Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Soapbox speakers

(Published in June 2002. I haven't been to London since the late Sixties. Hyde Park Speakers' Corner was then an exclusive British institution devoted to freedom of expression, of cranks, windbags and other unemployables. I read that some years back, they tried it out in Singapore. Wonder what its current status is; if the Singapore's soapbox orators still have their corner. Would any of our Singapore familiar folks - Capt. Anup Murthy, Mrs. Vidya Nagaraj - know ?)

My friend and Zine5 writer Padmini Natarajan says that her Wednesday feature 'This and That' is her 'soap-box in the corner of Hyde Park'. By making such declaration she has licensed herself 'to wax and wane, grumble and groan, cheer and cry', blah blah blah. This, despite some 'skillful arm-twisting' by her editor. At the real place they are known to have done much else, unedited at that.

At the Marble Arch end of London's Hyde Park there is a corner meant for soap-box orators. I was a regular there, initially as a passive listener , and eventually, a back-row heckler, on Saturday afternoons in the Swinging Sixties. The Speakers' Corner attracted all sorts, from the world over - petty politicians on dole, dissidents in exile, extremists, evangelists in search of a congregation, cranks and other windbags. The thing about the speakers' corner was that it gave commoners (in terms of freedom of speech) the type of immunity MPs enjoy in the House of Commons. What made the place a prime source of Saturday afternoon entertainment for Londoners and visitors alike was that the speakers represented all creeds, colours of skin, shades of opinion and degrees of madness.

Michael Foot in his book Debts of Honour - a collection of essays on the personalities to whom the author felt indebted - refers to Bonar Thompson, a Hyde Park orator who valued his freedom so much that he refused to earn a living and lived on what others gave him in the name of freedom. N'Khrumah, several other leaders of newly independent African countries and our own Krishna Menon had graduated from the Hyde Park Speakers' Corner.

It took lung-power, wit and guts and a fairly thick skin to survive as a soap-box speaker. Those with king-size egos were cut to size by the sharp and highly interactive audience. Your voice should be loud enough to drown the noise coming from hecklers at the back row; and it helped if you had something sensible to say.

Some senior soap-boxers, however, were exempt from this criteria. There was this pathetic, but delightful, basket case who had collected, over the years, a band of faithful listeners who were so accustomed to his senseless and repetitive speech that they would not accept anything fresh or sensible from him. This crowd knew his script by heart and checked the speaker if he departed from the text and prompted him if the speaker skipped a phrase or fumbled for a word.

Then there was Sam, who said he could have been Billy Graham, if only he had taken to golf. It was golf, said Sam, that had brought Billy Graham close to LBJ and Nixon. It was at a game of golf Cecil B Demille invited Billy Graham to go into the movies. He declined the offer because, as Sam put it, "Billy boy was already making a fortune as special envoy to the president of the universe." But then Sam didn't approve of those who became disgustingly rich - "I am proud to be on dole in Britain."

Sam then went on to caution the audience of the wrath to come, despite, nay, because of the likes of Billy boy. "I warn you," said Sam, "there will be much weeping and wailing, and gnashing of teeth." An old woman in the audience yelled, "But Sam, I have no teeth!" to which Sam responded, "Don't worry, madam. We will get you dentures under the National Health Service scheme."

At the adjacent soap-box George held forth on how his lousy set of teeth had kept him away from serving his queen and country. He claimed that he would have been in the royal navy during the War, had it not been for his rotten teeth. "In London those days bombs fell all over the place," said George, "and I had planned on getting away from it all by joining the navy."
But the doctor at the naval recruitment board held that George didn't have a chance.

"Why, doc?"

"Your teeth are bad, George, that is why."

George got furious. "What have my teeth got to do with this, doc? Can't you see, I am going to fight the enemy, not eat them."

An African soap-boxer who claimed to have been on dole ever since he came to England took delight in deriding the British - "Britain is a nation of inventive geniuses; they make 40 different types of electrical plugs, none of which work satisfactorily." Britain, he said, was a nation of chips-eaters - "They have fish with chips, beef curry with chips, baked beans and chips, pie, pudding... you name it, they have it with chips. Why, presumably, they even have sex with chips."

Heckler : "Tell me, do you still eat people who visit your country?"

Speaker: "Oh yes, we do. But don't worry, we no longer eat Englishmen. Because the last one we put in the pot ate all the potato.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

To London, with 12 shillings in pocket

(Appeared in Zine5, June 2002)

In 1964 I gave up a secure government job in New Delhi, for an uncertain future in London. I was then 26, an age at which you think you know all the answers. Now, at 62, (in 2002 when this piece was done) I know that I don't even know all the questions.

I went to England on a labour voucher. Those days, citizens of the Commonwealth countries could migrate in search of job to England on a voucher issued by the British ministry of labour. It didn't promise a job, but guaranteed a dole for a work-permit holder till he found employment. Getting a labour voucher posed no hassles for those with an university degree. And it was convenient for many educated unemployables from India and former African colonies to find their way to England.

