‘BANYAN TREE: Working under Rajan’

An account by Frederick Noronha, one of my first sub editors. He produced a whole book (or the major part of it) to prove that I was a fixer rather than an editor

(Excerpted from a chapter from ‘Behind the News: Voices from Goa’s Press’)

AN ACTIVIST friend argues vehemently that this editor single-handedly opens up space more than any other in Goa. Some staff who worked under him have a sneering you-don’t-know-the-inside-story attitude. Others credit the man with making them what they are. For the average Goan Catholic, Rajan Narayan is virtually a hero in real life, if not the newspaper equivalent of a patron saint.
Undeniably, this is the man who has shaped Goan journalism for at least two decades, and has big plans for more. Any venture to understand the contemporary media in this small state would be incomplete without a chapter on Rajan Narayan, who at the time of writing (end-September 2003) has just announced his decision to resign from the Herald.
Clearly, Rajan — by design or default – has contributed in significant manner to the Goa debate over the past two decades. If one has to name the five positive aspects of his legacy, it would be his ability to extend the debate (by saying things no editor would say); heading an organisation that, by design or otherwise, actually gave a chance to many youngsters to enter the profession; building up a till-now sustainable alternative to the once arrogant lone English-language daily in the state; giving space for speedy growth to youngsters entering the profession (even if, ironically, blocking that very growth later on); and for taking on some of Goa’s most sacred of cows.
But Rajan’s ability to cast himself in the ‘anti-Establishment’ mould is equalled by his skills in brokering deals. This rather personalised essay, obviously biased and clouded by a string of personal experiences, seeks to narrate one person’s run-ins into Goa’s most long-serving editor. Perhaps from it could emerge a few snapshots outlining how things really work in the Goa media.
ONE’S first impressions of Rajan was meeting up with a long-sleeve and tie-clad middle-aged ‘uncle’ during an interview a month or two before the launch of the English-language Herald in 1983. The location was in the old balcony (now demolished) that stood almost over today’s Cafe Shanbhag, near the Panjim Municipal Garden. Besides Rajan, also sitting in on the interview was Valmiki Faleiro, who was egged on by the recent public debate to tell his side of the story in another chapter. (Devika Sequeira, then still in her ‘twenties but quite in command of the situation, willing to spend extremely long hours and clear about what she expected to bring out a thoroughly-worked on feature page or front-page report as we later saw, had interviewed me in an earlier round. Being quite thick-skinned, one went in once again for another interview when advertised subsequently, only to be told that it was just as well one had returned, as the earlier applications had got misplaced!)
In the second round of interviews, my first encounter with Rajan, it took this then raw third-year college kid quite some to gauge some clues about the identity of this man shooting across the questions. Only a syllable or two gave hint of his South Indian origins, and with his formal clothes, he could have easily passed off as a scion of a landed Goan family. Rajan did seem a bit embarrassed to make the offer of Rs 300 as the payment for a trainee sub-editor. But money didn’t matter, and the joy of becoming a journalist while still in college more than sufficed. In any case, this princely sum was thrice what one then irregularly earned as an articled clerk to a chartered accountant.
This offer was made on the spot, and accepted as instantaneously. In no time, we got that telegram calling on us to join ‘immediately’. One recalls rushing into the colonial styled offices of what was to become the Herald — we then didn’t even know what the paper was to be called, whether it would survive, who owned it, or whom we were working for.
Within minutes of each other, Bosco Souza Eremita of Santa Cruz, Flavio Raposo of Caranzalem, Oswald Pinto of Aldona and myself took up our seats on the bare sub-editor’s table, learning the basics of a profession that some continued in. Bosco seemed to be disillusioned that journalism offered so little scope for creative writing; but he stayed on and worked his way through Goa Today, Gomantak Times, the Portuguese Lusa news agency, and the Jesuit-run UCAN, apart from The Week and others publications. Flavio opted for a life in academics. Oswald Pinto went across from one form of reporting to another, and stuck with working at the less-insecure ‘reporting’ section of the state legislature. Reminiscing old times still brings back a smile. We remain friends.
