MEMOIRS OF AN UNDERDOG JOURNALIST! `I have no sacred cows!’ `I’m the goonda with the pen!” BOMBAY MERI JAAN!

By Rajan Narayan

I MOVED to Bombay in 1967 to do my Master’s in economics from Bombay University. My father had been transferred to an ordinance factory at Ambarnath, a town located 100 km away from Bombay. My brother N Vaidhyanathan had passed out from the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad and then taken up a job in Mumbai. Since I had no place to stay I was admitted to the University Hostel down a lane near Churchgate Station and off Marine Drive. Though I was enrolled for master’s in economics I had very little interest in academic studies and I desperate to take up a job and earn some money, for I was very short of funds to stay alive.
My first love was journalism. I got a job working for a textile journal in Bombay. The owner of the textile journal was S Raghavan and a good friend of Dhirubhai Ambani who at that time was just a small time trader. He had not yet become a big industrialist. To earn a little more money I was hired to teach Mukesh Ambani conversational English. Mukesh used to arrive at my hostel. I used to take him for a walk at Nariman Point while talking to him in English. I even took him to view an English film. Watching films is the best way to learn a language.
These talking classes went on for three to four months. Mukesh was a very quiet, respectful young man. When we discontinued with the classes he presented me with a shirt-piece made by the new textile factory of Reliance. Naturally, it was only “Women.” It was the first batch of polyester cloth in India at that time.
I was lucky enough to get a job with the financial experts who were at the financial daily of the Indian Express Group of publications. My first job in journalism was as a trainee sub-editor here. All staff sat at a horseshoe-shaped desk – there was a chief sub-editor at the head of the table and there were several junior subs like me alongside.
Our job was to cross the tees and dot the “i” of the copy given by reporters and which also came from the teleprinter machines. My salary was a pathetic Rs250 per month. But there were scores of invitations from all the 7-star and 5-star hotels in Bombay at that time. The philosophy of Ramnath Goenka, who owned the Indian Express newspapers was that journalists did not need money as they could always get free lunch and dinner at the press conferences they were assigned to cover. I got used to walking into the Taj and Oberoi in my torn jeans and purple kurta. There was always a cigarette dangling on my lips. I never used to shave in those days.
The owners of businesses and industries were so hungry for publicity that they ignored the truth of my life and welcomed me to their functions in 5-star hotels. One of my most absurd encounters was with Pathanwala, who was he manufacturer of the one-time famous Afghan face cream and moisturizer. Within three months of my joining the Financial Express I was asked to go and interview Pathanwala at 10 am in morning.
I used to be on the night shift of the paper which used to get over at 3 am in the early morning. There was no time to go home and change. I presented myself at the factory of Pathanwala at Byculla in the same clothes in which I had slept off at the office desks. When I arrived at the factory the watchman would not let me in. When I bullied the watchman for access to the chairman’s the Goan mini-skirted secretary would not believe that I had an appointment with her boss.
Fortunately, I had made visiting cards for myself and gave one to introduce myself the girl and asked her to give it to her boss. Pathanwala came out of his office dressed in his three-piece suit and hugged me. Pathanwala took me into his office and offered to add some cognac to my coffee at 10 am in the morning.
I have been fortunate enough to meet up with several top industrialists of Bombay. I remember a breakfast meeting with Ramkrishna Bajaj of Hamara Bajaj Scooter. Young Bajaj was preparing to go to Pune to start the Bajaj scooter factory. Bajaj became the biggest scooter manufacturer in the world. I also remember meeting Brijmohan Lall Munjal, the founder of the Hero group of industries. They started with a collaboration with Honda but then branched out on their own. Hero is the largest manufacturer of motorbikes even now they do the many-faceted Serendipity festival in Goa.
The highlight of my tenure at the Financial Express was dining with JRD Tata at the rooftop Rendezvous restaurant at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai. Unless you are wearing a jacket you are not permitted into the restaurant. The steward got me a jacket which he put over my kurta. JRD Tata was the most gentlemanly of the top industrialists I have met. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the patriarch of the Birla and Singhania family as well.
