Dear Readers,

With kind support from respected Neelam Chandra Mam, I hereby introduce you to a renowned Indian author based in London – Mr. Shamlal Puri.

This questionnaire has been divided into two parts (hence posted in two separate posts). 

I hope you all, my readers will enjoy reading this two-part interview as much as I cherished publishing it.

A brief bio about Mr. Shamlal Puri sir

From an international journalist, a photographer and an editor, Shamlal Puri shamlalevolved into an author. His four-decade long career spans across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

His widely acclaimed novels include Dubai Dreams: The Rough Road to Riches; That’s Life: Michael Matatu at Large; Triangle of Terror; Dubai on Wheels – Speeding Headlong on a Dangerous, Slippery Road; Axis Of Evil; The Dame of the Twilight.

 His books have been reviewed in more than 600 magazines, newspapers, online sites, radio and TV. They have also appeared in major Indian newspapers and magazines including The Hindu, Hindustan Times, Business Standard, New Indian Express, The Tribune, Caravan and Economic Times. He shamlalalso has a strong presence internationally and his books have been reviewed around the world in publications including Daily Nation of Kenya, The Voice of Canada, Pravasi Indian, The Indian Hong Kong, Fiji Times, Oman Daily Observer, Al Khaleej UAE and many UK newspapers; on the web Yahoo, Google, the BBC and hundreds of sites.

 He established Newslink Africa, a pioneering news agency for this continent in London. His work has been published in more than 250 magazines, newspapers, journals around the world. He started his career in India and moved to East Africa working for top media for 24 years. 

He has interviewed celebrities, politicians, kings and queens, presidents, prime ministers for global media. He has have been to the Buckingham Palace several times and photographed the Queen and her husband Prince Philip and the Royal Family, including the late Princess Diana and Prince Charles. He met and photographed several British Prime Ministers from Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

 He moved to London in 1975 and started to work with London newspapers and broadcast on BBC World Service, BBC TV, Channel Four in Britain and networks in Australia and Africa. He has been a consultant for UNESCO; the International Press Institute, Switzerland and Article 19 of London. He has authored several books and reports on press freedom for UNESCO which were instrumental for the birth of independent newspapers in Africa.

 Currently, he is an editor of The International Indian Magazine in the Middle East; the London Correspondent and Columnist of The Standard newspaper in Nairobi, East Africa’s oldest newspaper and is a regular writer for several UK magazines.

In his lengthy career, Shamlal Puri has reported from war fronts, famine-hit areas and witnessed the genocide in Rwanda, Africa in which 800,000 people lost their lives. He was nominated for the prestigious Journalist of the Year Award in London.  

For more than 40 years, he has written for The Indian magazine, the voice of Overseas Indians, published in Hong Kong and also in several magazines for NRIs published around the world. On the web, he contributes regularly to American and European internet-based sites, and, his work is re-published in several hundred publications and on internet sites globally.

As a professional photographer, he has compiled a picture library of more than 250,000 images. His photographs have been widely published globally, including the British national press. He has visited most countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, the Far East and the Americas.  

Shamlal Puri’s career is a grand saga of news scoops, hair-rising adventures in far-off lands and hilarious episodes while news gathering. In itself, a great read when he writes it.

NC: Journalist, photographer and editor – the combo seems so different! What is common between the three professions?
SP: Creativity.

As a journalist you have to write a factual report but in an interesting style. You cannot just print a boring Parliamentary report verbatim but have to make it easy and interesting for your readers without straying away from the facts.

In photography you have to ensure that your pictures have creativity and an effort that will make your picture stand out in print. That is why we just don’t take one shot but many from which our Picture Editor selects the best.

The Editor cannot just bung in gormless and lifeless news stories into his newspaper without injecting life into them. An editor is the ultimate gateway between the writer and the reader. He or she needs to be alive to the growing trends in journalism and add creativity otherwise he will have a dreadful daily paper in his hands.

NC: You have also interviewed quite a few famous and amazing personalities. How has been the experience? Any interesting incident you can remember? And any hilarious incident…
SP: Journalism is an amazing profession. It gives you an opportunity to rub shoulders with the movers and shakers, decision-makers and people who shape the world’s politics, economics and society. I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience and made many friends among the presidents, prime ministers and the royalty.

I have many interesting incidents but an interview I had with Field Marshal President Idi Amin, the dictator of Uganda in the 1970s comes to mind. He was the man who had expelled 72,000 Indians from his country in 1972. I challenged him over his popularity, knowing fully well if I annoyed him I would be fed to crocodiles. But he accepted the challenge and personally drove me to the local market to prove his popularity. He was surrounded by loads of people and I noticed half of the 50 people around him were his security men! I wrote that in my interview after returning to UK.

