Sunday, August 27, 2006

Importance of being Aarthi Prabhu

(During every Ganesh Puja my mind goes back to the Ganesh festival I celebrated some 15 years back at Kudal, a modest Maharashtra village. This piece, published in 2002, is about a legend Kudal gave to Marathi literature. About Aarthi Prabhu, who continues to live in the hearts and minds of the people of Kudal decades after the poet's demise.)

I had not heard of Aarthi Prabhu till I visited his native village, Kudal, in Maharashtra. This was some 15 years ago, over two decades after Aarthi Prabhu's death. But people still talked about him as if he had been with them till the other day. They spoke of him in endearing terms, but with an acute sense of sadness. Aarthi Prabhu died young, at the age of 46, in 1976.

My Kudal visit was sponsored by a generous friend, R.S. Sawant, settled in Chennai, and made annual visits to his native Kudal during the Ganesh festival. When I expressed a desire to visit his part of the country during Ganesh puja, a major social event for Marathis, Sawant readily offered to take me along, but on one condition. "You shall not open your purse during the entire trip," ruled Sawant, "better still, forget your wallet at home." It was a ten-day trip. Such was his Maratha hospitality.

As I said, everyone in Kudal knew someone who had known Aarthi Prabhu, Kudal's native man of letters. He is still so much a household name that you have got to be bit of a dud not to be familiar with the name - if you ask, "Aarthi, who?" folks in Kudal could give you that funny look. Mrs Sawant, wife of my host, had been to the same school as Aarthi Prabhu. Their headmaster, K.A. Wardekar, was the first to identify Aarthi's literary potentials. Wardekar was a Maths teacher, and Aarthi had particular distaste for the subject. But then he used to show his early writings to Wardekar, who felt inadequate to judge their literary merit - "I referred the boy to P.S. Nerlurkar."

My hosts took me to Wardekar's house at Vengurla. Every other person you are introduced to makes it a point to mention that Sunil Gavaskar belongs here and they have named a local sports stadium at Vengurla after the cricket legend. Mr Wardekar talked about 'madcap' Chandu, as Aarthi Prabhu was known among friends and schoolmates. Chintamani Triambak Khanolkar was his name. "Magazines would not accept his initial poems," said Wardekar, "perhaps, because his name didn't sound literary." The pseudonym - Aarthi Prabhu - helped sell his works. After he had gained literary fame Aarthi Prabhu had novels and treatise published under his own name.

Aarthi wasn't particularly well-read. He was not familiar enough with Marathi literature to be influenced by anyone's works. At school he was poor in studies; at home he wasn't endeared by his parents. Wardekar had kept in touch with Aarthi Prabhu even after he gave up studies to help his father at the eating house run by the family - "Aarthi was a victim of child abuse, often beaten up by his father." Wardekar was a regular customer at the eating house - "They served mid-day meals at Rs.50 a month."

After his father's death Aarthi wound up the family eating house and moved to Bombay, in 1959, with his wife, three children, widowed mother and an uncle. The first and the only job he held was that of an attendant in All India Radio. He used to commute to work from Karjat, which is closer to Pune than Mumbai. Aarthi Prabhu could not hold the AIR job for long. He was turned out on suspicion that he had Communist leanings.

It turned out to be a blessing, as Mrs Sawant put it. The Tata Centre for Promotion of Arts and Literature discovered Aarthi's potential and offered him a monthly scholarship of Rs.1,000. The two-year term was extended for a further period of two years. It was during this time that Aarthi's oversized family saw some happy days. It was also a period during which Aarthi was prolific in his writings. His plays became popular.

For someone who had problems getting through high school, Aarthi Prabhu's works came to be prescribed for Marathi literature students at the post-graduate level. Seven scholars have done PhDs on various aspects of Aarthi Prabhu's literary work. His literary reputation brought Aarthi Prabhu close to the Mangeshkar family. Lata and her sister Asha Bhosle set to music and sang some of his poems. As Wardekar put it, Aathi's regret was that his literary worth went unrecognised in native Kudal during his lifetime. Kudal boasts of a 125-year-old public library with a collection of 20,000 titles, but it did not have a set of the complete works of Aarthi Prabhu.

