Thursday, February 21, 2013

Eight Years To Go

The last rays of the sun streamed in from the door of the drawing room that once hosted many luminaries and still draws celebrity visitors.

Ajay Das and I sat on either side of the door, with the sunlight illuminating the lines of my right palm which he was reading with a magnifying glass.

'One thing I can tell you, you are highly ambitious,' Das told me as he felt the palm.

'But will I be famous? A famous writer?' I asked him.

'Yes, but not before the age of fifty. You still have eight years to go.'

'Eight more years? Nothing before that?'

'What I mean is,' he leaned back on the chair, 'you will reach the peak of your popularity at fifty.'

I thought: what's the point reaching the peak of popularity at fifty when I would already be climbing down the hill into the waiting arms of old age? Then, second thoughts: these days, when life begins at forty, and considering that I published my first book only at thirty-nine, recognition at fifty isn't such a bad deal.

Das had been watching a Mohun Bagan versus East Bengal match on TV when I called on him at his ancestral home in north Calcutta. At eighty, he is one of the oldest surviving members of the K.C. Das family, the famous confectioners. He had abandoned the match to show me around the four-storey house, built in 1929, and as our conversation veered from one subject to another, Das, a bachelor, revealed that astrology and palm-reading were among his hobbies and had offered to read mine.

'When you come next time, bring your horoscope along. If I go through it, I can be more precise with the dates,' Das told me as I got up to leave.

I lied to him that I would. I did not want precision: a fair degree of uncertainty is always good when it comes to the knowledge of your own future. In fact, uncertainty is the only truth when it comes to the future. Yet one likes to hear nice things from astrologers. You secretly borrow hope and confidence from them even if you don't believe in astrology. I walked out of the K.C. Das home with a smile. But I had other reasons as well to smile.

I started working on the Calcutta book in the spring of 2011, and in the two years that have passed since, I have gathered sufficient material to paint a first-class portrait of the city. But the question is: will I be able to? It's one thing to collect material, quite another to transform it into an engaging book. For a writer, an experience is of little use unless he is able to express it in words effectively enough to make the reader undergo the same experience.

At least I've gathered the ammunition: that's forty percent of the battle won. When I landed in Calcutta two years ago to write the book, I was banking mainly on friends living there to help me discover the city. But, as I have increasingly realised over the years, people who you consider to be friends are of little help when you need them the most. Your life is of no interest to them. In contrast, people whom you barely know and expect very little from turn out to be your biggest benefactors in times of need. And so, I had total strangers holding my hand and leading me into the lanes of Calcutta. I don't wish to embarrass them by naming them here, but I shall remain indebted to them.

But now comes the path that I will have to negotiate all by myself: writing. It is so much easier to post a picture on Facebook: it takes barely five seconds. But to describe the same picture is words, five hours -- even five days. Why describe, then? That is because when you post a picture, readers merely 'see' it, but when you take the trouble of describing, the readers get inside the frame -- they 'experience' it. Pictures merely show, whereas writing tells.

And so, the journey begins. Long, lonely and arduous. I have for company two laptops, two Rubberband notebooks (with chrome yellow pages) that arrived this afternoon, several fountain pens and about three dozen books that I have kept aside to dip into from time to time for relief and inspiration. It shouldn't be so difficult considering I have been through it before: twice.

What I can't believe is how quickly these two years have passed. Wasn't it only the other day when I left Times of India and spent a month in Calcutta before returning to Chennai to join The Hindu? If two years can pass even before I could blink, can eight years be too long a time?

Saturday, February 02, 2013

The Sub-Editor

Today, February 1, I complete 20 years as a journalist. One news agency, five newspapers.

I can't say if the journey has been worthwhile, or whether I would have done better in another profession, but there has never been a moment of regret. I wanted to be a journalist, I became one, and it's been a smooth ride so far.

Some of the sensations from that beautiful spring morning in 1993 are still alive. Pioneer, the Lucknow paper which had recently launched in Delhi, was now going to start in Kanpur as well. I had been hired as a trainee sub-editor (salary Rs. 2,000) and my appointment took effect from February 1. The first 15 days were to be spent at the Lucknow office, learning editing skills.

So on the morning of February 1, I took a bus from Kanpur and arrived two hours later at Charbagh in Lucknow. I remember wearing an off-white turtle-neck T-shirt with grey trousers and a navy-blue blazer. I reported at the office at 10 o' clock only to find the thick smell of newsprint and cigarette smoke hanging in the air -- hardly a soul in sight except a few peons. But I instantly fell in love with the smell: to me, it was the smell of journalism and it remains so, even though newspaper offices have long become no-smoking and shifted their printing presses in remote locations.

Back then I did not know that coming to a newspaper office at 10 o'clock is like ringing the bell at someone's home at four in the morning. I was told by one of the peons to come back at four. So I strolled down Hazratganj, inhaling the fragrant air the first day of February had to offer. I was 22, I had just got a job, that too the job of a journalist; I was now 'Press'.

I stopped at Ram Advani Booksellers and purchased -- I didn't know much about books then -- a copy of Roget's thesaurus (I still preserve it). Then I walked into a Raymond's showroom and bought myself a bottle of Park Avenue cologne. Lunch was at a plush old-fashioned restaurant (I forget the name) located right on the mouth of the road that led into Hazratganj. After which I watched Jackie Shroff's King Uncle (at the time I was a huge fan of Jackie Shroff and would even go alone to the theatres to watch his films). While walking back to the office, I opened the bottle of cologne and rubbed a few drops on my face.

At four o' clock, I met the resident editor: Sunil Saxena. I had met him during the interview but now saw him closely. With the goatee and the pipe hanging from his lips, he cut an impressive figure. He spoke only in English, even when communicating with the peons. He ordered coffee for me and said, "Have some coffee." I was too nervous to even lift the saucer in his presence but I had to. (Eight years later, in 2001, when both of us had left Pioneer way behind, I happened to spot him at the Press Club  in Delhi, where I usually had my lunch. I walked up to him and reintroduced myself. I told him that I would like to work with him again. 'But I am now in Chennai,' he said, 'are you willing to shift?' I replied, 'Of course.')

When I walked out of the resident editor's cabin that evening in 1993, the teleprinters were already screeching and typewriters rattling away. Computers, back then, were used only for the purposes of pagination. Soon I was handed a typewritten copy to edit. And then more copies. The senior who oversaw my work said, 'You see, the idea is to make a copy crisp and coherent. That is what editing is all about.'

Later that evening, a jeep took me to the Pioneer guest house, where the cook had prepared a home-like meal. When I woke up the next morning, I decided to write a letter to my girlfriend (no mobile phones or internet those days) to tell her about my new job. But each time I wrote a sentence or two, I would tear the page off the pad and crumple it into a ball and throw into the bin. I wanted to write a perfect sentence. I realised I had become a sub-editor.