Sentinel House, the book on the newspaper business by the Bangalore journalist Allen J. Mendonca, who passed away suddenly in late September, is being posthumously published by Raintree, the media company Allen co-founded with his wife, Sandhya.
The book, priced at Rs 225, will be released by Arundhati Nag at the Ranga Shankara in Bangalore on December 16, and by Pratibha Prahlad at the Ambience Mall in Gurgaon on December 19.
Below is a review of the book by S.R. Ramakrishna, resident editor of MiD-DaY, Bangalore, followed by a brief excerpt.
By S.R. RAMAKRISHNA
Anyone who knew Allen Mendonca also knew he enjoyed his journalism. Which is why they won’t be surprised at the earnestness and energy in Sentinel House, his novel about the newspaper business.
Allen goes about challenging readers, fellow journalists particularly, to identify real-life media people hiding behind his fictional characters. He is a satirist this moment, and a practitioner of pulp fiction the next, but there isn’t a moment he isn’t having a go at the media world. For that reason, it is likely that journalists will grasp the novel’s nuances better than those with no access to newsroom gossip.
Sentinel House narrates the saga of Harivanshrai aka Harry, a media baron driven as much by his hormones as by the opportunities afforded by the new Indian economy. In a hurry to expand his empire, he transforms his newspaper from institution to product, obscures the once-inviolable line between editorial and marketing, and elevates advertiser over reader.
Many will read Sentinel House as a dramatised chronicle of what Allen saw in the newsrooms of the past two decades. The book also seethes with media-boardroom news and gossip that never made it to print. If journalists sit around at bars and coffee shops with a copy of Sentinel House, smirking, taunting, hooting, or even getting into brawls, you know why.
And unexpectedly, running through all the masala and the action is Allen’s faith in Hindu karma and Christian compassion. When Harry’s crippled son Sid finally finds love, fulfilment, wealth and power, Allen suggests it is all because of his essential goodness. Sentinel House describes crimes provoked by lust and greed, but it is also an optimistic tribute to innocence.
But for all that, Allen’s book is vulnerable, and can be ripped apart easily by any critical book lover. Its sex scenes are inspired by Harold Robbins. Its characters are predictable in what they do when faced with a crisis. (The media czar sleeps around, his wife parties and hits the bottle, their son seeks meaning in art, and older people seek solace in religion). Sentinel House is clearly inclined towards populist fiction and Page 3 reportage.
With this novel, Allen joins the ranks of Bangalorean journalists-turned-novelists Narendar Pani and C.K. Meena, but they take stylistic routes different from his.
If anyone could write this novel, it was Allen. In the decades he spent in journalism, he changed from intrepid reporter to Page 3 heartthrob to independent entrepreneur. He knew this story from the inside. He did many diverse things, including playing the guitar. Allen died of a heart attack late in September, and it is sad that his first novel will also be his last.
I read an advance copy of the book, and don’t know if Allen would have liked to revise it before sending it out to the press, but Sentinel House, even in its present form, can deliver a satisfyingly nasty punch.
Here is an extract from the book, published with the permission of the publishers.
REQUIEM FOR THE EDITOR
By ALLEN J. MENDONCA
The Rip Van Winkle of Malabar Hill has woken up.
Hip, hip, hurray!
Harivanshrai Kumar a.k.a Harry, the stormy petrel of the Indian media, has given the old man from another century a brand new look.
Imagine The Indian Sentinel in the avatar of good ol’ Rip, emerging all dishevelled and confused from H. G. Wells’ Time Machine.
He steps out the door into Harry’s state-of-the-art office. He looks around and shouts, “Jeez, I need a makeover.” Harry’s attractive and superefficient secretary (Where does he hire them from?) takes charge. She guides him to the bathroom, crops his hair, gives him a shave, orders him to bathe and throws away his tattered robes.
“Excellent. Now give him one of my suits tailored in Bond Street. And don’t forget the underclothes,” says Harry as he lights up a Cuban.
She gives him a withering look. “As if I’ll ever forget!”
Rip takes on the very personality of Harry.
Harry = The Indian Sentinel.
It means there is no more room for the conventional, intellectual editor in Harry’s grand scheme.
As far as he’s concerned, the editor is just a high-ranking employee who strings the news together and helms the production of the newspaper. It is the managing editor who dictates policy and content.
In short, professional managers have taken over The Indian Sentinel in every sphere of its existence.
It is limbo for the editors, for they are neither here nor there.
A degree from an IIM, better still, a doctorate in management from some fancy American University, that’s the ticket for a career in The Sentinel.
Goodbye, liberal arts.
Goodbye, Mr. Editor.
Harry’s on record: “The old order had to change and who better than I to herald it?”
Harry’s been harping about television fast replacing the print media as the most popular and quickest purveyor of news.
Five years from now there will be a dozen television stations beaming news and entertainment. We have to reinvent ourselves. Otherwise, newspapers will be relegated to the status of a poor cousin. We have already lost 23 per cent of our ad revenue to television. Our profit margins have begun to drop and will keep plummeting.
Sure, Harry has a case.
Sure, television is seducing our readers. Should we get worried? Is there a need for radical change? Should we change our editorial and management modules?
Should we look at alternative revenue streams to compensate for the drop in business?
Yes and No.
Packaging is only one aspect of presentation. Readers expect news and views. The written word is a habit. You can’t carry your television to the park. Or into the crowded bus or train.
Harry is young and in too much of a hurry.
He doesn’t understand what a newspaper is all about.
He’s a Young Turk who has been handed over a venerable institution on a platter.
Here’s wishing he won’t trip on his own predictions. For in his mad rush to be ahead of the times, he just might lose all touch with the present.