interviewEE* Name: Mobashar Jawad "M.J." Akbar [MJA]
- Occupation: Journalist
INTERVIEWER* Farah Yameen [FY]
Medium: Audio recordings* Format: Wav
- Language: English with smatterings of Hindi expressions
- Location of Interview: ???
- Date of the interview: 7 June 2016 02:18:15
Clip name/DURATION: * fy_mjakbar_raw_070616.wav
- Length : 00:28:29
- Bit rate: 1536 bps
- Size: 312 MB
- Date modified: 7 May 2016
[Farah There is a date discrepancy …please check 7 May against what is visible in the ‘Properties.’]
| 0:00 [FY] : Today is the 7th of May, am interviewing M. J Akbar for the Archives of the Political. So sir I'll start like I'll start always these interviews is how you got into journalism?
1:14 [FY] : For being published as..
1:15 [MJA] : On the Edit Page ...yea, and fifty bucks is a hell lot of money in ??? '66 or something...yeah '66 maybe...'65. So I suppose you know didn't think twice about what precisely I wanted to do. I remember even when I went to college- Presidency College- '67 and those were years of huge turmoil and Naxalite violence...very little by way of formal class and we used to have this system of Tutorials and my tutor was Professor Arun Kumar Dasgupta.2:06 ...very very fine gentleman...one of the ...absolutely in the classic tradition of what academician should be...soft, modest, very...very unassuming, totally content with limited salary and you know had no other focus in life except being a bhadra academic and I didn't go to two or three of his tutorials and he got very upset. I think he complained to my father who normally you know didn't consider me a vagabond by habit but father got very upset, took me to see him and then of course I went to his tutorial. And so he asked me very candidly, he said, you know 'tumi asho na keno?' I said 'Sir, academics...literature was my course...bores the hell out of me. I liked reading.' So he said, 'ki karatē cāna?' I said, 'I want to write.'3:14 And then he actually taught me how to write. And I think it was absolutely brilliant. He says, 'if you want to write in the English language then I'm giving you maybe a month or something and you will come back after having red at least one of these three texts,' which I eventually had to read. He says, 'you will first read King James English Bible because without that you cannot understand English.' He says, 'I won't mention Shakespeare since my senior, the Head of the Department, is going to teach you Shakespeare so you know I wouldn't even dare and enter into that territory but in any case you will learn Shakespeare from.' Second he said, 'Paradise Lost... book two.' 4:07 I asked, 'why?' He says...and this has remained with me throughout my writing...he says that 'when you read something something you're not only seeing it and reading it. You're also internally hearing it. So all prose in that sense is poetry because you hear the prose. And if the prose doesn't have an internal rhythm ...a cadence...it will be just standard stuff. It will never rise. And I recommend Paradise Lost Book Two because this is the book of satan, and you will find the hiss of satan all through the book. It's an internal hiss..never comes out in open (?4:53 ) so there is a magnificent use of - S as a sound. So the use of sound in prose. And then he said, 'for clarity of course you have to read Addison and Steale.' And that was the best education I ever got. 5:10 And then when I left college, I left college....the way you finished your degree...you finished your exam...I never went to collect my degree till twenty years later or something ...there was too much violence and I think in the beginning ...I actually got a very good job...as a Senior Management Training in DCM. It had a phenomenal salary in those days. Shiv Nadar and Company were maybe a year senior ... two years senior to me...would have been. 5:44 And I joined DCM and I think I lasted for one day or something.
5:52 [FY] : How come?
5:54 [MJA : The chap...I met the guy..the ...their HRD Director who took the introductory class of this new prop. And many...his name is Paul I think...yes...many...many years later and he asked me the question...the same question that you're asking 'why?'And the answer, well I suppose the facetious answer was - I'd gone in a shirt or something...I don't know, and he says, 'why aren't you wearing a tie?'. I said, 'I haven come here to work not to wear a tie.' He says, 'tomorrow you will come to work in a tie or you will not come to work at all.' So I didn't go to work. 6:39 And that was that until thank god I got that Trainee's job in Times of India for the magnificent sum of 275Rupees. 6:51 DCM used to pay 1,300 or something at that time. So there we are.
| ---On MJA’s background.