But this was not always the situation. You could argue whether it’s a Rajan-influenced legacy, but at our time the staff would often be at loggerheads with one another. It could have just been a faulty manner of encouraging subordinates to improve in their performance, but promises of promotions to more than one candidate, and repeated if unfair comparisons with one another, sometimes did leave strained relationships among the staff that otherwise worked together fairly peacefully.
But there were the plusses for working in a fresh new paper too. In the initial days, Rajan was almost a godfather. “How much are the $%#@$%s paying you?” he would sometimes ask juniors. Often, a recommendation from him actually got translated into a raise.
He had his style of encouraging juniors. This, coupled with the acute staff shortage at the Herald then and frequent resignations from staff, meant a junior sub-editor could get enough of an ego-boost to do the front-page layout within a year or so of joining!
Talking about resignations, in the first four years of its operation, the Rajan-edited Herald listings showed that at least 30 journalists had left its rolls. Part of this could have been due to the poor and unsatisfactory compensation offered by a paper which drew an infinitesimally tiny number of adverts compared to today. Some left for better prospects; but opportunities were few and far between anyway, then as now. A few went on to continue their education; Alvis Fernandes, one of the young men recruited through the informal Miramar boys’ network that proved to be a useful feeder channel, was halfway through aeronautical engineering anyway. But at least part of the resignations were accounted for by the intrigue that dominated the place, the growing curbs on free expression that could keep the spark of idealism alive and politics enkindled among the staff.
Among those who quit in the first four years were Sushil Silvano (Deputy Editor), S. Vaidyanathan (News Editor), Devika Sequeira (Assistant Editor/Chief Reporter), Oswald Pinto, Bosco Souza Eremita, Flavio Raposo, myself, Alvis Fernandes, Edward Rodrigues, Lovino Gomes, George, Francis Ribeiro, Elston Soares, Lionel Lynn Fernandes, Derek Almeida, the brothers Francis and Agnel Fernandes, Goldwyn Figueira, Agnel Rodrigues (sub-editors/chief sub editors), Perves De Souza, Cherryl DeSouza, Anna Mendes, Valentino Fernandes, Armenia Fernandes, Sharmila Kamat, Babacier Gonsalves (all reporters), Alexyz Fernandes (cartoonist), Lui Godinho and Menino Afonso (photographers), the other Francis Ribeiro and John Aguiar among others (correspondents) and trainees including Sinha, and Shanti Maria, now an advocate in Panjim. This list would obviously be incomplete, having missed out some names.
ON the flip side, Rajan — at least in his early phase — had the ability of encouraging his staff. After a great job done in covering the Commonwealth Retreat, the reward was not just a good word but also a meal at the nearby Hotel Aroma. (For the CHOGM, Devika Sequeira and Lui Godinho sneaked into the area, and anyone wouldhave thought they were just a couple of Indian tourists; Perviz teamed up with Rajan himself to chase the then-admired now-infamous Robert Mugabe to a church in Chimbel where the once-charismatic leader had gone to trace his ancestors from an empire that once ruled central Africa and part of current-day Zimbabwe. S Vaidyanathan, the former Financial Express chief-sub who’s role in stabilising the Herald desk often goes largely unmentioned today, did his usual thorough job on the desk, and we trainees simply joined in the fun with our prank calls what not.)
Rajan can also be an ideal boss, if he so chooses and if he trusts your work. Of course, it can also be difficult to fathom the logic on which this trust is based, in an editor who has strong, if unexplained, likes and dislikes. But his you-manage-things attitude did occasionally help. At one point, we convinced Rajan that the long and difficult night-shifts of those days were stressful, and asked for a five-nights, three-day schedule. This meant that we got two off-days in every ten days, or six in a month. Rajan’s response was something to the effect that this was fine, provided we at the news-desk managed things among ourselves and didn’t then make a case for more staff. We did. It worked. Any desk-man taking off during the crucial night-shift, made sure to get in a mutual replacement.
