Monday, 22 August 2011



JS or the Junior Statesman is dead. It's been dead for decades now. But for noted columnist and journalist Jug Suraiya, that popular magazine from Calcutta where he began as a journalist working with Desmond Doig, remains alive with all its memories that he cherishes. Naturally, he treats the JS, Doig and his friends with much fondness in his recent book, JS & The Times of My Life: A Worm's-eye view of Indian Journalism, as he recalls his continuing career in different publications, spanning over 40 years.

“My editor with the publishers was after me for years and that prompted me to write this one. I wanted this book to offer a sort of journalistic history of recent times,” Suraiya tells me. “Though getting it started was not easy.”

But the uneasiness doesn't show up across the pages; 'history' never becomes a dreary monologue. In typical Jug Suraiya-style, the book is spiced up with anecdotes wrapped in wit and humour. We find Suraiya encountering a bikini-clad female eunuch in the Grand Hotel at Calcutta; covering the filming of Dev Anand's Hare Rama Hare Krishna in Nepal; or gaining entry into a tycoon's home in Calcutta by pretending to be the Maharajah of Malabar. And then there are the poignant memories of meeting Mother Teresa in her Home for Dying Destitutes or of visiting Belchi, in Bihar, where nine Harijans were killed in 1977.

The inner workings of The Statesman --- the all pervasive managing director, the editors, the dullness of handling Letters to the Editor, his initiation into writing the third edits, the stringent rules of writing in Statesman style, words of encouragement or otherwise --- come across quite vividly. However, Suraiya puts in a disclaimer of sorts when he says that he never thought of writing this book, and he had to depend entirely on his memory, which is “not reliable.”

It doesn't seem that his memory fails him; he effortlessly recounts how the JS was closed; how the managing director virtually turned the paper into a personal property; how praise for a certain assistant editor's articles kept appearing in the Letters to the Editor; and many more. On occasions it may seem that Suraiya doesn't keep his individual self and his journalistic self apart. One can sense a tinge of anger and sarcasm in his words. “This book is a subjective piece,” Suraiya justifies. “These are my views. Others may differ from what I have written.”

Along with his journalistic experiences, Suraiya adds bits of his personal life: how he met his future wife, Bunny; their days in the UK and the USA; their several travelling experiences; and Brindle, the dog who “ruled” Suraiya household for many years. “She's like a metaphor for all the marginalised people, a champion for those who have been sidelined,” Suraiya says, referring to the touching account of Brindle. One cannot miss the affection in his voice.

While selecting the anecdotes, Suraiya considered “whether they would be interesting for the readers, whether they can relate to it” --- a criterion he uses while writing his regular columns. “A writer cannot commit the sin to bore the reader. What I do is to put myself on the other side and try to understand how will my writing sound to the reader... can he or she relate to it...” he explains. “Today's journalists no longer preach. Journalism has become more interactive.”

In the book he mentions about how 'hard news' rules the roost in the newspapers. Features and feature writers are often not taken seriously. “But to reduce a 'hard news', say war, into just a report or into statistics is unfair. Features have the scope to portray the human faces of the news and bring them to the readers,” Suraiya concurs with me. “Often we tend to confuse between serious and sombre.”

Among several issues, Suraiya has touched upon how little money may not help a journalist to lead a lavish life, or to build his or her own home, for example. That's a price one pays to be remain honest and not get lured by money despite every opportunity to get seduced. However, in recent past certain high-profile journalists have been accused of fixing deals between political parties and hobnobbing with the corporate lobbyists. It dented the image of the journalists and the profession. Are Indian journalists losing their credibility, I ask. “I was dismayed to read about the allegations against those journalists. But I will still say that Indian journalists have credibility and they are honest,” he replies. So, for the younger breed of journalists Suraiya has words of encouragement, and hopes that “they work with a sense of commitment to the profession.”

Before we part, I ask him about Calcutta, a city he left decades ago to move to Delhi. Suraiya pauses for a while. “I miss Calcutta... but that's the Calcutta of the past,” he sounds nostalgic. But he doesn't sound sad. After all, it's the city where he had some of his best days... “the JS, its first issue with the cover story on the Beatles, the brimming enthusiasm of colleagues, the city streets, the music, hosting talk shows for the All India Radio...” the list is endless. Hopefully, we will get to know more from the man whom Kushwant Singh has described as 'India's Art Buchwald.'

JS & The Times of My Life: A Worm's-eye view of Indian Journalism
By: Jug Suraiya
Publisher: Tranquebar
Pages: 340
Price: Rs 495