandhi biography, which appears later this year with the name of the ‘late Govind Talwalkar’ gratefully placed in the acknowledgements.

Talwalkar died a year ago, in March 2017. Last week, on his first death anniversary, the magazine Sadhana held a meeting in Pune commemorating his life and work. A book of essays in Marathi was released on the occasion. In his native Maharashtra, Talwalkar continues to be held in high esteem, for his writings and for the contributions he made to public life over a 50-year period. It is even said that in the history of Marathi journalism, there have been two great epochs, the Age of Tilak and the Age of Talwalkar.

Talwalkar lived much of his life in Mumbai. He was deeply attached to his city and his state, and yet utterly non-parochial, with a keen interest in the rest of India and in the world. His books include histories of the transfer of power from British to Indian hands, of the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, and of modern political thought from Dadabhai Naoroji to Jawaharlal Nehru.

In the impact that his writings had on Maharashtrian society, Talwalkar has been compared to Bal Gangadhar Tilak. He would not been displeased by this, and indeed wrote on Tilak himself. However, he admired even more the Lokmanya’s fellow Punaikar Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Like Gokhale, Talwalkar was a social reformer as well as a patriot. He was keenly alert to the ills of Indian society, and to discrimination against women in particular. Notably, while absolutely fluent in English, the only book of his that he translated into that language was a biography of Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Talwalkar wanted to acquaint the Marathi public sphere with Nehru, Naoroji, Lenin and Marx; at the same time, he wished for Indians outside Maharashtra to know more about Gokhale.

For editors of his time in Maharashtra, Talwalkar was a model and exemplar. Yet his legacy speaks to editors outside Maharashtra, and to our own time too. There are three aspects of his work that command special attention. The first is that he was a man of ideas who simultaneously paid keen attention to ground realities. In Indian journalism today, we either have columnists who opinionate from their air-conditioned cabins or reporters who write from the field. Talwalkar was happy to encourage both kinds of writing. Until the end of his life, he closely followed developments in every single district of his home state.

Second, Talwalkar wrote columns, reviews, and editorials, but also books based on deep research. He was a scholar as well as a writer. (I am sure I was not the only historian to be profitably instructed by him.) He was a person of profound learning, and of wide interests (away from his desk, he loved gardening).

Third, Talwalkar stayed absolutely away from partisanship. He had opinions, ideas, views, even prejudices — but these would never be subordinated to party political positions. He was admired by his readers across the ideological spectrum, and feared by politicians across the ideological spectrum as well.

In a mail to me, Talwalkar once wrote, apropos some newspaper articles of his, that ‘the BJP are very angry with me. It does not bother me.’ At other times he wrote pieces that angered the Congress, Shiv Sena, and NCP. That would not have bothered him either. His independence was total; so also his integrity. To preserve both, he avoided socialising with politicians or going to parties thrown by them.

I know of a Mumbai editor of my own generation who combines all of Talwalkar’s best qualities: he is rooted in his city and state while being alert to the nation and world; he encourages good columnists as well as in-depth reportage; he has absolutely no party affiliation; and he writes serious books as well as popular articles. It would embarrass this editor were I to name him in print; suffice it to say that if every city, every state, had its own Govind Talwalkars, the Indian media would be in a far healthier state than it is at present.

Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Mar 24, 2018 18:25 IST