In a word, this system probably worked better than system of policing shifts. The point here is that if he so chooses, Rajan’s style of avoiding micro-controls could actually make for a workable management strategy.
But this phase seems to have ended nearly exactly one year after the launch of the English-language Herald, when the staff got the drift their their editor was unable or unwilling to take their issues into account, and almost all jointly formed a union. When Rajan learnt of this, his reaction was one of a man betrayed.
Part of the problem could have been that Rajan also perceived the insecurity of his tenure. One got the feeling that the paper was not being improved beyond a point, as this could make those at the editorial top dispensable.
Over the next few years, the fetters started coming on. Rather quickly. To the staff, it was pretty clear who Rajan’s own sacred cows were, even if the editor posited himself as the paragon of a free press. From industrial groups lacking their own mouthpiece in print, to some of the dissidents then harassing the man whom Rajan got into mutually-arrogant ego-clashes with, Pratapsing Raoji Rane.
Rajan also had a perchance to hob-nob with politicians. One of our colleagues always attributes his survival in journalism to then political bigwig Dr Wilfred de Souza. How so? Obviously Rajan had flung across a copy to the sub concerned with a ‘Find the mistake in it, or get sacked’ threat. Just that time, Dr W’s car pulled up alongside the newspaper entrance. Rajan was gone, and so vanished the threat of a loss of the job.
In our early days at the Herald, some of us college-kids who were blessed with two-wheelers – even if we needed two jobs and a loan to manage these — doubled up as ‘pilots’ to the seniors. It came as a shock to one’s post-teenage idealism to hear Rajan argue after being ferried to a lengthy confabulation with a Congress dissident: “XYZ is a good politician. The problem is just that he is so bloody corrupt.” Or words to that effect.
If the early freedom was quick to vanish, it didn’t take much time to realise that every new paper goes through this honeymoon with truth — extended only as long as the time required to build up its credibility.
For the CHOGM, Rajan allowed this writer to report on protests from a citizens’ group concerned about the pouring of crores down the drain in the name of building infrastructure. If one recalls right, the figure was around Rs 50 crore (Rs 500 million), a huge sum by early ‘eighties standards. Another issue that was a concern then was the manner in which the event was being used as an excuse by luxury hotels to expand their properties. At this time, Rajan’s diktat was clear: let the criticism go before the event, but once the CHOGM Retreat starts, no more of it.
Such attitudes, and this was surely not the only case, meant the stifling of a crucial voice at an important time of Goan history. Resultantly, the outstation media, for instance, didn’t get a clue that such questions were at all being asked in Goan society. When it comes to recording the history of the ‘eighties, there will likewise be many gaps or black holes… and many could be led into believing that these events simply didn’t occur.
Rajan’s role in the Konkani movement would be another interesting issue for research. Many a Catholic from Goa, both here and among the diaspora, tends to read him as being a “hero for Konkani”. (Dr Teotonio De Souza, historian, commented on Goanet on September 18, 2003: “I have known Rajan Narayan while still in Goa and admired his contribution to the Konkani cause.”)
But the issue is more complex. Needless to say, Goa’s media adopts a dog-does-not-eat-dog approach, and for most of the time avoids criticising each other. Rajan’s role in the language agitation is yet to be adequately evaluated. The Week magazine, in an article written by the journalist Ashok Row Kavi (who went on to become a prominent gay activist, but that’s not particularly relevant here) did a critical piece on the role played by Rajan and the other Narayan, Athawale:
By the time the 1985-87 language agitation was drawing to a close, this writer was a chief sub-editor at the Herald. Perhaps the cynical games visible all round convinced one about not getting caught up in the meaningless emotionalism that was ruling both linguistic camps. Basic questions were not being raised. What primarily was a caste-fuelled was being fought out along linguistic lines. Many of those who took up these issues — as subsequent events showed — were more keen on cornering a share of the spoils for themselves and their kin, rather than really empowering the common man (and woman) to utilise a language they could be more at home in. Rajan’s own role was critical in shaping the language issue the way it worked out.
