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Remembering Samar Sen: Frontier editor's dignity, courage a beacon in today's times

The annus horribilis is almost over, so too the birth centenary of Samar Sen. A study in contrasts if ever there was one, the cacophony of the former contrasted with the quiet, unceremonious observance of the latter.

Just as he would have wanted. He wasn’t in the least amused when, in 1985, his admirers brought out a book in his honour, The Truth Unites: Essays in Tribute to Samar Sen. They [the contributors to the volume] would’ve done better writing for Frontier instead, he’d grumbled.

Samar Sen

Samar Sen

Yes, I can imagine the puzzlement on your youthful faces. Samar Sen who? Well, that’s a very valid question. Who was Samar Sen? A poet or a Kolkata intellectual? An activist or a journalist? All of the above or, simply, an inspiration — a man who lived by the principles he believed in?

He was of course a poet, an exceptional one at that. A brilliant student of English literature, he wrote his poems in Bengali, but then that was the age when educated Bengalis were truly bilingual, as conversant with English as their mother tongue.

Samar Sen was only 19 when his poems began to appear in prized magazines and not only took the Bengali literary world by storm but grabbed the attention of the greatest of them all, Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, whose kind words were indeed remarkable as Sen’s verses marked a distinct departure from the Tagorean gharana.

Whether in form or syntax or diction, Samar Sen heralded a new age in Bengali poetry. Verse in prose, that was his USP, marked by day-to-day colloquialisms which was till then unthinkable in poetry, an urbanity that was wholly novel, a tongue-in-cheek, biting wit that was unprecedented. Samar Sen was a sensation in his twenties.

Barely 10 years down the line, he gave it all up and stopped writing poems altogether. He never explained why. Pressed, he would dismiss the whole topic as unimportant, irrelevant, even “boring”. Yet, his poems, written in the 1930s and early '40s, resonate even today.

He had lost faith in the power of poetry to change society, it was said. A line in one of his last poems, ‘Janmadin’ (Birthday), written in 1946, reads: “Romantic byadhi aar rupantorito hoy na kobitay” (The romantic disease no longer transmutes into poetry).

Déjà vu, you say? Brings to mind this year’s Nobel laureate in literature, does it? Why not? Except, Sen did not, like Bob Dylan, just give up one type of verse for another, he gave up verse altogether.

Poetry’s loss was journalism’s gain. This he practised in English, in newspapers like The Statesman and the now defunct Hindusthan Standard, as a contributor to the Economic Weekly (Economic and Political Weekly since), finally as the founder editor of two weekly magazines, Now, launched in 1964, then Frontier, which he started in 1968 and devoted the rest of his life to.

It was as editor that he made his mark. Now, with its eclectic array of writers ranging from Nirad C Chaudhuri to Satyajit Ray to “I am a communist not a gentleman” Ashok Mitra to a merry band of journalists who toed the line in their day jobs in mainstream publications but let it rip here, soon gained a reputation for sparkling writing and incisive analyses on anything and everything under the sun.

The times were with Now. India was in a churning, the writ of the Congress was faltering, the Communists were a rising force, Calcutta was still the epicentre of creativity, politically, socially, culturally. The need to make sense of the somersaulting world was acute, team Now’s ability to do so boundless.

But the colour was decidedly pink. Humayun Kabir was not amused. Now was his brainchild, it was he who had made his gifted student, Samar Sen, the editor. But he was a true-blue Congressman too and could not stomach his journal “promoting the line of some anti-national groups”. The letter informing the editor that his services were no longer required came in December 1967.

Samar Sen decided to strike out on his own. Frontier was born with meagre funds, his own and his friends’, and remained (still remains) the primary source of its sustenance. No big bucks but full freedom to publish and be damned.

In the '70s, especially during the Emergency, Frontier was almost the only source for stories of police excesses, extra-judicial killings, the Naxalite movement and its brutal suppression, of the pulls and pressures, the debates and divisions within the Naxalite movement itself.

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Tumultuous times indeed, the new magazine was far more political. Described as “a Calcutta weekly of very crimson political views,” it was accused of being ultra-radical by the ruling establishment.

Yes, Samar Sen was a Marxist and never shied away from saying so. It laced his poetry, it guided his journalism. But he belonged to no party or organisation, was never ever partisan. He never lost faith in a new India bereft of exploitation and petty divisions of religion and caste but did not look to the organised Left to make that happen.

He remained unimpressed when the Left Front government stormed to power and swept most of Bengali intelligentsia off their feet, he frowned upon the excesses of the far Left too. If the CPI(M) accused him of being a Naxalite, the Naxalites declared “The three Fronts of the ruling classes are Frontier, Eastern Frontier Rifles and Frontier Gandhi.”

