Rajan Narayan -MEMOIRS OF AN UNDERDOG JOURNALIST!

Former founder-editor of the English edition of the “OHeraldo” from 1980 to 2001 and one of Goa’s senior most editors, begins a series on his life and times …good, bad, ugly!

Rajan Narayan: Good times, bad times…”There are no sacred cows for me! I am the goonda with the pen!”

By Rajan Narayan

I WAS born into a poor Tamil Brahmin family. We, of course, did not think of ourselves as poor. We always claimed we were a middle-class family. After all my mother Lakshmi was the daughter of a very successful medical practitioner in the capital of present-day Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram (one time Trivandrum). My father claimed he belonged to a very rich landed family in Payanur in north Malabar. In addition, he was one of the very few graduates from his village of Peralam. Perilam Vaidhyapattar Narayan Iyer had a degree in English literature from a Kerala university.
My father could quote Shakespeare forward and backwards. But he was essentially a country bumpkin compared to my sophisticated mother Lakshmi. My mother Lakshmi had grown up on the Tamil counterpart of Mills & Boons romances. Though both my parents were born in Kerala they were “Tam Brams” who had migrated to Kerala from Madras. In any case, virtually the whole of the south including Kerala was a part of the Madras Presidency of the British Raj years.
During the British Raj, the country was divided into four presidencies — Bombay, Calcutta, the Central Provinces and the Madras Presidency. My mother’s ancestors had moved to the then Trivandrum as priests at the Padmanabhaswamy Temple. One of the richest temples in the country enjoying the patronage of the King of Travancore. The Travancore kings were supposed to be an enlightened lot and they promoted not only education but the arts, including Carnatic music, and painting. All the major musicians of Carnatic music played for the Maharaja of Travancore in their court. It may be remembered that the famous painter Ravi Varma was a member of the royal family of Travancore.
But to return to the beginning of my story about my parents, the Narayans, theirs was an ill-fated marriage. Young Lakshmi who got married at the age of 16 years expected to be wooed and won and romanced but my country bumpkin had none of the social graces she expected or imagined. My father was the least romantic of men. All he was interested in was exercising his conjugal rights.
I tend to believe in retrospect that all of us four children of two daughters and two sons were the products of rape. Not an uncommon story in most families – it’s just the mingling of two bodies mechanically sans love or even affection. My father may have been a central government employee but he was a lower division clerk with a petty income. It may have been enough for survival. Certainly not enough to meet the aspirations of my mother who was very vain and spent hours dolling herself up.
My mother was used to the best cosmetics and none of them my father could afford to buy her. When a man is unable to fulfill his wife’s aspirations he inevitably resorts to violence. Unable to withstand my mother’s constant demands and in later years ridicule, my father took to beating her and my spirited mother used to rush to the police station to lodge a complaint against my father. We children were dragged in as witnesses much to our embarrassment.
The situation was aggravated by my mother’s disinterest in domestic chores which ranged from cooking, cleaning and looking after the children as they came along one by one. In my memory it was my father who made up for her lack of apathy and doubled in playing the role of both mother and father to the kids. If you belong to the lower middle class or the economically deprived section of society, you are generally treated as second-class citizens.

EDUCATION FIRST
FORTUNATELY, being from the Brahmin background my parents were committed to educating the children at least no matter what the economic sacrifices. We were living in Bangalore then and I was admitted to the St Joseph’s Indian High School which was for the children of a lesser god. This was in contrast to the St Joseph’s European High School which was in the neighboring compound in Bangalore. The European high school catered to the upper middle class and the rich and powerful and bold and beautiful. It was like the difference between studying in one of India’s public schools which were actually elite private institutions which charged an arm and a leg for admission. The St Joseph’s Indian High School was a very competitive school.
All the children of poor parents had a point to prove. They had a common desire to rise above their humble backgrounds. My compulsion to be an over-achiever dates back to my school days. I was not very good in academics, particularly in arithmetic or maths, perhaps my dislike for maths was because I had a rotten teacher. Who implicitly believed that sparing the rod would be detrimental to students? Every time a sum was wrong he caned me on the back of my hand. This put me off maths for a lifetime.

EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES
THE school encouraged participation in extracurricular activities. It is believed that the students must be well-rounded adults later on. The extracurricular activities were perceived as confidence-building exercises. We were encouraged to get involved in public speaking. There were quiz contests to improve our general knowledge. We were encouraged to take part in dramatics. I took part very actively in extracurricular activities, to the extent that I always got the top prize both within the school and interschool debates in public speaking competitions.
I recall taking part in a play called “The Bishop’s Candlesticks” when I was in the 6th or 7th standard. The play by French dramatist Jean Valgen was about a thief stealing silver candlesticks from a chapel. The thief was promptly caught by the police but the kindly bishop forgave him. The thief turned out to be a school dropout, he stole the candlesticks because he needed the money for medical treatment for his mother. The bishop asked the police to let him go. The bishop also presented the candlesticks to the thief and asked him to sell them to raise money for his mother’s treatment.
My greatest problem in school was physics, chemistry and mathematics. Even though the school tried to make chemistry interesting, teaching us how to make face powder and snow in the school lab. I barely managed to pass my school final exam in Standard 11. In those days there were 11 years of schooling followed by one year of pre-university, then three years of college. I passed out and changed my core subjects to history, economics and logic at the pre-university level.