--- MJA started writing early on in school.
--- Publication of a Letter to the Editor in Statesman while still in school and got an award of Rs.50/-.
---MJA on his years in Presidency College and initially not inspired.
---Persistence of one tutor- Professor Arun Kumar Dasgupta, paid off in encouraging MJA. MJA recounts a conversation with him.
----Three must-reads recommended- King James Bible, Paradise Lost (Book Two), and Addison and Steale to help MJA understand the nuances of the language for writing.
---MJA got a job as a Senior Management Training in DCM but didn’t join on first day as asked to wear a tie.
--- MJA got a Trainee’s job in Times of India for Rs. 275/- month.
| 6:58 [FY] : Sir you joined Times of India and left it quite like very soon too?
7:01 [MJA] : Well, I did work, you know...I joined Times of India...went into after training was posted into the desk or something....main paper and then I must say Fatima Zakaria who was the Assistant Editor of Illustrated Weekly at the time, and Khushwant... ---- [FY : Khushwant Singh] ---.... they sort of changed the rules. I mean they did something quite I think unusual...they asked me to join the Illustrated Weekly...probably they thought I'd grope it sort of. And I even then ...I all of twenty-one years old I think...yeah...I joined Times of India in '71 so I was twenty....and joined Illustrated Weekly soon...yielded...7:55 I did a lot of cover stories...I think over twenty...twenty-two...cover mentions. I think in my collection A Mirror to Power (Pub.: HarperCollins India, 2015), I don't know if you've got it or not... ----- [FY : No, I haven't.] ---- ....I've given you a nice story about my first cover story.
8:12 [FY] : When you say Illustrated Weekly was changing the rules. What do you mean?
8:15 [MJA] : Means once you'd been taken, you know, about the batch that used to be hired by the Times of India was then distributed to various departments. So it was very unusual for somebody who had posted to Times of India main desk, to be then shifted in a couple of months to some other publication, because once you entered the Times of India...and that's it.
8:41 [FY] : You wanted the Times of India?
8:42 [MJA] : It was very bureaucratic.
8:46 [FY] : And ...so the Illustrated Weekly ... I mean as we all know like... Khushwant Singh was supporting the Emergency later....
8:54 [MJA] : That is ....---- [FY : That was much later...] ---- .... That is '75. ... ---- [FY : At this point...].... ---- I left Illus....Illustrated ...I left in'74.
9:02 [FY] : At this point if I were to ask you to comment on the what was being written in the Illustrated Weekly, what would you say? I mean how...
9:08 [MJA] : No, before Khushwant joined, the Illustrated Weekly was a kind of very boring form of Tattler in the sense Tattler without the Omph or maybe the like the illustrated papers of London where very heavily into middle class family...you got ...if you got married you got your picture printed...apparently that was the most popular part of the circulation base....people getting their newly wed pictures...standard passport sized pictures...printed free. 9:46 But Khushwant came in and revolutionised it by introducing a newsy element to the cover story, taking up social issues, politics is very much a part of it. So he gave it a kind of a quasi-news feel. It wasn't a political magazine but included politics so and it included essays, included....of course he strengthened the fiction part of it and so on. So it was a very much of a medley of themes but since politics was one of his themes that he wanted and we ...we introduced reporting, right...so that 10:31 ?? magazine reportage as such I think our generation did but reportage ...just field reportage not a armchair analysis. And that the...because I would insist on...sometimes I would insist...I would tell the boss....the boss would happily agree because Khushwant himself was very dynamic himself. He'd say, 'haan haan, of course...ghar mein baith ke thori reporting hoti hai.'
10:57[FY] : And you left Illustrated Weekly soon after too?
11:01[MJA] : Quite right because the Free Press Journal was quite a .... ---- [FY : Yeah from Bombay...] ---- .... they offered me an opportunity of editing a magazine. They had a very glossy socialite magazine called Onlooker and I turned that into a political publication and I also began to edit their Sunday paper- Bharat Jyoti; and it was in Bharat Jyoti and not at Onlooker first began reporting the build-up to the Emergency.11:35 The George Fernandes railway movement strike (c. 1974), the JP's anti-corruption movement which began in Bihar and so on.... ---- [FY : Gujarat...] ---- .... Gujarat....Bihar Movement was a parallel movement- Nav Nirman I think.
