Journalism a bastard child of literature? Nonsense, scoffs Khushwant Singh. If it was not for journalism, he could hardly have had the kind of fame he now enjoys. At 91, his "scribblings" and weekly columns are still being snapped up by a growing line of publishers and turned into inevitable bestsellers. His worst sin, he confesses, is "I don’t know how to sit still and do nothing". Considering that he has just spent the last couple of hours ensconsed in his usual sofa chair merely staring into the flickering orange light of his quaint magical heater, bought over half a century ago from Paris, when he decided to kick his "soul-killing" UNESCO job for the till then unheard-of profession of writer/journalist, this seems a bit much. But it’s true: he has just mailed the manuscript of his new book (he has written a 100-odd)—a translation of Urdu poetry from Ghalib to Ali Sardar Jafri "without cheating" i.e. in rhyme and metre. And already his eyes are straying to the notebook he’s brought up to Kasauli, just in case he should feel like "scribbling something". And the "scribbling" is already turning into yet another book to be ready perhaps in a few months—his impressions of all the cranks and madmen he’s encountered in his life. He talks about his greatest love which came to him rather late in life, when he was already in his fifties: journalism.
Let's start with when you first took over Illustrated Weekly -- in 1969, I think..
I had been offered the job two years earlier but I couldn't take it up because I had accepted the Rockefeller Grant. They didn't appoint another editor after firing Raman because I said it would take me two years to join but it took me three years instead. I was teaching Comparative Religions and Contemporary India in the US when I decided to accept the offer.
Was it an offer that tempted you beyond the call of literature?
It was tempting because it was the only magazine of its kind at that time. I wanted to come home and I wanted to turn to journalism. I had very clear notions in my head about what I wanted to make of the journal even before I joined. Because I realised, when I was teaching contemporary India, how little I knew of contemporary India. And so I came and took over in the summer of 1969. A chap called Bannerjee was holding the fort but the managing trust, that was then running the Illustrated Weekly, was determined not to make him editor. He was obviously not up to the mark.
But how did they pick you--you had no previous experience as a journalist?
I had worked earlier in the AIR as well as Yojana, but, of course, that didn't count at all. They wanted me because my articles were appearing in foreign journals like the New York Times. I was quite prolix and even writing middles for Indian papers so I was not a nonentity. I had been writing for the Statesman regularly, besides middles for the Times of India and the occasional article for the New York Times and things like that.
It never occurred to you that the middle was a pedestrian form unworthy of a literary scholar and writer like you?
You know, anything that came to my head, I wrote it and they were accepted. I have never thought in those terms. If something occurred to me in the morning, I put it down on paper and if it was a short piece, I sent it as a middle and if it was long, it went as an article. I was travelling a great deal, so there was much to write about.
You didn't feel you had to stash it away for your own novels?
No, I came to journalism with a clean slate.I had a clear idea of what I had to do and I had no distinctions between what was journalism and what literature -- none at all.I was quite eager to take over this job.Of course, I was a little frustrated in the beginning because the magazine had got into several long-term contracts there was no getting out of. The one with NASA, for instance--long articles on the whole business of space travel which were going on and on and on by the week. I was very impatient even with the astrology column which was taken from England on a long-term contract. And pages full of matrimonial pictures, captioned They Were Married or Wedding Bells--page after page of couples looking very grim. And something called Aunty Wendy's column--Dear children kind of thing. The magazine was a set thing, which the earlier editor, an Irishman called C.R. Mandy had started, with cocktail parties and that sort of thing where you turned over the pages and that was that. It took me two or three months to get into my stride and wind up all those contracts.
You were not nervous, taking up a job you had no previous experience of?
No, I was full of self-confidence. I knew what I wanted to do, and it was a three-pronged formula: inform, amuse and provoke.
A formula taken from foreign papers? Did you have some role models?
No, entirely my own. A uniquely Indian model. Inform, because I was not fully informed and I felt other Indians must feel the same. Amuse, because I was a joker. For instance, I straight away took over one page for myself and wrote about anything that came to my mind, including why some monkeys have red bottoms, which shocked people. Of course, I gave detailed scientific explanations after studying the subject. And provoke, because Indians are so sluggish in their minds that if you say something outlandish, they get angry and then they react.
It worked. The main success began with this series of articles on the people of India--I got people who were authorities on those subjects. I started with a paper one of my students in the US wrote on the Chitpavan Brahmins while I was still teaching there. I brought that paper with me. She had done a very thorough job of research about the backdrop: about how they were peshwas in various courts, the whole range of people from Savarkar upto Godse, Chitpavan Brahmins who were fascists, leftists, thinkers...their contribution is enormous for a very small community. After that, I went community-wise. and every single copy was sold out, mostly bought by people within that community. People don't realise, for example, how many sub-divisions of Muslims there are, apart from Shias and Sunnis which everyone knows: the Ismailis, Khojas, Memons, Sulaimanis. All these I took in turns, you name them -- Iyengars, Aiyers, Bengali Brahmins, Kayasths, Jats, Sikhs of different communities -- one after the other. There were provocative pictures. There were 30 or 40, and every copy was sold out and circulation started shooting up.
