PORTRAIT OF A JOURNALIST – Naini Central Prison – 1942
– By Kanhaiya Lal Misra
“I am T . . . . of the N . . . . H . . . . “, he told me, without any introduction, without any warning. I must, in justice to him, say that the emphasis was on the `N . . . . H . . . .’ as much as the `I’. It was a breezy voice, full of pride for the paper he represented and full of self confidence. As if he meant to say “The H . . . . and myself together, at the next opportunity, would amaze the world that is now so skeptical”. I will not say that the pride was unjustifiable. After all journalistic pride has been known for papers far less worthy from the sea-ways of the gutter-press, for the mere castaways of the Fleet Street backyards. Here was a paper that was one of the accredited organs of the only national organization of a really great nation, resplendent in her past, glorious alike in her promised future. Anyone could be proud of such a connection.
But at the moment when he spoke to me so abruptly, and as I had afterwards learned, so characteristically, I only got a jolting sense of awakening. I had only been 24 hours in the prison. I had been rounded up one early morning and, without any preparation, bundled in a prison van. My neighbours not being certain as to whether I was an unwilling victim or a willing hero, had gathered around but had suppressed the usual cheery cry of `Inquilab Zindabad’, though it trembled on their lips. The hallow of martyrdom that, at least, surrounds such journeys, had entirely missed us. The prison bars, that now have woven a permanent and familiar pattern in wakefulness and in slumber, were then unaccustomed reminders of a bewildering loss of physical freedom. The absorption, then absolutely unaccountable, of those around me in the menu of the day and of the night, was no less bewildering.
I was sitting alone thinking of my child, whom I had left in a high typhoid temperature, and of the work I had left incomplete. In the innermost depths of my consciousness, there was hope, and even a confidence, that I would get endured to my life in jail, that the compensation of a novel experience, the certainty of carrying away a memory, that would be a land-mark in my life, would very soon bring to my mind a happy reconciliation, and would once more reawaken, to its usual activity, a mind that seems to be oppressed with the temporary opiate of the sense of loss of person liberty. But the first awakening again came unexpectedly from T . . . . I asked a day or two later, as to when he expected to be released and he told me, without the slightest hesitation, “When my government is in power”. I felt absolutely thrilled, not because the idea was a new one, the cold inexorable logic of facts would have compelled me to give the same answer, had I put the question to myself, but the voice in which he spoke was so unwavering, its tone so pregnant with confidence, that I was caught in the contagion of his enthusiasm and I felt that all was well with me, at once, that my life in jail was a welcome change in the panorama of my existence. I felt, instinctively, and with the force of a sudden discovery the real meaning of those lines that I had so often read:
And sad it is when prison – – – – – – – –
Keep watch between you and the stars,
But ‘twere better to be a prisoner for ever,
With no destiny to do or to endeavour,
Better life to spend as martyr or confessor
Than in silence bend to alien or oppressor.
But though T . . . . ‘s answer was full of the confidence that characterized the tortoise, when he stood in line with the hare, at the beginning of the race, and let us remember that the tortoise won the race, or of the confidence of Churchill, when after the Denmark catastrophe, he proclaimed the ultimate victory of the British arms, even though he had not won it yet, even the most casual observer could say that it is impertinence, almost habitual in its recurrence and constancy that makes his most outstanding characteristic. Impatient to know and impatient to express. Endowed with all the theory that makes for a correct pronunciation, conscious of the fact that, in practice, he is violating all that he knows in theory, it is amazing to see how he wheezes and splutters, when he is speaking, and how syllables, accents, and the letter sounds all fall upon each other, one dove-tailing into the other, into a vocal jigsaw puzzle, while the brain that controls his talk, leaps from though to though and the entire machinery of speech, the vocal cords and the larynx and the tongue are left panting behind. T . . . . will not accentuate his words, because he has not the patience to weigh them, he will not fully pronounce a word of five syllables, have found a vocal expression, he has already conceived of a dazzling word or phrase that follows later and rushes on after the beauteous freshness of the next. In fact when I spoke to him about this characteristic of his, and urged greater deliberation and slowness of speech, I have always been met with the reply, “What is wrong with me is my enunciation and not my pronunciation”. I do not know what that means, and I have never asked him its meaning and have consequently never understood it. I, however, know that the fault is almost incorrigible, unless, at some time later, age and experience have mellowed the haste and frenzy of the