His personal misery and poverty did not cramp Aarthi's literary output, which was prolific till the end. They say that even in his deathbed at K E M Hospital he didn't give up on his writing; he handed in to the attending doctor a scrap of paper in which he had scribbled these lines shortly before the end came:

"At the last turn of my life's journey,
There should be a blossom of flowers;
And if possible, I should get up and walk,
To complete my journey of life."

The leading character in American Beauty, that masterpiece on decadence of life in the suburbia, says, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life; and this is true of every day, except the day you die." Aarthi Prabhu, even on the verge of death, sought to live even his final hours as if it were his first day.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The unsung sub-editors in print media

( This piece appeared in July 2002, and relates to the print media in New Delhi during the Sixties. Most newspaper readers may not be familiar with the species called 'sub-editors'. They put in shape raw copy written by correspondents. Sub-editors process the story submitted by a correspondent, and give headlines to what appears on the printed page. Reporters/correspondents corner all the glory; get invited to booze parties, the press tours. Behind every correspondent's byline in newspapers, there is usually an unsung sub-editor. )

Every office has its sacred cow. Ours at the Times of India (TOI) came in the guise of a Special Correspondent (with capital 'S' and 'C,' in grudging recognition of his sacred cow status). He was an unmitigated pain in the butt for us on the TOI news service desk. This piece, however, is not just about an 'SC' (who was, in fact, a brahmin in the office hierarchy); it is more about that downtrodden backroom species in a newspaper office, called sub-editor.

Inspiration for this piece came from a paragraph in which writer Brendan Gill sums up his spell as an editor on The New Yorker magazine. In his book, Here at The New Yorker, Gill wrote, and I quote: "For a time, I served as an editor as well as a writer, but the experiment proved uncongenial to my vanity. We had writers so inept that one had to rewrite them almost word for word, and when, at a cocktail or dinner party, I would hear a writer praised for a profile that was, in fact, almost entirely my handiwork, I would grind my teeth with ill-conceived rage."

Gill can be said to have spoken for the universal brotherhood of sub-editors in the print media. Speaking for myself, I have occasionally had an odd reporter thanking me for, what Gill calls "the usual tidying up of grammatical loose ends." But, as a class, reporters are not given to acknowledging the value-addition done to their work by rewrite persons. If anything, reporters are quick to blame the editorial desk for "butchering" their copy.

During my early days with TOI as sub-editor on the news service desk in New Delhi, we had a Lucknow-based special correspondent, who enjoyed a sacred-cow status with the editor. We shall call him Shastri. He had a know-all air about him and, what's worse, he believed that sub-editors were part of the editorial furniture in a newspaper office.

Shastri had a penchant for Victorian flourish in his writing. Which was okay in a Sunday magazine piece. But news reports on something as mundane as question hour proceedings in the legislative assembly or the CPI state council meeting called for straight-forward journalese, to describe who hit out at what and when pandemonium prevailed in the house. But then Shastri had in him the genes of Shakespeare, who probably was born Seshappaiyer in a Telugu Brahmin family before the literary world reinvented him.

Ignorant of Shastri's special status, in my early days with TOI news desk, I took liberty with his copy, cutting out the literary foreplay from a news story on zero hour hungama at the UP assembly. Shastri was not amused. Besides, he was a pal of my chief at the news service desk. The next morning our shift in-charge, K T R Menon, gave me a piece of helpful advice - "We don't edit Shastri's copy; we just mark paragraphs and bung it in." Menon, an accomplished rewrite man, knew better than investing his professional skills on Shastri's work. The TOI editor, Girilal Jain, used to ask 'KTR' to "run through" editorials and his edit-page articles before they were sent down for printing. Such has been his professional reputation that Menon, after retirement from New Delhi TOI news desk, was recalled by the management to help launch a daily in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Girilal, like most editors, had his favorites. Reporters generally had free access to the editor, particularly those with extensive contacts in political and bureaucratic circles. And Girilal, like all editors, believed that his editorials and political punditry made waves. Political correspondents and those who covered the PMO gave the editor feedback, filling him in on the impact his writings made in South Block. And the correspondents contrived an impact-report, even if Girilal's editorial words of wisdom went unread on any given day by those at the government decision-making level.

