Shankar Ghosh’s book Scent of a story: A Newspaperman’s Journey documents the life of his legendary father Dr S.N. Ghosh.
Part biography and part memoir, Shankar Ghosh’s book Scent of a Story: A Newspaperman’s Journey can be called a man’s recollection of his legendary father. In the book, Shankar, son of Dr S.N. Ghosh, the longest-serving and first Indian editor of one of the oldest English newspapers in India — The Pioneer — documents his father’s journey through his father’s own voice.
“I had considered the second and third person mode, but it was simpler to get into his ‘skin’ if I were to use his voice,” says Shankar and adds, “Furthermore, it helped me stay away from any form of eulogy or hero worship as it just cannot be done in the first person, without making a complete ass of oneself.”
Shankar took three years to complete writing the book and publishing it. He says he decided to write it as he couldn’t let the stories remain inside his head anymore. “A lifetime of stories buzzing around in my head wanted to get out,” he exclaims. “My father’s life experiences and also those of my grandmother were all so interesting that I had no option but to share these stories. Retirement from a 9-5 occupation finally gave me the time to research and write. Luckily for me, the experience was not as life-threatening as one is conditioned to believe,” he explains.
Dr Ghosh, who started his career as a cub reporter with The Pioneer, witnessed the evolution of India. He saw the White-only clubs of the British Raj and was one of the few journalists who wrote about the Bengal famine. He even helped his wife smuggle grain to Calcutta, a punishable offence then. He wrote the editorial of The Pioneer on the eve of Independence Day and, in the 1950s, witnessed the beginning of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Dr Ghosh also chronicled the Indo-China war and experienced the Jim Crow years in the US when he travelled to the country. Scent of a Story is a perfume bottle that is filled with stories of different aromas.
Shankar says editors of his father’s time like Frank Moraes, Pothan Joseph, Durga Das, Chalapathi Rau, D.R. Mankekar, Ian Stephens and others were all larger-than-life figures, among whom his father was a natural fit. “It’s not as if I’m saying today’s editors are any less, but the times were different. The tectonic plates of the nation were sliding into place. News and opinions expressed in broadsheets were mostly free of bias and had a distinctive stamp of the editor. A very high premium was placed on professional integrity and this set the standard for any newspaper,” says Shankar and recalls that as a young person, he often heard his father’s name being taken in the same context with regard to his editorials, which were considered the opinion on news just as Palkhivala’s explanations are considered as the final say on the national budget.
In the book, Shankar tries to depict Ghosh’s life and work during the evolutionary period of India through vignettes of his personal life. “This is an effort to make it interesting to persons who have not heard of him, but who would appreciate a fast-paced tale and an immersive experience,” he says.
A major chunk of the book is based on his conversations with his father, mother and grandmother. The rest he gathered from his readings. “I read up on Kipling, Desmond Young and father’s writings, especially his travelogues. Mother had a habit of saving his letters to her (mercifully there was only snail mail), it all came in handy,” says Shankar, for whom penning this book has been a joyful experience.
“After the day’s work, it was either a chuckle after re-reading it and clicking the save button or a few cuss words and deleting it,” he chuckles. “I was very close to my father, so it was relatively easy to write, but such familiarity at times is a challenge in itself,” confesses the author.
Ask Shankar what he thinks was the reason behind his father’s romance with journalism and The Pioneer, he says it can be better explained through the first two stanzas of Kipling’s poem Virginity. “We used to chat on these questions often. I still remember his big grin when I read out the stanzas,” he says and reads it out, “Try as he will, no man breaks wholly loose/ From his first love, no matter who she be./ Oh, was there ever a sailor free to choose,/ That didn’t settle somewhere near the sea?/ Parsons in pulpits, tax-payers in pews,/ Kings on your thrones, you know as well as me,/ We’ve only one virginity to lose,/And where we lost it there our hearts will be.”
He goes on to say what attracted Dr Ghosh to journalism was his fondness for writing. “Journalism gave him a vocation and allowed him to write. So began his love affair with The Pioneer. Through thick and thin and in sickness and health, the two were inseparable. He was never an ‘old man’. The zest for life and humour never forsook him. He kept working for the paper till his final days,” Shankar goes down the memory lane.
For Shankar, his father was a sea of knowledge. “It was mother who taught me right and wrong. Father was this sea of experience and could answer most questions. Lots of things rubbed off. One was the love for reading. No book was taboo, be it Huxley or Jan Cremer,” he says, adding, “Father always had time for us. His work was demanding, but if it was something urgent, I could interrupt him in the middle of a dictation. The matter would be sorted out without a shadow of annoyance.” And he shares an unforgettable incident that took place when he was working for a match company. “Excessive duties were slapped on us. I tried to keep him out of the picture and spent fruitless days in the Secretariat in Lucknow. He found out somehow, possibly Ma told him. He took me in tow and with all the magic of Caesar entering the Senate, marched me to the then Chief Minister, Banarsi Das’ presence. The CM stood up to receive him and our matter was sorted out soon, on its merits of course,” he signs off.