Posts Tagged ‘Behind the Times’

Jug Suraiya on MJ, SJ, Giri, Monu & Mamma T

22 July 2011

PRITAM SENGUPTA writes from Delhi: Books about The Times of India are like city buses. There isn’t one for years, and then two come along around the same time. And on both occasions, punsters imported from Calcutta are the ones steering the wheel.

Bachi Karkaria came out with Behind the Times, “a poorly structured, poorly sourced and poorly edited… airy tribute to the war-room surgeons who botoxed the Old Lady of Boribunder into a sassy lass,” a few months ago.

Now, Jug Suraiya is out with “JS and The Times of my life“, a two-in-one salute to Junior Statesman where he started off and The Times of India, where he has spent the last 25 years.

Despite making no claims to being an accurate history of Indian journalism, Suraiya’s worm’s eye-view (Tranquebar, 340 pages, Rs 495) throws more light than Bachi’s on the stellar bylines and bolf-faced names, and with none of the unctuousness.

***

On M.J. AKBAR: ‘Please, sir, can I submit a short story for publication?’ I looked up from the papers on my desk. No one had called me ‘sir’ before. A thin chap with an aspiring moustache, in shorts and a half-sleeved shirt stood before my desk. I gestured for him to sit.

‘Where’s the short story?’ In reply, he handed over a school exercise book, the last several pages of which were covered with carefully penned handwriting.

‘I’m sorry I couldn’t get it typed. I don’t have a typewriter,’ the young chap said.

‘Don’t worry, I don’t either,’ I said. ‘But you’d better tear out these pages yourself. I’ll make a mess of it.’

He tore out the pages and handed them to me.

‘You haven’t put down your name, for the by-line,’ I said. ‘What is it?’

‘M.J. Akbar,’ said M.J. Akbar.

The short story was published, and MJ—then in class XI at Calcutta boys school)—soon became a regular campus correspondent for the Junior Statesman….

Years later, in 1985, at a memorial service held in Calcuta after Desmond Doig‘s untimely death, MJ spoke about how Junior Statesman—soon to be shortened to JS—had been the launch pad of his journalistic career.

MJ made it sound as though that were the JS‘s greatest contribution to posterity. Who knows? Maybe it was.

***

On SHASHI THAROOR: ‘I though you had the Jungian unconscious in mind when you wrote your short story. Did you?’

The speaker was referring to a short story called ‘The Wall‘ I’d written and which had appeared in the JS.

He was about 12 years old, the only person in shorts at the cocktail party in Desmond’s flat in Calcuta, and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world that he should ask me about the Jungian unconscious. Whatever it was.

His name was Shashi, and he was the son of the advertising manager of The Statesman, a human dynamo called Chandran Tharoor. Even in those days, Shashi had the grace of intellect and the charm of manner to put people far older, less clever than he, at their ease.

***

On C.R. IRANI: Each morning the managing director [of The Statesman] would come to the JS, tucked away on a mezzanine floor of the Statesman building. Striding into Desmond’s cabin, he would ask for the JS team to be summoned.

The MD would address the congregation. ‘Desmond, boys, they’re coming to take me away. I expect them at any moment. But even after I have gone, remember: keep fighting the good fight, keep the flag of freedom unfurled. That’s all. Thank you and God bless till we meet again.’

Then, heels clicking counterpoint to the silent strains of ‘We shall overcome‘, the MD would march out, presumably into the arms of the waiting constabulary.

They never came. In the afternoon, Desmond would phone the MD’s secretary to ascertain his fate.

‘The MD’s gone?’ she’d confirm.

‘To Lalbazar lock-up?’ Desmond would ask.

‘To the Bengal Club for lunch,’ she’d reply. And the next day the entire sequence would be repeated again.

***

On TIME magazine: When Mother Teresa received the Nobel Prize, Dan Sheppard, the then Time correspondent in Delhi, called me in Calcutta. He wanted to kow how much Mamma T weighed.

‘You know the Time style,’ he said. ‘In the piece I write, when I say ‘tiny’, I have to give her weight to back up the adjective. Will you find out for me, please?’

I rang the Missionaries of Charity. Mother was unavailable, out on fieldwork, as she was more often than not. I spoke to one of the sisters.

