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'Sharada Prasad was a renaissance man'

September 03, 2008 22:59 IST

H Y Sharada Prasad, freedom fighter, columnist and the speech writer of three Prime Ministers of India, passed away in New Delhi on Tuesday. Dr Sanjaya Baru, former media advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, remembers the man who was famous for a book that he never wrote.

I first met Sharada Prasad after I got married in 1981. He was family for my wife, having been her father's colleague in the Planning Commission and also their neighbour in Delhi's Patel Nagar.

One of the earliest stories I heard from my wife when we first met was how she, at the age of 5, walked along with her parents, and with Sharada Prasad, Kamalamma and their sons all the way from Patel Nagar to Teen Murti House to pay their respects to the body of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in May, 1964.

By 1981, Sharada Prasad was himself a presence to reckon with in the Prime Minister's Office.
In 1990, when I moved from Hyderabad to New Delhi to join The Economic Times, I went and met Sharada Prasad for guidance. I was entering a new profession that he was familiar with. What advice did he have for me?

Write good English, he told me. "Journalism is not just about facts. It is about the quality of writing," he said. He gave me a copy of The New Statesman with an essay by the famous editor Paul Johnson which urged editors to read books!
On the day I joined the Prime Minister's Office, to sit in the room he used to sit in and adorn the title he had held with such great distinction for so many years, the first thing I did after completing the joining formalities was to drive to his flat in Punjabi Bagh.

He was already frail by then. I spent two hours imbibing all his advice.
"It is a different world you will have to deal with", he reminded me. In his time he would keep in regular touch with only five senior journalists -- from The Times of India, The Indian Express, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and The Statesman.

"You cannot afford that luxury. Now there are far too many journalists you have to be in touch with. And television has its own rhythm," he said.
"Deal directly with the PM," he instructed me, in his typically soft but firm voice. "The civil servants will not like it. But you have to tell Manmohan that you will only deal with him. Ranks and designations are not important in the PMO. Your access to PM is what counts. If you have to be effective, you must have 24-hour access. Otherwise you will not be effective."
His third mantra was "Make sure the PM compliments a journalist or an editor if he is happy with some column or editorial." Press conferences are important, he said to me. "But these days, prime ministers shy away. Neither Narasimha Rao nor Atal Bihari Vajpayee addressed any national press conference. Make a list of all the likely questions that you think the media will ask PM. Always keep him briefed on what the media may want to know from him."
He went on. For two hours I sat in his cramped small flat, with Kamalamma making tea, and heard him give advice.

Advice that stood me in good stead during my term at the PMO. But it was not just advice. He was in a nostalgic mood, and regaled me with anecdotes and stories about the PMO and all the men and women who had walked through its corridors during his 16 years in that office.
I finally asked him my favourite question -- one I had asked him on many previous occasions. "Why don't you write your biography?"

He repeated his favourite answer, "When you are in the PMO, you will soon discover that you not only know only one side of the truth on any issue, but that you do not know how many sides the truth has."

Many people had asked him to write a book. He had worked closely with Mrs Indira Gandhi and for a while with Mr Rajiv Gandhi. He never wrote that book. When he finally put together his newspaper columns into a book, he gave it the title of one of his columns, The Book That I Won't Be Writing.
My closest association with Sharada Prasad was not during my PMO days. Rather, it was during the years that I was the editor of the editorial page of The Times of India. He would regularly call me with suggestions and comments. He would call to say he liked something, he would call to say he did not like something.

My only regret was that he did not begin his columns during the period when I was with TOI. It was only after I left TOI that he finally decided to start a regular column for The Asian Age.

 I would often call him to say I liked a particular column of his, and he would say in his typically nonchalant way, in that soft tone, "good"!
Sharada Prasad was not just a great media manager for two Indian prime ministers. He was a highly learned and cultured man. His scholarship and range of interest in media, in design and art, in culture and history, was truly astounding.

His small cramped flat is full of books and photographs that tell the story of his many-splendoured personality. He belonged to a liberal tradition. He met his wife Kamalamma, a great personality in her own right, in their capacity as artists who performed the Yakshagana. Sharada Prasad was a renaissance man.
There are many things that I will cherish from my association with him. But there is a special gift he gave me that I must publicly acknowledge today.

After he turned 80, he called me one day. He said that for the last 50 years, he had written the section on India for Encyclopaedia Britannica. He was now too old to keep track of what was happening in the country.

"Will you please take this responsibility from me? I have asked the editors at Britannica to contact you." I was excited, exhilarated, and humbled. I know I will not write this for the next 50 years, but every year when I do, I wonder what Sharada Prasad would have written. And how!
I join his many admirers and friends in mourning his passing away.