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evolution of journalism

No paper tiger, this. . .


Journalism has evolved since the days my grandfather laboriously practised the art of akhbar navisi (news-writing ) on a portable Remington typewriter. Dadu, who started Independent India's first weekly newspaper Pandrah August (Fifteenth August) in 1949, loved life and lived for the newspaper business. Born out of a romanticised era of Gandhi and Nehru, inspired by Marx and Gorky, his akhbar navisi was nothing but a potent tool to expose corruption and injustice in regions of Rajasthan and Gujarat. It became the voice of the voiceless - draught-stricken farmers, labour unions and workers in Calcutta, Mumbai and Ahmedabad.
The paper's most feared space, the anti corruption page, put to shame government officials and institutions which had long escaped public scrutiny. The centre of the page was embellished by a trademark jewel: the diagram of a black diary which bore fiery prose by writer-poet Khalil Gibran. Mai janta hu meri awaz ki sakhti (sternness) per log aitraz karenge, par kya sakhti bina sabab (cause) hai?' (There is no cause without a stern voice) A weekly antihero was carefully handpicked for his deeds of corruption and found a glaring mention on the page.

For its uncompromising coverage, the paper drew widespread comparison with Mumbai's dynamic publication, Blitz. It soon got on the wrong side of Hiralal Shastri, the first chief minister of Rajasthan, who slapped a brutal censorship on the newspaper and forced it to shut down. It didn't take very long for the paper to be reinvented, this time with newfound rigour.

My early memories of Dadu are as distinct as the vision of his fingers hitting the keys of his typewriter. He usually came across as a stickler for perfection, dressed in his crisp, white, singlebreasted Nehru jacket worn with Jodhpurs. I remember him spending hours every morning, vigorously highlighting errors in the day's edition and sending fiery letters to errant reporters (khabar navis) and sub-editors. He did all this as I sat in his lap, wondering about the frenetic cadence of his working hours. If the mistake was even remotely glaring, he would not hesitate in cutting salaries.

I never left Dadu's side, and aspired to be like him. Dad had already taken after him, and encouraged by my enthusiasm, they gave me my first job: at the age of nine, I became their youngest vendor.

Years later, on my recent visit home, I stumbled upon the yellowing, brittle old prints of the paper's early archives. The rediscovery of my grandfather's heady days of journalism came at an uncanny point in my life. As I sat poring over the tiny print for hours, his purpose, hitherto nebulous, started opening up to me. It was probably at that moment that I somewhat realised the full extent of his endeavour, one that I was oblivious to as a child. Reading his painstakingly crafted reports on the falling standards of journalism made me momentarily forget he was my grandfather. It was as though he were an apparition of a friend, a contemporary, chatting with me about the very same issues close to my own heart. I felt an instant, compelling connect to him at the time. I was amazed at how his articles, written more than half a century ago, didn't at all seem anachronistic. At a time when journalism is emerging as a profession which is nearly everyone's pet peeve, his stories - most definitely ahead of his times - spoke of the need to shore up the fiscal health of upcoming newspapers. As I continued reading further, I was less surprised that he could predict that the quality of journalism would be on the wane. Not just lamenting the situation, he had a plethora of solutions to offer: the most startling of them all was to create an umbrella body consisting of bigger, more established papers, that could aid or fund upcoming publications. He did hold an all-India editors' meet in Calcutta but not much came out of it. Decades later, the paper too lost its flair. Today, when my steps meet stumbling blocks, and I wonder if I am on the right path, I find myself wishing that Dadu were alive.

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