‘I’m sorry, I know it sounds stupid. But could you tell me how much Mother weighs? It’s for Time magazine.’

There was silence. Then, very gently, ‘Do you really think that Mother herself would know or care?’

In the end I made up a figure: 48 kg, and passed it on to Dan. He seemed happy enough. Presumably so were Time readers.

***

GIRILAL JAIN: ‘Condemn or condone?’ said Girilal Jain. It was the tailend of a typical editorial page meeting, chaired by Giri. The air was turgid with debate and tobacco smoke. But even the fug of nicotine fumes couldn’t obscure the sparkle of the discourse. It was a stellar gathering, with one notable exception.

There was Giri himself, of course. Last of the great editors, and very conscious of it too…. Puffing on his pipe, Giri conjured visions of ancient faultlines of caste and creed, of clan and tribe, wanting to open wide their cataclysmic jaws and swallow up in a trice the marvels of modern India….

Towards the end of every edit meeting, Giri would allot the day’s work. Often, though not always, Giri reserved the lead editorial for himself, using it to tell the government what it should or should not do about whatever it was Giri felt it should or should not do.

Having sorted out the government for yet another day, Giri would ask the others for topics they might wish to write about. Someone would suggest Bihar (something or the other, generally the other, was always happening, or not happening, in Bihar); someone else would mention President’s rule somewhere else; another would offer the sarkar’s growing fiscal deficit.

Giri would decide which of the offerings he wanted. Then he’d asked the person wo’d volunteered to write it, a single question: ‘Condemn or condone?’

Was the writer in favour of what it was or was he against it? The writer would give his reply in the same ‘Condemn/condone’ format and the edit page meeting would be over.

***

DILEEP PADGAONKAR: Giri’s own heir-apparent was Dileep Padgaonkar. Dileep who had been one of the first of the new guard to be recruited by Gautam Adhikari on Samir Jain‘s instructions was—and is—a Chitpawan Brahmin equally fluent in Sanskrit and French, which he spoke with a Sanskritised accent, or perhaps it was the other way round.

A wonderful raconteur and mimic, his rendition of the 9 0′clock television in raga bhairavi was a treat to hear. He gave the impression of always sporting an invisible beret, a baguette under the arm and a silk cravat around his neck, even in a Delhi summer.

Present at Giri court was Gautam himself and the newcomers he’d recruited, which included Arvind N. Das, who came from the world of academia, Subir Roy, who’d worked with The Telegraph in Calcutta, and Ajay Kumar, who’d been with India Today.

Anikendranath ‘Badshah’ Sen, who’d been with Radio Australia, had been brought in by Dileep.

Badshah’s and Dileep’s cars had happened to stop at the same Delhi red light at the same time. They knew each by sight and had exchanged greetings. Then, on an impulse, Dileep had asked: ‘Where are you working now?’

‘Radio Australia,’ Badshah had said.

‘Would you like to switch to the ToI?’ Dileep had said.

‘Why not?’ Badshah had replied.

And that had been that.

***

SAMIR JAIN: One Saturday evening, Bunny and I, Navbharat Times editor S.P. Singh and his wife Shikha Trivedy, and a couple of others from the Times group had foregathered for dinner at the Nizamudding West flat that Subir Roy and his wife Indrani were renting at the time.

The phone rang and Subir answered it. He hung up, looking sombre.

‘It was Samir Jain,’ he said. ‘He says he’s coming over. With his wife. He says they’ve had their dinner, so not to worry about food.’

There was contemplative silence. At the end of a long week, when you’re having a few drinks with your cronies and letting your hair down, you don’t exactly want your super-boss sitting there listening in to your conversation which, had he not been there, could well have been about him.

‘Oh well,’ said someone philosophically.’Let’s have a drink to that.’

We did and waited for SJ. He and his wife, Meera, turned up. All the men stood up, offering chairs.

‘No, no. Please. Continue,’ said SJ. He led his wife to a corner of the room where there were a couple of seats and they sat down. ‘Please,’ said SJ. ‘Do carry on.’