Another series I did was called I Believe, which was asking celebrities what they believed in and why -- God, religion, destiny, patronage, corruption, all that kind of thing. That was a fairly successful series. Some talked candidly, some didn't; and I frequently had to rewrite the whole thing. Even those people who had very high notions of their own writing skills--people who bragged that when they were in service they couldn't even touch a comma in the notes I wrote, I rewrote their copies completely. But basically, it was asking them to let go and give their credo in life. And I got a large number of responses.
And I did take up current issues.For instance Jain Mahavira's 2,000th or something birth anniversary.But I felt that here was a man who honoured all life, and if you believe in his teachings, do something to honour life.So I wrote letters to all chief ministers of states, saying all this about "follow the teachings of Mahavira" is not good enough.But if you are going to do something concrete, for instance, banning shikars, then I'll give you any publicity you want. And the response was incredible--about eight or nine chief ministers immediately announced a ban on shikars. And my shikari friends were very angry with me because they were all in the habit of reserving forests and killing tigers and boasting about it. So it worked and I felt very triumphant.
Fortunately, I had no boss. The government had taken over the entire control of Bennet and Coleman, including Illustrated Weekly and the Jains had been thrown out for a little while so I had no one to check me. I had the support of the chairman of the government-appointed trust, Justice Desai. He and I got on very well. He never interfered, always kindly--invited me over to tea in his home and things like that. Sometimes, one or two members of the board tried to haul me over the coals for taking too many liberties. For instance, we published a cover picture of Simi Garewal with very little on, because she had appeared in the film (Siddharth) like that. They were shocked. I said, But it's taken from the stills of the film!
What did Simi say?
She didn't say a word--who was she to say anything? But the one who took great umbrage was Persis Khambatta. Her pictures had appeared in Playboy magazine or perhaps a German magazine, again, nude. And when she heard that I had got hold of the pictures and was planning to publish them, she came and threatened me. I told her: Go to hell--you appear like that before a foreign magazine and when it comes to your own people you have qualms? Then she pleaded with me, begged me not to publish it and so I didn't. With that change of attitude, how could I?
Such photographs were available by the hundreds out there, there was no problem with availability, only in the presentation. I made it a point, for example, if I published a photograph of a bare-breasted tribal girl, I didn't do what papers like Blitz and the others did--giving her measurements and saying this is not her telephone number and that kind of stupid things. I gave a full account of which tribe she belonged to, where and how many they were, that kind of information that is absolutely banal, of interest to a schoolchild. But people read it. They saw the picture and read the caption. And I made that the pattern. What I realised also was to improve the captions. I put Bachi Karkaria in charge of this--she was on the staff--and said not a word of jest when you have a picture like that. The picture attracts the attention, you provide the information of the people. So that trick worked very simply.
You were saying that while the magazine's circulation was skyrocketing, advertisement revenue couldn't keep apace, resulting in losses?
Yes, so they pegged the circulation at 4.10 lakhs. When I started, it was 60,000. It took about a year or so for circulation to climb to this figure as it caught on. I used to go to the news stalls in Churchgate to ask, Kaisa chal raha hai? They had got to know me and were very pleased. Ek copy bhi nahin bacha, sab bik gayaa--that kind of thing. Sales was mostly from the news stands, there weren't that many subscribers.
Any problems selling on news stands, like vendors not picking up copies?
Absolutely none.There was no competition whatsoever.But when the Jains came back, my troubles began--I remember I had an issue on how much money was to be made in piggery and there were some pictures of meat being hung up and so the Jains got back at me saying it was in bad taste and this hurts the feelings of the Jain community.So I told Ashok Jain: Look, I've worked here nearly nine years and I've raised your circulation.I haven't heard one single word of appreciation. and the first thing you do is pick on me. But it went on. And then the government changed hands and Morarji Desai took over as Prime Minister. He obviously indicated to the Jains that he wanted me out because I was supporting Mrs Gandhi. I was supporting her because I think she was badly treated and because I think the Emergency was justified. But I was always fair to the other side. I published, for instance, JP's reply to a letter I wrote to him pointing out that he was crossing the limits of protest along democratic lines. He was calling for the proroguing of Parliament, legislature and army, which I told him was unthinkable in any democracy. And when he replied to that letter, I published it in full.
How did you get so close to Mrs Gandhi?