11:51 [FY] : Nav Nirman Movement.... Sir at this point were you based out of Bombay?
11:54 [MJA] : Bombay.
11:55 [FY] : Okay, so what were you reporting....and a lot of ...so most of the people I've interviewed so far...actually all the people we've interviewed so far have been based out of Delhi. So...also so therefore closer to the power circles and, you know, all the shenanigans within that. What was the effect of the Central Government on how you were reporting at...in Bombay?
12:16 [MJA] : Well the effect ... you know, you must never forget that the Congress was not the power only in Delhi. Congress was the power in every part of the country. I mean...no sorry by that time, it had weakened.... ---- [FY : Gujarat...there was not Congress]---- ...that is not but it was in power in Maharashtra. And ... ---- [FY : Yea, it was] ---- .... and it seemed permanently embedded in Maharashtra so...Gujarat it had weakened...north it had weakened but Maharashtra was very much a Congress stronghold base. I think V. P. Naik may have been keeping the 12:50 ??? (torch?). So what happened in Delhi was mirrored in Bombay in terms of the Government's long intrusive fingers. 13:04 I had a very interesting experience in '75. I got a job offer from ...after Onlooker ...by Nari Hira who had started Stardust and become a huge financial success and wanted to bring out a publication really for overseas Indians...glossy news magazine, which I think called Peninsula. And so with the dummy was ready and I was hired as an Editor. We had a good team...quite a few people...I think Chaitanya Kalevar was among that batch. And the first cover story I did and this was scheduled for June 1975 publication- first issue - was Indira Gandhi. 14:03 And Indira Gandhi looking very very angry. And the headline was some around - 'The End is Near'. And you know this was before the events because we used to have long deadlines. And very reflective of the mood of the country…that this woman is over. And then of course the Allahabad High Court judgement came and so on???14:29 Magazine cover became far more and more relevant with each passing day. And then the Emergency came and I remember I had just got my passport and was off on my first trip abroad - New York or something. Bought my first suits because I'd also decided that since I'd got the suits, life seemed to be...might as well get married...and all that together and then after Emergency was launched, people first we didn't realise what censorship was all about. Then of course Nari came with the bad news that the Government...with the bad news ... that the Government was quite delighted with the idea of a magazine for overseas Indians but could we tweak or change the colour and make it a smiling Indira Gandhi and say that a new era of hope had launched and you know...they would be delighted and life would be very rosy...on should; and of course like 15:52 like a cantankerous chap I am I said, 'no!' But it was very good I must say of Nari. He didn't...I mean he could have said 'no'. He gave me a salary for six more months for doing nothing and then rather than create a pro-Government publication, which he could easily have done...I mean...look the ...there were no heroes...too or not too many of them, and nobody was ...he didn't...he didn't start the publication, which I thought was very brave of him...of Nari. 16:30 But six months later it became...I had left and I was without a job also.
| ---Why MJA quit the Times of India?
--- MJA left TOI because Fatima Zakaria and Khushwant Singh were changing the rules of operation which MJA did not personally approve of.
---MJA did a lot of cover stories which are also mentioned in his book A Mirror to Power.
---On what was changing at the Illustrated Weekly?
--- It was unusual once assigned to a Desk to be shifted to another publication as done for MJA from Times of India to Illustrated Weekly.
----MJA left Illustrated Weekly in 1974.
---On the content of Illustrated Weekly.
---Before Khushwant Singh joined Illustrated Weekly it was boring---comparisons with the illustrated papers of London meant for middle class.
----On Khushwant revolutionising the Weekly by giving it a quasi-news feel.
---- Mix of field reportage was insisted by MJA.
---On leaving the Illustrated Weekly.
---In Bharat Jyoti, MJA reported build-up to the Emergencyreporting George Fernandes Railway Strike, JP’s anti-corruption movement starting in Bihar, Gujarat, Nav Nirman Movement.
----On the effect of the Central Government on the reportage in Bombay.