Eventually we managed to get a conversation going, with SJ sitting in the corner listening attentively. Belly-aching about the office was obviously out of the question. So we stuck to a safe topic: new places in Delhi to drink and eat out in.

Someone mentioned a new Spanish restaurant which did a mean paella.

‘Yeah, I’m told it’s good. But bloody expensive,’ someone else said.

‘Place to go for a special occasion,’ I said.

‘Excuse me,’ said SJ from the corner.

Everyone shut up. For a moment we’d forgotten that he was there. Which, of course, was exactly what he wanted.

‘Excuse me,’ said SJ again.’But you people like to, I mean really like to, spend money? You get some sort of pleasure out of it?’

There was a clumsy silence.

‘Yeah,’ I said at last. ‘We people like, actually like, to spend money. When we have any, that is. On special occasions, once in a while, we might even like to spend more than we can really afford. Maybe that’s partly what makes a special occasion a special occasion.’

SJ nodded. ‘I see,’ he said. ‘You people like spending money. Interesting.’

***

MONU NALPAT: [ToI foreign affairs editor] Ramesh Chandran, who shared an office room with him, would describe to a fascinated audience the daily morning ritual. Monu would stride in briskly and go to his desk without a word of greeting or any acknowledgement of Ramesh’s presence.

Seating himself at his desk, he would take off his spectacles and place them on the desktop. Then he would remove, one by one, all the metallic objects on his person: his watch, the rings on his fingers, the coins from his wallet. He would arrange these with millimetric into precision on the desk.

He would stand up and eyes shut, genuflect several times in one direction. He would turn at an angle of ninety degrees and repeatedly genuflect again, murmuring an inaudible incantation. He would go back to his desk, put his watch and rings on, put the coins back into his wallet.

He would put on his spectacles, looking at Ramesh, giving him a beaming smile, and say, ‘Good morning, Ramesh! How’s it going?’

***

SAMIR JAINDiana dead. It was humongous news. The most humongous of the year. Maybe of the decade. All the editorial pages of all the newspapers in the wold would have lead editorials about Diana’s death.

With one big huge glaring exception. The ToI. Whose-edit-page in-charge was the only journo in existence who hadn’t got the news till it was too late to do anything about it.

The next day when I got to the ToI office, my edit page colleagues told me that Samir Jain—or VC, as we all called him, for vice-chairman (of Bennett Coleman & Co Ltd)—had already come by the department.

‘What did he say?’ I asked.

‘He said, “The edit page editor must be having a very good reason to give to the publishers as to why the ToI is the only newspaper not to have an editorial on Diana,” said a colleague.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Well, if he comes by again just tell him that the ToI edit page doesn’t believe in knee-jerk reactions.”

Also read: When Samir served a thali, Vineet a scoop

When Samir served a thali, Vineet served a scoop

15 April 2011

SHARANYA KANVILKAR writes from Bombay: As it approaches its dosquicentennial, India’s biggest English language newspaper, The Times of India, truly deserved a meticulous biography to tell the world on “what goes on inside this amazing media machine”.

Sadly, Bachi Karkaria‘s Behind the Times (Times Books, 325 pages) is not that.

Poorly structured, poorly sourced and poorly edited, Karkaria’s is an airy tribute to the war-room surgeons who botoxed the Old Lady of Boribunder into a sassy lass, but it airbrushes the foot soldiers in the trenches, on whose sweat, toil and guard stands “The Masthead of India” across the nation.

As Karkaria’s creation “Alec Smart” would have said:

Marwadiya! It’s a bloody Parsimonious salute, dikri!”

Yet, despite its Bombay Gym view of Dadabhoy Naoroji road, Behind the Times has its moments in demystifying some of the myths built around its formidable helmsmen— the brothers Samir Jain and Vineet Jain—and in humanising a gigantic group.

***

On SAMIR JAIN, vice-chairman (VC): On the international Response (advertising) conferences—holidays really—the participants not only wallowed in VC’s generosity, they also learnt about cost consciousness from him. Once Indira Deish [of Times Response], while taking her room key, instructed the receptionist to give her a wake up call, and send a pot of bed tea with it. She felt a tap on her shoulder, turned around and saw VC. “He put his hand into his suit pocket, pulled out something, and put it in my palm. It was a couple of tea bags. After that, I always carried a box of these, and ordered only hot water. I learnt the value of thrift.”