Well, I'd met her a couple of times much before I joined the Weekly. I met her for the first time in Lahore in 1920 when she came there on her way to Kashmir. She was staying with some friends of mine in Lahore, and they brought her along to my house. She was a goongi gudiya then. I met her again when she was Information and Broadcasting minister in Shastri's government. she was not pulling her weight then--she was sulking and hardly ever attended office. In fact, I painted quite a negative picture of her when the New York Times asked me to do a profile of her when she became Prime Minister. I wrote how India was taken by surprise, and that even if she applied for a clerk's job in the government, she wouldn't get it because she didn't even have a matriculate degree to her name. Of course, I didn't seek her out after she became Prime Minister because I think that smacks of sycophancy. We may have met once or twice when she was Prime Minister because I requested an interview with her for the Weekly, but I really got to know the family when she was out of power. I think I met Sanjay once or twice during the emergency, always at my home. That's when I persuaded him to take up tree plantation.
And when they were out of power, I went to their home two-three times a week. In the beginning when I joined the National Herald, I saw her almost everyday. and then I said: Look, I can't waste your time everyday, you suggest some representative who can tell me about any polity matters. She mentioned Pranab Mukherjee. I met him a couple of times but I discovered it was meaningless. He had nothing to say except how they'd been maltreated and so I stopped going. Occasionally, I'd go to Mrs Gandhi's home but then there was always a crowd of people hanging out in the garden, mainly to be seen. And some she'd told not to come, including Yashpal Kapoor but he made it a point to be just hanging around and talking to other people so that they could see him. There were many people like that. Of course, she did the courtesies with me, I was immediately shown into her room, talked to her and came out. But I saw these people hanging around. It didn't exactly make me uncomfortable but...undoubtedly, it was also flattering even though she was not in power at that time, she was the centre of attention in the country. It also made me feel I was on the right side.
Indira had a soft spot for me because I had supported Sanjay.I had written about his Maruti project.I had visited the factory--it was disastrous.There was nothing there, it looked like a village ironsmith. I was hoping to see an assembly line of cars being manufactured but there was nothing.But I did go into some length on the fact that he had been attacked for the wrong reasons-- that he'd been given land by the chief minister of Haryana, Bansi Lal, at a throwaway price, that he'd been given land close to a defence installation--all these I checked one by one, from the neighbours, how much they'd been paid for the land and gave the figures.
That is rather unusual for an editor, isn't it, to go out into the field just like any ordinary reporter?
Well, I did quite a lot of that. I went after any story which I found interesting. I did the entire Bangladesh war myself. I went to Dacca and since I know many people like (Gen?) Arora, I was given the privilege of flying in from Dacca and I was allowed to interview Pakistani prisoners of war which nobody had done. Those articles appeared in succession in New York Times. It was NYT I billed for the work, but I published them in the Weekly a week after they appeared in NYT. And then I took up the issue of Pakistani prisoners of war. I took the stand that we have nowhere to hold them and now that we've won the war, let them go back home now. And Mrs Gandhi got very gussa. She called me to Delhi-- she was very soft with me, of course, until Maneka fouled our relationship. But she did say: "You know nothing about politics." I said: "Mrs Gandhi, I know nothing about politics but I know about morality. What is morally wrong cannot be politically right." She looked me up and down and said: "Thank you for lecturing me."
Then, the Pakistanis picked up on my efforts to get their prisoners of war released. I got many letters from there thanking me for what I'd written. I had taken the addresses of all the prisoners of war I met--both officers and soldiers. I wrote to each of their families in Pakistan when I got back to Bombay--that I met your son, he is in good health, don't worry. They had no news of what had happened to their sons. I also wrote to my villagers, saying I'd met these boys and to tell their families that they are in good health. So that worked both ways.
An interest, in short, that was more than an ordinary journalist's thirst for a good story?
Yes, in fact I was almost single-handed in protesting about holding the prisoners of war. It was largely on the pressure of Mujibur Rahman that Mrs Gandhi was holding them. Because she obviously recognised Bangladesh and his (Mujibur's) stand was clear: Let them recognise Bangladesh as an independent state and then we will free them. And that's what we did later.
What was most memorable about those ten years in IW: the people you met, the power you wielded or the influence you had on issues of public concern?
It was mostly the spectacular rise in circulation spanning across the country. Of course, I always had that one page to myself, the malice column.
But you didn't put your photograph anywhere in the magazine. Why?
I never allowed that. Whereas my predecessor Raman, who was into religion--Satya Sai Baba and things like that-- in one issue I remember he had eight photographs of him and his family, touching the feet and that kind of thing. So I said nowhere in the magazine will my photograph appear. I began that column mostly writing informative pieces on nature, also bits of gossip from here and there because I got to know many filmstars, particularly I.S. Johar who was a great gossip-monger.I was a regular visitor and he would tell me stories which I couldn't publish because they were scandalous but they enriched my evenings.All about how he had an affair with Simi, her sister and her mother, but I refrained from publishing that kind of thing.