Hilarious incidents?

In Nigeria, after interviewing the country’s President, I wanted to ring my editor in London from my five star hotel room and gave the operator the phone number. She asked me if I wanted the call “in the system” or “out of the system”. I thought it was best to be in the system as otherwise I may never be put through. Three hours later my call never came through. When I complained, the operator told me I should have booked the call out of the system – which I did and was promptly put through in a couple of minutes. Half an hour later, the operator’s minion knocked on my door demanding money for the call – which did not go into the hotel’s books but into the operator’s pocket!

Once I was waiting to interview the President of a developing country. I was ushered into his waiting room at the Presidential Palace where I saw an ordinary man in tattered clothes waiting to see the President. He was first in the queue. I could hear a lot of noisy and excited chickens in a basket by his side and was curious to know how the chickens had passed through the security net when I had been frisked thoroughly before entering the Palace. The man said he was a village farmer. And, the chickens? They were a gift for the President. I love writing headlines, which I do to this day, and conjured one while waiting to meet the President. When the interview appeared in my magazine I headlined it: THE PRESIDENT AND THE CHICKENS.

NC: What was your childhood like? Would you write even as a child or the shade came to your personality later?
SP: I had a very loving and protected childhood. My parents gave me all the opportunities. They taught me that I should respect everyone whether young or old. I was always interested in writing and my first article was published in a Kenyan magazine called ‘Arrow’ when I was 13. When he saw my Indian name, the editor sent me three crisp one Rupee Indian currency notes – which half a century later are still well-preserved with me!

That encouraged me and by the time I was in my teens I wanted to be a journalist.

NC: How often do you travel to various countries? Are your novels reality based or are they figments of pure fiction?
SP: I travel abroad when assignments come up. There is no hard fast time table. There was a time when I used to be out of Britain for a total of nine months in a year travelling abroad. Once I travelled through eight countries in a three week stint.

My novels are faction – fiction based on facts. For instance, my latest faction, The Illegals: Homeless, Visa-Less, Hopeless – Striving for the Good Life is based on true stories, interviews I have had with these unfortunate illegal Indian immigrants looking for a new life in the West. All the incidents in the novel are true to the last detail but to protect the identity of those big-hearted men who agreed to share their painful experiences with me, I turned them into fictitious characters. If I had named them, it would have brought shame to their families and consequently ostracised by the society. I added oomph to some lifeless stories and made them interesting for the reader.

NC: You witnessed the Rwanda genocide. What are your opinions regarding the same?
SP: The tribal genocide in Rwanda in 1994 was an ugly part of global history which I witnessed first-hand. Some 800,000 people were killed as events exploded. I saw young children being hacked to death and with some brave journalists stopped crazed killers from butchering women and children. The job of a journalist is not just to stand, stare and photograph but also intervene when events call for intervention. When we cover such events death also stalks journalists.

Covering death and destruction are all part and parcel of journalism. I witnessed the 1984 famine in Ethiopia and saw people dying from hunger and dropping dead like flies.

NC: How is your Indian connect? Do you identify yourself as an African, an Indian or an European?
SP: I am a pukka Punjabi and my roots go back to that part of India. I have lived in Africa for decades before my family moved to Europe in the mid-1970s. I have been in Britain for some 40 years. I speak Punjabi, Hindi, Gujarati very fluently and a smattering of Urdu and Marathi and I enjoy Bollywood, Indian cuisines and music – so that makes for my Indian connection, not to mention a whole array of relatives in India and two decades of covering live Bollywood concerts here in UK in the 1970s and 80s including interviews with film stars, classical dancers and playback singers such as Asha Bhosle, Lata Mangeshkar, the late Mohamed Rafi and Kishore Kumar among others.

My connections with Africa are through my residence there and my specialisation in African affairs journalism for more than 25 years. Besides I have a Degree in Kiswahili, and am currently writing a full length novel in this African language. In 1970s I launched a pioneering news service Newslink Africa in Fleet Street, the heart of London’s newspaper industry, specialising in African affairs. I was its Managing Editor for around quarter of a century.

Well, my being a European? The only claim I can make is London is my home and I am to live here for the rest of my life. I get a feel of being global – I enjoy Indian, African and Western cultures here.

But having spent a few years living and working in the Middle East did not make me an Arab!

Some may say, I could be a confused Desi! I can safely say I am rolled into one!

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