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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 1, December 22, 2012 [Annual 2012]

Fifty Years Young!

Thursday 3 January 2013, by S Viswam


I remember reading in a high-brow British magazine some years ago that a golden rule of literary criticism is that when you review a book you should forget its author and when you write about the author you should forget the book. I don’t know how valid this rule is or even whether it can be universally applicable. However, it has a marginal relevance to my assignment of writing about Mainstream’s celebration of its first 50 years. One cannot write about Mainstream’s golden jubilee without writing about its founder, Nikhil Chakravartty, just as one cannot recall Nikhilda without bringing Mainstream into the picture. Dev Kant Barooah was pilloried and ridiculed till his dying day for his (ill)famous comment that “Indira is India and India is Indira”. But in the case of Mainstream and its founder, it can be (and has to be) said that Nikhilda was Mainstream and Mainstream was Nikhilda. The comment cannot attract derision since its appropriateness is beyond question.

Even today, 12 years after Nikhilda’s passing away, men of my generation cannot look at a copy of the Mainstream without instantly recalling Nikhilda and his links with it. Indeed, thanks to Sumit, on whose small but strong shoulders the burden of running the journal has fallen, Mainstream is as welcome and absorbing a read now as it was during Nikhil’s days and Nikhil’s memory itself has stayed fresh. Sumit has kept Nikhil’s memory well focused and projected by reproducing one of Nikhil’s own articles in every issue. His choice of the article is impecc-able, topical and as reflective of the talking point of the day as possible. More important, Sumit has kept faith with the ideals, beliefs and aspirations of the two great journalists who made Mainstream a reality: Nikhil Chakravartty and C.N. Chitta Ranjan. Mainstream is addressing a different target now, but its sights are still set on the same set of principles that influenced its birth.

Since Mainstream’s masthead acknowledges only Nikhil’s name, it may be news to many of present-day journalists and readers that the launch of the journal resulted from the joint efforts of the two. Both had shifted their professional bases to New Delhi in the sixties, Nikhil from Calcutta (now Kolkata) and C.N.C. from the then Madras (now Chennai), and met in the national Capital more accidentally than by design. (The change in the names of the cities aptly points to the changes in the national scene between the time Mainstream was born and now completes 50 years!) The N.C.-C.N.C. acquain-tance blossomed into friendship, the friendship to a meeting a minds on the need for a magazine that would, in Nikhil’s words, “act as the connector between diverse opinions but committed to striving for national regeneration”. Chitta Ranjan was Mainstream’s first editor and according to Nikhil, a highly conscientious one who worked beyond his capacity. C.N.C. left Mainstream off and on, but only to keep returning to it. Incidentally, he was “in charge” when my own active association with it began. But more of this later.

Journalism was the strongest common bond between Nikhil and Chitta Ranjan. The other bonds stemmed from their shared interest in national politics and the freedom move-ment.They came from different backgrounds. Nikhil went abroad to study and returned from London to Calcutta to begin a career straight-away in journalism working for Communist Party of India paper. In London he was a member of a group of Communists. It was there that he met Renu (whom he married later) and many other comrades who were to make a name for themselves in Indian politics years later. Nikhil was a committed-dedicated CPI activist for many years, a card-holding member. Chitta Ranjan came from rural Tamil Nadu, and grew up in a political environment; both his parents were active Congress workers. He himself was an activist from the age of seven, an interest in politics which had him involved first in student movement and later in the trade union field from where he made an entry into journalism. It was the dedicated work of two committed journalists that contributed to Mainstream’s steady growth, influence and readership—though not, as Nikhil often said, to its coffers! The magazine had become a “Must” read for those interested in national politics and in the goings-on in the power corridors of New Delhi. Nikhilda had made a name for himself in Bengali journalism because of his masterly coverage of the Bengal famine. In New Delhi, he soon became well-known for “breaking” news stories exposing the deeds and misdeeds of those who were power-centres and those who were on the fringes of power-centres.Mainstream soon began to be talked about in the South and North Blocks, not to mention the Prime Minis-ter’s Office.