JESUIT COLLEGE
COLLEGE which was again a Jesuit institution marked my coming of age or so to speak. Fortunately, at the college level, there was only one St Joseph’s College and the haves and have-nots were not segregated. My love for English was encouraged by our English professor, a pint-sized Balakrishnan. I continued my extracurricular activities with even greater vigour. Only this time I was taking part in inter-collegiate public speaking contests with young adults much older than I was. I used to prepare my own speeches and those of my classmate, Rajgopal.
Rajgopal’s father was an IAS officer. At his home, I got offered much more encouragement than my own home. My parents were too busy fighting with each other to care about the performance of their four children, academically or otherwise. There was no response when I brought home all my prize-winning shields and cups from my extracurricular activities at home. The appreciation came from the Jesuit priests in my and this compensated somewhat. It was my friend Rajgopal’s family who encouraged me too.
I also joined the Scout & Guides movement to learn some useful skills and earn a little money on the side. The Scout & Guides movement was started by Baden Powell and it had a bob-a-job scheme. In India, it used to go in the name of a rupee-a-job. Young scouts could earn some pocket money by running small errands for their neighbours and the family of well-to-do friends. There were frequent camps for the scouts out in the wilderness. We had to learn how to light fires and even cook. Attempts at cooking were a total disaster and we had to go out looking elsewhere for a meal.
I did well enough at the pre-university level, securing over 70% in my exam. Thanks to the switch over to the art subjects, I got over 70% marks and paved the way to do my BA honours course at Central College, which was the university college of Bangalore. I had enrolled for economics honours. However, I did not realize that I could not escape maths. At the graduate level economics was increasingly quantitative. A student needs knowledge of algebra and geometry. We were required to build mathematical models.
I spent more and more time in extracurricular activities. Ranging from taking part in mock United Nations and mock parliaments. I recall I was the head of a Soviet delegation in a mock UN re-enactment. In the mock parliament, I opted for the education minister’s portfolio. There were a group of us who were very critical of the university authorities. Then vice chancellor VK Gokak was very authoritarian. He did not take the students into confidence. The university started its own weekly called ‘Bangalore University Bulletin” which said nasty things about students and glorified the vice-chancellor.
Some of us were very angry. We came together and started a counter to the official weekly. We called it “The Retort.” It was meant to be the official weekly paper. But being students we drew a chemistry retort to give the impression that we were distilling the wisdom of the student community. This was my first foray into journalism. “The Retort” was an enormous success. (This is also where I really started my Stray Thoughts column which appeared in the “OHeraldo” newspaper later on in Goa when I was both its founder editor, printer, publisher, distributor and manager. )
In Bangalore, I had gone all around distributing our weekly, “The Retort”, priced at Rs10. This also brought me in touch with student leaders and activists from various parts of the city. All the brightest and the best contributed to “The Retort” which was acknowledged finally by Vice-Chancellor VK Gokak himself.
When I was furiously cycling down one of the main roads I was hit by a motorcycle rider. My cycle got badly damaged and I suffered major injuries. When I came to consciousness I discovered that I had been hit by a rock group. Bangalore was full of these young people who were part of the rock and roll bands. This was a group of four long-haired kids dressed in denim outfits. They pleaded with me to withdraw the case. They offered to pay for the medical treatment and even the cost of a new bike, I was willing but the police would not withdraw the case. The case came up for hearing after a couple of years before a very straight-laced magistrate. Who looked at the long hair and clothes of the rock group and sentenced all of them claiming that they were against the culture of Bangalore. He was the first Hindutva fundamentalist that I encountered in life.

SEXUAL ENCOUNTER
PERHAPS this account of my college days would be incomplete without my describing my first tentative sexual encounter and my shifting to the Central College hostel. My family had left Bangalore for Bhusawal by the time I entered college. I was staying with a cousin in a small narrow one-room house. The cousin brought his teenage sister to stay with us. She was a saucy young teenager who was anxious to learn the facts if life.
So it was inevitable that two young people should get down to exploring each others’ bodies. She would go to the extent of feeling my private parts. This was my first introduction to practical sex education. Unfortunately, her brother caught us at it and I was expelled from the room. The young girl was married off to a sadistic police constable whom she later divorced. I shifted to the university hostel close to my college after this episode.
The mess in the hostel was run by the students themselves. The mess offered three meals. Lunch at 10.30 am as was the custom in Karnataka. Then there was tiffin between 3 and 4 pm. Dinner was served around 8 pm. The expenses were equally divided among students staying in the hostel. Since there were a series of huge bills I was persuaded to take up the job of the secretary of the mess. This involved going to the central vegetable market and buying vegetables in large quantities every two or three days. In an attempt to keep the costs low, I used to buy the cheapest vegetables. On one occasion I bought brinjals three days in a row. I was labelled the brinjal perfect. There were no restrictions on the students and they could stay out as long as we wanted. The college and the hostel were situated in the centre of the entertainment complex of Bangalore. We were surrounded by a dozen movie theatres which showed films in Tamil, Kannada and English. This is where I caught up with Cinema and developed a passion. Those were the days when Doris Day and Sandra were very popular. They were rocking musicals like Come September. And a very witty English film titled Treat Your Husband Like a Dog” where Doris Day the mother tells her daughter how to bring her husband along. The film ends with the husband wearing a dog collar in the kennel. I also saw many Tamil and Kannada films, including early films made by P Lankesh, which used to treat me to English literature and went on to start the Combative Lankesh Patrika. An in-depth investigative magazine. Which as the model for the Goan Observer. Lankesh’s daughter Gauri who took over the Lankesh Patrika and was killed allegedly by member of the Sanatan Sanstha.

(This is part of a publication being compiled by Tara Narayan in “Stories My Husband Tells Me.”)

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