Budding scribes should read Instant History to develop journalism genes

“If you want to dig your feet deep in journalism, move with a dogged determination.” This is the mantra some of us were told in journalism school in the 1990s.

Why did our teachers insist on remaining consistent in pursuit of stories? They did so because experience had taught them that journalism was not an easy profession to be in. Disappointments awaited young journos at every step and those who didn’t steel themselves against those disappointments and failure fell by the wayside and quit. They joined greener pastures or just became PRs and ghost writers of some politicians. The strong-willed stayed back, battled bruising experiences and went on to leave a mark in the profession. Anil Maheshwari belongs to the category of journalists who have “seen it, done that.”

In the pre-internet era, the golden rule in reporting was “seeing is believing.” Unlike today’s so-called “citizen journalists” (everyone with a mobile camera is a reporter), reporters were expected to report from fields. Editors didn’t like reporters sitting, chatting, smoking in newsrooms most of the time. They encouraged reporters to go out, build contacts, get into the skin of stories and become dispassionate while they filed dispatches. And even if some of their stories didn’t get published, they were expected to keep sending them. One advantage of such an exercise is that the young, cub reporters get used to file stories under pressure and meet the deadline.

Veteran journalist Anil Maheshwari began as a stringer in Meerut, worked for many national dailies, was stationed at various places, including Lucknow, Chandigarh, Jammu & Kashmir. After five eventful decades in journalism which he loved like his life, Maheshwari retired from Hindustan Times as a special correspondent. His memoir Instant History carries stories that should serve as guiding lights to young journos.

Written in easy, anecdotal style, the book reads like film scripts. That Maheshwari met all sorts of people–politicians, power brokers, bureaucrats, business tycoons, in his long career is evident in the stories about people he tells us. A successful journalist is one who is interested in people. In people’s lives, their everyday struggles. Those who remain suited-booted and confined to air conditioned cubbyholes cannot be expected to give their readers much as journalists. Maheshwari seems to have been immensely interested in people. All kinds of people. Readers are universally interested in the unexpected. An old line being taught to youngsters in journalism schools is “It is no news when a dog bites a man. It is news when a man bites a dog.”

Maheshwari came across many unexpected stories and didn’t flinch from going the extra mile to get stories.

The book has many fascinating stories about incidents and people associated with journalism. So in chapter six he cites a story about S N Ghosh, the legendary editor of The Pioneer, Lucknow. Gosh was in his 20s when he joined the newspaper in 1941 as a trainee reporter in Allahabad. The paper subsequently moved to Lucknow.

The marriage of a daughter of Raja of Balrampur was to be solemnised in Lucknow and Ghosh was assigned to cover the wedding reception. That reminds me of how a resident editor of The Indian Express once sent me to cover the wedding reception of one of the daughters of Lalu Prasad Yadav at a Mumbai hotel in early 2000s.

So, Ghosh was asked to cover the wedding reception of the daughter of the Raja who was also a director on the management board of the Pioneer.

Ghosh was about to leave the office when the news editor, British E V B Britter, invited him to have a peg of whiskey. The young Ghosh couldn’t resist the offer. When you ate intelligent, you are restless and reckless too. So was Ghosh. He gulped down three drinks and was so drunk that the news editor realised Ghosh could not cover the event.

Instead of informing the editor Desmond Young about it, the news editor typed a two-paragraph of news item describing it one of the memorable wedding receptions held with pomp and show. The report also mentioned the presence of the high and the mighty, including the state’s governor. The news editor gave it to Ghosh who gave a good headline and sent it for publication.

Next morning editor Desmond Young left a slip near the typewriter of Ghosh, asking him to see him first before he started his day.
Ghosh went to see the editor. Now enjoy the conversation as Maheshwari recounts.

“After exchanging greetings, the editor asked Ghosh how the food at the wedding was. Without waiting for Ghosh’s response, the editor said, ‘Oh! You didn’t partake of food, did you? Since your stomach was upset? ‘Ghosh, who used to stammer, nodded. The editor burst out saying, ‘Bastard, there was no wedding at all since the sister of Raja of Balrampur died in the evening. The governor himself gave me a call after reading your news item about the wedding.’ Ghosh was speechless and his legs started to tremble, anticipating the pink slip. Then the editor gestured to him to take a seat and said, “Take it easy. It happens sometimes with each one of us in this profession. You were just unlucky. Go back to your seat and get on with the day’s work.”

In the pre-computer era, many young reporters first wrote reports on paper then typed them out on typewriters. Maheshwari tells us a story about the great Behram Contractor “Busybee” whose column “Round and About” earned him wide acclaim. It was Contractor’s first day at Indian Express as a cub reporter. He wrote his report on a paper, cutting, rewriting several times after looking up the dictionary. The news editor who smoked cigar watched Contractor doing all this. But as Contractor began to type his report, the news editor snatched the page from him, saying: “Bastard! Type it. Your typing and thought process should synchronize.” Contractor went on to become an institution, co-founded Mid-Day with Khalid Ansari, after parting ways with Ansari, founded his Afternoon Despatch and Courier, a popular tabloid in Mumbai. Sadly, the paper landed in trouble, folding up after struggling post–Contractor’s death.

Those of you who are shocked by use of Bastard and F words in the newsrooms, let me tell you this was a custom nobody objected to.
Journalists were expected to be irreverent, a bit cynical, idealist and were tolerated if used some abusive words. They of course were not meant to humiliate anyone. We cracked jokes on colleagues, sources and ourselves too. We shared samosas, had endless cups of cutting chai while many of us enjoyed typing out stories feverishly in smoke-filled rooms with adrenaline rushing as deadline neared. Maheshwari lived that era to the fullest even as he was posted at far flung places, away from headquarters. I am glad he has recorded some of the events and stories he was witness to as they unfolded. This is a book every journalist and all those interested in people, places and events of the past many decades must keep it at her bedside table.

Mohammed Wajihuddin, a senior journalist, is associated with The Times of India, Mumbai. This piece has been picked up from his blog