brain and enthusiasm for brilliance of expression, has been tempered with the feeling that it is equally necessary to speak with emphasis. The bacilli of the same disease are easily traceable in his handwriting. A page scribbled by him, at a distance, reminds you of the intricate patterns traced by the earthworms upon wet earth. He has the consolation that Napoleon Bonaparte had an equally bad, if not worse, handwriting, but most of Napoleon’s writing was done on horse back, be it the dispatches, the proclamations or his letters of Josephine. T . . . . is more constantly a horse, in his case, partly in the rearing hurry of a journalistic career in the modern world when promptitude and speed are far more valuable than the slow deliberation, with which Addison wrote so admirably in the pages of the `Spectator’, but it is mostly the galloping frenzy of his own ardent nature that delights in writing down, and thus capturing, a beauteous though, phrase, or expression, even though it might not be decipherable to others, or even to himself, at a later date. But the impatience that encumbers his pronunciation, or mutilates his handwriting has led him sometimes into scathing judgment of others and has bred a belief, entirely unfounded that he is a cynic by nature, and has a low opinion, in general, of his fellow men. In fact I have seen his lashing satire upon satire, while the innocent victim is writhing with discomfort. If you were to seek for malice in his condemnation of others, you will be searching for a needle in a haystack, when the needle is not there. But he prefers to be a cynic in a hurry than to be an idealist at leisure. The rapid generalization, based upon the apparent foibles of his fellow men is satisfactory, because it enables him to clinch the matter and to reach a conclusion at once. The slower analysis of individuals, that alone enables you to see the hidden good, would waste far more precious time. The mere love of brilliance repartee would evoke from him an expression that might otherwise have had a sinister purpose. A catching phase, an impromptu alliteration, would be hailed irrespective of its results.
This love of good expression is partly the result of the journalistic frame of mind with which T . . . . is saturated. Indeed he collects telling expressions and catch phrases as a Red Indian collects scalps. In a collecting mood, and given sometime, he could fill a museum with platitudes. It does not matter whether he picks them up from the gutter, or from the rose bush, laden with fragrance. Keen scented as the bee, he will flit like it, from aroma to aroma, with the hope that the quintessence of it all will be blended by him into transparent honey on some future occasion. A poem that can be aptly quoted on the occasion of a death, puts him in the contemplation of the future death of a social or political celebrity with the pleasant anticipation of an undertaker. Individual or collective catastrophes are judged by the occasion they might provide for the use of an epigram or stanza.
I have a suspicion that T . . . . has, at the back of his mind, an idea that the realities of life can be collected by an observation of the world around him, and all that he need go to books for, is to gather the expressions with which to cloth those ideas. His indifference, almost amounting to abhorrence, of all forms of novels or dramas, is based on a belief that, they consist of only made up stories and provide a second hand picture of life. He believes in books, in running brooks and sermons in stones. If drama had been defined as a mirror into life, he believes that he can look into life with greater advantage than look into the mirror. His attachment to biographies and autobiographies and the recital of historical events is again based upon a notion that they deal with realities, with things that have actually happened and are preferable to the imaginative lure of the novelist. To agree with him would be to undermine the foundation of what is best in any literature. The ever fresh spring of life, though often hidden in the odds and ends of Elizabethan gossip, that are to be found in the dramas of Shakespeare are any day more sustaining to the intellect and satisfying to the heart than the withered and decaying leaves that lie scattered, often in the dirty heap, in the corridors of time, and have been collected for purpose of exhibition by a fossilized brain. The picture of King Lear in the storm, of Othello watching the sleeping Desdemona in the fading rays of her bedroom candle, or even of Sam Walter in the witness box are far more real, far more poignant and instructive, than the autobiographical catalogue of idiosyncrasies of the greatest of men, who sometimes out of all senses of proportion, imagine, that their individual antics are as important to the world as they are to their limited lives. It must however be said to T . . . . ‘s credit that he has an uncanny knick of observation and a genuine desire for imitation of details. The mimicry of voice, gestures and physical movements and the parodies with which he delights his friends when he is in one of his hilarious moods, can only be produced by a keen intellect and minute observation. In spite of his imagined cynicism, he has an appreciation of, and even sympathy for the faults and weaknesses of others.
