The literary genres widely known as the ‘periodical essay’ and the ‘personal essay’ have always fascinated me. These short pieces of text, sometimes general, at other times autobiographical, dealt with the mankind at large as seen through the medium of the writer’s own experiences and impressions. They presented, often with exquisite humour or sublime pathos, situations and characters that the author had seen or known. Moreover, many of these essayists who wrote in English — Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Samuel Johnson, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Thomas de Quincey or Matthew Arnold to name a few — developed their own brilliant and inimitable style.
These were the writers of the past accessible only through the written words of printed books. For me, the prototype of those personal essayists in my own world of the day were a few journalists and writers who, through their broadcasts over the radio or their columns in the newspapers, would impart, albeit in a much smaller scale, the same magnificence and charm, the same capacity to enthrall with their thoughts and perceptions, their personal ways and idiosyncracies.
In the field of Indian journalism, Manohar Malgonkar was such a man for me who, through his weekly column entitled Time Off in The Statesman during the 80’s and the 90’s would convey the same grace and charm, a richness of thought and a lucidity of expression that were not easily available elsewhere. He wrote about history, about the Indian army and by and large about society, about environment and wildlife and human relationships.
In the field of radio broadcasts, Alistair Cooke of the BBC appeared to be a worthy descendant of those personal essayists I liked so much. This British journalist who spoke with a dry, upper-crust British accent, was sent by the BBC to America to do a weekly 15 minutes broadcast on some aspect of American life that might interest British listeners. For more than 50 years, Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America became ‘required listening’ for millions of radio listeners around the world.
It is interesting to note that once in Time Off Manohar Malgonkar and Alistair Cooke came together! In that edition of his column Malgonkar, while thinking aloud on his retirement, alluded to the legendary British broadcaster and paid a glowing tribute to him. It is impossible to resist the temptation of reproducing a paragraph from that edition of “Time Off” (The Statesman dated 11 August 1997) in which Malgonkar writes about Alistair Cooke:
He is surely the most listened-to reporter in the world; so far ahead of the pack as to seem alone in the field.; a pandit who is also a man of the world who can explain to us in everyday language the intricacies of everyday life in America, from medicate to racism in golf, to gun control, to Kentucky Crabcake, to the mafia. And we listen to these revelations avidly not because we have the slightest interest in finding out the inner workings of the Supreme Court or of the electoral college system of voting by which a Presidential candidate who has actually won more votes than his rivals can come out the loser, or why abortion is such a hot issue in American politics or about what they call “Affirmative action” which is the same as our system of reservations for the underprivileged classes, but because we want to listen to Alistair Cooke — his crisp voice, his snide guffaws, his asides, even his silences which are charged with meaning.