We had a Pandey, Special Correspondent, whose proficiency in palm-reading rather than his professional merit opened the editor's door for him and put him on the fast track. But the snag with being such "special asset" reporter was that his sacred cow status did not survive Girilal Jain. When Arun Shourie took over as executive editor, Pandey, who had everything going for him till then, suddenly found himself as lost as a stray cow squatting on a Daryagunj road divider during rush hour. Shourie didn't care for Pandey's proficiency in astrology. Which was too bad, because Pandey could have read into his stars and warned Arun Shourie that he wouldn't last more than six months in The Times of India. (As it turned out Shhourie didn't last for more than six months on The Times.)

Some reporters might be lousy writers, but they knew how to keep their bosses in good humor. We had an Assam correspondent who made regular shipments of quality tea and honey to the news editor. That he made money running a benami taxi service went unreported. There was this Bhopal correspondent of another national daily who got a car allotted on CM's discretionary quota (during the permit raj) and was running it as a taxi. This was brought to the CM's notice. During one of his visits to New Delhi, the CM, when he had occasion to meet the newspaper owner, asked him in all innocence, "But don't you pay your reporters well?" When the press baron wanted to know why the CM seemed concerned about salary levels at his newspaper, the latter remarked, "Well, your man in Bhopal presumably runs a taxi to make both ends meet." The correspondent was promptly transferred out of Bhopal. So much for taxi-operators who doubled as newspaper correspondents.

In contrast to the stepmotherly treatment meted out to sub-editors in Indian newspapers, a deskman on a British daily was a valued person. Reporters found it worthwhile cultivating him rather than complain against desk. At The Northern Echo, a British daily published from Darlington, UK, I did a stint as sub-editor in the mid-Sixties. Those days in Britain one was not considered for a desk job until one had put in at least five years as a reporter. Newspapers in Britain faced a perennial shortage of capable deskmen. At the Echo they thought well of sub-editors from India, "Do you know Sunny Rao?" the chief sub asked me on my first day at work. "He was a damn good sub." Sunny Rao had worked on the TOI desk in Bombay. He had left the Echo before I joined them. I realised that as an Indian I had a reputation to maintain. On the Echo editorial desk I took the slot that was vacated by another Indian and former Indian Express sub, Subash Chopra, who moved over to The Times, London.

The editor rarely, if ever, questioned a sub-editor's action. The music critic of the Echo once took up with my editor Don Evans the treatment his music review had received at the editorial desk. I happened to have reworded the first paragraph of the music concert review. A couple of days after the publication of the review, Don sent word that he wished to meet me at his office. After the pleasantries Don politely broached the subject, saying that our music critic was unhappy about the handling of his copy by the editorial desk. I told Don that I was constrained to rewrite the first paragraph in the interest of clarity - "When I could not understand the jargon the critic had used, I didn't expect our readers would."

I'll end this piece with the last word on sacred cow Shastri. Some days after I had been advised not to touch his copy, the editorial desk noticed a glaring literal error in a story (I believe it was about the Kumbhmela at Allahabad) and, we, the lowly sub-editors, conspired to let Shastri's article pass through the editorial desk untouched. The reporter's reference to a public place came to be printed as 'pubic' place. The report carried Shastri's byline, and thus, our sacred cow got nailed in print. We didn't hear Shastri cribbing against sub-editors.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Women in my life

(Published in Aug.2002, this piece relates to the late Sixties, when women in print media were a rare species.)

