In our Manichaean binary world, it is assumed that if you are for something, you must be against the other. The world is infinitely more complicated than what the scriptures prescribe, which divide everything into “good" or “evil". Trying to forge the middle path—itself a concept loaded with scriptural significance—is a challenge.

Few writers are able to appreciate the nuances and go beyond polemics to discover the evidence of light, and then walk towards that path. Darryl D’Monte, former resident editor at The Indian Express and The Times of India in Mumbai, who died Saturday, was one such. His passing leaves a huge void. Darryl was sui generis; he personified humour, integrity, curiosity, compassion, grace, decency, objectivity, with a commitment to justice and fairness, and with a keen desire to encourage the young.

Darryl’s concern for the way we live and his curiosity about stories not being told led him to read more and write more about the environment. He was an activist and a journalist, but he never confused one for the other. His activism was fact-based. It is because of his activism (along with that of many others) that booming Bandra is green, that there are quiet walkways through village-like clusters which have retained their charm, and parks and open spaces that comfort pedestrians. His journalism was principled, based on the idea that good reporting meant you ensured all sides of a story were covered.

The positions he arrived at—on climate change, on the kind of fuels we should use to produce energy, the way our food is grown, the reason we need to protect our forest cover, the manner in which we treat the animals around us—were not born out of faith-based convictions or experts’ assertions. These were conclusions he reached after his own research. Debates were not simplistic for him, and he had little time for clichés such as develop-or-remain-poor, or development-is-disaster. He understood the tension between human rights and development, and saw the path in between, provided that certain core principles were not sacrificed: an awareness of the fragility of the planet and our obligation to protect the vulnerable.

Darryl told these stories to readers not aware of all the facts but who were willing to listen. He took it as a challenge; realizing that he had to argue the case well. He did that in his first book, Temples or Tombs: Industry Vs Environment (1985), where he documented the struggle to save the Silent Valley and the campaign against the pollution of a refinery in Mathura affecting the Taj Mahal. He presented facts, relying on the reader’s sense of natural justice to feel outraged.

And being committed to environmental protection did not mean he was against modernity and urban life. In fact, few Indian writers understood the city as well as he did. For him the city was not merely an urban landscape, with monikers like “smart city" applied like make-up. It was a living organism that brought diverse people together.

As an editor, he marshalled his resources brilliantly when Mumbai was infected by the madness of Babri Masjid’s demolition in 1992, and the bomb blasts and retaliatory violence in early 1993. Darryl’s team of reporters covered the period well, boldly and courageously writing about who was instigating violence.

His concern for the organic unity of Mumbai sang through the pages of his book, Ripping the Fabric: The Decline of Mumbai and Its Mills (2002). After Datta Samant’s textile strike of the early 1980s destroyed what remained of the city’s mills, giving mill owners the opportunity to mothball their plants and destroy tens of thousands of families’ lives, the city’s land sharks circled around those mills and the colonies that had sprouted nearby. One by one, those mills became malls, giving more space to those who could afford it, crowding out and dispersing those who couldn’t live there anymore. There was cold-hearted capitalism at work, and Darryl documented the change, highlighting the ruptured fabric.

The battle that mattered to him now was over the proposed coastal highway, which would construct ribbon-like motorways paralleling Mumbai’s coast, ostensibly to reduce congestion, but adversely impacting the city’s original inhabitants—the fisherfolk. It would mar the landscape, and do nothing for the millions of commuters who travel in suburban trains, packed like sardines. The coastal highway would perpetuate the flyover culture, where the well-heeled would float above the city, leaving the rest struggling to board overcrowded train compartments.

The kind of journalism Darryl personified persists in the work of younger reporters: M. Rajshekhar, Mridula Chari, Chitrangada Choudhury, Supriya Sharma and Aruna Chandrasekhar come to mind. But there are many others. They see the interface of environment, development and people, and write as if people matter, as do our surroundings. As India obsesses about development, such journalists should keep observing and reporting, so that Indians become more informed and take decisions aware of the consequences. That would be a fine tribute to Darryl. 

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

Close