Friday, May 25, 2007

Remembering Chittaranjan

It wasn’t his anniversary day. Nor was it a day of remembrance for media veterans. Yet his daughter and I had him on our minds; spent a few tear-filled moments, remembering the late C N Chittaranjan, when we met at a concert hall in Sunnyvale, C A, last Saturday.

The occasion was a carnatic vocal music concert by Chittaranjan’s grand-daughter, Kavita. It was my first social outing during my current US visit. “I get a feeling that my own father has graced this occasion,” said Girija Radhakrishnan, tears welling up in her eyes. I was rendered speechless. Girija, who has everything going for her had one regret in life - that her father Chittaranjan didn’t visit her in the US.

CNC (as he was known in the media and among friends) was a kind of journalist who rarely took time off from work. He lived for journalism. He once told me that after he had his three daughters married, and well settled in life, he felt he ccould no longer be accused of neglecting his family for his profession; he felt a sense of legitimacy in devoting his undivided attention to work. He had provided for a modest income from savings and a small house in Chennai for his wife after he would be gone.

He died in New Delhi. In his later years CNC’s prime concern in life was to be able to bring out Mainstream on time, every week. Apart from writing editorial CNC commissioned articles (for which no payment was usually made); and spent at least two late evenings a week at a smelly, noisy printing press at Jhandewalan, going through page proofs. The man had a heart condition.

Mr Chittaranjan was a rare newspaper editor who didn’t own a vehicle, and used to travel by bus. This was in the 80s, when travelling in a Delhi Transport Corporation bus was no Sunday picnic. He remained a man with a common touch, though he rose to senior editorial positions in Hindustan Times and Patriot, and to be editor of National Herald. CNC had always the welfare of journalists at heart. His involvement with the interests of journalists did not always endear him with newspaper managements. In The Indian Express, Madras, he took on the then mighty media baron Ramnath Goenka, who had at one time threatened to shut down the Madras edition.

CNC led the workers’ agitation, for which he had to spend time in jail. Later he moved to New Delhi to join Hindustan Times. When Patriot and Link was started in the sixties (by Dr. A V Baliga, Aruna Asaf Ali, V K Krishna Menon and Edatatta Narayanan), as an alternate media to counter monopoly houses, CNC was invited to join the editorial staff.

In the profession he was several years my senior; in life, he became a family friend, helping me along to get a break during my down-and-out years. CNC re-hired me in The National Herald, New Delhi, ignoring the management policy not to take back anyone who had quit the paper, that too, barely an year earlier. Later, when CNC fell out with the National Herald management he put in a word for me at The Times of India, where I had the longest stint in any single newspaper (20 years) during my four decades in journalism.

Irony was that CNC, who had helped several others to make it big in their careers, was himself happy to be working for lesser dailies on relatively modest pay and no perks. After he left the editorship of The National Herald CNC went back to Mainstream, whose founder-editor Nikhil Chakravarti relied entirely on CNC to run the journal.

It was during these days we met every other evening at his place or the Chopra tea stall near our residences in Karolbagh; and talked mainly of his current editorial concerns at Mainstream, or discussed the topic for his next magazine article. After my transfer to Bhopal as TOI correspondent in the early 80s, I never got to meet him. Several years later, when I was posted in Chennai, I got a call one morning that CNC was no more.

I couldn't attend the funeral; nor could I make a subsequent trip to New Delhi to convey my condolences to his family. Those were eventful days for journalists covering Tamilnadu, and I couldn’t find myself getting away from the daily grind of newspaper reporting, even for a week. I knew CNC would have understood my situation. As a die-hard media person, CNC wouldn’t have had me miss my assignments, even if it was for his own funeral.

Cross-filed in Zine5 and Desicritics.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Felicitations to my online friend

We live in the same town, Mysore; about three km apart. We have known each other for some two years. We belong to a vanished species of journalists of the typing and shorthand era. We have a lot in common and much to share about our media days in the 60s and the 70s. And yet we hadn't met each other, till Sunday last.

Such is the marvel of the Net. The technology that brings together people spread across the geographical divide can also obviate the need for even neighbors to meet, face-to-face, to be able to stay in touch. Who needs to meet when e-mail, v-mail and Skype could speak. And my friendship with Mr Krishna Vattam is strengthened with every e-mail we exchange, with every chat on the old–fashioned telephone.