I am not pretentious enough to believe that intimate aspects of my life would interest anyone other than my wife. The mischief in the heading is calculated to get the attention of friends and family to my Zine5 ramblings My adorable platoon of nieces - Uma, Ranjini, Savitha, Kavitha, Swetha and Babli - wouldn't be drawn to reading this feature had I headlined it, blandly, Women in My Life in Journalism.

With no further ado I'll introduce Usha Rao ( later, Rai) and Prabha Behl - the only women I knew of among local reporters when I joined the profession in New Delhi in the sixties. That female journalists were a rare species those days had much to do with the perception of newspaper management. They could not, then, bring themselves to ask women to work long hours or do night shifts; nor count on women makeing a career in journalism. And the few who did, became prone to absenteeism after marriage. What was worse, some of them got married to someone within the profession.

Usha Rao of The Times of India became a 'Rai' after her marriage to Raghu Rai, famed photographer who was then with The Statesman. She used to do the Delhi University beat. I was then on the staff of The National Herald. Though a senior reporter, I was assigned the campus beat as a 'punishment' for having fallen out with my editorial boss. After having covered the Delhi administration and done political reporting at the local level I was unceremoniously assigned to reporting college functions, student union elections, convocation ceremonies, ragging incidents and the like. Usha, my senior on the campus beat, realised the situation and helped me out with news contacts and, occasionally, with carbon copy of her stories, at a time when my performance was being closely monitored by my tormentor. My missing even a minor story attracted a sternly worded memo from the editor.

Female Viewpoint
High-powered political reporting was then generally a male prerogative. Women reporters, even after years in the profession, were rarely assigned anything other than health, education or social welfare departments. But then some women have a way of carving out a niche for themselves. Usha Rai in her later years as journalist developed an expertise in ecology and does extensive writing on wildlife and environmental issues.

Even in general assignments such as a plane crash or political campaigns, news editors usually managed to find a woman's angle for female journalists. My former TOI colleague Kalpana Sharma is now doing very well at The Hindu, with her expertise in taking a "female viewpoint" on virtually any issue - the 9/11 attack, Afghanistan under Taliban, or the Gujarat riots.
Prabha Behl, the other female reporter from my early newspaper days was a go-getter; rose up to be chief reporter of The Hindustan Times. She had the potential to break out of fluff reporting. She died young. Her daughter Barkha Dutt is making waves as a livewire in TV reporting.
Among the few women journalists of my Delhi days, Neena Vyas has risen to the level of a political correspondent of The Hindu. During my dog days at The National Herald Neena was doing the campus beat for The Statesman. I had first met Neena in London, where, in the sixties, her husband and my college friend Ravi Vyas worked for Longman's Green, the publishers. I recall Neena having done a stint as apprentice with the Associated Press, London Bureau.

My editor at The National Herald, M Chalapati Rau, had been credited with the view that a woman on the staff would be a needless distraction on the editorial desk and at the reporters' room. Perhaps, he had a point. For when our news editor Kripalani eventually managed to persuade 'M C' to approve the recruitment of a female art critic, Priya Karunakaran, it was a matter of celebration for some of us on the staff. 'Pikky' showed up on Friday evenings to submit her review for publication and hung around for coffee and a chat with some of us in the reporters' room. This was, perhaps, what 'M C' had in mind when he referred to "a needless distraction."

Gender Bias
The Indian Express
of those days was a "progressive" employer. If I remember right, Tavleen Singh got a break in journalism with IE Delhi. Another Express staffer in those days, Razia Ismail, gave up journalism to join the UNICEF.

