M.V. Kamath had the habit of bucking the trend. In the late 1970s, as editor of the now-defunct Illustrated Weekly of India, he travelled through India’s Northeast and dared to produce a cover story on the neglected region. He called the states the ‘Seven Sisters’, a sobriquet that has now become a commonplace. Till then, no big publication had bothered to bring the Northeast to the rest of the country so prominently. That cover story, and a couple of others on cricket, with Raju Bharatan at the helm, were apparently the Weekly’s biggest grossers ever, and not the t&a issues under Khushwant Singh, as is commonly believed.
In the 1990s, when it was ‘normal’ in large sections of India’s English media to be a critic of rising right-wing political forces, he started writing regular columns for RSS publications like Organiser and Panchajanya. Many of his old friends were dismayed; some broke contact with him because of his open support to the BJP, but Kamath, a prolific writer (he wrote 48 books), soldiered on. He also mentored many young journalists.
I am certainly one of the biggest beneficiaries of his wisdom. The story goes back three decades. In January or February of 1984, Mr Kamath was revisiting Guwahati. I was new to journalism and was still in two minds about pursuing it as a career, since my parents were keen that I become an air force officer (for which I had qualified the previous year, but failed to join because my graduation results were delayed). When my Kannada-speaking Assamese editor, D.N. Bezbaruah, sent me on an errand to Mr Kamath, I could not have imagined that meeting him would change my life forever.
As I entered his room and introduced myself, his first question was: “What is a Gokhale doing in Assam?” I narrated my story: father in the army, posted in Guwahati, therefore here. He ordered a coffee and put me at ease. “So, how long have you been a journalist?” he asked. “Eight months,” I replied sheepishly to a man who had already put in three decades in the profession. But he didn’t notice my discomfort. “Good. Liking it?” was his next question.
Encouraged, I told him my dilemma and dared to ask: “Sir, how do you sustain yourself in this uncertain, poorly paid and rarely understood profession?” His eyes twinkled as he contemplated a reply to my seemingly silly question. He said, “Son, when I started with the Free Press Journal in the 1940s, my first editor, Sadanand, had told me that as long as you do serious work but don’t take yourself too seriously, as long as you realise that you are as good as your last byline, and as long as you are discreet, you can be a reasonably successful journalist.”
Since Mr Kamath seemed more like friend now, I asked him to elaborate. So he said, “If you are a professional journalist, don’t ever think that your work is going to bring about a revolution or that you are going to change the world. That job is best left to the revolutionaries (Don’t take yourself seriously). As a journalist, you have to perform consistently. A flash-in-the-pan story is of no use to those who want to be journalists for life. So never rest on your laurels (You are as good as your last byline). Discretion, moderation is the key to successful human interaction. In journalism, it is all the more important. People will trust you if you keep your word, keep their confidences. (Sometimes, what you don’t write is more important than what you write).
Three mantras that changed my life. Three mantras that are applicable in every walk of life. Within a month of meeting him, I decided to remain a journalist, a decision I have not regretted for a moment in these three decades. I know of others who have been similarly influenced, although many of his disciples did not like his open support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the fact that he wrote a glowing biography of the man.
For many years he lived and worked out of a small apartment in Bombay which also housed his collection of books—finally donated to the Manipal Institute, which he helped establish. His disarming smile apart, Mr Kamath’s constant companion was his beloved Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter. Till the very end, he wrote at least 1,000 words a day, the old-fashioned way. That he lived till 93 is testimony to his zeal for life. They don’t make the likes of M.V. Kamath anymore.
(A former Outlooker, Nitin Gokhale is security and strategic affairs editor, NDTV.)