The way in which he wanders about the jail in defiance of all rules, is not based on any exemptions made in his favour by those in authority; it depends on the liking he creates in the mind of wardens. I have heard it mentioned that it is aided by a judicious and opportune distribution of tobacco and `biris’, and on promises of rewards and favours. But I do not believe that another person would ordinarily achieve half as much even with the aid of surreptitious baits. I have heard him threaten the Jail Superintendent, in a bantering voice, by telling him of the time when all would be called to account. This is because he has acquired the art of speech and gesture by which his threats are taken lightly and promises of rewards are taken seriously. He is undoubtedly aided by the fears of legitimate blackmail that an energetic journalist, who has a nuisance value, can always inspire. But beneath it all is the undoubted sympathy and consideration which he evokes in response and this makes disobedience easy for him.
Though in spite of his near ethnic tendencies of which I shall presently speak, T . . . . has taken to jail life with easy grace, his entire nature and being are opposed to physical confinement. It is sight to see him flitting from stool to stool, from barrack to barrack, and beyond the walls of the ward more than once in a day. He temporarily uses a room only to perpetuate his name. There is a gypsy strain in his nature. He probably belongs to the nomadic type that delights in daily and hourly change of place and occupation. His legs are incessantly active. If they are inactive, it is either the hand that is occupied in continual gesture, or his rasping tongue with words pouring out in a cascade of invectives. When he sleeps, I believe the brain still continues to work, and I have heard him receiving ands answering telephone trunk calls while he is apparently couched in repose within the confines of a jail mattress and cot.
It is fortunate for him that physical and mental impatience have not imperiled the receptive capacity of his mind. A journalist, of course, by the very necessities of his profession, must take delight in listening to others as much as talking. But an epigrammatic view of life, however, can not always adapt itself to the toleration that hears and continues to hear even when it differs. He hears you not only with parted lips, but, I believe with an open mind also. In fact if what you are saying is also news, his eyes are bulging out of his sockets. If he disagrees or hesitates, he only taps the tip of his nose with his right forefinger, but he does not interrupt you till he thinks he has got what he wants.
With all his cryptograms and hieroglyphics, T . . . . is essentially a man of moods and excitements. To excite and get exited is after all the essence of newspaper industry. The craze for news, as an antidote, to in break the monotony of a humdrum existence, is as old as the world even in an isolated nook of the world, far removed from the rushes of modern life, the wariest sleepy hollows has its busy housewives, engaged in gossips and scandals; and the dress of a country coquette and the amorous glances, slyly observed, by the village lad towards her, are discussed with the gusto with which we approach the flaring headlines of a modern newspaper. One is essentially an aid to the digestion of the morning breakfast as the other. The development of the printing press and the instantaneous transmission of news that electricity has achieved for us has turned an every day occupation into a specialized profession. In the seventh century A.D. T . . . . the journalist, would have been unknown, but he would have gone about as the bright lad of the village, creating troubles, provoking quarrels between peace-loving neighbors, making and breaking love matches and spreading an atmosphere of excitement, with or without any tangible cause. Placed in a harem, of course in this case he should have had to be a Mrs. Or even a Miss T . . . . , he would have made the life of any Turkish potentate miserable. His aptitude and capacity to excitement, is therefore, in perfect harmony, with the needs of journalism, associated with a modern daily paper.
The poet Keats is reputed to have covered his tongue with powdered paper to taste the delight of the sensation of pungent tickling that it created and Wajid Ali Shah in one of his fabulous stories, is said to have ordered several huge hanging candle brass to be dashed to the ground in order to enjoy the sound of chiseled and many coloured glass crashing against marbled floors. T . . . . could have done many of these things. Indeed, if my information is correct, the pungent `chatpattas’ rich in chillies, tamarind juice and curd were at once his greatest delights and his said occupation, when he was in his teens, a digestion, pampered in boyhood, with sweets of every variety, and the above mentioned `chatpattas’ of varying degrees of fire, was yoked with a brain, that was sensuous with out being passionate and the physical result has been near asthenia. It produces now in him alternate moods of excitement and depression. One day, and sometimes several day in succession, he will remain moody and silent, complaining of every possible noise after 9 pm and blaming the world in general for the rowdy elements it contains. Then the oil, bath which he takes every day, the sun bath, which is equally frequent, and the fruit diet, which he manages to get now and then, would take the upper hand. The clouds will scatter and sunshine of optimistic good feeling succeed. He will then become the rowdiest of the rowdies, the gayest, the happiest, and the most frolic son in the crowd. He would lustily sing all day, sing while he is eating, and sing while he is walking. A closed bath-room, especially in winters, has always been known to provide musical outbursts even in the most prosaic of persons. A closed bathroom not being available T . . . . must be given the credit for having found a substitute for his melodious exercise. If the story I have been told is correct, and I can not vouch for its correctness, the sweeper one early morning, paused, surprised and awestruck, at the suddenness and unaccountable burst of music from one of the latrines. It was only later that he discovered that the cause of the happy atmosphere, in such an unaccustomed place, was `T . . . . Saheb’. He was thankful that God had preserved him and enabled him to see and hear such devotion.