The Times of India, where I spent two decades, proved to be a stamping ground for women journalists. Some of us who belong to the old school suspected a reversal in the management's gender bias. The pendulum swung in favour of women, not just in the matter of recruitment. Much to our envy, some of our women colleagues were even favoured with plum assignments. It was during my stint as the TOI Bhopal correspondent (in the eighties) "bandit queen" Phoolan Devi surrendered before the then Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Arjun Singh, and was lodged in the Gwalior jail. And my editor sent Ayesha Kagal, an editorial colleague from Mumbai, to interview Phoolan in jail. As the TOI man in Madhya Pradesh, I ought to have handled the assignment. Instead, I was asked to meet Ayesha on her arrival from Mumbai and tag along with her to Gwalior to facilitate the interview. I was familiar with the town and had contacts with local officials.

I doubted whether Ayesha was even familiar with the language spoken in the Hindi heartland. As it turned out, Phoolan Devi wasn't familiar with it either. She spoke a Chattisgarhi dialect and we could communicate with her only through an interpreter. Which was just as well. For I gathered later that the "bandit queen" was given to foul-mouthing males and that in response to my questions had used the kind of language that would have embarrassed us. But then the bandit queen developed a liking for Ayesha and invited her back the next day without me. I realised then that my woman colleague from Mumbai would get a better story. But I beat her to it by telexing a story based on our first meeting. My interview with Phoolan Devi appeared the next day. And Ayesha, being the good sport that she was, appreciated it. But then Ms Kagal had the last word. Her story on Phoolan Devi appeared as a full-page spread on the TOI Sunday Review!

It was Nancy Reagan who likened a woman to a teabag - only in hot water do you realise how strong she is. Pushpa Iyengar, my TOI colleague, proved the point with her coverage of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. Rajiv was blown to smithereens in a bomb attack at an election meeting in Sriperumpudur, Tamil Nadu. It was an assignment no journalist would have missed. If only they had anticipated the bomb blast, TOI would have flown in a senior correspondent from Bombay or Delhi. In journalistic parlance we call it "parachute reporting" - cornering of plum assignments by seniors from the headquarters, ignoring the claim of the TOI Chennai news bureau.

Suicide Bomber
Pushpa had set out from Chennai to do a routine election meeting coverage at Sriperumpudur. Rajiv Gandhi drove down there on arrival at the Chennai airport from some place in Andhra Pradesh. Shortly after he reached the venue of the public meeting, Rajiv Gandhi worked his way to the dais accepting garlands from the local notables who had lined up to greet him. In the receiving line was a female suicide bomber who had activated a trigger for the RDX explosives strapped to her body as Rajiv approached her to accept her greetings.

Pushpa, recovering from the initial shock of the deafening blast, waded through the shattered remains amid the rush of those fleeing the scene in panic. She was joined by two other women journalists - Nina Gopal of The Gulf News and another woman representing The New York Times. The two of them had travelled with Rajiv and Nina had interviewed him on their way from the airport to Sriperumpudur.

Meanwhile hell broke loose at TOI. At my Chennai residence, I was woken up from sleep by a call from Bombay. They wanted a story within the next 30 minutes. I had no idea when Pushpa would be able to make it back to office and how. Soon after the blast the police had cordoned off the exit points from Sriperumpudur. A sketchy report phoned in from there would not do for TOI.

The police and the state information department officials were no wiser on the blast. Anyway they were not generally known to have been of much help with information on such crisis assignments. As I twiddled my thumb and wondered what to do, Pushpa called from our Nungambakkam Road office. She had made it back from the blast scene well ahead of most others - "I got a lift in Rajiv Gandhi's car," she told me.

"As I got talking to this girl from Gulf News a driver came up and asked us to leave the place quickly and get into his car," Pushpa said. "He said, 'Rajiv sir has instructed me to make sure the madams reach their hotels safely'." And the loyal driver was there to follow Rajiv's directive, even though his boss was no more. Pushpa joined the other two on their trip back to Chennai. And filed the story of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination for The Times of India. Pushpa Iyengar later became deputy editor with The Deccan Chronicle, Hyderabad.

