50 YEARS OF COMBATIVE JOURNALISM!

DIVERSITY: I have had the good fortune of working in a variety of papers and magazine ranging from the Financial Express’ to theOnlooker’ which was part of the Free Press’ group to theMirror’ which part of the Eve’s Weekly’ group,Imprint’ of the Business Press group and `Business India’ which is the first business magazine of the country.

By Rajan Narayan

March 15, 2021 marked my 50th year in journalism. Inspired by the recent celebration of Pratapsingh Raoji Rane’s 50th year as an MLA, I am starting a series on my 50 years of experience in journalism. The first part contains my tenure in the Financial Express’, theOnlooker’ which closed down recently, the Mirror’ and theImprint.’ The next instalment will be devoted to my hectic days in `Business India’ when I wrote my first story on the then budding industrialist Dhirubai Ambani.

I have only focused on media houses I worked for in Mumbai, with the exception of `Business India’ which will feature in the next issue.
PART 1

THE recent celebration in the Legislative Assembly in Goa of Pratap Singh Raoji Rane, completing 50 years as a MLA, reminds me that I have also completed 50 years in the mainstream media. I started my carrier in March 1971 with the Financial Express’ which is the financial paper of theIndian Express’ group. Presumably, because I have a Master’s in economics from the then highly reputed Mumbai School of Economics, I was asked to write editorial within a few days of joining the paper. I had rashly claimed to be a student of international economics in an interview with the then editor of the Financial Express,’ V K Narasimhan. The very compassionate editor who believed in encouraging young people was elevated to the position of editor-in-chief of theIndian Express’ group during the Emergency.
I had never written an editorial report, which later on I came to call “idiotorials,” before I was very nervous. Every morning around 11 am there used to be a conference of all the assistant editors to decide on what editorials should appear the next day. The editor then assigned the subjects to the concern specialist. Unfortunately for me the special drawing rights (SDR) which had been started by the International Monetory Fund was in the news. The SDRs were like the overdrafts that you get from banks. Only in the case of SDRs it permitted countries like India who had financial problems to draw extra money through the SDRs.
I protested that I was not competent to write an editorial on the subject at short notice. The problem with writing editorials was the subject was decided at 11am and you have to submit 2,000 words by 3pm the same day. Mr Narsimhan was very re-assuring. He told me that there was nothing difficult about writing an editorial. All I have to do is to get the files relating to the subject from the library. Express any view you want to. But make sure you use a lot of conditional clauses. Such as “be that as it may be”, “notwithstanding that” and if I wanted to be extra harsh add that “there were extenuating circumstances.” Which affectively meant don’t take any specific stand but try to present all sides of the issue.
I asked him what was the point of writing an editorial which was meant to be the opinion of the paper if it did not take a stand? Mr Narsimhan told me that the convention is that you don’t take stands as by not doing so you avoid any trouble.
I was equally concerned about what the other newspapers like the Economic Times’ would comment the next day. I used to be pleasantly surprised to see that all of them virtually said the same thing! Unlike today when people take strong stands, editorials in the 70s were an exercise in blowing a lot of hot air without causing any harm. I spent almost eight years in theFinancial Express.’ Which during the 60s moved from a shed at Sassoon Docks, the fishing jetty in the south of Mumbai, to a 25th floor high-rise at Nariman Point. Unfortunately, though there was a lot of freedom, the then owner of the Indian Express’ Ramnath Goenka, who did not believe in paying his staff a living wage. As an editorial assistant I used to get only Rs400 a month. Even in those days in the 70s, Rs400 did not fetch much. The argument of the owner was that people in financial papers got invited for lunch and dinner by businessmen who wanted publicity. So much so they did not need money as they could always have lunch at the Oberoi and dinner at the Taj Mahal Hotel at the Gateway of India which was given a trademark in 2017. So, ironically, I used to lunch and dine at 5-star hotels but did not have the bus fare to get back to my home in distant suburb Girgaum. After six years in theFinancial Express’ I accepted the invitation of my friend Masih Rahman to join as assistant editor at the Onlooker’ magazine. The legendry MJ Akbar (who recently lost a defamation case filed by Priya Ramani on charges of sexual harassment at the workplace, had quit as editor ofOnlooker’). Rahman was recommended by him to the management which was involved in the coal business in Kolkatta (the Karnani group).
Both Rahman and me were very strong Marxists then. Which would have got us arrested if Narendra Modi had been in power then! The major attraction of the Onlooker’ was the picture of a nude or a semi-nude picture of a girl which it used to carry on the back page. We did not realise that the majority of those who bought or readOnlooker’ only did so because of the pin-up.
Rahman and me believed that women should be respected and decided to drop the magazine’s pin-up and concentrate on investigative stories. To our shock the circulation of the magazine plummeted by 80% when we removed the nude! The Marwari coal mine owner who owned the fortnightly promptly wanted to sack both Rahman and me. Among my other colleagues at the Onlooker’ was Gauri Salvi, who married another colleague Ajay Kumar who later joined the Tatas. After his retirement he has settled in Goa, since his son was crazy about football. I was lucky as I responded to an advertisement for the editor of a magazine calledMirror.’ The Mirror’ was brought out by theEve’s Weekly’ group which was headed by a former general manager of the The Times of India’, namely JC Jain. TheMirror’ was being edited by a 70 years plus editor, a Jew who went by the name of Japeth, who genuinely believed in helping young people improve themselves.
