By AJ Philip
Surendra Nihal Singh (88) was just a byline until I joined the Hindustan Times on transfer from Patna in 1990. That is when I started editing his articles in the Hindustan Times. I enjoyed editing his pieces because they required no editing at all.
Unlike many writers who leave a lot of scope for pruning in their write-ups, Nihal Singh wrote 1200 words, not 1199 or 1201, if 1200 words were required. He also gave good headlines, though I might at times try to improve them.
What was most striking about his manuscript was that it came in Bond white paper with proper margins all around the text. He used a good typewriter. More important, a new black and red ribbon.
If there was a spelling error, he would use a white fluid to erase the word and type the word again with the correct spelling. His manuscript was error-free.
He and Indira Gandhi had something in common. She did not like her letters to be folded. Nihal Singh did not like his manuscript to be folded. It always came in an envelope slightly larger than A4-size.
He had by then earned reputation as a former editor of The Statesman, a veteran foreign correspondent and who won a prestigious international award for opposing the Emergency. Yet, the reporter in him had not died.
When Saddam Hussein captured Kuwait and declared it as a province of Iraq and the US allied forces prepared themselves to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Nihal Singh approached HT Editor HK Dua with a proposal.
He would go to the war zone and file reports everyday from there at his own risk and cost. He needed to be paid for the reports he filed and published. It was a win-win arrangement for the paper. It would get exclusive reports and a byline as reputed as that of S. Nihal Singh.
His reports in purple prose would invariably occupy the front page and it was a must-read for all those who wanted to know the latest on the war front.
The limitations of a war correspondent who has to depend on extraneous sources were apparent when a day after Nihal Singh reported that the course of the war would change once Saddam’s elite forces were deployed in the war, reports came that Iraq lost the war.
Like a good journalist who could explain why his prediction went wrong, Nihal Singh was able to explain what led to the victory of the allied forces. Nonetheless, his credibility suffered a knock.
He left India to join the Khaleej Times in Dubai. He chose one of my friends K Raveendran as his Business Editor. In the meantime, I left the Hindustan Times and joined the Indian Express. And when I quit the Indian Express and joined Prof Amartya Sen’s Pratichi (India) Trust as Director, I approached him for a column.
He directed me to the person concerned and my first column appeared in the Khaleej Times. I would always remember the column as it was the first piece of writing that fetched me a payment in US dollars.
Even before the second column appeared in the Khaleej Times, I joined The Tribune as Senior Associate Editor. I could not continue writing for the Khaleej Times.
Six years later, I quit The Tribune to rejoin Pratichi (India) Trust and also to establish myself as a freelance journalist. That was the time Nihal Singh was planning to shift from Dubai to New Delhi.
He needed a successor in Dubai. I felt on top of the world when, on the suggestion of a common friend, I received a call from him. We met over a cup of tea at the India International Centre where he received my biodata and quizzed me about my experience.
After the meeting, I dropped him at some place where he wanted to go. Before he got down from the car, he told me that although the proprietors of the Khaleej Times respected him, there was no compulsion for them to follow his advice.
It did not matter to me whether I got the job or not as long as he considered me worthy of stepping into his shoes.
A few weeks later, when I did not hear from him or the Khaleej Times, I wrote a letter to him to which he replied on December 5, 2010, in his inimitable style:
Dear Mr Philip,
I have not heard anything from the Khaleej Times. Since you have not either, I presume they are not interested.
No, I did not feel unhappy. What struck me most was his candour. Surendra Nihal-Singh was a man of honour. His wife was a foreigner who predeceased him. They did not have any children.
In his death, I have lost a well-wisher, for whom I had the greatest respect. The least I can do for him is to attend his funeral in a hour’s time. May his soul rest in peace.