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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Anil Dharker built teams, encouraged dissent, and remained a quiet patriot

He might not always have agreed with you, but he challenged you to change his mind

Written by Quasar Thakore Padamsee |
Updated: April 3, 2021 8:48:01 am
Celebrated journalist and writer Anil Dharker. (Express Photo)

Last week, Anil Dharker put down his pen for the very last time; as he passed quietly on to that big library in the sky. At least, that’s how I’d like to think of him — surrounded by hundreds of books.

I never knew Anil the editor, or the civil engineer, or even the media personality. As a child I avoided him, the way children are conditioned to fear the stern male parent. I don’t think we interacted until many years later. It was a formal dinner at the US consulate. I was wearing a suit for the first time. He didn’t need to, but he complimented me on my appearance, and then advised me to get rid of the tacky pen in my pocket. It was a simple act of kindness and immediately put me at ease in an unnerving environment.

Almost a decade later, he asked me to “pick up the pen” with him, as he assembled a team for the first-ever Mumbai literary festival. It was a crazy idea; a little like Don Quixote tilting at the windmills. The initial plans fell through, and from the group that sat around that first table, only he and I remained. Don and Sancho Panza. Not long after, Shashi Baliga pulled up a chair, and in a few short months, Literature Live! The Mumbai International Litfest was born.

We were still basking in the glow of the success of the inaugural edition, when he received word that our main sponsor had pulled out to start their own festival. This was a huge setback, enough to shut down the most noble of enterprises. But Anil had lost the set, not the match. He put together another team. We were ordinary those first few years, but he had the knack of getting the best out of us.

He ensured that everyone was heard, irrespective of age or experience. He might not always have agreed with you, but he challenged you to change his mind; and if you made the right arguments, he would concede and accept your point. His leadership style had nuance, everyone was entitled to disagree, and there was a clear separation of the individual from the work or opinion.

At the 2012 edition of the fest, he had me baffled. Girish Karnad had gone off script during his talk, deciding to criticise the festival over V S Naipaul being presented the Lifetime Achievement Award. A furore erupted. An hour later, I was instructed by Anil that the playwright’s other sessions must go ahead as scheduled. There were no hard feelings, it was a debate, views were aired, and that was it. A few years later, Karnad was conferred the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

He confessed to me once that he’d never have started a festival, if he’d known it would take so much work. Then with a smile he added, he was glad that he didn’t have that foresight. Perhaps, his only regret was that the 2013 litfest had coincided with Sachin Tendulkar’s last Test match; and he couldn’t make it to the Wankhede, less than a kilometre from the fest venue.

In some ways, Anil Dharker was a paradox. He was highly westernised, and yet always dressed in a crisp kurta pyjama. He thought and wrote mellifluously in English, but also spoke a poetic Marathi. He was a trained civil engineer, but had dedicated his entire life to the written word. He was slight in build, but a giant in persona.

Anil was born exactly a year before independent India. He joked he could almost have been a protagonist in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. But to me he embodied everything that was great about the idea of India. He cared deeply about the country. This is reflected in his writings, in the causes he supported, and even in the programming of our festival. He was the best kind of nationalist — who wore his patriotism on the heart, not on the sleeve.

He leaves behind an incredible legacy. Not only for his family, but for every person he encountered on his quest. Farewell, my Don.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 3, 2021 under the title ‘Farewell, my don’. The writer works as a theatre-director and is associate festival director of Tata Literature Live!

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