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.


L Venkata Ranga said...

Dear Sir I just wanted to say only one thing. I really admire your writng.

Blog-Capt. Anup Murthy said...

It's been great meeting you and knowing you and my impression is that you are anything but a flunky! The ideas that you have, your eloquent writings, you'd put a lot of the Englishmen to shame these days! Your memories seem fresh and I can't wait to read the sequel, I'm hoping there's one.

rishi kesh said...

I find your unsuccessful attempts in India quite similar to mine. Well I started my journalism career in television, but after leaving television I find it hard to get into journalism career. Even in the search of job I shifted to Delhi.

Very much impressed by your writing skill.