The Free Press Journal, in the forties and fifties, was the nursery for journalists. It churned out good, trained journalists, literally by the day.
I was given a salary of Rs. 125 a month, without a protest, since I had little choice. The hope was that there would be a substantial increment, after six months. That was not to be, for strange reasons.
The newsroom was overflowing with talent of a high order all through the fifties. Besides Bal Thackeray, there was T J S George, who wrote editorials and columns; K Shivram who produced fascinating front pages with eye-catching headlines (“Experts Expect Exports Expand”, for a story on appraisal of the Five Year Plans); M K B Nair, sober Chief Sub Editor, who worked throughout the night silently; R Venkatachari, garrulous but good-hearted. It was a pleasure working with them. One learnt a lot, in quick time.
On the reporting desk were M P Iyer, one of the greatest crime reporters the city had ever seen, S B Kolpe (“Kolpesky” since he was an ardent Troskyite), Dr. R Satyanarayana and several others. Almost all of them bachelors, they stayed on in the office even when not on duty, for sheer camaraderie and bonhomie. Then there was M V Kamath, plodding at his typewriter, throughout the day and well into the night, producing edits and running a column for the FPJ, “From an Easy Chair,” and two equally popular columns for the eveninger, “Free Press Bulletin,” Gaslight Gossip and Dada’s Column. Kamath, now 90, is still plodding at his baby typewriter, producing columns, book reviews and a variety of articles for various magazines.
From that batch of the fifties, still active in journalism are M V Kamath and T J S George, besides this scribe. Many of the rest are no more.
Everyone was committed to healthy journalism, the hangover of the euphoria of the pre-independence commitment still hanging heavy on everyone.
Five years into independence, when a number of laws were in place to ensure security of service, proper wages, limited hours of work, right to unionise and agitate for better working conditions, journalists began asking why they were not in the loop. So came into being the Press Commission, which paved the way for a series of Wage Boards. Kolpe was the main protagonist. I joined the fray and soon found myself the Chairman of the Bombay Union of Journalists, which led the struggle. “The Free Press Journal” reluctantly raised wages marginally. The struggle continued till 1975 from which time, things changed drastically in Indian journalism.
Three months into my job, I began growing a beard. It saved time and a lot of irritation on the chin. When it had grown noticeably well, one afternoon as I stood watching bales of newsprint being unloaded, Sadanand came from behind, put his hand on my shoulder and asked benignly, “How are you Ravindranath?”
I muttered that I was doing well, unused to the privilege of rubbing shoulders with the legendary Sadanand in full view of the entire staff crowding the balconies wondering what was going on.
“Yes, I learn you are doing quite well on the desk. I am happy. But, tell me why are you growing this beard? It is abnormal. Take it off. I Don’t like it” and be stomped off.
The moment he had gone into his cabin, my colleagues rushed to me. “What did the old man say?” I told them.
From then on my beard became a talking point in the office. “Yes, one tug from the old man and off it will go,” someone said.
I wondered why Sadanand wanted me to shave off my beard, when there was T J S George with a more prominent beard already in the office. And, George was one of his favourites.
I decided to retain my beard. Another four months later, on the occasion of Republic Day celebrations on the terrace of 21, Dalal Street, Sadanand shouted: “Do I see a clean shaven face on Ravindranath’s shoulder?” I stood up to reveal a welltrimmed and cultured beard. At the end of the function, Sadanand went to his room and froze my increments. I put up with it for two years, till 1954, I shaved off my beard when going for an outdoor assignment in Dadra and Nagar Haveli, in the summer heat of July and August. Midway through the assignment, when I ran out of funds, I came back to the office. By then Sadanand had been stricken ill and had been shifted to Agastyar Ashram at Chennai. His son, Premkumar, in his daily dispatch to his father added an extra line: “Ravindranath has shaved off his beard.”
The next day came a telegram from the ailing Sadanand granting me a Rs. 50 increment. He died a few months later, without a look at my clean shaven face. And soon after I moved over to “The Times of India.” I spent 21 long years in that organization, where in the first ten years I had earned everything a good journalist would yearn for - a recognizable bye line, fame, a reputation that transcended boundaries.
What the organisation could not give me, I earned through my trade union activities, flitting from State capital to State capital, attending National Council meetings of the Indian Federation of Working Journalists, as its Treasurer and later Vice-President.
I learnt about history, origin and status of almost every newspaper in the country, in any language. I would often brag: “I can walk into any English or Malayalam newspaper in the country and say ‘I am P K Ravindranath and I need a job,’ and I would get it.”
But it took me the harshness of the Emergency and the censorship to finally decide to quit the job, when the editor failed to take a stand on a story, which the censors killed. I left the Times on 9 August 1976 wondering why I had not done it ten years earlier.
No one had till then resigned a job, that too in a senior position, from the Times of India till then. Out of sheer spite, I took my resignation letter to the then General Manager, Dr. Ram Tarneja. I took it to him on the morning of July 9, without even seeking an appointment. There was a queue of people outside his cabin, when I knocked.
He called me in, dismissed someone sitting with him to attend to me. He knew the entire background of my tussle with the Editor for reclassification as an Asst. Editor, which grade I had already attained as Chief of Bureau.
I merely handed over the letter to him. He read it, and for a moment looked blank. He merely gestured with his hand as if to ask: “What’s all this?”
I merely said: Enough is enough. I have decided to go. The conversation between me and Dr. Tarneja was always in Hindi.
For the next forty minutes he tried to convince me to stay on. “Just two more months, and everything will be alright” he told. “Nothing has happened in two years. I will only waste two more months of my life here,” I said.
In those two years, two directors on the board – Rajni Patrl and K C Raman had tried to push my case, along with Dr. Tarneja. The Editor would not budge. Tarneja knew all that.
When he realised that I was adamant, he asked one final question: “Ghar mein bathaya kya?” I said “Yes.”
He had reached out for the telephone to confirm. He had no reason to doubt. So instead he called for the Personnel Manager. When he came in, Tarneja merely handed over my letter to him. The Personnel Manager looked at me incredulously, as if to ask “Are you mad?” I merely gestured to him that it was final.
“Do I have to route it through the Editor?” he asked him.
“I have one little request,” I butted in. Kindly relieve me on ones notice. Under the Working Journalists Act I am expected to give you six months notice,” I pointed out.
“Do I have the authority to do that,” he asked the Manager.
“Yes, under exceptional circumstances, you can,” he said.
In sheer exasperation, Dr. Tarneja signed the letter and gave it to the Personnel Manager.
Then he stood up, shook hands with me and asked a final question: “Now tell me what are you going to do?”
“I am joining Nehru Centre,” I told him. Nehru Centre was in 1976 still on the drawing board. The land at Worli had been acquired and a project office set up, at Sterling Centre opposite. The rest of it was still in the air.
“Ek aadmi ke bharose pe?” Tarneja asked, “Relying on one man?” That one man was Rajni Patel, the founder General Secretary of what was conceived as a “living memorial to Jawaharlal Nehru” to push through his ideals of secularism, the spread of the scientific temper and national integrity and unity.
Rajni Patel had assured me, when I discussed my resignation earlier: “Come and sit at the Project Office and take what salary you want.”
That was not to be, since in a month’s time I joined “The National Herald.”
(to be continued….)