This excitement is at once the spice and the motive force of T . . . . ‘s life as I have seen it. Once he is in that mood, he is capable of the most brilliant intellectual and physical efforts. See him playing volley-ball at the center and at the nets. In a few minutes of his entering the court, the atmosphere and temperature has risen by several degrees. The volley and the placing of the ball on each side, have more heat in them than before. The players have suddenly become more active, and the fight for victory is grimmer. Every volley by him is preceded by a lusty shout that is as much aimed at improving his stroke as at unnerving the opponent. The game, while he plays, is propaganda and every miss a pillar on which success is to be based later on. Then all of a sudden he would discover the fluttering of his heart, a giddy sensation in his brain and like a meteor, unaccountable in its exit, he would pass out of the court.
Give him an occasion, and absolutely unprepared, he would astonish you with the amazing flow of his wit on any subject. He writes and speaks, when cool, on basis of his notes, but then is a king in borrowed gems purloined from the dusty cupboards of centuries. But give him an occasion and a mood, and he gives you his real self – undimmed by the doubtful reflection of a borrowed light. It is that T . . . . that I have liked best on the few occasions when I have the privilege of seeing him, his voice husky with ardour, his eyes shinning with merriment, laughter and gaiety. I have often wondered, if in a person of moods as he is, any romance in his present or past life, could have, or has left upon him any permanent mark. I have now and then a suspicion that a Beatrice has crossed his path and like Dunte he carries the memory of the soul stirring encounter with him. But knowing so little of that side of his life, I would be trespassing upon the domain of the palmist or the astrologer, if I made a guess in the dark. When I think of T . . . . in one of my prophetic hours, I have sometimes visualized a waiting room at a busy railway station, an unconscious figure lying prone on a sofa, and T . . . . deaf to the hustle and activity outside, watching and waiting for the first glimmerings of a sudden and unexpected thunderclap, a heart dies and lives again in an instant, the depth of immoral things is measured on the fluttering wings of a moment and then the curtain falls, leaving a lingering echo of things that might have been and in T . . . .’s heart an unsatisfied yearning and the sadness of thoughts, which as Shelley says, make up our sweetest songs. If my prophetic eyes have seen aright, the moment and the incident are top sacred for dimension, if they have erred and it was only a passing interlude it is best that the vision should sink into the mist of oblivion.
The amusement that it has given me is the only excuse and motive of this sketch. It is not a portrait of T . . . . attempted with any purposeful analysis. I have never known him personally till I shared with him the privilege of being lodged in a British prison. Another of my very valued friends in jail has told me that the prison friendships are as ephemeral as they appear to be intimate, that the attachments spring up behind prison bars, in the absence of attractions of the outside world, cannot stand even the first jolting of a free and busy life, when it comes once more. If this is really so, I cannot say, whether in the days to come, T . . . . and I would be thrown together or we shall drift away in separate eddies and whirlpools of life. Even in that contingency I shall carry away with me the memory of him, an open book in his hand, the pencil poised above it, like the fishing rod of an angler watching for the slightest movement in the water, ready to pounce upon every trick of though or expression, and walking about in the jail circle, with an epigram ready made on his lips, to be let loose on the slightest provocation.
That is the only picture of T . . . . that I have been able to see in the jail. There is and must be another picture, possibly wholly different in the outside world. In fact I have seen a photograph of him, sitting near the oven in which he toasts and butters his journalistic slices. It is picture of his room, with bookshelves behind him, crammed with books of reference, his table littered with neatly arranged papers, adourned by a simple flower vase, himself sitting in his chair, leaning on his elbow, the phone clapped to his ears, his eyes rapt in a smile at the sensations flashing across the wires. That certainly represents his natural environment. If he himself were asked to choose his surroundings, he would choose the papers, the books, and the telephone, the typewriter and red and blue pencil with greater willingness and he would any day delight in them more than Omar Khayyam did when he symbolized a cup of wine and thou besides me singing in the wilderness as El Dorado of his existence.