Sunday, November 6, 2011

Jug Suraiya's New Book

Jug Suraiya bills his new book, JS & The Times of My Life, as “a worm’s eye view of Indian journalism.” That might make you think it dishes up gritty stuff about a profession – trade rather – that has long been the receptive home of drunks, cynics and misanthropes. It does not; the book is an elegantly written memoir of a person who declares, “I never wanted to be a journalist” and is far too gentle at heart to say anything mean about the interesting menagerie of the newspaper industry. In fact, he keeps his eyes firmly fixed on the decent (if not always admirable) people who came his way during four decades in journalism. There are, however, many oddballs and eccentrics, finely observed and presented with the deft economy of style that is the hallmark of his “Jugular Vein” column in The Times of India.

 For many readers, especially fans of the now defunct JS, India’s first break-the-mould “youth magazine,” the book will be a trip down memory lane. Jug was one of the small group that launched the weekly in 1967, initially with the irredeemably square name Junior Statesman. In a city caught in the tumultuous, angry rise of the CPI (M) to power, the JS tried to be “fun” in a derivative, campy, Carnaby Street way, but with enough of desi spice to earn an ardent young following. However, it could not escape a host of dour well-wishers: those who willed it into a well. The critics were particularly annoyed because the editor who launched the magazine was the multi-talented and irreverent artist Desmond Doig, large and pink and very much a remnant of the Raj, except that he wasn’t. The Brits in Calcutta, especially those who administered The Statesman, looked down on him as chi-chi, their term for Anglo-Indian. Unlike them, his heart was firmly in India, or perhaps more accurately in its northern hills.

 Jug describes the early mad, desperate days of JS when a handful of us – I was part of the gang, along with “Dubby” Bhagat – took on the job of putting out a profusely illustrated weekly magazine without a day of experience in what needed doing. “Months of planning, of preparation, of stockpiling articles, and pictures, and comic strips, and columns, had culminated in this. And suddenly all the planning and all the preparation were as though they’d never happened at all. … How had zero hour come about? It all seemed a blur. The four of us – Desmond, Dubby, Papa and I, with Desmond leading, always – had done all the work. Desmond had planned, designed, done layouts, selected the pictures, drawn illustrations. Dubby, Papa and I had written and written some more. … That was the easy part. The hard part was the blocks, and the physical and social structure of The Statesman.” The “blocks” were the lead plates that went on The Statesman flatbed press; we had to lug them down from the etching shop to the Job Department and bring back the page proofs when they were ready. Strictly speaking, that was the job of the paper’s army of “peons,” but they were by then strictly unionized, and entirely unenthusiastic about the additional work for the JS. In Jug’s description of The Statesman social hierarchy we inky writers were the “Shudras,” the “untouchables.” 

Jug’s account of what happened at and to JS is valuable historical material, not least because of his description of the diversity of interesting characters the magazine attracted or brought into focus. At one extreme there were Mother Theresa and Edmund Hillary, at the other the schoolboy duo of M.J. Akbar and Shashi Tharoor, early contributors to the Schooltalk column. There is Jayaprakash Narayan, there is Rekha the Sonagachi prostitute, there are Dev Anand, Shirley Maclaine, Zeenat Aman and Boris Lissanevitch, ex-ballet dancer who had come to India with Diaghilev’s troupe and done a bunk to marry and settle in Nepal as Kathmandu’s first European hotelier, running the famous Yak and Yeti. [Unfortunately, Jug has left out Desmond’s favourite anecdote about how Boris, put in charge of hospitality for visiting Princess (or was it Queen?) Elizabeth, had found too late that the flush in the royal loo did not work; he arranged for a Nepali boy to keep watch through a peephole and pour down a bucket of water whenever necessary.]

The book has a priceless description of C.R. Irani, the Managing Director who took over The Statesman when Andrew Yule & Co. sold it. “The new MD exuded a military air, as pervasive as the musky scent of the Aramis cologne that he wore. He sported a safari suit, with epaulettes. From his pockets, crammed with cartridge-like ballpoint pens, dangled metallic fobs, like wartime medals. The lens of spectacles flashed with combative zeal. He did not walk; he quick-marched to battles only he could see, a short, strutting Napoleon in the making. He scared the shit out of me.”

After Mrs. Gandhi declared the “Emergency” and took to arresting journalists, Irani grew paranoid. “Each morning the MD would come to the JS, tucked away on a mezzanine floor of The Statesman building. Striding into Desmond’s cabin, he would as for the JS team to be summoned. All of us would troop into Desmond’s cabin. … The MD would address the congregation. ‘Desmond, boys, they’re coming to take me away. I expect them at any moment. But even after I’ve gone, remember: Keep Fighting the good fight, keep the flag of freedom unfurled. That’s all. Thank you and God bless till we meet again.’ Then, heels clicking counterpoint to the silent strains of ‘We Shall Overcome,’ the MD would march out, presumably into the arms of the waiting constabulary. They never came. In the afternoon, Desmond would phone the MD’s secretary, Gaver, to ascertain his fate.

 “‘The MD’s gone’ she’d confirm.

“‘To Lalbazaar lockup?’ Desmond would ask.

 “‘To the Bengal Club for lunch, she’d reply.”

 Irani soon became the man that Statesmanwallahs most loved to hate; and they had their reasons. For the JS crew that reason was the manner in which he closed the magazine. They got word of it when Johnny Angel, the man Desmond had hired to carry the “blocks” down to the Job Department, returned one morning to say there would be no more JS

 Jug’s description of his next super-boss, The Times of India’s Samir Jain, is kinder, but equally revealing. The account of his life and times at the Times as the paper arced down in ethical and editorial quality is probably less judgmental than many would like, but then, that is Jug. The stories from Delhi are more diverse and broader in scope than those from Calcutta, and for me it was a reintroduction to someone I had lost track of during four decades away in New York. I am glad to say he has not changed centrally. He has managed in the book, as in his column, to maintain his integrity as a person, to keep his beloved wife Bunny in view, to stay in touch with his humanity in a world that often loses sight of it, to give voice to Brindle the street dog that became part of his family, and to keep a fascinating story flowing effortlessly from cover to cover.

No comments: