A dinner waited. We planned to invite Namita and Sunil home. Last year.
Covid meant postponement – not last year, not this year, not in this world, but in some other world, when we meet again. Like others, friends, family and acquaintances, Sunil Jain has become an obituary column and obituary notice, one of the more than 250,000 Indian names who have died, in a disease that has ravaged the world. Life is unfair. It was too early for many. It was too early for Sunil. If only. We were infected roughly at the same time and exchanged notes, on the phone. “Oxygen levels aren’t that bad. Why should I crowd other people out from hospitals? I am fine at home.” That was classic Sunil. By the time he moved to AIIMS and received the best of treatment, it was too late. If only that had happened a few days earlier. But for the grace of destiny, it could have been me.
Destiny doesn’t follow rational expectations. Even as I write this, my default expectation is of sending it to firstname.lastname@example.org. In recent years, for me, FE has meant Sunil Jain and Sunil has meant FE. When his column was due and one scanned the morning FE, Sunil was the first person one read. I speak for myself, but this was probably true of many people.
Sunil wasn’t just an editor and a columnist. He was an ex-colleague and a friend. I forget how I first met Sunil. Not from his India Today or Ficci days. For several years, I was a contributing/consulting editor with newspapers, not just writing columns, but edits too, attending edit meetings. And our paths crossed, back and forth – Indian Express, Financial Express and Business Standard. That’s how he became a colleague and a friend. There were formal meetings inside the old Express office and informal meetings outside, at the parking spots off Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg. I got to know we studied at the same educational institution (Delhi School of Economics), though Sunil was a decade after me. It must have been T N Ninan and Business Standard who got him into long essays and books, The Great Indian Middle Class, Caste in a Different Mould and the essay he co-authored with Ninan in a volume honouring Montek Singh Ahluwalia. I knew about his illustrious family.
But that didn’t matter. Sunil was just Sunil. If I continue to write for FE, that’s because of Sunil.
In 2015, roles changed. The role of media is to be critical, typically of government. And typically, conversations (roughly once a week) were about me being critical of something FE had published, or Sunil being critical of what government had done, or not done, more often the latter.
The former was mostly about telecom, or regulation. Since Sunil and I agreed on contour of reforms and the objective, discussion was about sequencing, speed and political economy. It was always a discussion, never acrimonious, not only because Sunil was a friend, but because he was a thorough gentleman. (That came through in his columns too, never personal.) In 2017, Sunil invited me as a Chief Guest to a FE event in Mumbai. “We don’t want a politician,” he said. The photograph (actually a cartoon) from that event hangs on my wall, to remind me of Sunil. In 2018, when I published a book with columns collated from Indian Express and Financial Express, I reciprocated by inviting Sunil to be the Chief Guest at the launch.
“I don’t want a politician,” I said. That photograph (not a cartoon) also hangs on my wall, to remind me of Sunil.
Whenever I wrote a piece, beyond usual fixed columns, it is FE I thought of first, thanks to Sunil. We exchanged notes on young talent and resumes too. “I need a young researcher, can’t pay much. Do you have someone in mind?” I would say. “I need a young journalist, can pay.” Sunil would say. Heading any organisation requires an ability to groom and mentor young talent. I am sure young journalists who have worked with Sunil will testify he did that, a trait rarer than one thinks. I have lost a friend. The world of journalism has lost a powerful and persuasive pen. But it has also lost much more. In the world of financial journalism, there aren’t too many who can groom anymore, or are interested in it.
At some indeterminate point in time, Covid will also pass.
There will be a balance sheet of who we have lost and these aren’t names and numbers. They are real people and friends and relatives. They are people whose lives have intersected with ours, come together and drifted apart. The Mahabharata says, like pieces of wood floating in the ocean.
The dinner waits.
(The writer is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.)