On the language front, like many other controversies in the state, this one too polarised journalists. The United News of India news agency, though its then Goa correspondent Jagdish Wagh, then put out a 10-take article which echoed the Marathi side of the arguments.
Rajan’s first response was to dump it in the waste-paper basket. To one’s mind, it made sense that both ‘camps’ knew each other’s positions on the issue.
Specially because this was one issue where the average Catholic reader — who hardly reads Marathi – was largely unable to keep abrest with the thoughts of one side of the debate. To Rajan’s credit, he was quick to accept a suggestion from a junior, and decided that the article be carried on the edit page. But if one thought he did this because of the need for a diversity of voices, that was simply untrue. Some days later, a gleeful Rajan informed that it was just as well he had taken up that suggestion, since the UNI write-up had, in turn, provoked a series of lengthy polemical responses from the Panjim-based Konkani hardline supporter Datta Naik written to project the Konkani cause. It was a point-by-point attempted refutation, and more. A whole lot of more grist to the linguistic mill that ultimately served to build circulation, allowing Rajan to boost his bargaining power on this basis.
If Rajan played a crucial role in stoking the language controversy, he was also vital in bringing it to an abrupt and unexpected end. On the day the language bill was passed in the Goa assembly, an angry Churchill Alemao stomped into the Herald office. He demanded to know how the screaming headline read something to the effect: ‘Konkani made official language’. Alemao’s criticism (with some validity, even if ironical in the backdrop of his own exclusivist approach which sought completely illegitimise the Marathi demand, in what was in is more of a caste-defined battle) was that the headline was not justified when the dialect and script used by a small minority had been given official acceptance.
Later realties also elaborately demonstrated that the Rane-Khalap drafted official language bill was extremely ambivalent, if not wholly unimplementable.
Nonetheless, the Konkani experience did not stop Rajan from subsequently claiming that the paper under his steering had “demonstrated dramatically its influence by succeeding to get more than 75,000 people for the Konkani language”. Of this, he tried to make a case for better terms — service conditions, allowances and possibly commissions on advertisements “generated” for the paper.
EVEN as he announced recently his decision to quit the Herald and launch his own weekend paper, Rajan is back to donning his role as a ‘protector of the minorities’.
But even as he stokes fears here, a genuine question could be whether this is anything more than a marketing strategy. His claims of being committed to secularism could be dismissed by critics as little more than a cynical strategy of stoking minority fears, to build a potent constituency, just as some politicians in Goa have done — to convert into a permanent votebank of sorts a large segment of the Catholic electorate.
Rajan was however quick to understand — unlike most of the other editors brought into Goa to head papers here, who sometimes take years just to understand that this small state doesn’t need a scaled-down version of a national newspaper — that local news was of vital importance.
Rajan was quick to argue that a newspaper in Goa should address those segments which are significant in size. One can question his obvious strategy of playing on minority fears and building up a minority psychosis.
Even when viewed from a very narrow sense, this could be damaging to the interest of the minorities themselves.
But Rajan’s ability to convince the reader still holds.
In September 2003, some Goan expats across cyberspace were carefully watching the unfolding drama as Rajan hurriedly launched his website. Making his an issue of freedom of expression, and indicting the man who weeks back graced Rajan’s birthday — Manoharbab Parrikar — was bound to strike a chord. After all, haven’t we in the press in Goa been complaining about increasing pressures from the BJP government?
On September 16, 2003, one expat suggested that “perhaps the only way to overcome the muzzling of the press is for Non-Resident Goans to fund an alternative newspaper, where the journalists can do what they do best without their livelihood being threatened.” He went on to suggest: “Now is the time for Non-Resident Goans who care, to come to the assistance of journalists in Goa. As an alternative, we could support Rajan Narayan’s new venture and give him the freedom to speak out. Democracy and freedom are at stake in Goa. It is time for all Goans who love their motherland, to put their money where their mouths are, and do something for Goa.”
To quite some extent the problem with contemporary Goa’s journalism is governments who don’t like criticism and therefore target certain newspapers or journalists. But this is not the entire story.
