A committed journalist

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

Krishna Raj, 1937-2004.

KRISHNA RAJ (he never used his full name, Korekattu Nattamkandath Krishna Raj, not even with abbreviated initials), the Editor of Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), who died in his sleep at his home in Wadala, Mumbai, on the night of January 16, straddled many worlds: the academia, journalism and social and political activism, sometimes as a passionate insider fully engaged, more often as a detached outsider unimpressed by all the posturing by frauds pretending to be engaged intellectuals. He was also very much a Bombay man, having spent all his working life in that city, a real Mumbaikar.

It is impossible to differentiate between these three realms, for they were all integrated into and integral to the man and his work. Perhaps a very brief account of the content and organisation of the journal would be of help.

These three broadly identified realms are reflected in the three main areas of EPW that, apart from the news and comments relating to business and commerce, constitute the core of the journal: the editorial comments, mostly unsigned; reports from correspondents, some occasionally unsigned; and the book reviews and special articles, almost all of them bearing the name of the writer, the last occupying nearly half the space in every issue of the journal. The nomenclatures of the last two items have undergone some changes over the years; some would argue that the `ideological orientation' of the editorial columns, sometimes insisting on extending such a description even to reports from correspondents, too has changed. But the character of the journal in its totality, as an open platform where every view as long as it is intelligently and convincingly argued is accommodated, has not changed substantially.

Clearly, Krishna Raj did not write all the editorial comments; others in the editorial staff contributed to the finished product in the form of unsigned comments and notes. But even when these were substantial, the journal as a whole always bore the stamp and signature of its Editor. His mind, and not merely the `editorial mind', found expression week after week in the pages of the journal, informed as much by his personality as by his persona as a professional journalist and as a human being.

Born in Ottappalam near Palakkad in Kerala, Krishna Raj grew up in Delhi. He was educated in a Hindi medium school in Dariaganj, gaining fine fluency in Hindi in that process. Trained as an economist at the Delhi School of Economics, he never joined the academic profession. Nevertheless, he was familiar with the most arcane minutiae of his discipline, and was never intimidated by the most abstruse of scholarly articles by the most famous of names in the discipline, making informed judgments day in and day out on whether, and in what form, these could be published. Opinions from experts and referees were sought; but the judgment to publish or not was always his and his alone. Above all, he built EPW into a forum where the most distinguished scholars in the discipline sought to publish their work, some even disdaining forums abroad in preference to the home-made product. The `alumni' of EPW who include scholars in the social sciences as well as in the fields of arts is a veritable roll of honour.

Academic recognition too came his way when he was invited to be a visiting fellow at the Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford University, in 1990. He was the recipient of the B.D. Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism in 1996.

Krishna Raj joined the Economic Weekly (EW), founded and edited by Sachin Chaudhuri, in 1960, two years after passing out of the Delhi School. He stayed with the journal and its successor, Economic and Political Weekly (also founded by Sachin Chaudhuri in August 1966, after he left EW, following differences with its financiers), for the rest of his life. Sachin Chaudhuri died within a few months of the launching of the new journal and was succeeded by R.K. Hazari. When Hazari left EPW to join the Reserve Bank of India as Deputy Governor in 1969, Krishna Raj became its Editor. He remained its Editor till the last day of his life, and indeed attended office on January 16. Within hours of returning from the office, he was dead.

WHAT kind of a man was Krishna Raj? Reference has been made above both to his personality and persona. The persona encountered by first-time and casual visitors to the EPW office was that of a polite and solicitous person, soft-spoken, speaking little, a very good listener, seeing the visitor all the way to the lift when he or she left. He had the most endearing professional mask; and could be devastating when he turned his charm full blast.

As always happens, over time this persona also became the man, imposing some strain on the real man inside. Colleagues working in close and daily contact were able to sense this tension. Although capable of tremendous self-control and keeping his anger in check, some gestures, like the pulling down of the chin when angry, always showed up the man beneath the mask.

But such occasions were rare. Blessed by an innate scepticism from which he did not exclude himself, he never let political differences distort personal relationships. He was also all too ready to let down his guard, softened by liquor or children, both of which he found most relaxing. Krishna Raj was an unconventional journalist. He never worked as a reporter or a sub-editor in a daily newspaper, the sine qua non according to professional journalists for acquiring the basic skills of the profession. And yet, he had the most finely attuned news sense; those privileged to work with him sensed this every working day, during every meeting when the day's political or economic developments were discussed with a view to charting out the shape and content of the editorial comments of the forthcoming issue. He was also an incomparably brilliant sub, capable of spotting nuggets of facts and insight in the dullest and the most badly written of copies, alive to and aware of a whole set of facts and insights and nuances relating to the use of the English language, the language of the journal and indeed of the editorial section of the office. He seems to have acquired these skills from his mentor, Sachin Chaudhuri, whose lightning sharp insights in this regard have been often recalled by Ashok Mitra, the economist and former Finance Minister of West Bengal, who was closely associated with EW; and remains closely associated with EPW, as member of the Board of Trustees of Sameeksha Trust, which publishes the journal, and as a contributor and columnist, and as a friend of Krishna Raj.