Some of them, with a political agenda at home and flair for public speaking, went on dole for as long as they could and spent time promoting their pet cause at the Hyde Park Speakers' Corner. It is the only place that guaranteed unfettered freedom of speech. You could even abuse the royalty. But then you could be taken for a crank. There was this middle-aged Irishman, who blamed his permanent unemployment status to the Royal Navy recruitment board. George brought his own soapbox to the Hyde Park corner on Saturday afternoons and held forth on his pet grouse against the armed forces.

"I volunteered for military service," said George, "when bombs were falling all over London." He was rejected on medical grounds. A naval doctor who examined him said, "George, your teeth are bad." To which George responded, "Doc, I am going to fight the enemy, not eat them." The recruitment authorities remained unpersuaded. And George has been telling this story ever since at the Hyde Park Speakers' Corner.

The work permit listed my occupation as 'journalist'. It took me over two years to get a job on a British newspaper. Till then I did an assortment of odd jobs. Which included a two-week stint as a packer in a clothes wearhouse; and a clerical officer ( a civil service job) in a post office savings bank.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) allowed a work-permit holder three pounds sterling as foreign exchange for travel. This was my pocket money during the 10-day boat trip from Bombay to Genova in Italy and an overnight train journey from there to London. That I was left with 12 shillings when I reached the London Victoria station, at the end of the 12-day journey, spoke for my scrupulous money management. In violation of the currency regulations I carried some Indian rupees, but the only place en route where I could convert it was Karachi.

M.V. Asia, a Lloyd Triestino boat, sailed into Karachi a day after it left Bombay. I went ashore with a group of passengers to get a feel of the Pakistani city. The moneychanger at the port exchanged our rupee for an equal amount of Pakistani rupee. However, a paanwalah in Karachi city was eager to give two Pakistani rupees for every Indian rupee we offered. Indian paan that he imported/smuggled was considered a delicacy there.

My friend Satish Kohli (we used to live in the same neighbourhood in New Delhi) who was to meet my train at Victoria that afternoon wasn't there. Finding myself friendless in unfamiliar London, without an address to go to and with no more than 12 shillings in my pocket didn't do much good for my spirits. Satish did turn up eventually (he had been held up at work) and took me home to his bed-sitter at Golders Green.

London tended to grow on me. And even when I found work at a newspaper in North-east England I used to travel to spend a weekend in London every other week. I was in England during the 'swinging' sixties, when the Beatles were a rage, and the Twiggy look was in vogue; when girls, in mini-skirts, went for a boyish cut and boys wore long hair. But there were things where change was inordinately slow in coming. Sound of Music was on at a Tottenhamcourt Road cinema house (the year was 1964). The movie was still running when I left London three years later! Agatha Christie's Moustrap was playing for the 13th year at a London theatre.

The first job I got through the employment exchange was that of a proof-reader at a North London printing press. They don't keep you on dole for more than six weeks at a time. If you don't find anything worthwhile within this period, you have to take up whatever job they offer you at the labour exchange. And journalists were not recruited through labour exchange.

I didn't last for more than three weeks as a proof-reader. On the third pay-day (they pay weekly, on Fridays) I felt that my envelope was heavier than usual and on counting the cash I found there was twice the amount I got as weekly wages. This was their way of showing you the door. My supervisor, a Pakistani, later explained to me over a drink that the manager who had bungled on a job work chose to make a scapegoat of me.

My next job was with India Weekly, brought out by a group of London-based Indian journalists and supported by the Indian High Commission. P N Haksar was deputy high commissioner and Salman Hyder, who retired as foreign secretary a few years back, was in the mid-sixties a first-secretary (information) at the High Commission. India Weekly was the brainchild of the then London bureau chief of the Calcutta daily Hindustan Standard, Dr. Tarapada Basu. He managed the weekly, with voluntary contributions from S K Shelvankar of The Hindu, Iqbal Singh of the Patriot and Shisantu Das of the Indian Express.

My position at India Weekly remained unspecified. So was my job description. I wasn't given an appointment letter. I was paid through office voucher an amount that was not much higher than what I would have got as dole, if I had registered myself as unemployed. You could call my stint at India Weekly sweat labour. But I cheerfully endured it. It kept me away from the humiliating dole queue.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Journalism: The last reort of a flunky

(The Zine5 piece appeared in June 2002; it relates to early 1960s when journalism wasn't a well paying job. Nor was it one's first career choice. The headline says it all.)

I suppose a poor academic track record - low second division in BA (Hons.) and a high third in MA - had something to do with my becoming a journalist, if only because it effectively ruled out most other job avenues. In the early sixties there weren't many options for the likes of me. My grades were too low for a teaching job. Many of my batchmates took up teaching while they studied for the IAS entrance exam. Some, who had influential parents, got covenanted jobs with Metalbox, ICI and other foreign companies or became assistant managers in the tea estates.

