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  • A comforting thought for 2001

    Posted On January 23, 2000

    By Karan Thapar

    Flicking through the pages of a book can bring back long forgotten memories. It’s like opening the door to a locked room and re-discovering its belongings. They may be familiar but they can also feel new. Old memories are not dissimilar.

    Last wednesday, as I turned the pages of the sumptuously produced commemorative volume marking the 75th anniversary of this paper, the door to the past snapped open. The book is called ‘History in the Making’ and I strongly recommend it. Prem Shankhar Jha’s essay on the history of the HT is fascinating. I had no idea it would be so rich and absorbing. But it’s the pictures that are truly haunting. There are two I’m particularly struck by. The first is of Jinnah in a rickshaw in Simla with a solar topee on his head and a half-finished cigar in his left hand. The men around him are wearing a fez and seem to belong to a different century. The other photograph is of Pothan Joseph’s departure from Delhi after resigning the editorship of the paper. The year is 1937 and Joseph is standing on a railway platform surrounded by Sham Lal and E. Narayanan, two of the other greats of this profession. At the time Joseph drew a salary of 500 rupees a month. Narayanan earned just Rs.180.

    I suppose it was the salaries that did it. Before I realised what was happening my mind transferred back in time. As I passed into a reverie I saw myself entering The Hindustan Times building for the first time. I was 24, back home researching for my D.Phil., and the year was 1979. It was my first association with this paper.

    In those days the editor was Hiranmay Karlekar and as I climbed the stairs to his office my heart beat furiously. I had telephoned and asked to meet him. I wanted to write although I wasn’t sure what or even in what style. But I had a commission from The Spectator in London and I felt I could also get one from an editor in India. I was, I suppose, acquiring brownie points for my C.V. I was investing in the possibility of a future career.

    “Come in young man” Karlekar greeted me from behind his desk. In fact, in 1979 he was a young man himself but as I walked the long distance from his secretary’s office to the chairs in front of his desk he seemed intimidating. I’m not sure if he asked me to sit down. At least to begin with I don’t think he did.

    “Yes” he boomed after a while.

    I wasn’t sure how to begin. Why would The Hindustan Times be interested in pieces by me? What possible qualities did I possess to recommend myself? Wasn’t I simply trying my luck and hoping for the best? In which case, what should I say? To admit to the truth seemed unwise.

    So I did what I often do. I spoke. I started, continued, carried on and on, injecting enthusiasm and passion, contrived conviction and youthful zest, whenever I thought each would help, and, of course, I smiled a lot. I tried to be convincing and likeable.

    “Hmmm” he said from behind the enormous desk. At the time I had not seen anything quite as big.

    I waited hopefully, expectantly, impatiently.

    “Hmmm” he said again. And for all I know he probably repeated the sound a few more times. Now what sort of answer was that? Was it the start of a positive response, an indication of rejection or was he thinking of something else?

    “And do you expect to be paid?”

    To be honest I hadn’t thought about it. I certainly had not come to offer my oeuvre for free but nor had I any expectations of making a fortune. I assumed the discussion, if any, would be about my capacity to write or the paper’s desire to publish my efforts but not about the quantum of remuneration.

    “Let that not be an obstacle” I replied trying to minimise the problem by a display of magnanimity. I really wanted to write and if the only way to do so was for free so be it.

    “Sit down young man” Karlekar said, smiling for the first time in ten minutes. His eyes also smiled, although at the time I was too nervous to notice. In the weeks that followed I learnt to judge his moods by those revealing liquid pods.

    “Never undersell yourself and never offer to write for free.” He sat back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling. As I would later discover that was another habit.

    “If we publish anything you write we’ll pay at the same rate we pay everyone else. Is that okay?”

    Of course it was. There was no way I was going to dissent. And so my career in journalism began. Over the next six months – it was a long spell of research and The Hindustan Times was an inviting escape from the damp and dark innards of Sapru House library – I wrote frequently. My ramblings – for that is what they were – ranged from domestic controversies to pompous thoughts on Britain, visits to Afghanistan and a juvenile attempt to understand Pakistan.

    After a bit Karlekar asked me to write leaders. I was stunned. I’d never done one before and I wasn’t confident that my opinions were worthy of such treatment. No doubt I expressed myself freely, even strongly, but to put all that down in a leader and expect people to read it and possibly respect it was different.

    I should have demurred but instead I said yes. I’ve never missed an opportunity and when it is gifted – as this was – I grab it. In time Karlekar offered me the use of one of the assistant editor’s cabins located on the paper’s prestigious second floor. It was meant as a grace and favour offer but I embraced it totally. I stopped visiting Sapru House altogether and instead would while away the day at the HT. It felt great.

    Of course, not a word I wrote ever made it to the top of the leader column. Usually mine was the third throw-away piece. But on a few occasions I crept up to second position. On January the 1st 1980 – a sunday, if my memory is correct, and the first after Mrs. Gandhi’s election victory – I woke to read myself pontificating both from this centre point as well as from the columns of the op-ed page. Nothing has given me a greater sense of achievement. I think that’s probably true even today.

    Six months later my research ended and I returned to Oxford. I could never have imagined that after a decade – virtually to the day – I would be back at work in the HT building, this time a proper employee, with a legitimate office and a secretary all to myself. At the time few people knew of this earlier association.

    Today I suspect the number is probably negligible. In fact, until the pictures in The Hindustan Times commemorative volume reminded me, it had slipped my mind. But I now realise that I’ve been writing for this newspaper for twenty years and a little bit more. I feel good about that. It’s a comforting thought as I approach 2001.

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