My friend has turned 75; and felicitation would be in order. In fact, there was a public felicitation function, about which I learnt, true to form, through the web, after the event. Presumably, the man was much too modest to inform me, as yet an unmet friend, about a public 'do' in his honour. But then the morning after the event, to my surprise, Mr Vattam called to ask if we could meet. We did, and talked about, of all things, Krishna Menon, as if we were picking up the thread from where we had left it in our ongoing online communication.

He referred to D R Mankakar's 'Guilty Men of 1962' and his clumsiness in using the web software, to post a comment on my recent blog post. Here we were, meeting for the first time, and all that we could find to talk about was Menon, Nehru, Rajaj, and about the Emergency. If we were excited about our first ever face-to-face, neither he nor I wanted to betray our child-like excitement, particularly in the presence of his teenage grand-daughter Mr Vattam had brought along with him.

We talked about the blissful unfamiliarity of even some of our today's media folk with India's recent history. Mr Vattam spoke of L K Advani's Mysore visit, at which he told the local media about his imprisonment in Bangalore during the Emergency years (1975-77). After the press meet, said Mr Vattam, he was asked by a young reporter, in all innocence, why Mr Advani was jailed. If at all our youth know of what went on during the emergency, their knowledge is limited to what they saw in Sudhir Mishra's movie, Hazaaron Kwaishen Aisi.

Mr Vattam left a copy of the felicitation volume brought out on the occasion of his 75 th birthday; his completion of 56 years in journalism. His father was a journalist. So is his son. Presumably, media is in the Vattams' DNA. Reading through felicitation volume I learnt Mr Vattam had watched the Telugu movie, 'Malleshwari', 54 times. Wonder who kept the count, and why he stopped short of 55.

He is the founder of a local support group called 'Ex-cancer Patients' Association', to build-up self-confidence and dispel that lingering fear of relapse among the recovered patients. Mr Vattam is a cancer survivor. The next time I meet him, I must remember to loan him my copy of Stewart Alsop's Stay of Execution, in which the Newsweek columnist describes, without sentimentality, what it meant to live with lethal cancer and survive to tell the tale.

Cross-filed in zine5 and Desicritics.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The way we are

(Sourced from news reports in The Hindu dated May 4)

The not-so-fresh fruits and vegetables sold at the Horticulture Produce Marketing and Processing Cooperative Society (HOPCOMS) retail outlets and the apparent ‘unfriendly’ behavior of salespersons have been driving away customers.

A legal team representing, two Karnataka ministers, appearing before the Lokayukta said the ministers could not file the details (regarding assets for 2004-05) in time because of the fault of their personal staff.

A Bangalore city corporation official, referring to their programme to seal open manholes, observed that metal lids worth Rs.750 each were often found missing.

A 60-year-old maid in Bangalore, claiming back wages for 11 months from her employer filed a complaint with the Labour Dept. one year back. She has yet to get her dues.

Chief minister H D Kumaraswamy (at a public function in Tumkur district) said officials seemed to believe that his government was about to fall and (therefore) were neglecting their duties.

Rasheed, Hyderabad travel agent alleged to have got fake travel documents for several politicians maintained he was innocent – “I have done what people asked me to do; I have not done anything on my own…”.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Has our media gone celebrity-berserk ?

The Abhi-Ash wedding coverage in our media has driven the Tirupathi temple management board to review its treatment of visiting Bollywood celebrities and businessmen. They can no longer count on a walk-in darshan, special puja and extra laddu - the privileges extended to the PM, the CMs, Governors and visiting state dignitaries.

NDTV, in a prime-time news bulletin the other day, showed a video-clip of the celebrity couple, along with Amitabh Bachhan, being escorted to the sannadhi of Lord Balaji, as thousands of pilgrims in queue waited it out for their turn. Local paper in my town, Star of Mysore, ran an editorial critical of such discriminatory treatment in a place of worship. "Nobody would have grudged if distinguished persons are given preference over 'aam janata' at venues of public functions, a festival or felicitation or a lecture" wrote my friend and editorial writer Srihari, "but it was uncalled for at a place of worship, that too, at a temple that attracts devotees in unmanageable numbers every day".