---Congress was in power even in Maharashtra so the censorship in Bombay was stringent too.
---MJA’s personal narrative of getting a job offer from Nari Hira as an Editor for Peninsula.
--- Chaitanya Kalevar was on the team.
--- Onset of Emergency---MJA plan to go to US---nobody realised the implications of Emergency.
---Nari was asked by the Government to tweak the magazine in favour of Government for the overseas’ Indians.
----MJA refused and continued on the pay roll for another six months.
| 16:35 [FY] : So were you at this point editing the Sunday or not editing the Sunday?
16:39 [MJA] : No...no, then I went back to Free Press.
16:44 [FY] : Okay.
16:46 [MJA] : To Eric (or Edit) then I think mid-'76 I got job offer from Anandabazar to come and start Sunday.
17:10 [MJA] : Yea, I was but, you know, there was censorship atmosphere so I couldn't be...I wasn't writing very much.
17:18 [FY] : Who were you writing for? For
17:20 [MJA] No, for the Sunday Free Press Journal.
17:22 [FY] : For the Free Press Journal...And so a lot of people talk about you know how pre-censorship notices were issued to them while they were called also 17:28 [CHECK the last few words]
17:29 [MJA] : So but by the time, I think we I went to Sunday...I think we began to reflect the anger on the ground. And I remember very clearly the ...1977 elections, I and 1977 elections, I and Martin Woollacott, who was then the Guardian correspondent, perhaps were among the first to go to Raebareli 18:01 and report that Mrs Gandhi was losing the elections. 18:05.. of course shock for everybody...18:08 (muffled spot) whatever happens she can't lose.
18:13 [FY] : Yeah, there was a ...in fact some people say because she had imposed such stringent censorship, she had no feedback in terms of whether she was going to win or not.
18:23 [MJA] : Perhaps ...perhaps not. Most people build up screens around them. And I remember taking a risk which could have been a pretty...I mean... another life threatening or profession threatening one. We used to have a huge deadline. I mean I had to send my cover stories some six weeks or four weeks in advance so, you know, four weeks before the election results of '77 to actually believe that the Congress was going to be wiped out is a bit thick. 19:05 And I'd sent a cover story with Raj Narayan on the cover...the man who defeated her...nobody knew 19:12(after 'nobody' is a muffled spot) .. and saying victory. And I sent it and the owner of Anandabazar was very supportive. I mean ...say, 'what a weak sarkar.' Of course, I remember the night before the results were due and results weren't instant. It was a long process. And the cover came and he looked at me and he got ....kind of looked at me (this part is said laughingly) and he called me, I think, he said, 'well, you know, we'll have to, you'll have to junk the 19:51 ???( unclear after 'junk the')', if it doesn't go right!' And then he can always take my job.
20:00 [FY] : But then you published it with Raj Narayan?
20:03 [MJA] : Yea, it came out. I mean the moment the results were ...the next night everybody knew the trend, and I think the price...the black market price of that issue within 10 rupees or 20 rupees.
| ---On MJA work engagement at this time.
---MK+JA returned to the Free Press.
---On what MJA was writing in the years of Emergency?
----Not much because of censorship.
---On the mood once elections were declared.
----On Mrs Gandhi getting no feedback on the mood of the people because of the censorship.
---Gives the example of his prediction four weeks before the election that Congress was not going to win.
---Once the results were out, the edition was highly priced in the black market.
| 20:16 [FY] : Sir we also know a lot about you know what journalists circles in Delhi were talking about. What we do not know so far is what was happening in Bombay and Calcutta which is ....???
20:27 [MJA] : No the...the people who stood up against it, there were lot of brave young 20:30 ??? CHECK...the younger people....they....they reflected the mood of the country. It is the editors who were living in a cocoon...most of them....not all of them. And of course the Indian Express was doing a heroic job....thanks to Ramnath Goenka.20:51 And ...but we shouldn't discount, you know, the contributions of owners like Anandabazar Patrika.
