Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXX No. 8, August 16-31, 2020
The old man in the Kamaraj khadi shirt and veshti, a fading namam on his forehead (with no air conditioning in the sweltering newsroom, the red mark lasted no more than a couple of hours), and wisps of grey hair making a token presence on his otherwise bald head, looked forbiddingly at me as I handed him my resume and tried to impress him with the sterling attributes I was offering the newspaper under his watch. ‘Sorry we have no openings,” Mr. C.P. Seshadri, the news editor, said quite firmly, dashing my hopes. Disheartened, I made to leave, but remembered in the nick of time that my uncle P.N. Sundaresan had asked me to convey his regards to him. The mention of my uncle’s name had an electrifying effect. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier that you are Raja’s (Sundaresan’s) nephew?” the editor, who was “Master” to everyone said. “Are you Ramani’s son, then? I thought you were some vadakkathian (north Indian). You can join straight away. Go and sit there next to Chandrasekhar in the sports desk.”
Thus began my newspaper career – as Apprentice Sub-editor – with a monthly pay packet of Rs. 200, peanuts even by 1967 standards. My landing at Master’s doorstep was an accident, a happy one, as it turned out. I had had to miss my B.Sc Chemistry exams in March 1967, thanks to a mystery illness, characterised by unbearable headaches that lasted more than a month, and left me weak and exhausted. “I think he’s having a nervous breakdown,” I overheard my father tell my mother, and, not knowing what those words meant (Can you imagine such an ignorant 20-year old today?) I duly informed my friends in college of this diagnosis, feeling suitably important. Of our group of five classmates, only one, Meenakshi, who later went to medical college, seemed to find my confession strange. She laughed her head off.
Not only had I lost preparation time, I was too weak to sit down and do any overtime swotting. I therefore decided to take the exam in September – with my parents’ blessings – and actually acquitted myself quite well. At least three people, Prof. Jayanti Lakshminarayana, my former school teacher R. Srinivasan, and a young doctor helped me through this period, and I will write about them later.
I spent only a week in the sports desk, editing copy relating to the Guindy Races, learning from the expert advice that Chandrasekhar gave me, and some football copy which Mr. Nair helped me with, taking time off his reporting duties. Master encouraged me to go out and report, so I covered a few football matches, with the cricket season in a mid-season lull peculiar to Madras. My knowledge of soccer was only marginally better than my knowledge of horse racing, but I sailed through the MFA league matches thanks to the generous help I received from other reporters at the grounds, notably S. Thyagarajan of The Hindu.
After a week, I went up to Master and asked to be shifted to the general news desk, as I was bored with my sports routine, and Master readily agreed. The young man who took my place in the sports section, Partab Ramchand, became a leading sports journalist who also wrote on films. Unlike the general run of journalists, Ramchand has always been keen on writing books and has written many.
Master was a cult figure at the Express. He was probably in his late forties when I first met him, it was a close fight between him and Tushar Kanti Ghosh of the Amrit Bazaar Patrika group of Calcutta to decide who was the longest serving newspaper editor in India, until Seshadri passed away in the late 1990s, with Ghosh still in harness. Master was always the first to arrive in the office and never went home until the paper was put to sleep. There was perfect discipline in the office but also a relaxed air, with no worry about the boss looking over your shoulder. Anyone who has worked in the Express knows that it was a perfect training ground for rookie newsmen, who were quite early in their careers thrown in at the deep end. I had been in the paper for less than a month when Master said to me, “Your title may say sub-editor, but don’t stay cooped up in the office. Go out and do stories.” Excited and nervous, I stepped out with nothing besides good journalistic genes (hopefully) and Master’s blessings in my armoury. A series of fires broke out in a few Madras slums, and I was one of the reporters on the scene. Interviewing slum dwellers was no easy task, as some of them were as worldly wise as the London cockney of My Fair Lady fame. The genuinely stricken, mostly women, were hardly in a state to answer silly questions from English-educated upstarts like me. I even managed to gain access to Mr. Madhavan, a minister in the DMK government, and he spoke with confidence about the steps the government was taking to alleviate the sufferings of the residents and to try and prevent future accidents. Unfortunately, I was no impartial observer; my mind was made up against the government of the day, and I was convinced that it was doing nothing to save the day for the fire-ravaged poor of the city. My report was naturally one-sided and tended to editorialise. Somehow the report went unnoticed, luckily for me. I also did a story on IIT Madras, in what context I don’t remember. I was soon afterwards assigned a politically sensitive story, which took me to the Government Arts College, then located within a stone’s throw of Club House Road, where was situated Express Estates. The moment he knew I was from the Express, the principal had me and my photographer colleague thrown out of the college. He was angry because of a recent report on the college whose details I cannot recall now.