Joining EW in 1960, Krishna Raj remained with the journal and its successor, EPW, for the rest of his life. The association was life long. He also saw EPW through various vicissitudes that, of their very nature, were both promising and threatening. Not all these promises and threats came from elements outside the organisation. Navigating through these stormy times of the decade of the 1970s, a virtual roller-coaster movement that was coterminous with his becoming Editor in 1969, demanded the finest as well as finely calculated skills of leadership. The files of EPW covering these years, beginning with the emergence of `naxalism' as a political phenomenon, the declaration of national Emergency, and all the forces that were let loose following that misadventure, with a succession of heady or menacing developments holding promises and threats, will provide some indication of how Krishna Raj exercised his leadership, providing a forum for the voiceless as well as the militant political opposition while at the same time ensuring that the very existence of the journal would not be jeopardised. This was reflected in the striking diversification of, and within, the EPW stable: the establishment of the EPW Research Foundation; the expansion of the network of the periodical Reviews reflecting broader social concerns; the publication programmes.

In the final analysis, Krishna Raj's real loyalty was to the journal. The bottom line was the vibrancy and well-being of EPW. Issues and causes were important; but the forum where these could be canvassed, promoted, debated about, was equally so, for without the forum there would be no debate. Above all, EPW that he began editing when it was still in its infancy needed to be protected, and nurtured to grow into healthy adulthood. It could not be held hostage by contentious political factions intent on promoting their narrow agendas. This too comes through a study of the files of EPW.

Three incidents closely linked to his life, work and death illustrate this total, unqualified commitment to EPW. In August 1964, four years after joining EW, Krishna Raj and Maithreyi, a friend from his Delhi days, decided to get married. Typically of Krishna Raj, he got married on a working day, going through the brief civil ceremony in a friend's house in the morning, and returned to the office, a little late perhaps, but the working hours were anyway not observed rigidly. As recollected by Rajen Bara of Guwahati, his classmate in the Delhi School who was one of the witnesses to the union, and later also by Krishna Raj and Maithreyi, he did not even inform his Editor that he had got married a few hours earlier and carried on as if it was a normal working day. Only later, when Sachin Babu learnt of the facts did he give the young man an amused scolding and ordered him to take off for a few days.

In October 1991, when EPW completed 25 years of publication, there was a function in the office. Krishna Raj could have secured any `big' name to be present on the occasion to do the honours. His choice of the chief guest for that day was Chandrika Singh, the newspaper vendor who headed the two-man team that cut and pasted the newspaper clippings, the oldest employee whose association with EPW also went back to the days of EW. This was no symbolic condescension; and it was appropriate that the only member of the staff selected to speak at the memorial meeting held on January 20 was Babu, another non-editorial employee.

As in life, so in death. After decades of not taking even a day off from work - one recalls how he was loathe to be away even for a day or two when the Sameeksha Trust scheduled a meeting outside Bombay - Krishna Raj had begun to take things a little easy as the internal structures of EPW got a little more systematic and he began to delegate responsibilities. In the last few years, he and his wife had also begun to travel regularly to visit their son and daughter-in-law who had made a home in San Francisco. By all accounts, Krishna Raj had become a doting grandfather. On the morning of January 15, he returned after a six-week absence in San Francisco. He returned to work the next morning. Unlike when he was living in distant Borivali when he used to work often from home, after moving to Wadala he had once again resumed the normal working habits of his younger days, reaching office early in the day and returning home late. Padma Prakash, his colleague, spoke to him a little before midnight on January 16. She said he sounded perfectly all right. So does his wife Maithreyi who had returned with him from San Francisco. He then went to bed, never to wake up.

So many memories, one can go on. At a personal level, I (the writer was a member of the editorial staff of EPW between December 1975 and June 1983) still cannot accept that he has gone, for he was over a year younger to me. But then, life, not to speak of death, has never promised to be fair. In such moments, the traditional African way of confronting death also provides some comfort, some hope. One grieves over the loss even as one celebrates the life that has passed into the beyond. Hamba Kahle, Go well, friend, Go in peace.

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