Frankly, I have no patience with Hindi films.I find them so unreal, with their overacting. But some I was taken to, like the screening of Raj Kapoor's Satyam Shivam Sundaram. I stayed only ten minutes but what stayed with me was Raj Kapoor asking me in a very loud voice: "I am a bosom man. What about you?"
Did it bother you that most politicians and colleagues considered you to be an editor who didn't know anything about politics?
No, in fact I felt very superior because I thought I was totally justified writing about politics because I had my own views and was confident about them no matter what they said. In fact, I think it's the other way round: I find most politicians very uninteresting. They only talk about themselves and have nothing to say besides that.
As an editor, how did you direct the political coverage in the magazine?
I commissioned articles. For instance, I was very pro-Israeli from the beginning and Quratullain Haider, who was on my staff, was passionately Palestinian and Muslim. So I asked her to give their point of view and I published it: all about how Israelis control the media in America and so on.
You also felt that the letters page of IW were one of its biggest attractions?
Yes, anything against me I made a point of publishing, including calling me Khushamat Singh and that kind of thing.
What did it feel like to see the magazine you had taken to such heights collapse ingloriously when you left?
Well, I pretended I was hurt, when in fact I was flattered. I said to myself: They (Jains) will learn a lesson not to treat editors the way they did. But they had so much money, they didn't bother. Then they closed it down.
What do you think your successors did wrong?
Well, they didn't have it in them how to run a magazine. I think it's a mistake that editors are making even now, not grooming a successor, especially in magazine journalism. In newspapers I don't think it matters a damn who the editor is, as Times of India has proved. I don't know the name of the TOI editor to this day. But in magazines, the editor is important because he has to shape the magazine. Not only commission articles, get the ideas, but he has to make a solid contribution. For instance, I think Vinod Mehta has made the Outlook because of his own ability to write, and his ability -- I think he's taken it from me -- of publishing anything adverse. Nobody can then accuse you of bias. India Today, on the other hand, produces only positive letters praising its contents which is not good enough.
I had suggested RGK (R. Gopal Krishnan), who was with the Weekly till his retirement, as my successor--the most self-effacing man I knew and also the most knowledgeable. He was my Number Two, but unconcerned that he was not made editor. I had the greatest respect for him because he was very competent but obviously they thought he was too self-effacing to replace a flamboyant editor like me. I tried to groom him as my replacement and I have no doubt he would have done the best job. But they picked up Kamath instead from Washington. He was a disaster. He started by writing a series of articles on his own life. I described him once as: "They wanted a faceless editor and they got one now. That hurt him--for months he went around introducing himself as "I am the faceless editor of IW." And then I think Khanna took over--he didn't want it, but he was the assistant editor there.I think he got murdered in some robbery case.
Then Pritish Nandy took over.He started with great fanfare, trying to investigate the Khalistanis, where they trained in the US. There were one or two remarkable instances of getting information that was not available in other papers, even went to a training camp for Khalistanis.But he had a limited vision.At that time, one or two stories he picked up were scoops and he did a good job. He even persuaded me to write for him. He came home and touched my feet, so I said, all right, and I wrote one or two articles for him. But he's a very slimy character. Once I ran into him in Bangalore--he was with his second or third wife, I don't remember how many times he married--and we talked informally.He went and published the whole thing like an interview which embarrassed me because I had spoken out candidly about a few things. I don't remember what it was, but I thought it was a betrayal of trust. I had a very low opinion of Pritish Nandy; I still have. He is a go-getter, making money, refused to leave the flat which had been allotted to him--I think he's still in Ambani's flat or something like that--and has an absolute hunger for money. As an editor, if you have a very high opinion of yourself then you are heading for a fall. Similarly, if you overestimate your abilities. Better to say: I didn't do this but I can't do anymore--that kind of attitude.
What did you do after leaving the Weekly?
Well, I stayed on for two or three months. On the morning they served me with this rude letter, I just picked up my umbrella and walked home and started working on my novel, Delhi. I worked all afternoon, I couldn't give a damn. There were a few offers, from Free Press Journal, for instance, who offered to double my salary, but I decided it was time to leave Bombay and return to Delhi. And the first to approach me was Mrs Gandhi with an offer to edit the National Herald. It was without an editor, it was hardly published, it was heavily in debt. And Yashpal Kapoor who was looking after it, came and offered me a large salary which I knew they couldn't pay. So I said I will take no salary, you pay the staff instead. Because the staff was not being paid regularly--in the six months I was there they never paid the staff. The paper didn't appear, the police were there every other day. They never came into my room, so often I didn't know there was a raid going on in the rest of the office. At the end of it I said, look, I can't go on editing a paper that doesn't come out every third day.