Work at the Express was a lot of fun. For some strange reason, my own copy was invariably edited by Master himself, and stranger still was the fact that it was hardly ever touched. Once he called me to tell me he was changing a word I had used. “Harangued” is an Americanism, we don’t need such words, here,” he said. He also expressed his strong dislike of the word “off.” “Sparked a riot, not sparked off a riot, don’t ever say the tournament finals,” he would stress, “the final is singular, unlike the semifinals or quarterfinals. You can of course say ‘the Wimbledon finals, referring to the many finals like men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, so on and so forth.”
Why was he called Master? He lived on the Express campus, and tutored Ramnath Goenka’s schoolgoing children, I learnt from my colleagues. The children called him Master or Masterji, and in time, he became Master to everyone. When he found some breathing time amidst his hectic daily routine, he made conversation with his senior colleagues, with his face often lit up by a brilliant smile. When he walked home after the night shift, he was accompanied by a colleague or two, walking towards the gate to go home. On the occasions I did night duty, meaning I pottered around doing nothing of importance while others slaved, I usually walked to a teashop near Odeon cinema, which offered a delicious mango juice, manna from heaven after night duty tea, and came back to sleep on newspaper stacks. My companions one night were senior colleague Mathew and Master. Knowing his wife was in the family way, Master solicitously asked Mathew, “How is your wife? I hope she is not alone.” Mathew’s reply, made with a solemn face, was, “I hope she is.” Master’s reaction was endearingly typical of him when amused. He put his pointer finger on the tip of his nose, his eyes twinkling in mirth.
Twice during the night shift, I was almost caught on the wrong foot, with teleprinter clattering away major headline news: the invasion of Prague by Soviet troops during the Dubcek regime, and the Robert Kennedy assassination. On both occasions, I thought I was alone in the newsroom, and froze in panic, but help arrived in the form of seasoned journalists returning from cigarette breaks.
Chandrasekhar, Nair, Krishnaswamy, Krishnamurthi, Murari, Nagarajan, Partab and Rishikesh were among the friends I made in the newsroom. I have been in touch with many of them, while one or two are no more. Surprise visitors to the office included Lala Amarnath and Veenai S. Balachander, and, graciously included by my seniors, I had the good fortune to listen in while these idiosyncratic personalities told some uproarious stories, some of them quite unprintable. Amarnath said of a notable personality that he murdered his wife, and described the wife of a cricketer as an alcoholic. Nair was generous enough to let me accompany him while he interviewed Amarnath. The Railways’ cricket coach then, Lalaji advocated playing on matting wickets to improve your technique against fast bowling, and he was conducting a camp for the Railway team at Madras as the city had plenty of matting wickets. I was quite puzzled by this prescription, as lack of practice on turf pitches was often cited as the reason for the Madras (now Tamil Nadu) batsmen’s inadequacies when they travelled outside the state. In recent years, Amarnath’s view has been endorsed by other experts, who even attribute Rahul Dravid’s excellence abroad to his early training on matting.
The idyll was too good to last. Two newcomers, let’s call them Uma and Raja, started throwing their weight around, perhaps emboldened by their social – not journalistic – pedigree. Neither of them was good at the job, but tried to teach me mine. At the same time friends in my college urged me to return to do postgraduate studies and play cricket for the college again. All of 20, I needed no further inducement to quit. Master was disappointed, but as I was stubborn in my resolve, he let me go, saying his doors would always be open for me. Years later, he told my wife Gowri that I had been one of his favourites, and also that he had learnt his trade from my grandfather V. Narayanan when he was editor of the Express.