Much earlier Indira learnt a similar lesson during the sesquicentennial celebrations in Delhi where she was part of the reception team. At the accompanying dinners, Samir Jain taught us “never to change a plate mid-meal. It unnecessarily added to the caterer’s bill.”

Thrift lesson #3 came from a regular office advice. Samir Jain, preempting the later global fashion, sent detailed instructions on how to recycle, reuse, and refuse to waste. He made it a ‘criminal offence’ to send a fax on a letterhead. The ‘grains’ pixelation of the printed header added three minutes more to the transmission time; so it was far more economical to photocopy and then fax….

Mahendra Swarup was inducted to bring his global marketing skills to Vineet’s baby Times Internet Limited. Before formally starting he naturally had to meet Samir Jain. Swarup had been struck by flu, but he went anyway at the appointed time to Jain House at 6, S.P. Marg, then still the whole family’s address.

If he had been less of a newbie, he would have postponed the meeting because Samir Jain is extremely susceptible to colds, and immediately dispenses with anyone with the slightest sniffle. However, Swarup recalled an extremely solicitous Samir Jain not dispensing with him, but dispensing medication. He summoned a minion to bring out an array of ayurvedic pills and potions, and discussed their various powers. And that was the sum total of the 40-minute ‘interview’. Later in the day, he even sent more vials to Swarup’s house….

For Swarup [who came from Pepsi], the early differentiator between the MNC and VC styles was the dining table. “Whenever we were at lunch, he observed what I relished in the lavish thali, and what I was ignoring. He told me what was good for me, and what I shouldn’t eat. Not just that, he served me personally. And would often show up at my house followed by the driver staggering in with a large hot-case. He’d say, “Mahendraji, aaj aap ki favourite kadhi banayi thi.”

***

On VINEET JAIN, managing director (MD): Vineet Jain rolls up his sleeves—-meticulously in v. neat folds—and buckles down to the nitty-gritty in all the media that exercises him at that time. he even orchetrates news stories on Times Now, as he did during the rescue of Prince, the little Rajasthani boy who fell into an open 60-ft-deep borewell, in 2006. His social connections enable him to add muscle or masala to a report.

And on one memorable occasion, the MD actually one of the big news stories of 2009: that Manu Sharma, the politically connected main accused in the high-profile Jessica Lal murder case, was out on parole ostensibly to meet his ailing mother, but actually partying….

The MD was on the case like a proper newshound. He alerted Vikas Singh, the Delhi resident editor; he told the Delhi Times reporter not to file the story till he had vetted it himself. He then called Vikas again, and told him to hold the story because “there’s too much hearsay. Tell the reporter to go back and get the bar manager’s quotes. On tape, and clandestinely if necessary.”

In the meanwhile, Vikas had a run-in with his immediate boss, Jojo (executive editor Jaideep Bose), who was hollering him on the line from Mumbai pressuring him to release the story for all editions so that no one else out-scooped the ToI.

Vikas told him, “The reporter says it will hold.”

Jojo thundered: “Who the hell is this reporter?”

Vikas replied: “MD”.

***

On R.K. LAXMAN, cartoonist: The most notable feature of the creator of the common man was that he was completely lacking in the common touch. To all but a close circle of personal friends and a coterie of the editors he worked with, R.K. Laxman was arrogant to the point of rudeness….

Laxman and [his wife] Kamala had gone to Qatar as guests of the sheikh. A public lecture was part of the deal. The opening line of his speech left his audience and his princely host stuned. He said, “Ever since I have set foot in your country, I have been most unhappy, in fact down right miserable.”

He then went on, “If a car is to pick me up at 10, it is always there at five to 10, with the AC switched on. I never have to open the door, the smartly uniformed chaffeur has always jumped out to do this for me. My heart sinks every time I drive through your country. The ride is always smooth with none of the potholes I am used to back home. Every street light is working. The walls are clean without a single blob of betel juice. How do you expect me, a person from Bombay, not to feel totally depressed about this?”

