The journalist

Berjis Desai

He was borderline cretin. Having failed in the 11th grade twice, his widowed mother could no longer afford to feed his gargantuan appetite. She weaved one kusti daily to keep the fire burning in the wood fed stove in their large and shabby house in a down-market area of Navsari. Her second cousin, a longtime editor of a Gujarati newspaper in Bombay, grudgingly consented to meet the boy, after several plaintive postcards.
 "How is your general knowledge?” asked the editor. The boy mindlessly grinned at his uncle, unable to understand the question.
 "What is the capital of India?”
 "Mumbai,” said the boy presciently, decades before Bal Thackeray rechristened Bombay (in Navsari, they always called Bombay, Mumbai).
"Can you write in English?” The rotund boy vigorously shook his large head. The old editor sighed and instructed his even older assistant, over the phone, to give the boy some money and send him back to Navsari. The stone deaf assistant instead appointed the boy as a reporter in the editorial department. Before the error could be discovered, his editor uncle mercifully died within months of the accidental appointment.
The editorial department located at the back of the German manufactured printing presses, was a law unto itself. They abused and drank hooch on duty; they smoked cigarettes and carelessly threw the butts near the dangerously stacked newsprint; they walked around in their underclothes during the night shift, oblivious of residents peering from a nearby building. The working conditions were dismal too. The urinal, shared with the printing press workers, made eyes water, due to acid fumes, and the nostrils retained the stench for hours. The noise of the press machines, shouts of the compositors painstakingly constructing every word with individual letters, unbearable humidity and heat – it was a mini hell. The rotund boy, who had gamboled in (then) unpolluted Navsari, found it impossible to sit on a wooden chair full of bugs biting his ample posterior. He begged the news editors to send him out for a reporting assignment.

  Illustration by Farzana Cooper


Despite his highly constrained thinking apparatus, his geniality endeared him to strangers. Most felt protective towards this young, cherubic journalist with wide eyes and a perpetual smile. They fed him with many stories and reports. Unfortunately, he could not write two decent sentences. His translations from English to Gujarati were other worldly [something like, "John goes to the market” would be translated as "John bajaar ma gos lèva gayo” (John went to the market to buy meat, a play on the word "goes”)]. Successive news editors tore their hair reading the reports he filed.
The hooch guzzling news editor, too inebriated by early evening to walk in a straight line, mechanically threw all stories filed by the Parsi into the huge straw dustbin, in which he spat betel juice throughout the day. The young reporter was not at all disheartened. His innate goodness enabled him to get a flat in one of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet colonies; he married his equally brilliant neighbor in Navsari and they soon had a daughter. The new chief editor, also a Parsi from Navsari, was kind to his townsperson.
In those days, no one in the vernacular press had heard of investigative journalism. There were only three beats for these reporters: police and crime, sports (read cricket) and Mantralaya or legislative assembly (the state government headquarters). The podgy Parsi had never touched a cricket bat and his Marathi was so atrocious that he couldn’t understand a word of the briefing given by the police or the state departments. This venerable newspaper reported news one day later than other newspapers, but its reporting nevertheless was accurate and credible. They could thus ill afford to experiment by appointing our hero to this beat.
Fortunately, there used to be press conferences organized by private parties — companies announcing new products, inauguration of new plants and factories, social organizations announcing public functions and events. At 4:00 p.m. on weekdays, the venue was invariably a vegetarian restaurant in the Fort called Bristol Grill known for its tangy batata vadas.
At 7.30 p.m., there were press conferences to announce IPOs (initial public offer for equity shares), mostly at the Radio Club and the Ritz Hotel at Churchgate, invariably followed by cocktails, dinner and an attractive gift for the reporters -- a bottle of whiskey, audio cassettes, a nice thermos or lunch warmer or a suit piece. There were multiple such press conferences every week day.
The organizers of these press conferences and media events soon realized that they ought to provide a readymade report in Gujarati to the Parsi reporter, and it would appear, without a single change, in the newspaper. In exchange, the reporter collected two presents – one to be given to the news editor, the other for himself. This business model worked admirably for all concerned. The reporter indulged in dhansak diplomacy, by feeding Parsi delicacies cooked by his wife to his grateful seniors, who then overlooked his miserable performance. He dabbled a bit in astrology too. He drew horoscopes of his colleagues, even though he could not distinguish between Jupiter and Saturn. Some of his outrageous predictions came true and endeared him to many. The Lord truly protects the innocent.
Then, one evening, he accompanied his wife to consult a Gujarati gynecologist who ran a maternity home. He found the place bristling with police. The doctor’s son and his paramour, a nurse, had committed suicide by consuming poison in a last loving embrace. The eminent father managed to ensure that there was no police briefing to the newspapers, then the only media. Our friend, however, rushed to his newspaper and filed his first original exclusive sensational story on the first page with screaming headlines. The other newspapers had to sheepishly reprint the story the next day. Overnight, our friend became a known figure in the journalist fraternity. A year later, he was awarded a prize for the story which could not be suppressed.
Despite his moment under the sun, he remained humble. Still the butt of jokes, he smiled when people called him ‘Maha moorakh pundit’ (extremely foolish). Years rolled by. His daughter was employed by Indian Airlines as a hostess. There were no private airlines yet. She would return home loaded with snack boxes, which her father dutifully distributed to his grateful colleagues in the editorial department. His popularity soared. On her off duty day, he profusely apologized for having come empty handed to work. He retired after 55 years of service, uneventful, save and except for that fateful evening when that sensational story had fallen into his lap like manna from heaven. The rest of the long years he survived with the help of amateur astrology, scrumptious dhansak, gifted thermoses, plenty of Indian Airlines snack boxes (ready to eat with plastic forks and knives) and, of course, oodles of luck which the impish gods bestow on the humble.

Berjis M. Desai is a lawyer in private practice and a part-time writer. He considers himself an unsuccessful community activist.