SHARANYA KANVILKAR writes from Bombay: As it approaches its dosquicentennial, India’s biggest English language newspaper, The Times of India, truly deserved a meticulous biography to tell the world on “what goes on inside this amazing media machine”.
Sadly, Bachi Karkaria‘s Behind the Times (Times Books, 325 pages) is not that.
Poorly structured, poorly sourced and poorly edited, Karkaria’s is an airy tribute to the war-room surgeons who botoxed the Old Lady of Boribunder into a sassy lass, but it airbrushes the foot soldiers in the trenches, on whose sweat, toil and guard stands “The Masthead of India” across the nation.
As Karkaria’s creation “Alec Smart” would have said:
“Marwadiya! It’s a bloody Parsimonious salute, dikri!”
Yet, despite its Bombay Gym view of Dadabhoy Naoroji road, Behind the Times has its moments in demystifying some of the myths built around its formidable helmsmen— the brothers Samir Jain and Vineet Jain—and in humanising a gigantic group.
On SAMIR JAIN, vice-chairman (VC): On the international Response (advertising) conferences—holidays really—the participants not only wallowed in VC’s generosity, they also learnt about cost consciousness from him. Once Indira Deish [of Times Response], while taking her room key, instructed the receptionist to give her a wake up call, and send a pot of bed tea with it. She felt a tap on her shoulder, turned around and saw VC. “He put his hand into his suit pocket, pulled out something, and put it in my palm. It was a couple of tea bags. After that, I always carried a box of these, and ordered only hot water. I learnt the value of thrift.”
Much earlier Indira learnt a similar lesson during the sesquicentennial celebrations in Delhi where she was part of the reception team. At the accompanying dinners, Samir Jain taught us “never to change a plate mid-meal. It unnecessarily added to the caterer’s bill.”
Thrift lesson #3 came from a regular office advice. Samir Jain, preempting the later global fashion, sent detailed instructions on how to recycle, reuse, and refuse to waste. He made it a ‘criminal offence’ to send a fax on a letterhead. The ‘grains’ pixelation of the printed header added three minutes more to the transmission time; so it was far more economical to photocopy and then fax….
Mahendra Swarup was inducted to bring his global marketing skills to Vineet’s baby Times Internet Limited. Before formally starting he naturally had to meet Samir Jain. Swarup had been struck by flu, but he went anyway at the appointed time to Jain House at 6, S.P. Marg, then still the whole family’s address.
If he had been less of a newbie, he would have postponed the meeting because Samir Jain is extremely susceptible to colds, and immediately dispenses with anyone with the slightest sniffle. However, Swarup recalled an extremely solicitous Samir Jain not dispensing with him, but dispensing medication. He summoned a minion to bring out an array of ayurvedic pills and potions, and discussed their various powers. And that was the sum total of the 40-minute ‘interview’. Later in the day, he even sent more vials to Swarup’s house….
For Swarup [who came from Pepsi], the early differentiator between the MNC and VC styles was the dining table. “Whenever we were at lunch, he observed what I relished in the lavish thali, and what I was ignoring. He told me what was good for me, and what I shouldn’t eat. Not just that, he served me personally. And would often show up at my house followed by the driver staggering in with a large hot-case. He’d say, “Mahendraji, aaj aap ki favourite kadhi banayi thi.”
On VINEET JAIN, managing director (MD): Vineet Jain rolls up his sleeves—-meticulously in v. neat folds—and buckles down to the nitty-gritty in all the media that exercises him at that time. he even orchetrates news stories on Times Now, as he did during the rescue of Prince, the little Rajasthani boy who fell into an open 60-ft-deep borewell, in 2006. His social connections enable him to add muscle or masala to a report.
And on one memorable occasion, the MD actually one of the big news stories of 2009: that Manu Sharma, the politically connected main accused in the high-profile Jessica Lal murder case, was out on parole ostensibly to meet his ailing mother, but actually partying….
The MD was on the case like a proper newshound. He alerted Vikas Singh, the Delhi resident editor; he told the Delhi Times reporter not to file the story till he had vetted it himself. He then called Vikas again, and told him to hold the story because “there’s too much hearsay. Tell the reporter to go back and get the bar manager’s quotes. On tape, and clandestinely if necessary.”
In the meanwhile, Vikas had a run-in with his immediate boss, Jojo (executive editor Jaideep Bose), who was hollering him on the line from Mumbai pressuring him to release the story for all editions so that no one else out-scooped the ToI.
Vikas told him, “The reporter says it will hold.”
Jojo thundered: “Who the hell is this reporter?”