20:57 [FY] : Exactly...so one question was -who were the ....(FY is interrupted by MJA)
21:00 [MJA] : .... I mean the glamour went to the Express but a lot of people from all over the country...Marathi journalism, Hindi journalism, you know....the glamour quotient may have been low but the contribution to saving the country's...for democracy was huge...huge...
21:18 [FY] : Do you remember whom was writing in languages other than Marathi or Hindi, and do you remember instances of reportage?
21:24 [MJA] : No..no, people were ....I mean in Bengali journalism and so on. Gour Kishore Ghosh.... ---- [FY : Sorry who?] ---- .... Gour Kishore Ghosh, absolute legend, writer...in Bengal...in Calcutta...you should actually do the people who were sent to jail. Barun Sengupta ...they all passed away unfortunately.
21:44 [FY] : Is there anybody alive from that period of time who was...?
21:47 [MJA] : Barun's sister runs the paper Bartaman, she's around. They went to jail too.
21:57 [FY] : And what about Hindi?
21:58 [MJA] : And they've been forgotten...very very sad.
22:01 [FY] : Yeah, even so far how our interviews have been going is largely English language papers, which I understand the Express was at the heart of Delhi and like..
22:11 [MJA] : Yeah, because it was at the heart of Delhi...it got.... ---- [FY : It got the ...it took all the fame but I'm sure that there were a lot of people in ...writing in various things in the country...at least in the North....I believe the South was largely unaffected by the Emergency.] 22:24 ...but the Calcutta was certainly.
| ----What conversations were taking place in journalistic circles in Calcutta and Bomaby?
----The younger people stood up against the Emergency. Editors were living in a cocoon.
---MJA of the opinion that while stand of the Express was highlighted, there were vernacular journals which were vanguards against censorship too.
---Example of vanguards Gour Kishore Ghosh and Barun Sengupta.
--- Sengupta’s sister runs Bartaman---went to jail too.
---On Delhi taking the glory as vanguards against the Emergency rather limited and sad.
| 22:26 [FY] : And of course Siddhartha Shankar Ray was out of Calcutta. What was happening in Calcutta in that respect because one of the supposed engineers of the Emergency was.... ----
22:35[MJA] : No...no...no not supposed. Siddhartha Shankar Ray was one of people who planted the idea. 22:37 ---- [FY : was the engineer of ..]
22:40 [FY] : So what were the conversations happening in the Calcutta journalistic circle about Siddhartha Shankar Ray?
22:43 [MJA] : Calcutta was a ..Calcutta was always a ....no ...no Calcutta was very anti-...and as the results of the '77 proved. It was huge.
22:52 [FY] : And there was also this talk informers and people who are pro-the Emergency and the rest.
22:57 [MJA] : Yeah yeah...
22:58 [FY] :do you remember that atmosphere? Could you comment on it?
23:01 [MJA] : Well, I mean it was there but, you know, maybe in hindsight you ...look in Delhi maybe, you know, some of these things became hard but in the rest of the country, you can keep Indians under fear only for some time. 23:19 You know as a people we are not, you know...we don't...we had tasted democracy. We were not going to let it go in a hurry.
23:32 [FY] : Right, so you were talking about the Raj...Raj Narayan issue of the Anandabazar Patrika.
23:37 [MJA]: (corrects FY) : Sunday. ---- [FY : Sunday, sorry.]
23:39 [MJA] : Anandabazar was separate. It is a daily newspaper.
23:43 [FY] : So, after the Emergency, you started also working with the Telegraph, which is...
23:48 [MJA] : Not in ...Telegraph was '82.
23:50 [FY] : Much later... but that is supposed to be when the ....
23:53 [MJA] : ...the Sunday was the principal product of the '70s.
23:58 [FY] : So post the Emergency, how was....how were you able to change the content of the paper?
24:04 [MJA] : no, with the...Sunday was the first totally political publication. It was the first newsweekly in that sense. And then India Today came out as a fortnightly. India Today came out during the Emergency as a pro...pro-Government publication....pro-Indira Gandhi publication. Yeah, it had its first editor as Uma Vasudev.
24:30 [FY] : So how long did ....you continued with Sunday until 1982?
24:33 [MJA] : And even later...because Telegraph came from the same stable.
