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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 6, January 31, 2015 - Republic Day Special

Kamath of Dalal Street

Saturday 31 January 2015, by T J S George


This is a piece the author, himself a reputed columnist, wrote for Mainstream remembering M.V. Kamath, the veteran journalist who passed away a few months ago last year.

At the dawn of independence Bombay was a vibrant, cosmopolitan, forward-looking universe throbbing with creativity and avant-garde enterprise. Mulk Raj Anand would saunter out of his Marg office in Army and Navy Building even as Raja Rao worked his way to Chetana, the restaurant that blazed a new trail by being a bookshop and art gallery as well. Into the teeming gulleys behind, or out of them, would be rushing struggling painters like M.F. Husain and K.H. Ara. India Coffee House would sometimes be their shelter, its tables always taken by writers, film stars, artists, gossipers, wheeler-dealers, professors from the university across the road, loafers, busybodies and journalists. Journalists made up a weighty segment of this pace-setting domain, for Delhi had not yet become the power magnet—nor the media the power playhouse—it is today. Journalism was still a noble calling and Bombay was where the best of the nobility gathered: Frank Moraes and C.R. Mandy, R.K. Karanjia and D.F. Karaka, Ramnath Goenka and J.C. Jain, Kusum Nair, K.A. Abbas, Sham Lal and N.J. Nanporia, R.K. Lakshman and Mario Miranda, H.Y. Sharada Prasad and R.P. Aiyar and Ramesh Sanghvi and three amazing South Canara brothers, U.G. Rao, B.S.V. Rao and L.P. Rao.

In this sprawling, pulsating nest of singing birds, there was a little perch that defied the norms of human logic. It was a perch to which some of the profession’s most brilliant minds chose to cling on despite, to put it mildly, unfavourable odds. They had, for example, tables and chairs that had a habit of vanishing overnight—for nonpayment of instalments, as they would learn in due course. They had salaries embarrassingly lower than those in other newspapers and these salaries arrived once in two months or so. But such worldly details went almost unnoticed by the devotees of journalism who manned the barricades for Free Press Journal, Free Press Bulletin (evening tabloid), Bharat Jyoti (Sunday edition), Navashakti (Marathi) and Janashakti (Gujarati). The visionary who fought daily battles to run the papers, S. Sadanand, had a knack to attract talent. Around him gathered a galaxy of the distinguished— S. Natarajan, Stalin Srinivasan, Sharokh Sabavala, Raja Hutheesingh, Asoka Mehta, A.F.S. Talyarkhan, Prabhakar Padhye, Bal Thackeray, A. Hariharan, S. Viswam.

And M.V. Kamath. Kamath had wanted to be a doctor but lacked the resources to pursue an MBBS course. He had to settle for a basic degree in Chemistry and employment in a chemist’s shop in Kemp’s Corner. But Kamath was born to be a journalist and in no time he found himself in Dalal Street, the stamping ground of Sadanand and home to Bombay’s most inspired journalism of the time. Sadanand was famous as a trainer of journalists, though his methods were somewhat unorthodox. Anyone who applied for a job would be asked to join the next day. Most of them would be told, at the end of the first day’s work, that their services were terminated. Those who survived would turn quickly into highly competent journalists. The extra brilliant among them would be periodi-cally sacked by Sadanand. Kamath was sacked twice. The second time he was so hurt that he resolved never to go anywhere near Dalal Street again. A day went by, and sure enough word arrived from Sadanand asking Kamath to report to work. Kamath wouldn’t budge. Sadanand then sent his son to plead with Kamath. Then he despatched his most trusted manager, Nadkarni. Kamath still wouldn’t budge. Where-upon Sadanand telephoned him and started crying. Amid sobs, he asked: “Aren’t you my son?” Kamath was back at his desk within an hour. And he went on from achievement to achievement.

Journalism came naturally to Kamath. He had the reporter’s instinct and he was good at making contacts and starting up conversations. He was a committed socialist and forged friendship with ranking political leaders of the time. He came into his own when he added column writing to his repertoire. The Bulletin had a talk-of-the-town column, ‘Gaslight Gossip’, appearing in italics next to the editorial on centre-page. It was meant to be racy but was rather prosaic in style written by Sadanand’s elderly editorial hacks who never moved out of their office. Kamath put magic into it. Spending his afternoons on visits, flitting from meeting halls to coffee shops, and from homes to hotel rooms, he would collect tidbits about the goings-on in the city, return to his desk late in the evening and pound away on his typewriter. The ‘Gossip’ column the next day would be studded with comments on events and personalities. It gave pleasure to a readership that rose in large numbers—and it provided a daily lesson to colleagues like me on how to transform raw material into pleasurable prose.

The shimmering quality of Kamath’s journalism was recognised by all around him including the boss. A journalist before he became proprietor, Sadanand used to put his name as editor in all Free Press publications. When Kamath made a booming success of the Bulletin with his ‘Gaslight Gossip’ as well as his reporting flair, the professional in Sadanand rose to the occasion. For the first time in the three-decades history of the Free Press Group, Kamath was anointed the declared editor of the Free Press Bulletin. It was a celebratory moment for all of us in the Dalal Street family while Kamath himself was up in the clouds.

Kamath’s well-deserved recognition in the Free Press Group lasted only as long as Sadanand did. From his youth Sadanand had been plagued by elephentiasis and attendant ailments of the painful kind. That and the failure of his life’s ambition to set up India’s first nationalist news agency cut short his life. He died in 1953 aged 53. By the professional standards that prevailed in Free Press till then, Kamath should have been made the editor of all the Group papers. But India’s familiar petty politics interfered and he was denied the opportunity; a shareholder who took over as the new company chief declared himself as the editor in true desi style. Sadanand died again.

Kamath did not wither away. Indeed, he went on to hold what journalists would consider plum posts—European correspondent for the PTI, Washington correspondent for The Times of India (1969-78) and editor of The Illustrated Weekly (1978-81). But I hold the view that Kamath was never his true self, nor happy, once he left the shores of Free Press Journal. The Old Lady of Bori Bunder gave him comforts, facilities and money he could never dream of in the run-down building in Dalal Street. But Dalal Street was home. That was where hearts met. It had a pull that Washington and Paris could never have. The extent to which he was the odd-man-out in the Times establishment became clear when the editorship of the now defunct Illustrated Weekly was taken away from Khushwant Singh and given to Kamath. Proud of his malice towards one and all, Singh covered Kamath with a rash of nasty comments, thoroughly uncivilised and thoroughly unnecessary. His cult status among the New Delhi Punjabi elite helped him get away with that public exhibition of smallmindedness. He gained nothing and of course Kamath lost nothing.

Kamath always moved in a world of civility. After retiring from mainstream journalism, he underwent a transformation of sorts. He swung from the socialism of his early days to saffron nationalism to the surprise of many. He also squandered his time writing “commercial” books that did not require his talent. But he maintained his devotion to journalism and to principles he considered important. He was lucky that he received gracious welcome from the Manipal Group and the Pai Family as he entered his final decades. They gave him not only a base in his native Udupi soil; more importantly, they gave him assignments that kept him busy—mentoring Manipal’s mass communication programme and lending counsel to the university’s wider plans. Staying busy with work he considered worthwhile was the important thing and it kept Kamath contented and healthy in his eighties and into his nineties. Kamath lived a full life till the very end because of the respect he received from the Manipal community and the people around him. The exile from Dalal Street had finally returned to his roots.