March 31, 2020
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Closing Out An Innings

Spanning six decades, the memoir's also a critique of present-day journalism

Closing Out An Innings
Closing Out An Innings
A Reporter At Large
By M.V. Kamath
Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Rs 600; Page: 816
One of the attractive features of M.V. Kamath’s book is its basic approach, encapsulated in its title, A Reporter At Large. He edited the now defunct Illustrated Weekly of India for three years and was a foreign correspondent in the United States and Europe for a third of his distinguished career spanning six decades. And yet he chronicles and comments upon the march of history in India and the world as well as in Indian journalism (or should we call it the "print media"?) with the zest of a reporter. Remarkably, the illustration on the cover is not that of a state-of-the-art computer but of the nearly extinct manual typewriter. This is symbolic of his firm adherence to the old values he imbibed on joining the troubled but exciting trade a few years before Independence.

As Kamath’s regular readers already know, he has the gift of lucidity. He is also astonishingly prolific. His present book—less than an autobiography but more than a memoir—is his 36th. Among his other books are several biographies, including one of Henry Kissinger, and a much-acclaimed history of two hundred years of relations between India and the US that was released in 1976 during America’s 200th anniversary celebrations.

At 81, he still writes columns for a host of newspapers. In these, he projects a version of Hindutva that would delight only the likes of Narendra Modi. This controversial subject is mentioned very briefly in A Reporter..., with Kamath recording that he has been at the "receiving end of abuse" and that some of his friends have "stopped seeing me". "But," he asserts emphatically, "I would rather be accused of intolerance than of hypocrisy. I see no reason why I should masquerade as a secularist when I know that a great injustice has been done to Hindus by marauding religions—both Christianity and Islam".

A Reporter At Large is a big book, running into 816 pages. In a few places slightly repetitive, but never boring. But the publishers should have been more careful. They have allowed easily avoidable printing errors to creep in, and the text is mixed up in one chapter. But these are minor flaws in an eminently readable book. It’s a commendable contribution to modern history because of its serious recollection of, and sensitive reflection on, crucial, often climactic and sometimes climacteric events of the last six decades. Encounters with towering figures of the era—including the Mahatma, Nehru, Sardar Patel, Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai, Krishna Menon, Homi Bhaba et al—are both insightful and interesting.

Of special interest, particularly to journalists, will be those parts of the book that candidly discuss the state of the profession at different points of time and of the newspapers and journals the author has worked for. There is a fascinating chapter on Free Press Journal and its legendary founder-editor, S. Sadanand. Now languishing, FPJ was once a paper in the forefront of the fight for freedom and a training ground for all the Bombay-based journalists who later acquired eminence. Both R.K. Laxman and Bal Thackeray were its cartoonists.

Most readers would, of course, be more interested in the detailed description of what can only be called the undeclared war between Kamath and Khushwant Singh whom he had succeeded as "acting editor" of the Weekly. Brother Khushwant, highly possessive of his "baby" that he was forced to leave to Kamath’s care and displeased with the changes the latter was making, fired the first shot. He publicly called his successor a "faceless editor". Kamath did not go public but made no secret of his horror over the "total and appalling vulgarity" of the magazine he had inherited. Its "choice of pictures, the gimmickry of the captions, the stress on sex, violence and gore", he writes, "made me literally sick".

The rest of the story is best read in the book but I must underline two of Kamath’s statements. First, that if he knew what awaited him at the Weekly, he would have "never accepted the job". Secondly, he accepts no responsibility for the journal’s demise. Without mentioning the name, he blames that on Pritish Nandy.

Like all sensitive veteran journalists who have taken pride in their craft, Kamath is dismayed by the nosedive professional standards have taken even in the country’s leading newspapers, as his comments on the Weekly underscore. He is nostalgic about The Indian Social Reformer that, in the ’20s and ’30s, was a vehicle for social change and yearns for a "newer version" of the magazine that closed down long ago.

"Any fool of an editor," Kamath says, "can publish semi-nude girls, half-dressed models and gush over society dames. But it requires an especially concerned editor to devote space for the major issues of our times. There are no such editors, alas, in these trying times." Too sweeping a judgment perhaps but it is substantially accurate. One has only to look at the way even the best papers of yesteryears have been turned into virtual tabloids, wallowing in titillating trivialities.

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