A snailing queue of 30,000 devotees was brought to a standstill for some 25 minutes, as the Bollywood celebrities took their time to do puja. Lesser mortals, after hours spent in queue, don't get as much as 25 seconds with Lord Balaji before they are hustled out to the chant of 'jhargindi, jhargindi' (move on), kept up by temple security staff.

That the temple management has chosen to 'level the playing field' in the House of God must be attributed to the media coverage that otherwise evoked sharp blog comments and TV talk-show discussions. They went into the why, the why-not and the how-much of the Abhi-Ash wedding coverage; argued if the media had gone celebrity berserk or was merely being reader-responsive. All this, over a Bollywood wedding, kept firmly out-of-bounds for much of Bollywood people, party gate-crashers and the entire media. Who got invited, and which Bollywood notables were snubbed, and why, came under tabloid scrutiny. Banning the media from their social do's has been a familiar ploy with some celebrities to generate hype.

The Bachhans, however, had us all believe that they kept out the media because they wanted the wedding to be a private affair. But then was Amitabh so naïve as not to know that media perceives news as anything that someone wants to suppress? Had the Bachhans sent out invites, even if it is only to their favourite newspapers and TV channels, chances are the media would not have made such a big deal of the wedding.

Shutting them out altogether made it a challenge for the media. Hordes of reporters converged on the barred entrance of the Bachhan bungalow, hoping to pick up crumbs and to peep through cracks in the closed gate. Pathetic, it may seem to others. But in media parlance this goes under the genre of 'peep-hole' journalism. Some celebrities resort to a media ban to be able to sell exclusive rights of coverage to the highest bidder, which is termed 'cheque-book journalism'. A recent example of this was the Liz Hurley-Arun Nayar wedding in Jodhpur. The rights, it was rumored, went for $2 million. Bollywood weddings are not quite in this league yet.

"Do readers and TV viewers really care whether or not Aishwariya and Abhishek got married?", asked a blogger. I would say media doesn't care either. TV and print media were in it, to be in the reckoning in a competing environment, to promote newspaper sales, and generate ad revenue. Blogger Balaji, who reckons our media has gone bonkers, would like to see not just development journalism, but also development of journalism.

But development journalism wouldn't fetch the kind of sponsors a cricket match or celebrity wedding does. As for development of journalism, it is a matter of perspective. Journalism could be said to have developed insofar as major newspapers are now run by MBAs, who draw up marketing strategy for the media, as they would for a brand of toothpaste, soap, chips or any other product.

We live in an age where newspapers have their news columns sponsored. What we get to read is the stuff for which media can find sponsors; we see more of golf than khabadi in our sports pages. Abhi-Ash wedding was eminently 'sponsor-able'.

TV talk-shows justified celebrity coverage. We heard 'entertainment editor' of a publication billed the wedding of a major media event. In the run up to the wedding Vijay Times ran a story on Page One the thoughts of some fashion designers on how they would dress the couple. Can't get more corny than that, can you? Editor of a newspaper from Mumbai was heard saying on TV that the wedding was news that simply, couldn't be ignored.

Such has been the development of journalism. Time there was when The Times, London, ignored Marilyn Monroe's first ever visit to Britain. And its readers had no complaints. The newspaper that didn't have space for Marilyn devoted 20 inches to a feature on bulb growers. Admittedly, The Times of today wouldn't have the temerity to act this way.

At the other extreme there was Cecil King's Daily Mirror, which, at the height of the Suez crisis, published prominently on Page One a celebrity picture, with a headline screaming, 'Diana Dors Sensation'. Suez figured as token front-page item. That was an instance of media going celebrity berserk. We may not be quite there, yet. But our mainstream media is increasingly tabloid.

Where does it leave the old-fashioned reader/viewer? Someone who wanted to escape the Abhi-Ash wedding on TV said he tried switching channels, only to find the same visuals telecast everywhere. He opted for Sanskar channel and even started seeing sense in a commercial break. But then there is no escape from Amitabh, Abhi or Ash Bachhan, even during the C-break. They appear in every other advertisement.

Cross-filed in zine5 and Desicritic