***

On DILEEP PADGAONKAR, former editor: Dileep was, in his colleague [former Bombay resident editor] Dina Vakil‘s memorable phrase, an ‘impresario editor’…. Dileep presided over a fine dining table and the TOI, many would aver, in that order. One of the nuggests in the newsroom’s annals is that the only time he sent out a memo and one steeped in aged balsamic at that, was when The Sunday Times of India appeared with ‘bouillabaise’ misspelt. For the Francophile and foodie editor it was a crime worse than a murdered filet mignon.

***

On GIRILAL JAIN, former editor: As DileepPadgaonkar described him: “He was given to making Spenglarian statements covering vast ages and aeons in a single sentence. he was a blend of Curzonian ambitions and Haryanvi conceits.” No surprise then that when he went to Iran to interview the Shah, he is supposed to have ended up tutoring the Pahlavi monarch on matters of geo-political strategy. On an evening, Giri would walk in the Lodhi gardens, puff at his cigar and come up with statements that would flummox even the lofty companion he had chosen. he would pronounce, ‘The Hun will be pitted against the Hindu.”

***

On  SHAM LAL, former editor: When Sham Lal retired, the newsroom (which he had never stepped into) gave him a farewell. It was held in the 6th floor canteen where the aam janata, not ‘invited’ to the august directors’ lunch room, ate. Sham Lal was seldom seen in the latter, so he probably did not even known of the existence of the former. He was escorted up in the lift and into the huge hall. News editor, chief reporter, subs, peons, all sung his fulsome (sic) praises. The quiet but universally admired editor was presented ‘floral tributes’ and a salver.

Then the master of ceremonies grandly announced, ‘Now Mr Sham Lal will give a speech.’ Sham Lal slowly shuffled to his feet, cleared his throat, and as the packed hall waited in anticipation for an outpouring of enlightenment from the man who had attained intellectual nirvana, he merely said, ‘Thank you’. Then he went back to his chair and sat down….

At a party in Mumbai, Sham Lal was cornered by a large, garrulous American woman. After a 15-minute monologue, she stopped mid-flow and asked, “Am I boring you?” and Sham Lal replied with extreme and genuine courtesy, “Yes I am afraid you are.”

***

On PREM SHANKAR JHA, former assistant editor: The editorial HQ was still Mumbai, and he wouldn’t roll up to the portico in a taxi like his colleagues. He arrived with his bulk perched incongruously on a frail moped. He would come directly from his morning tennis at the Bombay Gym and would fluster into the edit meeting invariably late, dripping with sweat and clumsily dropping his helmet and racuqet. Sham Lal would mildly glower and Prem would clasp his podgy hands and say, ‘Maaf kijiye, Sham Lalji, maaf kijiye’….

One day, hearing hysterical screams from the inner cabin, the long-suffering Iyer entered to find his portly boss balanced precariously on a chair, quaking in impotent terror and staring at a cockroach on his desk. As soon as he saw his steno, he ordered him to swat it. Iyer froze at such an unBrahminical directive, with Prem getting more and more apoplectic by the minute. He finally shouted, ‘Kill it, kill it, you f***ing vegetarian.’ Iyer fled.

***

On J.C. JAIN, former general manager: J.C. Jain was among the most powerful GMs of the time when this was top executive position. He had a reedy voice, sometimes cruelly described as ‘having one vocal chord’. The story goes that on a visit to Hollywood, JC met the smokey-voiced beauty, [Humphrey Bogart‘s wife] Lauren Bacall. Trying to think of something smart to say to this icon, he quipped: ” Miss Bacall, is it true that you are sometimes mistaken for a man?” The lady arched her famous eyebrows and retorted, “No. Are you?”

***

On T.N. NINAN, former Economic Times editor: T.N. Ninan was extremely possessive about his editorial domain. Samir Jain was raring to bring many innovations into ET, but Ninan, more as a matter of principle, was less than enthusiastic. One of these was ear panels, but Ninan resisted on the belief that the masthead should not be devalued by small ads on either side.