Managements who seek to use their papers to get undue favours, licences, or whatever, are another part of the problem. So are us journalists who don’t carry on our job neutrally and without quid-pro-quo motives. But the editors who have long been acting as censors, and implement the agendas of the first two categories above, are also part of the problem. Unlike in the ‘eighties, you can hardly expect an editor to stand up for you in today’s Goa.
Journalists in Goa are facing a situation where space to write the truth is increasingly shrinking; and editors, including Rajan, have also played their role in making this happen. At another level, the State is working overtime to incorporate journalists, promote ‘friendly’ publications and thus indulge in other means to control opinion. While Rajan Narayan has undeniably been one editor who was willing to say the things others were simply not willing to say, this was done not very consistently. Quite a few who worked under Rajan would probably have their own story to tell. It would really help if the average Goan was less gullible and didn’t judge issues along emotional lines alone.
The plus side also needs to be taken into the equation.
It was Rajan who pointed out to the importance of the readership of government employees and pensioners; to the fact that international news needed to be focussed on countries which Goa had long links with, or had large Goan expat populations. He told his staff something that seems to be beyond the comprehension of many Goan editors: “There is also considerable interest in Portugal. An election is scheduled in Portugal soon. Let us keep track of the election and other developments in Portugal.”
He was also among those to try and shift out of the protocol reporting — an attitude which says ‘this report has to be there, because it has to be there’ — that journalism in a Navhind-defined Goa was notorious for.
But then, implementing this vision was a problem. For one, Rajan himself didn’t consistently follow up on it.
Secondly, he didn’t seem to believe in having competent persons around him and preferred to work with someone who was less likely to pose a challenge in the years to come. In addition, a considerable time was spent in politcking, both within the organisation and beyond.
Working under Rajan meant coping with the unpredictable.
In many cases, Rajan didn’t quite give other journalists the impression that they were welcome to contribute to the Herald. (As an aside, one of those asked to contribute a chapter in this book, a senior Goan journalist who has written for a number of national and international publications, misunderstood that the invite was to write for the Herald. The journo simply wrote back a two-liner to declining saying that apart from the lack of time, “Rajan won’t accept my name in his paper.”)
It could be argued that if Rajan has built a larger-than-life image of himself, that has been premises on the blocking out of a generation of young journalists, whom he himself ironically had a hand in creating. Today, Rajan’s indispensability to the Herald stems from both a perception, not wholly true, that he single-handedly built the paper, and the fact that virtually nobody else in the organisation has been trained or encouraged to write editorials.
To some measure, everyone who shares the above grouse with this writer must be thankful to Rajan. Being pushed out of local opportunity has helped many to get access to wider fields. Today, Goan journalists are employed in a number of places — scattered across the Gulf, to Singapore, Australia, Canada and beyond! Even for those of us opting to remain back home, the hard work involving in ‘proving oneself’ has helped to open up new doors. Had it not been for such ‘push’ factors, this writer would have probably been doing a boring job just as a deputy news editor in some local newspaper.
Working in a Rajan-headed establishment also can cure you of ambition. It was simply not worth the heart-burn and infighting to rise to the level of a humble chief-sub. This has helped convince this writer that it’s probably worth staying a humble correspondent — possibly even freelance — the rest of one’s career, rather than succumb to an ambition that takes bitterness, rancour, cutthroat competition and so much energy just to get a post in which one has to act more as politician or manager rather than an effective journalist?
Needless to say, on the other hand the younger generation of journalists can indeed learn from some of Rajan’s good points. In many cases — though not all — he would be quick to highlight criticism of himself, in the paper he headed. His ability to bestow confidence on his juniors helped some to grow. (But, this was upto a point. Also, his criticism and barrage of memos seemed to be more linked to whether he liked someone or not, rather than one’s qualities and abilities to put in hard work as a journalist.)
At the end of the day — though nobody should try to write a premature obit for his influence on Goan journalism — Rajan will probably be known for what he has written. Not for what he made sure didn’t surface. In this context, it is perhaps important to put down these perspectives on the record.

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