Then I was offered Hindustan Times when Mrs Gandhi came back to power--not by her but Sanjay who was the emissary: you want to go as high commissioner to UK or ambassador somewhere or would you rather be in the Rajya Sabha and editor of Hindustan Times? I said the latter. I wanted to be in journalism, I missed writing regularly. In between, I edited the New Delhi magazine for Aveek Sarkar, they've always been very supportive and generous. But that didn't work out because the magazine was first published in Calcutta but there were constant strikes. Then it was published in Madras. From a fortnightly it became a monthly. It was very frustrating and I gave it up.
In Hindustan Times, I think Birla was very happy with me. Once or twice there came messages from Mrs Gandhi's office saying what I should do or not do. I ignored them and said, you can't interfere, you have to leave it to my judgement. The Birlas increased my salary without my once asking them. It was a prestige job, but I wasn't really at ease in a daily paper. There was really nothing you could really do, except write your stories which nobody bothered to read.And so I stuck to my weekly columns, which I shifted.It continued to be a stand-by, people read it. At one time, the circulation of HT was 20,000 more copies on Saturdays when my column appeared. That gave me a certain amount of satisfaction.
Except for articles which are rare, there is really very limited space for putting an editor's vision into a daily newspaper.I did quite a few articles, but that was my old magazine habit.They appeared on the edit page. The front page I never took, which other editors do with great abandon, as if they are some kind of messiahs. Phoolan Devi, for instance, I covered myself. I went to her village Behmai and spent two or three days meeting her family, ex-lovers, going through police records.It was quite an adventure. an unbelievable, oriental kind of story.
The BBC accused you of "sexing up" stories-- making them more palatable, would you say?
Well, it was openly done. For instance, my profile on Phoolan Devi, which I think is among my better pieces. And here was a woman who was mistress to eight or nine people. And they had equal access to her till she started preferring one of them to the others. But how could you avoid (writing) if they are six or eight men in a gang, all lusty, all in their twenties or early thirties, each one wanting a fuck a night. Every single day she had to, till they found another woman, and then these two women started fighting with each other. And I talked to her so-called husband and one of her lovers, who were living in the village. They came out with it--how she seduced one of them. Bathing in the Ganga, she just took her things off, and went up to one of them asking for soap. She proceeded to rub herself and what could the poor fellow do, he got worked up! These were absolutely true incidents told by the boys within my own hearing. Then this was a married man, so was she, and they went off to Lucknow or something and told a vakil [lawyer] to get them married. He gave them a little parchi [slip] saying Ab shaadi ho gayi [now you are married], but it was nothing of the kind. When this lover's wife came to know of it, she gave Phoolan such a thrashing with her chappal, right in front of everyone in the village haat, calling her all kinds of names. Phoolan Devi herself was a great one for using bad language. I've seen her letters in Hindi, I think one of them was addressed to the DIG, police, who threatened to arrest her, full of the foulest language. Down to earth. I never met her, all this came mainly from her lovers. And her sister, a pretty girl who wouldn't talk to me at first. Then I gave her a hundred rupees.
One of the things you said you had a problem with in HT was that you found many of the correspondents were cheating on you?
Not many, but some. They used to put in news at night after I'd left the office at 6 pm, hoping I wouldn't notice. But I did notice, and when I questioned them, they'd say the news came after you left. So I decided to go after dinner, stayed there till the pages were made and so I stopped that. I had no doubt, they had been paid. The worst of them was N.C. Menon who succeeded me as editor. He deliberately used to write things offensive about Maneka and her mother. He did that more than once. And I crossed them out; I said this is not relevant and he'd promptly take them to the Prime Minister's Office. And one favour he got in return: when my term of three years was coming to an end, I went to Birla to ask him, Do you want me to continue? He was a little surprised because he wasn't aware my term was coming to an end.He said, he'd tell me later and then a few days later--you know he always consulted Indira Gandhi who expressed her disapproval because she'd been fed that Maneka was dropping in at the office and she'd been to my home--Birla told me he couldn't extend my term, adding that there have been many complaints against N.C.Menon but usko try karenge as editor. But please continue the column and he raised the payment for the column. So then I walked out.
Do you think you made any difference to HT?
I don't think so.I don't think any editor can make a difference to a daily paper because more than half, even three quarters is wire material and from correspondents in different places all over the country.And foreign news. And really the only thing the editor has is writing the editorials.
And writing their weekly columns?