Irritated, the VC called the Bangalore branch head, Sunil Rajshekhar, and said, “This is what I want, and it has to be in ET there tomorrow.” Sunil passed on the VC’s instructions to the RE, Nageswaran, who mentioned this in a routine mail to his boss. Ninan blasted him, “Do you report to me or to Sunil Rajshekhar?” The hapless guy spluttered, “But, Mr Ninan, the VC asked for it to be done.” Ninan thundered, “I don’t care who asked. I am the Editor.” Yes, he was. But not for long.

***

On JUG SURAIYA, edit page editor: Some time in 1987, Ashok Jain summoned Gautam Adhikari, and said, “I am told there are no good young journalists in India outside the Times.” Gautam said, “No, sir, there are many good journalists, and I am sure they would be happy to join us.” The chairman said, “Give me a note.” Gautam made out a spreadsheet which included their brief bios, even a ballpark estimate of their current salaries…. Gautam’s list included Chandan Mitra, Swapan Dasgupta and Jug Suraiya from The Statesman.

When Gautam called his old quizzing friend and said, “Could we meet?” Jug thought he wanted to join The Statesman, and sounded out the editor. Sunanda Datta-Ray removed his cigarette-holder from his lips and replied, “He will be an asset. Ask him to telephone me.” But when they met at the Elphin bar, it was Gautam who was doing the offering. To everyone’s surprise, Suraiya was willing.”

***

On SWAMINATHAN AIYAR, former Economic Times editor: The economics whiz Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar had many quirks. As a genius he was entitled to the full quota. One of these was unqiue: he always carried his cup of tea to the 3rd floor loo in Times House, Delhi.

***

On PRITISH NANDY, former editor, Illustrated Weekly of India: Some-time Science Today editor Mukul Sharma had acted in Paroma, an edgy film made by his ex-wife, the well-known actresses-turned-director Aparna Sen. He played the foreign-returned photographer who had an affair with his subject, a traditional Bengali house. The beauteous Rakhee essayed the title role. Mukul boasted to his friend Pritish that when he lay atop her for a bedroom shot, he counted 29 golden flecks in her amber eyes. Nandy smirked and said, “36″.

***

On PRADEEP GUHA, former response head: Two years into Pradeep Guha’s powerful stewardship of Response, and his raking in the moolah by the shovelful for the group, the chairman Ashok Jain turned to his son, Samir just after PG left the room, and ingenuously asked, “Achcha, yeh banda karta kya hai?‘ (What exactly does this chap do in the organisation?)

***

On DINA VAKIL, former Bombay resident editor: In December 2003, Salman Rushdie returned to his boyhood city, Mumbai, after a gap of 16 years. The interview team comprised three people: resident editor Dina Vakil, who had published an excerpt from Midnight’s Children in the Indian Express and had met Salman when he was a young tyke, and was allegedly featured as Mina Vakil in the Ground Beneath her Feet. The other was Rushdie fan Nina Martyris. Bringing up the rear was the veteran photographer Shriram Vernekar.

Terrified that Shriram would innocently discuss the ‘scoop’ with his photographer friends in other publications, Dina threatened him with dire consequences as her car drew up to the Taj. “I will kill you,” was her (usual) refrain as she wagged a perfectly manicured finger in his mystified face. Shriram, whose storming ground was the Sena shakha and Ganesh visarjan, didn’t know what the fuss was all about.

While shooting them, the genial Shriram did his bet to put a slightly awkward Rushdie at ease, by engaging him in small talk. He lowered his camera, looked up at the celebrated writer and said conversationally, “First time in Mumbai?” Even as Dina rolled her eyes and looked like she wanted to throttle Shriram, an unfazed Rushdie twinkled, “Not quite.”

***

On RAJDEEP SARDESAI, former assistant editor: Why just the stenos, even the peons were totally clued in and, when it came to Byzantine state politics, the Maharashtrian ones could teach a thing or two to the younger assistant editors. Once Rajdeep Sardesai, hot off the dreaming spires of Oxford, wrote a whole three-part series on the rising presence of the Shiv Sena without, it was whispered, meeting a single sainik or visiting a single shakha. On that occasion, it was left to the more hands-on Kalpana Sharma to fill in the gaps.

External reading: The Economic Times review of the book

The Times of India review of the book

The Business Standard review of the book

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 7,699 other followers

%d bloggers like this: