Tercentenary encounter

Now that comrade Jyoti Basu, the country’s most acceptable face of bare-knuckled communism in India and chief minister of the benighted state of West Bengal (pop. 80 million), has moved on to the great politbureau underground, recounting Jyotibabu tales has become an industry. Your correspondent (the editor) also has a tale.

In 1990, your correspondent was plucked out of relative obscurity in Bombay, and induced by some eminent citizens of Calcutta, particularly Suresh Neotia, then chairman of Gujarat Ambuja Cements, to conduct an auction of a dozen portraits painted by the late Bikash Bhattacharya (1940-2006) under the series ‘Great Sons of Bengal’. The proceeds of the auction were to be donated for construction of a Tercentenary Square in downtown Calcutta, to commemorate the founding of the city by Englishman Job Charnock in 1690.

The auction was duly held in Calcutta’s stately Victoria Memorial, glitteringly lit up for the occasion with your correspondent as emcee and N. Vaghul, then chairman of the ICICI Bank as auctioneer, and attracted famous captains of industry countrywide. And by all accounts it was a great success raising an unprecedented Rs.1.2 crore. In the evening at a lavish dinner party held on the sprawling grounds of the Neotia residence, your correspondent was picked out of the crowd by the host and reluctantly dragged to be introduced to the dour and taciturn Basu. Reluctantly because at the time, Bengal’s iron-man was dining tete a tete with the beautiful film actress Aparna Sen, splendidly attired in shimmering gold. The respectful distance maintained by other guests made it clear that interruptions were unwelcome.

With our host nevertheless insistent upon discharging his duty, your correspondent was introduced to the great man, only to be dismissed with a curt “I know (about) him” sentence. Curiously, despite my antipathy to CPM realpolitik and ideology, it has remained a memorable moment. I never met Jyoti Basu again. Nor incidentally, has the Tercentenary Square been built.

Living dangerously

Every sunday when I turn to the editorial pages of the Times of India, I wonder with considerable trepidation, whether the column of veteran journalist/essayist M.J. Akbar will be featured. Because despite the fact that he is arguably the best exponent of English language journalistic prose with a penchant for the mot juste, the brilliant   metaphor and witty epigram, Akbar lives dangerously in a techno-nerds dominated society where bread-and-butter ‘communicative English’ is the preferred norm. Unfortunately MJ — as he is popularly known — seems to have also acquired the knack of rubbing newspaper barons who are also increasingly becoming enamoured with communicative English, the wrong way.

Therefore despite his great contributions to the Kolkata-based Ananda Bazar Patrika group as the founder editor of Sunday — India’s first A4 size weekly introduced at a rock bottom price of Re.1 in the late 1970s — and The Telegraph, which against all expectations toppled the invincible The Statesman from its long-standing position as Calcutta’s No.1 daily in the mid-1990s, MJ mysteriously disappeared off the ABP radar in the new millennium. Next he surfaced as the high profile editor of the Hyderabad-based Deccan Chronicle which he duly shaped and developed into one of peninsular India’s top dailies. But two years ago, he was informed via an SMS that he had been fired by publisher Venkatrami Reddy, reportedly as a quid pro quo for a Congress quota Rajya Sabha seat. Since then he has been publishing an anaemic Delhi-based fortnightly Covert, and writing his incisive weekly column for the Sunday Times of India.

However following a column he wrote on December 27 in the Sunday ToI in which he drew a comparison between the squabbling Ambani brothers and the not entirely amicable inter se but nevertheless cooperative brothers Sameer and Vineet Jain — the powerful executive directors of Bennett Coleman & Co which owns the Times of India — there’s a cloud over the longevity of Akbar’s weekly column in the Sunday ToI. After publication of an e-mailed letter from a mysterious reader objecting to the invidious comparison between the Ambani and Jain brothers, Akbar’s column was taken off the net, with the editor abjectly acknowledging that the comparison was unwarranted. Nevertheless there’s the real possibility that the brothers Jain who believe — Rupert Murdoch style — in the unquestioned primacy of the publisher, may banish the country’s best columnist into oblivion.

A plea to the brothers Jain from this peripheral scribe: Don’t throw a pearl away richer than all your tribe!

Mighty fallen

The pathetic condition of socialist leader George Fernandes, former minister of industry in the post-Emergency Morarji Desai Janata government, who lured by the opportunities of office made a 360 degree ideological turn and joined the BJP government in 1999, is a classic morality tale of how politicians without principles (sometimes) get their just desserts.

Your correspondent (YC) was professionally acquainted with Giant-killer George. YC was among the first scribes to interview him after he was appointed minister of industry in the Janata government of 1977, an appointment he celebrated by expelling American multinationals Coca Cola and IBM from the country. At that time YC was the editor of Business India, and wrote a biographical cover story titled ‘The enigma that is George Fernandes’, in which he fire-breathed socialist ideology and commitment. It sounded too good to be true, and sure enough his subsequent twists and turns in Indian politics revealed that his real intent was the normative objective of post-independence India’s grab-and-run politicians: to look out for No.1.

Which evidently he did quite well, because now when he is in failing health and reportedly afflicted with Alzheimers, there’s an unseemly scramble for his mysteriously accumulated property reportedly valued at over Rs.12 crore. The contenders are his estranged wife Leila Kabir and son Sean, and his political aide and lady companion of the past two decades Jaya Jaitley. Ironically Leila and Sean have sought refuge in the US, a country which was the Great Satan for George in his heyday. How low the mighty have fallen! Mercifully there is divine, even if not terrestrial justice in this sovereign, socialist, secular and holier-than-thou republic.