That came later.In my time, it was always the outsiders who wrote columns. Yes, I find most editors instead of being objective are always preaching, being pedantic. But there were many exceptions like Mulgaonkar who was a great editor and handled the language with great skill, and highly readable. Of the HT editors, I think he was probably the most outstanding. B.G. Verghese was too stolid, but very honest and very straightforward. In other papers like TOI, editors like Frank Moraes had impeccable integrity, and very good command of language. I can't think of any editors in any of the daily papers who are of that standard. But in magazines there are. I think the most outstanding example is Vinod Mehta, who made a success with Outlook. He didn't do so grand a job with whatever little girlie magazine he was editing earlier nor as editor of a daily paper. But he certainly made a success of the Outlook. I find it the most readable weekly. The only comparison you can have is India Today, The Week and Frontline. India Today has unfortunately suffered--a matter of scissors and paste, what you have read through the daily papers for a week, you find it again in the magazine.
What makes it a success?
Well, there is far more readable material. Far more touch of humour. And whatever comes from others, however hostile, he has the courage to publish it. If Outlook goes the way it has been going for the last ten years, it has a very good future. But if for some reason Vinod Mehta walks out of it--and he's not famous for hanging on to jobs. In fact, I am surprised he has hung on to Outlook for ten years and I think it's because he's enjoying it and I suspect because he's getting away with what he does -- I don't see Outlook outlasting him very much. I wouldn't blame it on him. I mean, if he is a good editor and he goes, you can't blame him but they have to find a figure that will command as much respect, abilities to write and holding the team together. Frontline has made its own market--it's a different kind of magazine. With that kind of format I don't think it can be acceptable to everyone. There is more emphasis on nature and science, which is different.
Do you think TV has changed the role of print media?
It's a serious challenge because TV has enormous reach and saves you the trouble of reading--we are a lazy people. I think advertisements are the only negative point I find in TV, even the news they interrupt half a dozen times to put in all these commercials. And there are many programmes that give you the background to the news like The Big Fight or We the People and their counterparts in other channels.
When you see it with your own eyes, you don't want to read it again in the next morning's paper. Like Cricket--you are glued to the match all day long, you don't want to read it again in the papers.There is that fatigue which is why newspapers are turning to Hindi films, you know, the stars and the films which are completely alien to me. You have to find new themes--there is so much going on in the world such as new scientific research, agriculture, all kinds of advancement in technology, but in terms that people can understand.Journalists have to become specialists.
You have a war with Pakistan, say, and they have Patton tanks and you have Centurion tanks, they have F-16s and we have Jaguars, a person doesn't know and it has to be made interesting for him, and this doesn't happen unless you study the subject.Similarly, advances in agriculture: you suddenly hear of a breakthrough, say, in the Green Revolution.It sounds as if it's magic. But it had been seriously worked on by people like Borlaug and so on.That's the challenge: to make such subjects readable.
I tried my damnedest though they were not always up to the boys and girls who were joining journalism. Because they were reporters and didn't believe in specialising. I said to them: For god's sake, specialise. If it's something to do with the army or defence then you can say, you write this piece. And if someone does a good job of agriculture, you can say you do this. But they were not equipped at all and never bothered. Just going to meetings and describing political speeches and if there was a big crowd or small crowd.. That's why all the papers, nine-tenths of it, is just speeches by politicians. It's not good enough just shifting facts around and using strong language. They have to work, that's the only way.
You have to spend time studying the subject and then the ability to put it across in very simple language. I tried my best to get other people, specialists in the field, to do it because I was not equipped. For instance one time Swaminathan, who was in Manila then I think, made a claim that he had developed a new variety of rice that was higher in Lycene content. And a week later an Australian scientist rubbished his claim, saying it was nothing of the kind. and that was quickly glossed over. And to this day, he is our great scientist. Or build up a man like Kurien, who I think should have been given the Bharat Ratna a long time ago. He is the most deserving case I can think of, although he got caught up in a squabble with the lady who succeeded him. Of course, he tries to build himself up but that doesn't take him far.
What do you think a magazine in this day and age should be like?
It has to be a cocktail of different things, apart from the pictorial content which is important. And the captions--people overlook the importance of captions. They (readers) see a picture, they want to know more, and if the captions are frivolous, it destroys the picture. You have to go beyond the picture into something informative, provocative, whatever. The bullet boxes they have nowadays, for instance, are good, provided they are well-written and not riddled with clichés and Indianisms. All this business of kudos to so and so and that kind of thing becomes too painful to read.
And the (absence of) simple language--you know, you find all these convoluted sentences which you can't read. After all, you are at the mercy of the reader, and if he can't go beyond the first few lines, then you've lost him. The articles needn't be short--it depends on the theme--but you have to hold the reader's attention. I have no doubt that good writing will make all the difference to magazine journalism. Because the command of English has gone nowadays into clichés and Indianisms and predictable sentences. They are not well read.
