Journalist and author Arun Sadhu, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 76, was in a way himself like a sadhu, in the best possible sense of the term. He began his career writing about iconic revolutionaries Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, and then went on to make a big name for himself in Marathi literature and in English-language journalism. Yet he remained a simple, utterly unassuming, self-effacing man all his life.
He maintained a low profile even in death. He breathed his last in the municipality-run Lokmanya Tilak hospital in Mumbai, better known as Sion hospital. After his body was brought to his home in Patrakar colony in Bandra, it was moved back again to the same hospital as he wanted to donate it for medical research.
I knew Sadhu for over 40 years, starting with our days together in the Times of India in Mumbai in the 1970s. Political reporting was his forte and he was quick to impress Sham Lal, then editor of the Times. This was really no mean achievement because Lal was a highly erudite, no nonsense, hard to please, but simple, sandal-wearing journalist with a wide range of interests including Marxism, art and poetry. So even as a reporter Sadhu found himself writing the prestigious main edit page article, the ‘5,6,7’ as it was called.
But talent in the Times of India did not mean a reward by way of promotions or a better salary. The management was niggardly for the not so privileged. It was different for those from privileged backgrounds, who became assistant editors almost straight out of college, even without any experience in journalism. Among the exceptions in this category of privilege was Dileep Padgaonkar – who joined as assistant editor, but then he had earlier written articles for the paper, even when he was a student in Paris during the romantic days of the student revolution of 1968.
Thus, even the brilliant writer Behram Contractor, who wrote the highly popular comic column ‘Busybee’ in the then Evening News, remained a reporter and finally left the Times in 1978 to start the successful afternoon paper Mid-Day. Sadhu left at the same time to join the Statesman, which was a big name then and where he could have more freedom.
There was a common link between Sadhu and Padgaonkar. Both got together to introduce Dalit Marathi literature to English-language readers through translations in TOI. Padgaonkar was much smarter. Sadhu was too much of a simpleton and too independent minded to be at ease with the management. Padgaonkar passed away last year and now Sadhu is gone.
Most young journalists in those days were struggling, first-generation migrants in Mumbai, living in paying-guest accommodation in the city. Sadhu lived for several years in a housing board tenement in downmarket Kurla before he moved into Bandra east. But Kurla was where he met and cemented a close bond with several other struggling but highly-talented young journalists like Ashok Jain and Dinkar Gangal of Maharashtra Times, the Marathi daily of the Times group. These three, along with Kumar Ketkar, then in Economic Times, and a few others formed a pathbreaking organisation Granthali, a readers’ movement and book publishing organisation which reached out far and wide to readers all over Maharashtra. It quickly made an impact with some excellent socially-significant publications including Dalit writer Daya Pawar’s acclaimed autobiography Balute. Their favourite haunt of discussions was an Iranian restaurant called New Empire Irani near the majestic Victoria Terminus, where one could sit for a long time over cups of tea. New Empire restaurant is now a McDonald’s.
Journalists and writers like Sadhu derive their strength not only from scholarship but leg work, and moving among common people and not just among top-ranking politicians. I remember the enthusiasm with which he climbed up and down the challenging Raigad fort in 1974 to cover the tercentenary celebrations of Shivaji. After the difficult trek, he was back at office promptly to produce a good report. And even while Sadhu covered the state legislature and mantralaya, and had very good contacts with politicians, he also regularly met shoe-shine boys at Kurla railway station and wrote on their lives. This sensitivity informed all his work.
His surname intrigues many and he was seen as a Dalit. But he came from a Brahmin family from Vidarbha and that makes his commitment to the cause of Dalits and the Ambedkarite movement significant.
Power never intimidated or impressed Sadhu. This was due to his philosophic outlook and his ability to see through the façade of authority. When he was elected to preside over the prestigious annual Marathi Sahitya Sammelan in Sangli, he stood up to political interference. As protocol for the then President Pratibha Patil was tending to overwhelm the literary proceedings, Sadhu chose to keep himself away from the ceremony, shunning all limelight. Imagine doing this when many of us would strain our necks forward to figure in the frame for a photograph with a VIP.
There was always a universal view of life in his creative writing, while it seemingly dealt with day-to-day ordinary life. So his first novel Mumbai Dinank (Bombay Dateline) of 1973 opens with a description of Mumbai’s landscape and a day in the life of Aiyar, the chief reporter of a daily newspaper, who was modelled on B.S.V. Rao, the bachelor chief reporter of Indian Express in Mumbai who had a peculiar sense of humour. His brother Sheshagiri, with a similar temperament, perhaps too light for a serious journalist, was chief reporter in the Times of India.
Vijay Tendulkar was another journalist turned major creative writer. Tendulkar wrote the screenplay for the film Simhasan (Throne), a highly-engrossing political film directed by Jabbar Patel in 1979 and based on Sadhu’s novel of the same name. At the end, the reporter protagonist of the film loses his sanity and he runs out screaming because political life has become so unbearable and debased. Now, nearly three decades later, it would be even more difficult for a sensitive journalist to remain sane.
For a man who wrote not only on Che and Castro but also on the Chinese and Russian revolutions, apart from Indian politics and culture, there must have been an intense ferment within. Without that one cannot write with so much rigour and passion. Yet outwardly he remained absolutely composed and while he remained strongly with the Left and liberal forces, he never belonged to any political formation. That was as it should be. It is necessary to preserve one’s freedom even while being strongly on the side of the common people. Charles Dickens, the great 19th century writer, had never met Marx, his contemporary in London and was not in that sense political. Yet as Marx himself pointed out, Dickens made more impact than several revolutionaries put together could.
Sadhu had translated the Telugu revolutionary poet Chera Banda Raju’s poems. It was obviously the immense human content of such writing, not the philosophy of violence, that influenced Sadhu. In his impressive collection of books in his drawing room I saw last week, the most prominent writer was Leo Tolstoy, the big dad of the novel.
The film Simhasan contains a very inspiring and popular song written by Suresh Bhat. ‘Ushakkal hota hota kal ratra jhali (We were waiting for the dawn, but instead a dark night has descended on us)’. It is time now to to light our mashal, our torch, to remove the darkness. Sadhu’s writing provides that light of hope.
Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and the author of a book on the importance of public transport.