The story behind the stories

Print edition : April 03, 2015
These two books by journalists are written with eloquent simplicity.

A WICKEDLY delightful incident that is related time and again at the Mumbai Press Club is Ajith Pillai’s story on politicians and prostitutes. At a centenary conclave of the Congress party in Mumbai many years ago, the news flow was all about the politics of the meeting. Pillai himself was not even tracking the event but in a casual conversation with Dhiren Bhagat, who wrote for The Spectator of London, mentioned that one of his contacts had said that Congress workers were spending their evenings in Kamathipura, the city’s red-light district. A delighted Bhagat said it would make for great Sunday reading. Pillai’s “social worker” contact took them both to the area and even forced the unfortunate Congressmen to introduce themselves to Pillai.

The Sunday Observer, where Pillai was working at the time, ran the story with the headline “The Party in Kamathipura”. The story left the Congress red-faced, especially since Rajiv Gandhi had been talking about cleaning up politics. “It was an offbeat, fun story,” Pillai reminisced. The story set something of a trend because a few city papers began regularly posting reporters in similar areas when the State legislature was in session. Naturally, they always had fodder for a story.

Because of stories like this, there was keen interest, especially among reporters, when Pillai’s book Off the Record: Untold Stories from a Reporter’s Diary was published. True to its name, the book is laced with spicy, acerbic, insightful and charming incidents. Too many adjectives you say? Read the book and you will probably agree with them. The anecdotes in the book are from a rainbow of experiences. Pillai has taken V.S. Naipaul to meet Mumbai’s underworld, seen the political underbelly of the A.B. Vajpayee era, covered the Scorpène-class submarine deal and the Niira Radia tapes scandal, reported on the story of “Silk” Smitha (or was it her double? That remains a mystery even to Pillai) at a New Year’s eve function and witnessed the Kargil war.

Maybe because of the subject or maybe because of the way Pillai recounts it, the section on crime is the most engrossing. Pillai’s crime stories are from an era when this “business” was (comparatively speaking) innocent and did not include darker crimes such as terrorism. It was the bhai era with all the contradictions of the underworld dons—cruel but benevolent, forgiving but with the memory of elephants, all-knowing, yet living in the shadow of fear.

Pillai captures what he calls “the mystery, intrigue and adventure associated with covering organised crime in the Bombay of the 80s”. The way he tells it, that world retains its gory fascination, but he does not romanticise it. The very first chapter, “Close encounters with bhai log”, is deeply engrossing for the verbatim recounting of a call from Chota Shakeel, Dawood Ibrahim’s right-hand man. Enraged at a story written about his bhai, Shakeel demanded an unconditional apology in print from Pillai. His demand was naturally accompanied by a threat that was plain enough: “ Hum log criminal nahin hai aur criminal nahi the. Par haan, agar koi saanp nikla to usko kuchal dete hain.” (We are no criminals and were never criminals. But, yes, if we spot a snake we simply crush it.)

A rejoinder from Dawood (clearly written by someone with a legal mind) soon followed, but Vinod Mehta, Pillai’s editor at Outlook, was adamant that it was too long for the letters page. After much back and forth between Pillai, Shakeel and another journalist friend, a happy compromise was reached in which sections from Dawood’s letter could be used if questions were crafted to fit them! This was carried in an interview format and satisfied everyone concerned. In his wry fashion, Pillai writes: “It was, and still must be, the only ‘interview’ with Dawood published without a byline.”

What is remarkable in the recounting of what was undoubtedly an alarming episode in his life is the lack of any bravado and the happy acknowledgement that the memory of those few weeks still sent “a chill down my spine”. But this healthy reaction did not prevent Pillai from continuing to cover the underworld. One warning he did take seriously and never wrote about (that is, before this book) was the meeting he had with someone he still refers to as “the man”.

This was another face of the underworld—someone who was articulate and well educated. “The man” met Pillai and offered a “brotherly” warning about not treading on toes. All this “without so much as raising his voice” as they sat and sipped coffee in the coffee shop of the Taj in Mumbai. His parting shot to Pillai was: “We’re good friends of friends, but bad enemies of enemies.” A bit clichéd perhaps but lethal enough for Pillai to keep the incident under his hat for many years.

Pillai makes many quiet observations in his book. Caught in a tear-gas battle in Srinagar, Pillai ducked into the nearest building, his eyes streaming tears. Through the haze, he saw an elderly woman offering him water to relieve his agony. Of her kindness he writes: “It was a simple rescue act—an incident from which no generalisation must be made. But for me, it was highly symbolic and went against everything I was told by the I.B. [Intelligence Bureau] in Delhi about expecting the worst from Kashmiris and being wary of them.” Without gushing about kind, misunderstood Kashmiris, he makes a quiet point which cannot be denied because it is his first-hand experience.

Observations and statements like this are typical of the manner in which Pillai recounts incidents. He stays away from giving weightage to any one side or idea. And he maintains a distance from self-indulgent memories or self-aggrandisement.

The excitement of journalism comes through clearly in Off the Record. The story behind how Outlook chased and broke the real story on Brigadier Surinder Singh of Kargil is the embodiment of good investigative reporting. Pillai’s narrative also takes older journalists back to a time when the profession lacked the corporate slickness it is acquiring today. He writes of a time when journalists and journalism radiated irreverence and yet had ethics, which are now fast vanishing. In his last chapter, he sticks it to journalism, sparing no words and exposing the hypocrisies of “quick-buck journalism”, especially in the world of the financial papers. He also takes a dig at news articles that lack depth—what he refers to as “easy-does-it journalism”.

In his understated, laid-back way, Pillai makes some hard points about the unhealthy interference of advertising in editorial space. He says: “An ad executive in a magazine I was associated with once asked me if I could depute a reporter to do a ‘pleasant’ profile of MNS [Maharashtra Navnirman Sena] chief Raj Thackeray. That, he said, would help in bagging an advertorial from the MNS. I had to tick him off saying that one ‘pleasant’ piece will not bring in advertising, given the magazine’s strident stand against Raj’s campaign targeting ‘outsiders’ in Mumbai.”

While that one executive may have been stymied, Pillai realises that “people like the ad executive may unfortunately have a larger say in the future”. While he is not against making profits, he is fiercely against making “editorial compromises to serve vested interests”. His final take on whether marketing will “tighten its grip on editorial”: “It will, unless new owners come forward who look at the media through a lens that makes it more than just a cash cow.”

M.K.B. Nair

Pillai’s was the second journalistic memoir to hit the stands recently. The other publication was a slim, evocative book called The Unknown Nair: An Autobiography by M.K.B. Nair, the former deputy editor of The Economic Times and a man under whom many current senior journalists cut their teeth when he was at the legendary The Free Press Journal, the paper that, among other things, launched Bal Thackeray on his cartooning career and gave Behram Contractor, better known as Busybee, his break.

Co-edited and researched by Anju Ghangurde and P.T. Jyothi Datta (both journalists; in fact, the former is Nair’s daughter), the book is a charming and delightful look at the journalism of pre- and post-Independence days. Written in an anecdotal style, the book documents a remarkable and fulfilling professional life. For many readers and journalists, it will evoke nostalgia.

Both Nair’s and Pillai’s books are written with eloquent simplicity, and though both writers span different eras, they write about a type of journalism that is slipping away. The anecdotes span the sociopolitical, cultural and economic arenas and offer insights to readers interested in the story behind the published stories. The books, much like their authors, are quiet yet forceful without being brashly opinionated.

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