Thursday, 19 January 2012, is a red-letter day in The Hindu calendar. After an eight-year tenure as its helmsman, Narasimhan Ram will step down as editor-in-chief of South India’s largest English newspaper; a tenure pockmarked by several professional highs and as many personal lows.
While N. Ram can justly claim to have played a role in making The Hindu top-of-the-mind reading by his stewardship of the WikiLeaks India cables among other stories, there can be little doubt that the paper’s openly partisan coverage of the Left parties, China and Sri Lanka have not quite cast the “Mount Road Mahavishnu” in great light.
Above all, while Ram was merely the custodian for eight years of the 133-year-old newspaper, his actions in undercutting his brothers and cousins under the alibi of “professionalising” the family-owned media house have the potential to have long-term implications on the family-owned Hindu in a competitive market.
What cannot be doubted is that while the former Tamil Nadu wicket-keeper invites intense dislike among his baiters, and there are many, the dog-breeder is also intensely loved by his admirers, and there are many of them too. Here, a former Bangalore correspondent of Frontline, the fortnightly owned by The Hindu, pens a panegyric to his former boss.
By CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY
In the early 1990s, as eager students pursuing journalism studies in Mysore’s historic Maharaja’s College, our class was vertically split in its choice of the two main heroes who were blazing a new trail in India’s lively media arena.
While one bunch supported Arun Shourie, who, among other things, in the late 1980s had launched a campaign against the introduction of the defamation bill, an instrument introduced by the then Rajiv Gandhi government to curtail a free media, especially the Indian Express of which he was the editor.
The other-half idolized N. Ram.
Ram, we believed, was the true anti-establishment hero who, through his trenchant and hard-hitting writings had exposed the Bofors scandal. For us ‘hungry cubs’ fed on antediluvian and archaic theories, this was a potent manifestation of the true power of independent and ethical journalism, of impactful journalism.
Further underlining his fiery credentials was his defiant rebellion, in October 1989, against his own editor-uncle G. Kasturi of The Hindu.
Ram, who was then associate editor of the paper and second in command in the editorial structure, rather disillusionedly, wrote of The Hindu’s editor:
“… Every time the question of publishing something major and original on the Bofors scandal arose, he [Kasturi] countered the idea of publication with the question. ‘What is really new about this? Isn’t what we have already published enough to make clear to everyone who is involved?’ He also repeatedly stated that while he personally was convinced of the guilt of the government in the Bofors affair, he was afraid that “the institution is in great danger.” This was his perspective on The Hindu which was founded in 1878 and has seen many trials and challenges in its history. (I repeatedly pointed out to the editor the failure to understand the significance of history which underlay his statement.) Kasturi also expressed serious concern over the impact of the fall-out from the Bofors expose on the interests of the “family” behind the newspaper.”
Ram took the extraordinary step of venturing out of the “four walls of The Hindu” to explain the situation to the public at large.
“I decided to speak to my colleagues in the profession and ask for the hospitality of their columns to throw light on this vital national and ethical issue. I wonder whether this expose of what has happened within one major journalistic institution would be kept away from the readers of The Hindu through editorial censorship…,” Ram added.
In college, we conducted seminars on Indian journalism’s reigning deity and in our own, sometimes half-baked way attempted to analyze his brand of journalism.
Despite the ideological slant, his writings were direct and factual. It was strident and appealed to our activistic fervour.
Fortunately, during the course of my studies, I had established an indirect connection with Ram through the writer R.K. Narayan (my grand-uncle and mentor) who had moved from Mysore to Madras by then, and at whose Eldams Road residence Ram was a “welcome intrusion” almost every evening.
RKN diligently read through all the articles that I had written for Mysore’s local newspaper Star of Mysore and would occasionally give me Ram’s positive feedback with whom he obviously shared my clippings sometimes.
Needless to say, I was thrilled and motivated me to stay the course.
After securing my degree and encouraged by a gold medal and the Sampemane Krishnamurthy award for “excellence in journalism”, I went to Madras for an interview with the then deputy editor of Frontline K. Narayanan, a venerable journalist in his own right.
“KN” spoke to me for some time and on learning that I was just 22 years old, said that I should come back after a few more years of academic rigour. He said I was “underaged and underqualified”. Frontline did have a reputation of hiring erudite scholars and seasoned journalists, and I didn’t quite fit the profile.
Later, KN conferred with Ram, and on the condition that I pursue my post graduate studies simultaneously was given the job. At that time, I was probably the youngest reporter on the rolls of the magazine.
The magazine had demanding standards and I was put through the paces. However, my first assignment for the magazine came directly from Ram and was relayed to me by KN: it was to be a detailed article on the renowned artist S.G. Vasudev.
I went about it with the single minded dedication of a hardworking debutant and gave it all I had. For me, it was a fulfilling first, and Frontline gave it solid coverage.
A few more months into my job and I got my first cover story for the magazine. The feeling was heady: Ram was very inspiring, and kept regular tabs on how I was coping with my job and on one occasion even wanted to know whether I had procured a two-wheeler to cover my beat.
Ram’s journalistic principles were exacting. For instance, a reporter could not take chances while spelling names of people and had to prefix even the initials correctly. You were expected to be accurate when you put down statistics. No guess work, no approximation.