24:37 [FY] : And if I were to say how...how...how the publication of...what you were able to write in the Sunday change from during the Emergency period to the post the Emergency period.
24:46 [MJA] : No, we created political content for magazines which was not considered I mean...magazines were not really the vehicle for political reportage; so we gave that thrust. We created that space.
25:03 [FY] : And you're saying a post that ...so a lot of people that I've talked to say that journalism pre-the Emergency was actually boring was actually boring journalism. It actually gained vigour post-the Emergency.
25:14 [MJA] : Yeah, maybe politics before 1975 was boring. No, it wasn't....'67 on politics did become interesting. So yeah, but it takes time....this is a new generation of people. And that new generation which is '17s...'70s generation, we took over...we took over very fast. The reason why we took over very fast not because we took away as editors from the previous generations but because we created new products. 25:44 So Sunday, India Today, other publications. And other publications eventually had to respond to what we were doing. So they either change or they created new things. What Telegraph did was change the character of newspaper journalism.
26:04 [FY] : in what manner?
26:06 [MJA] : In terms of total approach...freshness...quality of reportage, right. The reportage...I mean the Edit Pages were always good...always, you know. But there was no concept of an op-ed page. Also the concept of you know ...there was correspondent reporting but there was no field reporting, if you know ..if you understand the difference.
26:33 [FY] : Yeah...If I say ...when you ..... (MJA continues) ...sorry.
26:38 [MJA] : Also, we trusted young people to go out and report. 26:41 ...(Check the first work) I was doing...you know, I was an Editor by young age. So people we hired were young. So in that sense the Sub-Edit, there was not much of an age difference between the trainee and the Editor. So it was fun.
27:01 [FY] : And was this not true of your own time. Were...when you would....you started editing.
27:06 [MJA] : No, that's what I said...when we started hiring... (FY interrupts to rephrase the question).
27:09 [FY] : When you were trainee is…was there a huge difference between you and the Editor?
27:14 [MJA] : Of course, Editors were not only in their sixties...fifties but also they refused to see you. You know, the eye contact was considered opprobrium. So that was the Shyam Lal, Girilal Jain approach to....I mean I'm not taking these names in order to be accusatory but that was the culture of the times. And Assistant Editors were only guys who were got a place in some box bridge here ...some rubbish ... foreign university....only then you could become assistant editor.
| --- Siddhartha Shankar Ray
---- Siddhartha Shankar Ray as one of the engineers of Emergency.
---Calcutta as being anti-Emergency as the results of 1977 proved.
---On the ambiance of the time.
----Can keep Indians under fear for a limited time only.
----On Raj Narayan issue of Anandabazar corrected as being published in Sunday.
---MJA worked at Telegraph in 1982.
---On the content and changes in the paper.
---Sunday became the first totally political publication.
--- India Today as being pro-Indira Gandhi because of Uma Vasudev as the Editor.
---On the changes in the content of the Sunday in before and after Emergency years.
---On journalism gaining a vigour post-Emergency.
---Before the Emergency, reportage was boring but post-it, newer products were created- Sunday, India Today etc, and others had to rise to the challenge of lose out.
---Post Emergency, the quality of reportage improved concept of op-ed brought in emphasis on field reporting.
---Younger people were hired who had fire in them unlike before when there was a rigid hierarchy and distance between Editors and trainees.
---Generation of Shyam Lal, Girilal Jain represented the older trend.
| 27:56 [FY] : How did you become an editor?
27:58 [MJA] : Because I never became an assistant editor....that's how.
28:03 [FY] : So okay I see that you're getting....(muffled spot.)
28:05 [MJA] : I see that you're either....the great thing in life which I comment to you heartedly (read as heartily)...is either sit on the last bench or the front....don't waste time in the middle.
28:18 [FY] : So I'll just ask this one last question.
28:20 [MJA] : No, we'll do it again... --- [FY : one last question] ---.... phir se karenga --- ... [FY : Template:Anchor acha thik hai.] ----.... because I know, I've got something to complete. ---- .... 28:27 [FY : Right]--- ...And I just got a call that I......
--MJA never became an assistant editor but editor directly so he advanced faster.
| Interview Ends Abruptly