Vikas replied: “MD”.
On R.K. LAXMAN, cartoonist: The most notable feature of the creator of the common man was that he was completely lacking in the common touch. To all but a close circle of personal friends and a coterie of the editors he worked with, R.K. Laxman was arrogant to the point of rudeness….
Laxman and [his wife] Kamala had gone to Qatar as guests of the sheikh. A public lecture was part of the deal. The opening line of his speech left his audience and his princely host stuned. He said, “Ever since I have set foot in your country, I have been most unhappy, in fact down right miserable.”
He then went on, “If a car is to pick me up at 10, it is always there at five to 10, with the AC switched on. I never have to open the door, the smartly uniformed chaffeur has always jumped out to do this for me. My heart sinks every time I drive through your country. The ride is always smooth with none of the potholes I am used to back home. Every street light is working. The walls are clean without a single blob of betel juice. How do you expect me, a person from Bombay, not to feel totally depressed about this?”
On DILEEP PADGAONKAR, former editor: Dileep was, in his colleague [former Bombay resident editor] Dina Vakil‘s memorable phrase, an ‘impresario editor’…. Dileep presided over a fine dining table and the TOI, many would aver, in that order. One of the nuggests in the newsroom’s annals is that the only time he sent out a memo and one steeped in aged balsamic at that, was when The Sunday Times of India appeared with ‘bouillabaise’ misspelt. For the Francophile and foodie editor it was a crime worse than a murdered filet mignon.
On GIRILAL JAIN, former editor: As DileepPadgaonkar described him: “He was given to making Spenglarian statements covering vast ages and aeons in a single sentence. he was a blend of Curzonian ambitions and Haryanvi conceits.” No surprise then that when he went to Iran to interview the Shah, he is supposed to have ended up tutoring the Pahlavi monarch on matters of geo-political strategy. On an evening, Giri would walk in the Lodhi gardens, puff at his cigar and come up with statements that would flummox even the lofty companion he had chosen. he would pronounce, ‘The Hun will be pitted against the Hindu.”
On SHAM LAL, former editor: When Sham Lal retired, the newsroom (which he had never stepped into) gave him a farewell. It was held in the 6th floor canteen where the aam janata, not ‘invited’ to the august directors’ lunch room, ate. Sham Lal was seldom seen in the latter, so he probably did not even known of the existence of the former. He was escorted up in the lift and into the huge hall. News editor, chief reporter, subs, peons, all sung his fulsome (sic) praises. The quiet but universally admired editor was presented ‘floral tributes’ and a salver.
Then the master of ceremonies grandly announced, ‘Now Mr Sham Lal will give a speech.’ Sham Lal slowly shuffled to his feet, cleared his throat, and as the packed hall waited in anticipation for an outpouring of enlightenment from the man who had attained intellectual nirvana, he merely said, ‘Thank you’. Then he went back to his chair and sat down….
At a party in Mumbai, Sham Lal was cornered by a large, garrulous American woman. After a 15-minute monologue, she stopped mid-flow and asked, “Am I boring you?” and Sham Lal replied with extreme and genuine courtesy, “Yes I am afraid you are.”
On PREM SHANKAR JHA, former assistant editor: The editorial HQ was still Mumbai, and he wouldn’t roll up to the portico in a taxi like his colleagues. He arrived with his bulk perched incongruously on a frail moped. He would come directly from his morning tennis at the Bombay Gym and would fluster into the edit meeting invariably late, dripping with sweat and clumsily dropping his helmet and racuqet. Sham Lal would mildly glower and Prem would clasp his podgy hands and say, ‘Maaf kijiye, Sham Lalji, maaf kijiye’….
One day, hearing hysterical screams from the inner cabin, the long-suffering Iyer entered to find his portly boss balanced precariously on a chair, quaking in impotent terror and staring at a cockroach on his desk. As soon as he saw his steno, he ordered him to swat it. Iyer froze at such an unBrahminical directive, with Prem getting more and more apoplectic by the minute. He finally shouted, ‘Kill it, kill it, you f***ing vegetarian.’ Iyer fled.
On J.C. JAIN, former general manager: J.C. Jain was among the most powerful GMs of the time when this was top executive position. He had a reedy voice, sometimes cruelly described as ‘having one vocal chord’. The story goes that on a visit to Hollywood, JC met the smokey-voiced beauty, [Humphrey Bogart‘s wife] Lauren Bacall. Trying to think of something smart to say to this icon, he quipped: ” Miss Bacall, is it true that you are sometimes mistaken for a man?” The lady arched her famous eyebrows and retorted, “No. Are you?”