I don't know one editor in India today who is well read--you know fiction or poetry, latest developments in the language.They are not in love with the English language, they use it only as a medium. I think the coming of foreign print media will make a difference, as it should. Why does the Asian Age, for instance, command a readership? I think it is largely because of the stuff coming from outside.I think it is the most readable morning paper.
One looks forward to it not because of what its Indian correspondents and columnists write but because of the articles from innumerable American and English papers. Akbar had the vision to realise that and one gets the best of what appears in the NYT or the Herald Tribune or the Spectator.
It is now a very competitive market, so you have to have your audience constantly in mind--what interests they have, how much intelligence.Then this heavy reliance, especially among the daily papers, on Hindi film industry.And dress designers--of what interest are dress designers to me except they have pretty girls scantily clad? Or this emphasis on good eating--this art of gourmet eating is hardly known. The culinary art has a limited scope. And some papers overdo it. Like Vir Sanghvi, all the time the most exotic things which you have never heard of, way beyond the reach of most readers. Magazines, I think, have to be a little more serious, and certainly more amusing than they are these days. Indians lack a sense of humour. You see all the strip cartoons taken from foreign syndicates when we have competent people here. Why can't we have our own Dennis the Menace--we have characters like that here, but you see them nowhere.
Are you glad you were an editor 25 years ago and not now with so many papers, magazines and Tv channels to contend with?
Of course, I had no competition and I wouldn't know what to do if I was an editor today. I would have to rustle my brain all the time whereas then I had a relaxed sense of my own superiority.
This plaque you have engraved outside your room:
This above all
To thine own Self be true
And it shall follow
As night the day
that thou shalt be false to no man
Did you consciously put it into action in your journalism?
Well, my faith--if there is any, because I am an agnostic--I have faith in good people which I think is all that one can do. The principle I tried to follow is: Try not to lie, because then you tie yourself up in knots; you have to follow it up with other lies. The only religion I subscribe to is the one word--ahimsa--try not to hurt.
But sometimes, try not to hurt can conflict with try not to lie, especially in journalism?
I never found it so. If someone I'm interviewing says I'd rather you didn't write all this I try to honour that commitment. That's not lying--you are just holding to your promise, and not hurting people is basically your limitations to that.
What about the sting operations that have become so popular these days?
I haven't indulged in that. But I support it because if it is directed against evil people or the corrupt, and there is no other way of exposing it like what Tehelka has done. I think they've done a good job of exposing it which we would have never known about. I think you draw the line when you have enough evidence to believe a person is corrupt and venal. Then it's legitimate to use these means to bring his evil deeds to light.
What about sex and our politicians?
In a public figure, if he tries to put himself out as a man of great virtue then it is justified in exposing him. If he has a little mistress tucked away or frequents massage parlours, then it's his business. But if he in addition preaches morality then I think he should be exposed.
Sex, religion and politics has been the three-pronged formula for journalism in India.Is that changing?
Well, I don't know about the sex part, but religion I think should be completely separated (from journalism). I have no grievance against people who believe in God, go to places of worship and waste a lot of time in prayer.It's their business, if they get something out of it, they are welcome. But institutionalised religion is a breeding ground for prejudice and hatred without exception and therefore I have very little use for it and I criticise insitutionalising religion and fatwas and hukumnamas and things like that.I think they should be banned if the government has the courage to say: mind your own business and don't stick your nose into things that don't concern you strictly.That is possible in the kind of society we have in India.
You must certainly at some point have felt guilty that you are a rich man in a poor country and that more needs to be done to stress how the rich have a responsibility to the poor. What do you think is the role of a citizen like you?
Well, I go out of the way to play up people who give. Take the example of Nanak Kohli. He is a very rich man. When he talked to me, I said, Give. And it paid dividends: he is a very happy man. He has started hundreds of baalwaris and provides girls with computer education and he has altogether blossomed. Apart from his fleet of fancy cars, he is giving away a great deal; and he is a very happy man because he is giving away. And other people too who have done any good, like Bhagat Puran Singh of Amritsar who single-handedly founded a huge organisation to look after the sick and the needy. He was a crackpot like many of them are but I admired him. similarly, Mother Teresa. I put money her way, I put money Puran Singh's way. Whatever little we could do in our charitable trust, we did. We built a hospice, we are building another one now. It could be much more but I want to live in creature comfort, I want my Black Label or Blue Label scotch. I don't indulge in any other things but I like to have a few servants around. I don't squander money on anything else.
Do you think Chidambaram and Manmohan are going on the right lines?
