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Different times

- The TV remains a circus, not a substitute for serious newspapers

The slim, erect and balding elderly man with aquiline features introduced himself in the lift as Jawahar Lall Kalra. "You write in The Telegraph," he said matter-of-factly when I told him my name. That was eight years ago. We had just moved into a new complex and his was the only spark of recognition. Kalra didn't gush about my writing as some do, often referring to articles by someone altogether different. He didn't mention The Statesman as some also do, although it's nearly 30 years since my byline - as we call it in the trade - appeared there. He was obviously a dedicated newspaper reader. There are not many left.

It wasn't always like that. When someone mentioned his name in Satyajit Ray's Nayak, the hero, played by Uttam Kumar, at once responded "You write letters to the editor of The Statesman?" That instant recognition may partly be explained by Bengali snobbery (to which Ray himself wasn't immune) about the lingering aura of India's last British-owned and edited newspaper. But a major newspaper's correspondence columns served a vital purpose in more literate times. Henry Beveridge of the Indian Civil Service protested in a letter to the Englishman about Indians being excluded from parts of Eden Gardens. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi explained his mission in letters to The Statesman. Pranab Mukherjee chose the same forum to highlight discrimination against East Bengal refugees as compared to refugees from West Punjab. When I was given charge of The Statesman's correspondence columns nearly 60 years ago, the editor, Geoffrey Edward Powell, spread out the paper on the black glass conference table and said "Our view... the experts' view... the public's views!" slapping his open palm in turn on unsigned editorials, the central signed article, and the letters column.

"Do people really write all those letters?" P.K. Roy, general manager of The Times of India in Bombay, once wondered, lamenting that ToI readers hardly ever put pen to paper. No wonder the ToI and some Delhi dailies have stopped publishing letters. That seems like snapping the umbilical cord between a paper and its nourishment but perhaps the nourishment such papers seek has little to do with reader satisfaction. I told Roy we received enough letters every day to fill the entire newspaper and still have mountains to spare. In fact, for a while we copied The Times (London) and transformed the entire editorial page once a week into a feast of letters. That meant squeezing out many distinguished writers and the practice was soon stopped. Dr Karan Singh told me that if he wanted to provoke an intellectual controversy he sent his article to The Statesman; if he wanted to spark gossip in Parliament's Central Hall, he sent it to the Hindustan Times. In my youth and ignorance I gave great offence by responding coolly when Gandhi's secretary, Pyarelal, offered us his memoirs: a politically seasoned journalist would have gone into rhapsodies over the overture. Deference didn't have any place in my editing even when Powell made me restore all the linguistic infelicities I had removed from one of K.N. Katju's legal anecdotes. Powell stressed that not treading on the corns of the mighty was as important as good subbing. His subbing had once provoked an outraged VIP to complain to his editor about "an impertinent underling daring to tamper with his prose". He probably invented the story to make me feel better. Powell was a kindly man.

We paid our authors a pittance. There was no high-powered lobbying for contributions. Just one assistant editor sufficed to commission articles (if necessary), sub them, make up the page and read the proofs in addition to his normal leader-writing in those simpler times when journalists did not masquerade as power brokers and politicians. The absence of pretentiousness did not affect quality or appeal. Readers knew that the editorial page reflected a newspaper's special personality. But for years now the page has been a diminishing asset. The devaluation is global. A readership survey found that only 6 per cent of readers of The Straits Times bothered with editorials. That was 20 years ago when I lived in Singapore. Today, it could be 2 per cent. It's part of the general decline of newspapers that is most marked in the developed world. Despite exotic fish like the free London Evening Standard, edited by Britain's former chancellor of the exchequer and owned by a Russian tycoon and former KGB agent and his son, who also own the disembodied Independent(it exists only online), papers are hard-pressed on both sides of the Atlantic. The provincial weekly in Cheshire on which I started life disappeared long ago. Circulation, advertising and journalistic employment are all shrinking; media companies are merging or going into liquidation.

India's millions of illiterates, semi-literates and neo-literates moving towards some kind of literacy make the situation less dire but papers fade away here too. When I looked for The Statesman at Howrah station, one vendor said it closed down with the Amrita Bazar Patrika. Another joked the British had taken it with them when they left. English was terminally ill long before Narendra Modi and Adityanath stalked the political landscape. N.J. Nanporia, the Japanese-Parsee editor of The Statesman and ToI, used to say journalists wrote for each other. My colleague Kuldip Nayar claimed when launching his "Between the Lines" column that the future belonged to signed opinion pieces. The thundering anonymous leader - which explained The Times (London) being nicknamed The Thunderer (some thought The Blunderer more apt) - was passé. I felt like agreeing when my escort in Canberra told the taxi-driver in her forthright Australian way she was April and I was Sunanda, and he cut in with "Sunanda Datta-Ray from Calcutta?" My weekly column in The Canberra Times rammed India down his throat. Today, an exceptional taxi-driver might identify a sports reporter.

Television is usually blamed for stealing the print media's thunder. But I doubt if viewers who can't have enough of Arnab Goswami's rants would have waded through Isaac Deutscher's intense analyses of European communism which were a regular feature of The Statesman's edit page. Nor can even the most clamorous TV channel match another regular columnist, A.D. Gorwala, ex-ICS, who accused Jawaharlal Nehru of being soft on Moscow's repression when Indo-Soviet friendship was the national religion. TV is no substitute for serious newspapers. It's not theatre which is highbrow. TV is an alternative addiction. The British actor, Robert Morley, called TV the "Big Tent", colloquial for circus. "Then suddenly the circus was no longer in a great tent; the circus came into your home. All you had to do was press a switch." Had Morley been living in India today, he would have discovered another kind of circus in anchors boasting of "scoops", "exclusives" and "only on this channel" revelations while screening the same story with the same shots and same interviews as everybody else. He might also have savoured the excitement of a Maidan rally or the Ramlila Grounds right in his sitting room.

I doubt if Kalra had much time for TV. Born in Dera Ismail Khan in the North-West Frontier Province in the community that calls itself Hindu Pathan, he came to M.K. Narayanan's launch of Looking East to Look West: Lee Kuan Yew's Mission India. He attended my son's wedding dinner. His fastidiousness about meat and fish recalled a survey by the British pollster YouGov claiming Times readers enjoy baklava, it's braised endive for the Guardian, while Daily Express people adore a pie. I don't know if The Telegraph's readers have favourite dishes. But I do know Jawahar Lall Kalra was one of the dwindling few to retain faith with the print media to the end. That alone made his death last Monday at the venerable age of 89 a loss to civilization.