HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksOn Ian Jack: ‘There was nothing predictable about his choice of subjects’

On Ian Jack: ‘There was nothing predictable about his choice of subjects’

Everyone took to Ian Jack from the very first time they met him. I was no different and so in London, during the early Eighties, when my friend and publisher, Urvashi Butalia introduced me to Ian and his then wife Aparna Bagchi, friendship followed seamlessly. We became a kind of “Indian friends group”, meeting over lunch or dinner at each other’s London homes. I knew then that Ian was a very well respected and prominent British journalist, but he wore his success so lightly that his reputation was something we had only heard of – humility and restraint were more in evidence.

Some 30 years ago, after Ian had married Lindy Sharpe, we continued to meet as often as schedules allowed. The last time we met was on 16 September 2022, a week before I left for Mumbai. The many meals I shared in their home were full of good humour. We enjoyed great vegetarian dishes made by Lindy, an amazing cook, or Ian’s delicious pasta, sitting at their square wooden dining table which appeared to me quite magical in the way it could expand or retract to accommodate sometimes four or even 10 guests at a time.

A selection of Ian Jack’s writing and reportage on contemporary Britain published in 2009. (penguin.co.uk)

How did Ian endear himself so effortlessly to countless people, some who barely knew him and others who knew him closely? Perhaps it was his curiosity about people, his capacity of listening with genuine attention. Ian instinctively knew what was at the heart of what you had said, and he would habitually probe for more. He could tell a joke that amused him as much as us; he was an emotional man and always encouraged people from all walks of life to be open with their feelings as well as their ideas. He was also playful, and we would often spend time on the phone gossiping about people we knew. In short, you could say anything to Ian without ever feeling judged or foolish.

Less written about Ian was his love for cinema. He would often talk about the old British films and was a regular at the BFI (British Film Institute) screenings. He would take his lovely children Bella and Alex to see black and white classics that most young people might try to avoid.

Ian and Lindy often discussed subtitling with me and were curious about how to overcome problems in translating cultural references and idioms, because they knew I had subtitled many Hindi films. An email sent after one such discussion between Covid lockdowns in London, he wrote: “It was lovely to see you and discuss the advantages of the semi-colon over the comma. A bright spot in grim times.”

This collection of Ian Jack’s articles about India written over 30 years appeared in 2013. (Penguin Books)
This collection of Ian Jack’s articles about India written over 30 years appeared in 2013. (Penguin Books)

Ian’s love for India is well known and well documented, but there was also his admiration for the film-maker Satyajit Ray. He saw Ray’s film, Mahanagar, screened this summer at the NFT and liked the film very much. When we were planning to see the restored Jalsaghar together (sadly it did not happen because he and Lindy were away in Scotland that weekend), he wrote in an email: “Yes, I’ve seen Jalsaghar but in a very poor print and on video at home, so I didn’t get as much from it as I should have done. I’m not sure what my own favourite scene would be, but probably something from Apu Sansar. Maybe the business with the hair clip in their flat near the loco sheds. Or in Pather Panchali, where the father learns of Durga’s death. We don’t hear him, just the sitar (I think). Very powerful. My eyes moisten every time. xxI.”

Since 28 October 2022, when we heard of his passing, the grief, shock and outpouring of love and admiration for Ian has resonated in Britain and in India. I have heard from so many people who knew him, even briefly, expressing their deep sense of loss. Especially moving are the letters written by his readers who looked forward to his weekly column in The Guardian. There was nothing predictable about his choice of subjects and the depth of his knowledge was what kept us all connected to Ian Jack. We wanted to know what he thought about the changing world around him. One Saturday he would talk about his beloved Scotland, and on another, it was the importance of the BBC. Being personally privileged to have known him, I use the word “talk” as he was among those gifted writers whose voice came through his words. A distinct, wise and gentle voice that both touched and informed. I think sentimentality would have embarrassed Ian, and so with a heavy heart, I stop here.

Nasreen Munni Kabir is a television producer, director and author

The views expressed are personal

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