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Ian Jack: A canny and kind observer of India

Author and columnist Ian Jack, who died late last month, had a gift for wise, minute observation that made his journalism seem a humane morality tale

British journalist and author Ian Jack, who died late last month, in Mumbai in 2007. (Satish Bate/HT Photo)

By Rahul Jacob

LAST PUBLISHED 10.11.2022  |  06:30 AM IST

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Ian Jack was a modern-day miniaturist, achieving in words what the Mughal-era artists did to cram rich details into a small frame. The columnist and author, known for his incisive writing on India for three decades and who died late last month at the age of 77, somehow brought together the best of American and British journalism. His profiles combined the thoroughness of American journalism—doing multiple interviews with confidantes and experts rather than just interviewing the subject of a profile as is often the case in Indian or British newspapers—with the very British gift for the pithy one-liner that sums up a politician or a businessman.

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Jack first came to India in the 1970s as a foreign correspondent at large for the Sunday Times before writing regular articles about the country for Observer and Vanity Fair. He was that rare journalist, who was both a superb reporter and stylist as well as an inspiring manager and editor. He became a champion of what is called long form journalism, a jargoney term he disliked, as editor of Granta, (where he edited a couple of very special issues on India). To re-read him, circa 2022, is to experience a form of time travel to another India while also marvelling at his prescience and his ability to capture important shifts in Indian society and journalism.

Writing of Calcutta in the late eighties, he was kind but still wittily acerbic about the city’s over-hyped adda mode of conversation. “I’ve got to know the city rather better, partly by taking the drastic step of marrying into the place," he wrote (Jack’s first wife was from Calcutta). A few paragraphs later, he pours buckets of cold water over the despairing tone adopted by so many western writers towards Calcutta, that predicted an urban apocalypse. “(Paul) Theroux looked at Calcutta and thought he saw what New York or London might become. Perhaps we should be so lucky," Jack wrote before concluding, “The humanism and universalism embodied in this way of living may be Calcutta’s chief contribution to the world."

Kolkata's Howrah bridge illuminated on the eve of Independence Day. Ian Jack wrote of Kolkata in the late eighties in a kind but wittily acerbic style. (PTI)

Those are words that could double as an epitaph for Jack as well. His writings collected in Mofussil Junction: Indian Encounters 1977-2012 is the distillation of this generous worldview. He started his journalism career in Glasgow but was a north London cosmopolitan and intellectual, long before this category became a bizarre target of Conservative prime ministers to distract from the grim realities of managing the UK economy after Brexit. It is also what made Jack the best of foreign correspondents who wrote about post-independent India. There was something of the supernatural about the range of his writing—from covering the 1984 pogroms against Sikhs to his chronicling his fascination with Indian steam engines to doing detailed business articles in the aftermath of the Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal. Could any other journalist manage so many different subjects with the multi-handed aplomb of a Nataraja?

His account of going to a small hospital in Patna after his appendicitis burst reads like a short story by Anton Chekhov. The doctor who saved his life in Patna improbably shows up at Jack’s in-law’s home in Calcutta several months later just when another medical emergency is playing out. The article ends with a Susan Sontag-like flourish on illness, which is also that of a canny observer of India: “It pays to know people if you are ill (in India) and that, despite the uncaring chaos or because of it, people in India have huge reserves of personal generosity. But beyond that, it taught me, as a man in his careless thirties, that frailty was everyone’s inheritance—everywhere." This passage rang even truer after the shortages of oxygen and hospital beds during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Mofussil Junction, a page separates two very different profiles of Rajiv Gandhi, written four years apart, which have gems that presciently sum up his rise and fall. Soon after Gandhi entered politics in 1981, Jack spots, among the “important well-wishers and some unimportant ones" in the novice politician’s waiting room, the public relations executive from Jack’s hotel carrying a “three-foot-wide tray" laden with chocolates and marzipan. Jack’s prophetic last line: “Sweets are certainly only a small obstacle ... The obstacles can only grow bigger." Ten months after Gandhi became prime minister, Jack began an article by asking Gandhi if he believes in God. He responds by saying he doesn’t, but then retreats behind something vague about a “personal ethic". Had he ever been religious, Jack asks. “In the sense of praying to God?" Rajiv replies. “No, never." As Ramachandra Guha has observed, Jack was the first of foreign correspondents to discern there was a sizable middle class in India, a development he celebrated in that profile of Rajiv’s first year as prime minister. Unusually for someone who wrote for mainstream UK newspapers, he had a keen sense of the economic underpinnings of a story. His brilliant essay on Serampur, a formerly Danish outpost on the Hooghly sold to the East India Company in 1845, and its most prominent missionary, William Carey, has a detailed explanation of the brutal working conditions of the indigo trade while noting that Carey's proselytising was a failure; 1810 saw just 106 conversions and 1820 less than half as many.

Even people who met him a couple of times would count Jack as a friend. Nandini Mehta, who edited Mofussil Junction for Penguin, recounts him offering her his London home for a month when he and his wife Lindy were on their annual trip to Scotland. I last met Jack at a lunch in London in July this year. He held court, not in the sense of dominating the conversation but because his recollections were so rich in detail and because he had a courtly ability to draw in everyone. He told hilarious, self-deprecating stories about his time as editor of the Independent on Sunday and an era of journalism when editors had company cars, despite being a man who could travel third-class on the Dhanbad Express. He spoke about his work for The Telegraph, Calcutta. 


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I told him I had re-read and re-read his profile of the late publishing giant Sonny Mehta, seeking to learn how to write business profiles with a light touch and an absence of jargon. Jack predicted Mehta would succeed spectacularly at Alfred Knopf back in 1987 when many doubted Mehta could make the transition from British to American publishing. Jack foresaw that Mehta would successfully transfer from London to New York his gift of being, paradoxically, a reserved editor who threw glittering dinner parties and had hours-long lunches with his authors. “Sonny listens to his guests, Gita talks to them," Jack wrote before quoting the Australian author Clive James remembering Sonny and Gita from their Cambridge days as “the most beautiful couple I have ever seen."

I had grumbled at tedious length that July afternoon about a former colleague in London only to feel ashamed when Jack told of unwittingly overhearing her on a double-decker, speaking to a friend after a debacle at work. It was a reminder of how Jack’s gift for wise, minute observation made so much of his journalism seem a humane morality tale.

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