Women have come a long way, from my early days in journalism.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Misfit in Today’s Media World

(This story relates to journalism in the 70s, when reporting was about working your calf muscles and your phone; about tapping reticent news sources, and missing stories. Those were the days before the Internet, 24/7 news channels, and blogs, to which print media reporters today can now outsource their news-gathering work. Today’s newspaper correspondents don’t report news; they package it. My generation of reporters may find ourselves a misfit on today’s media scene - Are you reading me, Mr Krishna Vattam, Mr Gouri Satya ?
This piece was titled ‘The Punjab Beat’ when it first appeared in May, 2002

Every other journalist, they say, has an unfinished book in his drawer. I started work on my unfinished book in late Seventies. I was then a sub-editor with The Times of India in New Delhi, and envious of reporters, who appeared to have everything going for them - byline, high visibility, influence and cocktail invitations on most evenings. I became wiser later, when they posted me the Punjab correspondent, at a time when militant groups held sway in many parts of the then troubled state.

Admittedly, a Chandigarh dateline gave one visibility in high places those days. Not evident, however, was that behind those bylined stories was usually a much-harassed reporter who spent long and, at times, futile hours working the phone and tapping reticent news sources to put together a story. And, at the end of the day, you might not have accessed all facts or even got them all right. But this reality hits you too late to make amends, that is, when you see the other newspapers the morning after or get a memo from the editor, saying, "We have been beaten by the competition." On such occasions you feel you could have done without a byline on your story. Editors have a way of unsettling you with unceremonious memos and late night phone calls, wanting to know why you didn't file anything on a killing in Kapurthala or gas-cylinder blast at Batinda.

The correspondent of an outstation newspaper, based in a state capital, is held accountable for whatever happens elsewhere in the state. He can't beat the news agencies - PTI and UNI - which appeared to have their men everywhere. But you don't tell this to an agitated news editor who doesn't let you have a word in edgeways when he is on the blower. You can't argue with an avalanche, can you ?

PTI and UNI could have been a major menace for me and Chandigarh-based correspondents of other outstation papers, if we had not cultivated the agency reporters so that we stayed alerted on news breaks. I knew of a colleague based in Patna who dreaded late-night phone calls from his office in New Delhi. He was dedicated and hard-working, which wasn't enough. He failed to develop a rapport with the news agency guys.

The worst thing that can happen to a reporter is finding that the news report he just finished filing has already been overtaken by subsequent developments, that too close to his deadline (the time by which he is required to submit his report for publication). Soon after my posting at Chandigarh I attended a press conference, addressed jointly by three Sikh leaders - H S Longowal, P S Badal and G S Tohra. Longowal had then signed an agreement with Rajiv Gandhi. The other two Sikh leaders entertained misgivings about the Centre's intentions. However, it was mainly due to Longowal's initiative the three Sikh leaders had come to share a common platform for the first time in their political career. Their joint press conference had the making of a sure-fire front-page story.

By the time I telexed the story (we didn't have computers then) it was 5 p m. I decided to call it a day and go home early. After having delivered a major front-page story I did not expect the New Delhi office of The Times of India to bother me with any phone call about a stray blast at Batala or a shooting incident at Gurdaspur. They were common occurances in Punjab those days.

But then minutes after I reached home that evening there was a call from New Delhi, asking for a story on a shooting incident at a gurudwara in Sangrur. The victim, this time, was Longowal. The Akali leader, on way to his village after addressing the Chandigarh press conference, was shot dead by militants when he stopped by at a gurudwara to address a congregation. This was not just a front-pager. It was the lead story, on which I had to get cracking under mounting deadline pressure. Such was a reporter's life in Punjab those days. So much for dateline Chandigarh.

As for my book in the making, it still remains unfinished, with nearly 200 pages of typed manuscript done. As I said earlier, I started work on the book when I was a sub-editor. I used to work six-hour shifts, which left me with enough time for book-writing. But then I gave up creative writing when I became a reporter