No talk about India Weekly can be complete without a reference to Shroff Saab. Shroff Akhtar Ali was a quiet man; always pondering over something that had to do with the headline, the wordage or his re-write of someone else’s story - Kini’s and mine, usually. The man had licence to meddle with anyone’s text. And there was no appeal against his doings.
I usually found him poring over the page-proof, red-penciling stuff, making a dummy page or cleaning his pipe. Shroff Saab was a man of few words. He opened his mouth only when he was with the boss, Dr Tarapada Basu, usually to complain about something or someone. And his words carried weight with Dr Basu.
Kini and I were, what I would call, 'fair-weather' employees who used India Weekly as a parking lot, that we left whenever we found something more promising, only to return when things didn’t work out. Shroff Saab was indispensable. He did things that no one else wanted to do; reading page proof, writing fillers to fill a hole in a page, nagging India Weekly printers in Liverpool on phone. His extensive use of red-pencil on our articles was usually a sticking point between us. My attempts to get friendly with him didn’t take me far. Possibly because he was a believer in the generation gap. And won't encourage my attempt to close that gap over an occasional beer at the Cogers.
But then I didn’t see Shroff Saab being friends with anyone else in the Weekly. I didn’t know how Dr Basu discovered such a workhorse, slogging it out, on not much more than a subsistence wage. Which was sad, for a man who was over 60. Shroff Saab, like a true brown sahib, was dressed in three-piece suit (the only one he owned) or in a Harris tweed jacket. He smoked pipe, and wore a felt.
I didn’t know where he stayed or when he came to work. Whenever I came in, I found Shroff Saab already at his desk, puffing at his pipe, staring at a typed sheet, with his red pencil at the ready. And he usually left office with the rest of us – Dr Basu, Asoke Gupte, Kini and I. Dr Basu liked to have everyone around in office till he chose to call it a day.
Never seen Shroff Saab going out with Dr Basu or Asoke Gupte for an after-office drink. As we all stepped out of the lift and lingered on at the pavement for a while trading gossip Shroff Saab took leave of us, and walked away into the evening mist, towards Fleet Street.
Where he went, whether he took a bus or tube home, or if he had anyone to go home to remained a mystery to me. But I once heard Dr Basu telling someone that Shroff Saab longed to get home, to Aligarh. He had spent 18 years in England. His problem was he didn’t earn enough to save for his passage back to India.
I heard about his death from Kini when we last met in 1996 (I believe), Chennai.
Cross-posted by Posted by GVK, May 31, 2009, from My Take