Within two years of my joining the Financial Express, my writing talent was noticed by the then editor VK Narasimhan. The editor invited me to write editorials expressing the opinion of the newspaper. I was terrified since I thought only very senior journalists with white hair wrote editorials. Even worse I was supposed to write editorials on international financial affairs like the US budget.
I expressed my reluctance but Narasimhan reassured me, “Don’t worry. Take the files from the library. Say whatever you want. Make sure you include a lot of conditional clauses — be that as it may, nevertheless, in spite of, etc. Make sure you don’t say anything extreme.”The assistant editors had only two hours to submit the editorials. I wrote my first editorials when I was 25.
I was very nervous about the rival Economic Times. I was presently surprised when their editorials were more or less similar to mine. I learnt how to read very quickly and put down my thoughts very clearly during my spell of writing editorials. After five years in the Financial Express, I shifted to the Onlooker magazine which offered me double the salary of Rs1,000 per month.
Onlooker was being edited by a close friend of mine called Masih Rahman. His then girlfriend Yashoda Dalmia was a better friend of mine. Both Rahman and me considered ourselves Marxist in our thinking. We tried to convert the Onlooker into a left-wing magazine. In our belief that women should be respected, we made the mistake of dropping the nude which the Onlooker used to publish in every issue.
Overnight the circulation of Onlooker fell by 80 per cent. Both editor Rahman and I were sacked by the Marwadi owner who owned the magazine. Emergency was declared when I was at the Onlooker. Everything we wrote was subjected to censorship. But we still managed to get away with critical articles about Sanjay Gandhi who was the de facto prime minister during the Emergency which lasted for almost two 21 months from 1975 to 1977, almost two years.
I was happy enough to get a job as editor of the Mirror magazine which was the poor man’s Reader’s Digest. The then editor of the Mirror was 80-year-old MD Japheth who had built up a brilliant magazine for young people from small towns. The magazines were full of inspirational and self-improvement articles. It also had tender love stories.
One of the duties of the former 80-year-old editor was to reply in detail the 100 odd letters from readers whih used to come in the mail. The letters were from young people in small towns living in conservative societies. A young girl was alarmed when a boy smiled at her and she wanted to know if she would get pregnant. Obviously there was no Facebook or WhatsApp in those days.
I started a pen pal’s column. Readers would send their names, addresses and hobbies. They would exchange letters. It was a wildly successful idea and we used to get 10,000 pen pal coupons a day. The managing director, JC Jain, of the news weekly group, sent me on an all-India tour to meet readers and contributors. For the first time I stayed in the 5-star luxury hotels in the country. Ranging from the Oberoi Grand in Kolkata to the Taj Mansingh in Delhi to the Taj Western in the then Bangalore and the Chola in Chennai.
I succeeded in increasing the circulation of Mirror from one lakh to three lakh readers. In recognition of this I was offered a job with Imprint which was a literary magazine. Imprint which was reportedly started by the CIA used to publish excerpts of novels. It was edited by the writer Ruskin Bond.
I transformed Imprint into an investigative magazine. One of my first cover stories was “Goodbye Bombay, Hello Dubai.” This focused on the thousands of Indians who got cheated trying to get a job in the Gulf countries. The biggest conman was Anees Ibrahim, the brother of the smuggling don, Dawood Ibrahim. Through a common friend, Ali Peter John, I met Aneez Ibrahim at an Aunty’s joint in Dadar in Mumbai. Goan women had started small bars in their homes in various parts of Mumbai. When the three of us were drinking at an Aunty’s bar Aneez told us how he would dress up as an Arab.
Aneez would take a room in Oberoi. He would collect five lakhs each from those who wanted to go to the Gulf. Aneez would then disappear with their money. Around midnight the aunty asked us to leave. Now and again Aneez would blow kisses at the aunty’s pretty daughter Julie. The film had just been released and “Julie I Love You” was a very popular song.
Aneez stepped out and hijacked a taxi saying that we could continue the discussion on Dadar beach. He picked up some whiskey and a couple of Rampuri knives and started driving towards the beach. Unfortunately, Aneez was very drunk and hit the car of the mayor of Mumbai. The police insisted he should come to the police station. They told him they would have let him go if it was an ordinary car. But he has smashed the car of the mayor.
All three of us, Aneez, Ali and me, landed in the lockup. The next morning Dawood Ibrahim came with a bundle of notes and got us out. We shall come to my adventures in Business India in the next instalment of my memoirs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

70 + = 72