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Amita Malik (1921-2009): Irreverent Dissenter

Amita Malik belonged to a small group of irreverent dissenters who could dare to defy orthodox norms and follow their own style of living and writing.

COMMENTARY

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to be mistaken for its present shabby ver-

Amita Malik (1921-2009):

sion), I found an immediate rapport with Amita Malik when I met her for the first

Irreverent Dissenter

time in 1967 in the corridors of the Delhi office of our paper soon after my transfer there. She used to write columns on films Sumanta Banerjee and cultural events for The Statesman at

Amita Malik belonged to a small group of irreverent dissenters who could dare to defy orthodox norms and follow their own style of living and writing.

Sumanta Banerjee (suman5ban@yahoo.com) is best known for his book In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in India (1980).

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
march 7, 2009

A
mita Malik, who passed away on 20 February at the age of 88, would have had a good laugh at being described as the “doyenne”, “the first lady of Indian journalism”, in the newspaper obits! She herself was less generous in using such laudatory terms for members of her own profession. In fact, she was feared (and perhaps also hated) by the present generation of television anchors for her acid comments on their inept performance. A few years ago, in one of her columns she famously described an NDTV newscaster as a “drone (who) sounds like a tanpura from the next room!” She remained a stickler for the old, well-tested norms of matter-of-fact journalism and clear articulation, and had no patience for the slipshod manner of present-day n ewfangled television presentations, or news reporting. Having been trained in those old professional norms in my early days of journalism as a Calcutta reporter of The Statesman (not

vol xliv no 10

that time. Being a warm and outgoing personality, she was quick to discover old connections – my elder brother and sister- inlaw, who were her friends among many others (including Samar Sen, Sunil Janah and the crowd of intrepid Bengali intellectuals of Calcutta who were our heroes at that time).

I soon began to call her A mita-di, and she took me under her wing to introduce me to her peer group in Delhi who used to address her as “Amie” – among whom I met a variety of wonderful personalities. One of them was Tiny Chatterji (P C Chatterji of the All India Radio (AIR) fame) who was to write later a splendidly frank review of her autobiography – Amita, No Holds Barred (which also revealed her talent as a historian of Indian broadcasting). Being close to her for years, Tiny could claim to chide her for being “self-effacing to a fault”

– a charge which might surprise those who had always thought of her as just the opposite. But although gregarious in company,

COMMENTARY

Amita-di did indeed hide behind that vivacious e xterior a silent courage with which she had to carry out lonely struggles in her personal life.

Belonging to the diaspora of educated middle class Bengali expatriates (known as “prabashi Bangalis”) who had settled outside, she was born in Guwahati in 1921. She moved to Lucknow where she began working for the AIR in 1944, and then to Delhi in 1946 to join AIR as a permanent employee. In the midst of the turbulence of the communal riots of 1946, and the partition that followed it, she fell in love with Iqbal Malik, a Muslim bureaucrat who chose to stay back in India, and they got married. It was a stormy relationship, marked with long periods of separation, but ending with a sick Iqbal spending his last days in the Delhi home of Amita-di’s, where she took care of him.

Defied Orthodox Norms

Looking back at her life and career, I feel that she belonged to a generation which was brought upon the ethical v alues of a civilised community – representing the best of a cosmopolitan Indian middle class (brought together from all religious denominations and overcoming caste barriers) of the preindependence era – that moulded a p luralistic pattern of coexistence and exchange of cultural experiences. Educated in and sensitised to a variety of cultural influences (both western and Indian) Amita-di could hold forth on a wide span of interests, ranging from Michelangelo Antonioni and Satyajit Ray, to her favourite Bengali delicacies like h ilsa fish cooked in mustard! The thoughts and skills that she imbibed from that cultural milieu shaped her professional performance (whether as a radio journalist or a film critic). At another l evel, that same cosmopolitan culture of the p re-Partition cities like Lahore, C alcutta, Delhi and other places, in which she grew up, allowed her a space for dissidence. She belonged to a small group of irreverent dissenters who could dare to defy orthodox norms and follow their own style of living and writing. She often r eminded me of Dorothy Parker, the American literary critic of the 1930s, who was equally notorious for her unconventional lifestyle and her outrageous w itticisms! Like Dorothy’s, Amita-di’s columns also quite often drew the opprobrious term “bitchy” from her critics – mainly female!

Amita-di is lucky to have escaped from the philistinism that is fast invading the Indian media scene – particularly the vacuity that marks the film reviews in newspaper columns and TV channels today. But she will continue to endear herself to a young and brave generation of serious journalists and commentators who represent a positive counter trend. As one from among them, Sevanti Ninan aptly summed up Amita-di’s spirit in her tribute to her: “Amita Malik at 88 was far feistier than most of us will ever be at a much younger age”.

USING INTERNET FOR APPLIED DEVELOPMENT RESEARCH Short duration course for Economists, Management Specialists and other Social Scientists In Academia, Industry, Government and the NGO sectors Organised by Centre for Development Studies Trivandrum And ICSSR Western Regional Centre, Mumbai At ICSSR Conference Hall, University of Mumbai Campus, J P Naik Bhavan, Vidyanagari, Kalina Santacruz (E), Mumbai-400 098. During April 3-5 2009 For further details please contact Ms Sangita on telephone (022) 26526050 Or visit our website : icssrwrc.org Important Last date of receipt of completed application by post at ICSSR Mumbai address: 18th March 2009 Selected candidates will be informed by email on 20th March 2009

march 7, 2009 vol xliv no 10

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

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