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 JAIN: Diana 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.”
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