Ye Ol' Lady Of Bori Bunder

Can you recall the editor of India's largest circulating daily? No. That's TOI's achievement.
India Down The Pages: The Times Group Since 1838
By Times Group
Price: Not mentioned; Pages: 148
Seth Ram Kishen Dalmia bought Bennett Coleman & Co, publishers of The Times of India and its other publications, in 1947. He wanted to have a subservient press to propagate his brand of Hinduism with cow protection and vegetarianism as top priorities. He hated Nehru’s agnostic socialism; in return Nehru hated his guts. I had a very brief meeting with Seth Dalmia. I had applied for the post of editor of The Illustrated Weekly. He asked me one question: "Do you know Sanskrit?" I replied, "No, Sir, I don’t." He dismissed me curtly: "Go and learn Sanskrit, then come to me." I got the job 20 years later, without a word added to my Sanskrit vocabulary.

If Dalmia had his way, Bennett Coleman’s publications would be devoted to propagating his brand of Hindutva. Fortunately he got into severe financial trouble and had to give the publishing house to his son-in-law Shanti Prasad Jain, husband of his eldest daughter through Rama, the first of his six wives. It was Shanti and more his son Ashok who put Bennett Coleman back on its feet. Today Ashok’s widow Indu and her two sons Samir and Vineet run the company. The driving force behind its spectacular success as India’s leading group of newspapers is Samir.

I took over as editor of Illustrated Weekly in 1969 and held the post for nine long years. I got an insider’s view of the organisation. It ran like a well-oiled machine. Editors were well-paid, provided a house allowance, a new car and fringe benefits. We sat in red swivel chairs, served tea and coffee and a sumptuous vegetarian lunch. We were given a key each to open doors of lavatories reserved for editors. To have a pissoir of one’s own was the ultimate in editorial prestige.

I was fortunate in being left to re-shape the Weekly. The Jains had been divested of control of the company for some financial hanky-panky. A benevolent retired Justice K.T. Desai was officiating chairman. An able and non-interfering Ram Tarneja was general manager. I lasted out till the company was restored to the Jains.

The Times group has every reason to crow over its achievements. There are newspapers which enjoy more credibility and provide better reading. But the Times reigns supreme. The credit goes largely to Samir. He sensed that if print had to survive TV, it had to radically alter its content. While a weekly relies heavily on the personality of its editor, a daily does not. Three-fourths of its content is taken from the wires or foreign agencies (strip cartoons and crosswords, for example); the rest comprises correspondents’ reports and readers’ contributions, leaving the editor and his deputies a third or even less of the editorial page to comment on world and national events. Not many people read editorials. The Times’ first Indian editor Frank Moraes was much respected for his forthrightness but not much read. His successor N.J. Nanporia was neither admired nor read. Sham Lal was lauded for his erudition but few people read more than his opening paras. Likewise Girilal Jain, regarded as a perceptive political analyst and the first protagonist of Hindutva, had few takers. His successor Dileep Padgaonkar failed to convince his proprietors that "next to the prime minister he was doing the second most important job in India".

So we have the ironic situation that while we can name editors of other dailies, no one knows the name of the editor of the most widely circulated paper in the country. Samir Jain (rightly?) concluded that editors were dispensable. From his great grandfather he has inherited the uncanny gift of making money: the Times has become a major money-spinner. The trinity who run it know what is and what is not dispensable. R.K. Laxman is not dispensable (he is worth three editors). God and religion are not dispensable: so we have articles on god, yoga, meditation and quotes from the scriptures. Scantily clad starlets are not dispensable: male readers need some titillation every morning. Books and book reviews are as dispensable as editors. That is the secret behind the longevity of the old lady of Bori Bunder. Also periodical injection of life-giving drugs by the Jain trinity. A reasonable way of discovering this secret is to compare its Sunday supplements with those of other national dailies. It has a string of contributors who command readerships of their own.

The one lasting contribution Bennett Coleman has made to Indian journalism is to cut to size editors who had grandiose notions about their positions. The roll of honour of those unceremoniously shown the door includes Frank Moraes, Girilal Jain, A.S. Raman, Kamleshwar, Inder Malhotra, Prem Shankar Jha, Dom Moraes and Dileep Padgaonkar. I don’t feel too bad being named among them.

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