My tryst with journalism, which began with the ‘Letters To The Editor’ column in the late eighties, during my school years, was not without a fair dollop of inspiration. There were just two English newspapers at the time – The Hindu and the Indian Express. The edit page would invariably be the first to be devoured. The star attraction was the ‘middle’ and the Letters Column just below. That I couldn’t lay my hands on all the P.G.Wodehouse classics didn’t matter. Because there was our very own version right here in Chennai. M.A.Sadanand was almost a template in this column. And his letters, most of them in the Indian Express, stood out for sheer wit, humour and that unmistakable felicity of expression.
As many of his writings centred around the judiciary, often pushing for practical reforms like ‘Photocopiers, My Lord’, in which, decades ago, he made an impassioned plea for photocopying machines to churn out certified copies of judgments or the scrapping of the death penalty, which he described as a measure to “tickle blood thirsty Caligulas”, I had guessed his legal roots. If Shashi Tharoor’s “farrago” goes viral today, I cannot even begin to imagine how the Congress Parliamentarian’s fellow Keralite’s vocabulary would have set the internet on fire. Just reading Sadanand’s letters was a crash course in Creative Writing. How would you give a novel spin to a common civic grievance like water contamination? The ‘Sadanand method’ involved hitting the worms on the head with the caption itself – “Non-vegetarian Water!”
So enamoured by his style of writing, I had decided to shoot off an adulatory missive to him during an uncharacteristic string of rain holidays in peak summer. When it elicited no response after a week, I attributed it to an overload of such fan mail. A fortnight later I got an inland letter in flowing calligraphy that opened with this gem: “Hello Sanjay, Your letter probably went with the cyclone to Andhra and landed around noon today…” The response went on to confirm his lawyer avatar with “we, like you, have a vacation” and inviting me to call and “fix the time for darshan”! We met in a few days at his elegant ‘glass house’ ‘Sneham’ in Anna Nagar and I didn’t fail to notice his humour even in telephone conversations. A friend of his son Devanand had called. “Dev has gone for his Constitutionals”, he chuckled, meaning his morning work-out at the gym!
When we met, I was 15. He was 56. That reply was the start of a friendship that lasted three decades untill his passing last month. It was not just our hobby of writing letters to newspapers that helped us bond. Donning the lawyer’s robes was on my mind. And here was a dream role model. I almost remember verbatim an article he had written on Law As A Profession for the Loyola Herald – a magazine that I had founded and edited in college. In his inimitable style, Sadanand painted a rosy picture. Sample some of his gems. “To err is human but correction is legal” was how he prefaced the demand for lawyers. Referring to the absence of a retirement age, he quipped:”A lawyer can go on till his tongue can wag and he can walk to the court.” What about influence in the profession? “Learning the ropes is better than pulling strings.” And the gestation period was described as “what starts as a trickle becomes a torrent.”
Known for his unimpeachable integrity, Sadanand, who used to specialise in Constitutional Law and had made his mark as a Writ Lawyer was appointed Government Pleader at the Madras High Court. But it was that very personality trait – being ram rod straight that ensured a short tenure. “I’m a Government Pleader, not a Government Pleaser” he used to tell me, when I quizzed him on his ‘cameo’ role! Not the kind to bow and scrape, Sadanand used to apparently tell it like it is and the powers that be found his opinions unpalatable. Had he continued in that post, I have no doubt that he would have risen to the next rung as Advocate General of Tamil Nadu, as a precursor to his elevation to the Bench. I couldn’t help thinking that if ‘Justice M.A.Sadanand’ had happened, we wouldn’t have needed Wren & Martin for English grammar as his judgments, a la Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer would have been more than a treat to read and learn.
As the years rolled by, I would keep Sadanand posted about my career plans, after school, Loyola and the Law College. There was no sharper brain to help me draft my job application to NDTV in the summer of `98. “Nurtured on the unique news culture that projects the truth test – ‘seeing is believing’, I spread my ware before you, so you can see and believe that I possess the right mettle for a slot in your reporting team.” After 15 years with NDTV, when I enacted a Prodigal Son and returned to Law, like my dad, Sadanand was ecstatic.
The image of the Sadanands sitting at my wedding reception is still fresh in my mind. As was the beautiful piece this wordsmith wrote about our simple celebration. Noting that my wife Vidya is a Tam Bram, he slipped in a line – “Iyer food is higher food!” The style rubbed off on me a wee bit and whenever I’d come up with puns, he would pull my leg: “Punto!”
Both his children – Devanand and Neethi have inherited his sparkling wit. When I was miffed about trolls on twitter, Neethi once consoled me: “Bird brains tweet the most!” It would be difficult not to smile while reading every sentence of the thousands of letters he had written, later moving to a regular column ‘No Holds Barred’ in the Anna Nagar Times. And the one person who would get a sneak preview of his repartees was his wife Lakshmi who had a resplendent smile 24×7 on her face. When his delightful half left him, Sadanand was not the same person full of beans. It was painful to see him in that state of mind.
A model citizen, Sadanand made only friends easily but not money. When he signed off from this materialistic world last month, his son and daughter in law Monisha recalled how he didn’t want his ashes to be immersed in a water body. My mind went back to a letter he had written about an electric crematorium. Sadanand is no more. But his legacy – of honesty, kindness and humour will always burn brightly. I miss you, Sir. Please do regale my mother with your wit in heaven.
(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Author, TV Political Analyst, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7)