Once, I was anchoring a special supplement on KSFC or the Karnataka State Financial Corporation. All through the supplement I had inadvertently called it Karnataka State Finance Corporation. The desk had apparently overlooked this ‘minor’ aspect and the pages were sent for printing. However, in due course this error was noticed and the pages had to be recalled at the last minute.
For my shoddiness, I was issued a written reprimand by the then deputy editor V.K. Ramachandran.
In Ram’s scheme of things fastidiousness had to be a habit not a virtue.
During his visits to Bangalore, I would meet him at The Hindu guesthouse for a few minutes, when he would enquire about the prevailing political equations, and give me a passing perspective of his thinking on the issues.
In another instance, I was chasing a ‘scoop’ involving the then Union food minister Kalpnath Rai. Sources intimate to the then cabinet secretary Zafar Saifullah had promised to provide me with incriminating documents that clearly indicted Rai in a scam involving the import of sugar at a price higher than that of the market, apparently causing a loss of Rs 650 crore to the exchequer.
The minute I got whiff of the scandal, I discussed it with RKN over the phone.
“Why do you want to get into all these fancy issues? You will only get into trouble and nothing will come out of it. Look at Bofors, even after so many years nothing has happend,” he cautioned me with concern.
That night, as was his habit, Ram dropped into RKN’s Madras house for their routine chat, which usually covered a range of subjects and extended late into the night. RKN informed him about this overzealous young chap who had called him earlier in the day.
I guess, Ram gave in to his journalistic instincts and immediately spoke to me on the lead that I had picked up. He flew me down to Madras the very next day and encouraged me to work on the story from there. As luck would have it, my source who was supposed to deliver the documents by a flight from New Delhi backtracked even as I was waiting at the airport.
I was completely devastated.
Moreover, the embarrassment of facing Ram, who was waiting patiently at his residence, to study the documents was even more unnerving. Before leaving to the airport, I had boasted in all my youthful enthusiasm that the scale of the scam was bigger than that of the Bofors.
Ram had also given me permission to travel to Delhi if the story warranted it.
When I mumbled an apology to Ram that evening, he immediately understood the situation, gave me a quick pep talk, and ensured that I didn’t feel low or disheartened.
That same fortnight, a rival magazine carried the full story with the documents reproduced in print. It was obvious that my source had provided it to the rival magazine at the very last minute. Minister Kalpanath Rai was arrested in 1994 jailed in connection with the swindle but was later acquitted by the courts.
On another occasion, on the last day of a grand Madras vacation, I decided to visit The Hindu office and meet all my colleagues on the desk. Towards evening, just before heading out to catch my train, I gathered courage to pay an unscheduled visit to Ram’s office hoping to brief him about my work.
On learning that he was busy in meetings, and as time was running out, I decided to leave. Just then, he called me into his cabin.
At the end of our discussions, Ram queried how I was returning to Bangalore. I told him that I was originally scheduled to leave by the train but it would have long left and I would instead depart by the night bus now.
Ram looked at me almost guilty that he had made me miss the train. “Night buses can be quite tedious and unsafe,” he told me. He directed his secretary to lead me to the finance department and disburse money required for an air ticket. “We have had discussions related to your work. Your trip is official now, ‘’ he told me before packing me off.
I have never been able to forget that generous gesture.
My aunt Rajni still talks about how Ram went about mobilizing blood donors for my cousin Sudarshan, who was recuperating from a bad scooter accident that I had caused during that time. Ram ensured that Madras’s leading orthopedic surgeon Mohandas attended on him.
Ram could be overweening, sometimes caustic and opinionated but deep down, he came across as being humane–and sensitive.
There is one last anecdote that I should probably narrate. After I did a piece on Mysore’s famous motorcycle manufacturer Ideal Jawa, Ram contemplated moving me to Bombay as a business correspondent. Once I got to hear this, I was confused and excited.
I called my other famous grand-uncle, the cartoonist R.K. Laxman, with the intention of requesting him to get me a PG dig, and naively told him about Ram’s proposed plans to transfer me to Mumbai.
To my surprise, Laxman reacted rather sharply and said Bombay was no place for youngsters. He hyperbolically ventilated that people were dying of plague and pestilence and Ram shouldn’t be sending me into this city.
That evening when I spoke to RKN all hell had broken loose. Laxman in his inimitable way had called Ram and restated all the things he had told me. Narayan mentioned that this had irritated Ram as he thought that I had deliberately cribbed to Laxman.
In hindsight, I feel quite amused that I took out all my frustrations in a long letter that I wrote to Ram. I told him how the distinction between my personal and professional lives seemed to have progressively blurred. I had mentioned something in good faith, and quite unintentionally to a family member and it had triggered of a professional crisis for me, I indicated in my letter.
Probably, Narayan and Ram would have had a good laugh over my letter. I don’t know what happened. I was forgiven, and stayed on in Bangalore.
In 1997, I quit to join The Week magazine from the stables of the Malayala Manorama.
As a journalist who enjoyed and value my tenure at Kasturi & Sons, I genuinely wish that its stakeholders sink their differences and surface as one strong family.
If not for anything at least for the future of good journalism in this country.
The family, as I have known, would still be among the more decent and fair minded employers.
These are rare attributes in the Indian media industry.
File photograph: N. Ram, the outgoing editor-in-chief of The Hindu, at a lecture in New Delhi in April 2011 (courtesy Kanekal Kuppesh)