Samar Sen lost his illusions about Communists in power early. He’d spent five years in Moscow from 1956, as a translator in the Soviet government’s translation of foreign literature department. It purged him of all romantic notions of the Bolshevik mission of creating “a new society and a new man”. Instead, he got a taste of the Soviet censors who were not amused at the write-ups he’d sent to Indian publications from there.

But Samar Sen was more than the sum of his varied talents. As the Times of India noted when Samar Sen died in August 1987, around the same time as two other stalwarts of Indian journalism, Ramesh Thapar (editor of Seminar) and GK Reddy (resident editor of the New Delhi edition of The Hindu): “For Samar Sen, unlike for the other two, Doordarshan newscasters will not read out encomiums… His milieu was far removed from the glittering court of the powerful in New Delhi. His was the radical, lonely, though never shrill, voice of Indian society calling out from a small circulation paper (with a limited but a devoted band of followers) which never compromised either in its views or in its search for financial support.”

It is the memory of his unshakeable integrity that still brings a warm glow to those who knew this thin, frail, soft-spoken, unassuming, self-deprecating man. And why it is so important to remember him now. He was not, by today’s standards, a successful man; he was, by the standards of any age, a hero, a quiet but resolute defender of values and principles he’d made his own.

His lifestyle was simple, even austere. He earned a pittance, especially in his Frontier years, lived in a dank, ground-floor flat in south Kolkata, used public transport, the gentle, leisurely tram being his preferred mode of transport. But he bridled at any hint of charity.

So much so that he preferred to think small even in his public life. Printed on coarse newsprint, Frontier was (and still is) a designer’s nightmare. His more worldly-wise friends did volunteer, more than once, to raise funds for a glossy, but Sen demurred. He knew there were no free lunches, more investment would come with its own bill that he was not ready to foot.

As MJ Akbar wrote in the aforementioned festschrift, “A very simple sentence can sum up Samar Sen: he is not a fraud in a time when the world is crawling with that species.” Yes, the minister of state for external affairs in the Narendra Modi government was an ardent Sen loyalist.

Of course, it was a different Akbar, a different Kolkata, a different India. But would Sen have disowned today’s Akbar? Maybe not.

True, he had written a scathing poem (‘Jai Hind’) on the suppression of the 1946 RIN mutiny by the British in collaboration with the Congress, sparing no one, not even Sardar Patel, the BJP’s current mascot. The “Sardar’s reprimands made the railings of the park shiver...” wrote Sen about Patel’s denouncement of the rebellious naval cadets.

But Samar-da was not judgemental. He never preached, never tried to impose his point of view on anyone. He was cynical but not bitter. He’d smile his disarming smile over his glass of rum and gently tell his acolyte what he’d told his friend Ashok Mitra when he became finance minister of the first Left Front government — he’d made a grave mistake and would regret it. (Ashok Mitra left abruptly after six years.)

Akbar going over to the dark side would pain him though. Secularism was one of his core beliefs. But he never made a song and dance about his principles. He resigned from the Hindusthan Standard (part of the ABP stable and precursor to The Telegraph) because of the naked communalism engendered by the owners but his resignation letter merely cited “personal reasons” and not lofty issues of journalistic ethics.

His weapon of choice was sardonic wit. My favourite: a report he filed from Moscow on a campaign flagged off by Khrushchev encouraging academics, writers and artists to engage in some productive manual labour. That way, the campaign insisted, the quality of intellectual work would also improve. “Personally,” wrote Sen, “I am for the new scheme. In the Calcutta school I went to, polytechnical training was compulsory and for four years I laboured at carpentry, weaving and dyeing. The result has been most fortunate. I can sharpen my pencil with a blunt knife, thanks to my knowledge and practice of carpentry.”

Quiet fortitude, that is how he faced the Emergency too. He did not want to shut shop as that would have meant unemployment for his small staff. Nor did he submit any matter for pre-censorship, accepting the full risk of any subsequent trouble. Sales dwindled, he decided to forego his salary, making do with what he could earn by writing for bigger houses. That is how his memoirs, Babu-Brittanta or Babu’s Tale, got written.

Sen had a very realistic sense of the constraints, both institutional and personal, within which he had to practise his journalism, and instead of railing and ranting against those constraints chose the option that would best allow him to meet his obligations as well as follow his professional calling with dignity, self-respect and truthfulness.

He’d be the first to scoff at the idea, but at a time when the state wants to throttle critics by dubbing them anti-national and corrupt, when loud-mouth boors dominate the journalistic firmament, when culture is seen to be for losers, remembering Samar Sen’s dignified courage of his convictions is not just a nostalgia trip but an essential civic duty.

Updated Date: Jan 01, 2017 08:23 AM

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