I don't know Chidambaram's line. I understand nothing about finance. But so far, with Manmohan coming on to two years, he hasn't made a single statement that you can really object to. He doesn't shoot his mouth. he is measured in his words. And so I must say for Sonia Gandhi. Knowing exactly where the seat of power is, they have an amicable division of what one will do, what the other will do. Neither of them has shot their mouths off like the BJP leaders do--different things at different places. I mean, if they can't find anything to say, they make the most outrageous statements which they have to swallow later on.
But you were sceptical when they came to power about how long Manmohan would last as Prime Minister?
Well, I am very happy. I thought one day he'll throw up his hands and say I can't do it anymore but he has shown enormous resilience. It's been a pleasant surprise because I was dreading he would say I can't do this anymore. He is still, I think, in some ways inflexible, especially when it comes to direct confrontation. But so far, the combination has worked very well. I don't think she has transgressed on his rights as a Prime Minister. they have quite clear division of responsibilities--that she looks after political affairs like the appointment of chief ministers, ministers to go into the legislatures and he sticks clearly to the path of economic revival.
But is that possible--to separate a PM from politics?? Doesn't it mean he will be stuck with ministers who stand in his way rather than help him?
Yes, he's been saddled with ministers he didn't want.But that part was to keep the government going. After all, it's a coalition government of many parties and they can break the government if they want. It is between them to keep the government going against all assaults from the Opposition and the concessions they have to make to the Left.But I don't think he is too strapped. One never knows if this will last a full term--one crisis and the whole situation changes, but so far they haven't been able to bring the slightest dent in the running of the government.They shed Tytler. I have no doubt that Manmohan was unhappy about including him in his Cabinet. He gave him hardly any work to do when he was there and there may be one or two others in similar position.They know how to make them unimportant.But otherwise it's worked well.
In many ways you are very proud of him, I think, because he represents to you that Sikh slogan of Raj Karega Khalsa?
Well, I think he is the most educated PM we've had, barring none. Even Nehru, education-wise, he won a second division or something. But here is a man whose made his way from nothing, through scholarships, to the highest possible position. He didn't have the world vision, when he came, that Nehru had. But he has vision enough to say that what Nehru started, his economic policies, were wrong, that it is holding the country back. That is the only point of credit that I gave to Narasimha Rao, that he picked up Manmohan and supported him on his economic reforms that have turned the country around on the path of prosperity. The speed is very slow but there is a revolutionary difference.
You had a very high regard for Vajpayee--what do you think of him now?
Well, I have a very high regard for him as a human being. You meet him and he exudes warmth and goodwill. I think he also, perhaps like Narasimha Rao, was foolish to believe that there would be no violence, no (Babri) demolition, that there would only be a demonstration. They were either foolish or ignorant. He claimed they were given an assurance that nothing would happen. But I think it was foolish--all these chaps had gone with pickaxes, the Shiv Sainiks mainly, and it is hardly believable that their intelligence didn't tell them that they went to demolish the mosque.
But you saw him on TV when the mosque was demolished and he looked grim. Whereas people like Murli Manohar Joshi were exulting over the whole thing. Advani, who I think is the real architect of the destruction of the mosque, was looking as usual as sinister as ever. But Vajpayee, who I've met several times, has a mild sense of humour. and he has heart-warming speech, which according to Iqbal's definition, is one of the two qualities of leadership. the other is lofty vision, which I don't know if he had.
And I know that after the demolition he wrote a poem, which he specially brought to read aloud to me, expressing deep regret at what had happened. So I said, Vajpayeeji, khullam khulla kyon nahin bolte instead of fishing out a paper and giving it to me? So he kept quiet. So I made him sign the paper for me, I translated it and published it. I think that is what exactly he wanted me to do.
That's another thing that intrigues a lot of people--how is it the high and mighty land up at your doorstep rather than the other way round?
I don't know what it is. Maybe it's my columns, maybe my attitude towards people. I write what I believe in and don't care a damn about the consequences. Here I was a supporter of Advani and even signed his nomination paper. When his daughter-in-law was levelling those allegations, I wrote that there are two things about Advani I'll never believe: that he is corrupt, and that he is unfaithful to his wife.And he called after that, saying his wife was very pleased. Until he started the Rath Yatra and I turned against him. I told him right on his face in front of several hundred people what I thought of him. I said: You are the man who sowed the seeds of hatred between the two communities. It was at the release of Chandan Mitra's book, and he was squirming in his seat, but that didn't stop me.I tried to make it all funny--I said, I trusted you as a very able, honest politician and listed what he'd done.I said I still have respect for you because you are a clean man, you don't drink, you don't smoke, you don't womanise. There was laughter at that. Then I added: But such men are dangerous.
You have always used humour as a weapon?
I agree.I think humour can be a very lethal weapon.You make somebody a laughing stock and you kill him. But most journalists don't do it. They get angry, which doesn't serve the purpose.
A shorter, edited version of this interview appeared in the print magazine.