On T.N. NINAN, former Economic Times editor: T.N. Ninan was extremely possessive about his editorial domain. Samir Jain was raring to bring many innovations into ET, but Ninan, more as a matter of principle, was less than enthusiastic. One of these was ear panels, but Ninan resisted on the belief that the masthead should not be devalued by small ads on either side.
Irritated, the VC called the Bangalore branch head, Sunil Rajshekhar, and said, “This is what I want, and it has to be in ET there tomorrow.” Sunil passed on the VC’s instructions to the RE, Nageswaran, who mentioned this in a routine mail to his boss. Ninan blasted him, “Do you report to me or to Sunil Rajshekhar?” The hapless guy spluttered, “But, Mr Ninan, the VC asked for it to be done.” Ninan thundered, “I don’t care who asked. I am the Editor.” Yes, he was. But not for long.
On JUG SURAIYA, edit page editor: Some time in 1987, Ashok Jain summoned Gautam Adhikari, and said, “I am told there are no good young journalists in India outside the Times.” Gautam said, “No, sir, there are many good journalists, and I am sure they would be happy to join us.” The chairman said, “Give me a note.” Gautam made out a spreadsheet which included their brief bios, even a ballpark estimate of their current salaries…. Gautam’s list included Chandan Mitra, Swapan Dasgupta and Jug Suraiya from The Statesman.
When Gautam called his old quizzing friend and said, “Could we meet?” Jug thought he wanted to join The Statesman, and sounded out the editor. Sunanda Datta-Ray removed his cigarette-holder from his lips and replied, “He will be an asset. Ask him to telephone me.” But when they met at the Elphin bar, it was Gautam who was doing the offering. To everyone’s surprise, Suraiya was willing.”
On SWAMINATHAN AIYAR, former Economic Times editor: The economics whiz Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar had many quirks. As a genius he was entitled to the full quota. One of these was unqiue: he always carried his cup of tea to the 3rd floor loo in Times House, Delhi.
On PRITISH NANDY, former editor, Illustrated Weekly of India: Some-time Science Today editor Mukul Sharma had acted in Paroma, an edgy film made by his ex-wife, the well-known actresses-turned-director Aparna Sen. He played the foreign-returned photographer who had an affair with his subject, a traditional Bengali house. The beauteous Rakhee essayed the title role. Mukul boasted to his friend Pritish that when he lay atop her for a bedroom shot, he counted 29 golden flecks in her amber eyes. Nandy smirked and said, “36”.
On PRADEEP GUHA, former response head: Two years into Pradeep Guha’s powerful stewardship of Response, and his raking in the moolah by the shovelful for the group, the chairman Ashok Jain turned to his son, Samir just after PG left the room, and ingenuously asked, “Achcha, yeh banda karta kya hai?‘ (What exactly does this chap do in the organisation?)
On DINA VAKIL, former Bombay resident editor: In December 2003, Salman Rushdie returned to his boyhood city, Mumbai, after a gap of 16 years. The interview team comprised three people: resident editor Dina Vakil, who had published an excerpt from Midnight’s Children in the Indian Express and had met Salman when he was a young tyke, and was allegedly featured as Mina Vakil in the Ground Beneath her Feet. The other was Rushdie fan Nina Martyris. Bringing up the rear was the veteran photographer Shriram Vernekar.
Terrified that Shriram would innocently discuss the ‘scoop’ with his photographer friends in other publications, Dina threatened him with dire consequences as her car drew up to the Taj. “I will kill you,” was her (usual) refrain as she wagged a perfectly manicured finger in his mystified face. Shriram, whose storming ground was the Sena shakha and Ganesh visarjan, didn’t know what the fuss was all about.
While shooting them, the genial Shriram did his bet to put a slightly awkward Rushdie at ease, by engaging him in small talk. He lowered his camera, looked up at the celebrated writer and said conversationally, “First time in Mumbai?” Even as Dina rolled her eyes and looked like she wanted to throttle Shriram, an unfazed Rushdie twinkled, “Not quite.”
On RAJDEEP SARDESAI, former assistant editor: Why just the stenos, even the peons were totally clued in and, when it came to Byzantine state politics, the Maharashtrian ones could teach a thing or two to the younger assistant editors. Once Rajdeep Sardesai, hot off the dreaming spires of Oxford, wrote a whole three-part series on the rising presence of the Shiv Sena without, it was whispered, meeting a single sainik or visiting a single shakha. On that occasion, it was left to the more hands-on Kalpana Sharma to fill in the gaps.
External reading: The Economic Times review of the book