My father, a government babu, wanted me to appear for the IAS exam. I did. And spent hours daily 'group-studying' with friends at the Janpath (New Delhi) Coffee House. Not surprisingly, I flunked the exam. I couldn't blame the coffee house. For all others in the study group got through the exam and eventually rose up to the level of a joint secretary and above.
In fact, it was through a coffee house contact I learnt of a job opening at The Press Information Bureau (PIB) in the Union I & B Ministry. The basic qualification was a graduate degree and a diploma in journalism. A senior PIB official, K.K. Nair (better known for his writings on art and culture under the pen-name 'Chaitanya'), recommended my appointment on a temporary basis, on condition that I pursued the diploma course through evening classes conducted by the Punjab University department of journalism. I had carried to the job interview clippings of the features I had done for a youth magazine during my Delhi University days. Besides, my having done post-graduation from the Delhi School of Economics probably weighed in my favour.

I was appointed 'Assistant Journalist' at a princely salary of Rs.450 a month. This was in 1961. Newspapers paid much less those days. Fresh graduates recruited as probationary sub-editors at the Press Trust of India (PTI) got a monthly stipend of Rs.150. Entry level salary at the Times of India didn't exceed Rs.300. It was less at The Indian Express. Many of my seniors at the PIB had switched over from newspapers to the then better paying government jobs.

H.Y. Sharda Prasad, who made a mark as press advisor to Indira Gandhi, was once on the editorial desk of the Indian Express. My boss Pratap Kapur, had given up a job on The Times of India to become Information Officer in PIB.. The then head of the PIB photo publicity unit P.N. Khosla had come to the government from the News Chronicle. It was during my stint at the photo publicity unit (1961-64) I had occasion to come in contact with well known photographers, T. Kasinath, who headed the Photo Division of the I & B ministry and T.S. Satyan, who worked for Life magazine. Now settled in Mysore, Mr. Satyan is working on a book recalling his days as news photographer in New Delhi. Not many photographers of those days had familiarity with English of the grammatical kind, let alone a flair for writing. During my recent Mysore visit I re-established contact with Mr. Satyan after a lapse of 38 years.

Though I was lucky to have landed a government job I was not happy there. I wasn't among those who fancied a secure 10-to-5 job Not when you were in your early twenties. I cheerfully endured the irregular hours kept by working journalists. While in the PIB I used to envy news reporters whiling away the afternoons at the coffee house; late-shift sub-editors at The Hindustan Times (then located on the first floor at the Connaught Circus) dropping in at the Scindia House Milk Bar around 10 p.m. for a quick bite.

Before long I started looking around for an opening in a newspaper. At The Statesman, which then had the last of its British news editors, they wanted me to go out and get a story before they would interview me. As the news editor put it, "when I joined this paper in Calcutta the editor sent me out on a monsoon story before I was offered job." Monsoon was ruled out for me. It was then mid-summer in New Delhi. I settled for a piece on the thrills of gliding because I could persuade a friend at the gliding club to take me up for a spin. The next day I reported to the news editor, who tossed at me a noterpad made out of waste newsprint.. And I had to turn out 750 words right there, in his presence. Some 45 minutes later I handed in my copy. The news editor went through the first few paragraphs and pronounced, "No, this is not up to the Statesman standard."

My next target was The Times of India, which had advertised for trainee journalists. You were required to submit a 1500-word essay on a topic of current interest. I wrote something about Indian agriculture having been a gamble in the monsoon. This was the pet theme of my economics professor, Dr. B.M. Bhatia, at The Hindu College (Delhi). Anyway, I got called for an interview, where they quizzed me about some recent TOI edit-page pieces. Though aspiring to become a journalist I wasn't a scrupulous newspaper reader. As some of the less prepared contestants do on the BBC Mastermind programme I said, 'pass' to too many questions (for which I didn't know the answers) . In fact, I wasn't even well up on the editorial leading lights at TOI those days.

A couple of years after this interview, when I went to England to take my chances there, I used to see every morning, on a London red-bus, a middle-aged person poring over the Times of India. He used to board at St. John's Wood and alight at The Strand. After observing him for a few days I went up to him to ask, "Excuse me Sir, are you Mr. Girilal Jain?" He took his time to size me up before saying, "No, I am Kumud Khanna."

How was I to know that Girilal had by then left for India to become the TOI resident editor in New Delhi and that Khanna had taken over as the paper's London correspondent? After his London assignment Kumud Khanna became editor of The Illustrated Weekly for a brief spell before Pritish Nandy came along to jazz it up so much that the Weekly lost its credibility as a serious journal and eventually went out of circulation.

To return to the theme of my job-hunting in New Delhi, I made another unsuccessful attempt to join a newspaper, this time at The Patriot, by which time I became so bored with the government job that I quit the PIB and left for England to take my chances there. For someone rejected by the Patriot - as its news editor put it eloquently, "Krishnan, your English is poor and your grammar is weak" - I got a break in mainstream journalism aborad, in a British provincial daily, The Northern Echo published from Darlington in North-east England.