The Mirror’ was the poor-man’s Reader’s Digest. It had biographical articles on how people became great. It had articles on the classics in literature. It had a column on ghost stories. It also had a romantic serial written by a Parsi lady called Thriti Barucha. Among its many contributors was Nora Secco da Souza who owned the huge ancestral house in Velsao, whom I met again after shifting to Goa in 1983. The readers ofMirror’ were primarily young people from small towns like Goa who used to write letters to the editor. There were many questions that they could not ask their parents. So the editor of the Mirror’ became their surrogate father! Questions were like a letter from a young lady asking whether she would get pregnant because a boy held her hands? My predecessor Japeth used to patiently reply to every one of such letters. Unlike Japeth, who was close to my current age now, I was 26 years then when I took over as editor ofMirror.’ After my bitter experience at the Onlooker’ I decided that Japeth had evolved a perfect formula. Believe it or not theMirror’ used to sell over a lakh copies! All that I did to boost the circulation even further was to add a pen pals column. Many of the younger generation today may not even know what pen-pals are in this age of Facebook and WhatsApp!
In the absence of today’s social network young people connected through written letters. That is how they made boyfriends or girlfriends and got to know each other and details. I introduced a pen-pals coupon with names, addresses and hobbies of the young persons concerned who were seeking pen-pals. Soon I was flooded with tens of thousands of pen-pal coupons! The circulation rose to two lakh.
Many people got their first break in writing short stories or poems or even columns in the Mirror.’ Like, for instance, the internationally famous homeopath Dr Mukesh Batra who today owns a chain of over 500 homeopathic clinics, including newly introduced signature clinics. At that time in the 70s, he was totally unknown. Mukesh had approached me for a column in theMirror.’ I told him that I had a sinus problem and that I would give him the column if he could cure me! Mukesh did cure me and he started writing a regular column in the Mirror.’ To his good fortune the veteran actor Manoj Kumar also was a fan of bothMirror’ and homeopathy. Manoj Kumar called me and wanted to meet Mukesh. They met and Manoj Kumar opened the doors of the film industry to Dr Batra. This was the secret of his enormous success which he voluntarily admits openly.
After a couple of years in the Mirror’ I got an offer from a semi-literary magazine called theImprint.’ The Imprint’ was owned by RV Pandit who used to run a group of business-to-business publications under the Business Press group. He had bought over theImprint’ which was allegedly started by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States.
The US was concern that books from China and Russia were flooding India and wanted to promote American authors. So the Imprint’ carried long excerpt from reputed new books in collaboration with US publishing houses. I retained the excerpts from new books but also convertedImprint’ into an investigative magazine.
Amongst the many stories we carried one was titled “Goodbye Mumbai, Hello Dubai.” The article was about fake job agents including the brother of Daud Ibrahim who used to dress up like an Arab, hold interviews in 5-star hotels and cheat thousands of people. I recall meeting Anees Ibrahim thanks to Ali Peter John who used to know all the goonda of Mumbai’s underworld.
This was because his mother used to be in the business of distilling illicit liquor. We met at an Aunty’s Bar near the Portuguese Church in Dadar. Those days there was prohibition in Mumbai and drinking was banned. The enterprising Goan aunties if downtown Bombay converted the living room of their homes into bars. Anees, already drunk, told us the story of how he would dress up like an Arab and cheat people who wanted jobs in the Gulf.
Around midnight the aunty said she wanted to close and requested him to leave. The aunty had a daughter called Julie and every few minutes Anees would throw flying kisses along the Julie I Love You based-film. We came out of the bar. Anees had a Rampuri knife and several other weapons. There was a taxi parked outside the bar. Anees push the taxi driver out and got behind the wheel. The idea was to drive down to the beach and continue the story of his adventures. He had taken half-a- dozen bottles of liquor from the Aunty’s bar.
Unfortunately, since Anees was heavily inebriated, he crashed into a car. Unfortunately, the car happened to belong to the mayor of Mumbai. The police had no choice but to arrest him. Since we could not leave him alone, Ali and I also joined him in the cell. In the morning his brother Daud came with bundles of note and all of us were released.
Amongst the excerpts which I published in Imprint’ was one of the first books of the psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar calledTemples of Healing.’ The book was about alternate traditional methods of healing, focussing particularly on mental illness. For example, in the normal traditional Hindu household the daughter-in-law or bahu dared not complaint against the mother-in-law. But when they went to a temple the bahu could claim she was possessed and cursed by her mother-in-law. This was forgiven as it was not the bahu but the bhoot which was cursing! Similarly, we carried stories about Muslim pir curing disturbed people.
I left the Imprint’ over some issues with the publisher and owner and joined theBusiness India.’ Which requires a separate chapter and will be featured in the next issue along with my Goa experiences, which will form the third and forth parts of this series on my 50 years in journalism and all the ups and downs of my life.

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