Although I was to be closely associated with Mainstream between 1985 and 2000 AD my acquaintance with either of them was peripheral. I was a Mumbai-based journalist and spent some 35 years in that city, where politics occu-pied the second place after commerce and industry and high finance. I had run into Chitta Ranjan a couple of times at working journalists’ get-togethers. I was an eager-beaver worker in the Bombay Union of Journalists, an involve-ment that took me into the Indian Federation of Working Journalists and to a more intense phase of agitational media politics. I must have exchanged hardly a few words with him on those occasions.When I renewed my acquain-tance with him in the Mainstream office in New Delhi, our journalists’ movement involvement helped hone up our interaction and then friendship. Nikhil I had not met at all till I shifted to Delhi in 1970, and even then had not struck a relationship with him for a few years thereafter.

Mumbai’s working journalists, seniors or juniors, had varied interests ranging from films to finance and from corporates to commerce and industry. Politics was not high on the list of priority items of interest although the city’s handful of dailies provided “in-depth” coverage of the ups and downs of political leaders. Even so, there were many like me with a finger in many pies and with contacts with the political circles and interested in Mumbai’s politics as part of national politics. However, when I shifted to New Delhi from Mumbai as Statesman’s Political Correspondent, I was totally at sea. The Capital’s journalist fraternity was a highly polarised community, sharply divided between the pro-Moscow and the pro-Washington factions, lobbies and groupings. If you were pro-Moscow, you were a “fellow-traveller”; if you were pro-US, you were a “Washington-patriot”! There was no third tribe.

The nuances of international politics being played at the local level were explained to me by another veteran journalist, the highly-respected M. Chalapathi Rau, the famed editor of National Herald, a paper founded by Jawaharlal Nehru. “These are all sophisticated animals you are dealing with,” he told me, and “you need special talents to recognise who is who and what is what and behave accordingly. You are likely to face difficulties since you do not fall into either categories.” Tread cautiously, he advised me. Interestingly, it was M.C. who advised me to meet Nikhil Chakravartty regularly for an understanding of Delhi politics. During my first two meetings with Nikhilda, I answered more questions and spoke more about the politics of Maharashtra and the Southern States while Nikhil kept listening and silent. But with time, he loosened up and talked freely. I must have passed his tests!

Was Nikhilda a Communist? Was Mainstream a CPI campaign journal? Many journalists used to ask me such questions, inspired largely by the propaganda of the so-called “Washington patriots”! Piecing together some comments he made now and then, I gathered that he had become disillusioned with the CPI after having been a life-long adherent and supporter. He did not denounce the CPI’s politics publicly but he had lost his commitment. He was a strong supporter of Indira Gandhi’s Left-oriented policies but drew the line when she declared Emergency in 1975. He closed down Mainstream in protest and re-started it only after much persuasion. His weakening faith in the CPI-CPI-M brand of communism was soon to be reflected in his writings for Mainstream. In later years, he spoke to me often of the relevance of Gandhi and Nehru, and around this time he wrote a well-thought piece of how important for post-freedom India was Gandhi and what he stood for.

At a question answer session at the Washing-ton National Press Club, a reporter asked Indira Gandhi mischievously and patently tongue-in-cheek whether India tilted to the Left or the Right in international politics. Indira Gandhi answered instantly and forcefully: “Neither Left nor Right. We stand upright!” She brought the House down and the applause ran on for a while. I narrated the story to Nikhilda on my return from the States and asked whether he had transformed himself from a Communist to a Leftist. He laughed and said: “Right now, I am neither. But my fear is that I should not become a Centrist!” How did one define a Centrist? The Centrist, he said, is the one who sides with the winning party! The Congress party, he said, was loaded with Centrists posing as Leftists and Leftists posing as Centrists. 

I was close to Nikhilda during his last years and had occasions to sit with him for long sessions of “talking of this and that”. He had tended to become philosophical and softer in his criticism of “political sinners”. His political orientation was unchanged in the sense he stood by Leftist views and ensured that Mainstream remained anti-capitalism and fully pro-democracy. 

I do not know how many of Nikhil’s friends knew that he was a regular listener of All India Radio’s news bulletins and its news-related programmes. He made it a point to listen to the 8.15 am and English news bulletins. Whenever he was at home and had time, he would stay tuned after the news bulletin for the Spotlight programme and the panel discussions. I am referring to this because it was after listening to two or three scripts of mine on the Spotlight programme that he asked me to become a regular contributor to Mainstream, and unsurprisingly, his request was reinforced through a telephone call from Chitta Ranjan. Thus began my association with this esteemed journal.

It was always a delight working with Chitta Ranjan. On the D-Day, he would telephone and, gentle as always, ask softly in Tamil: “Ayudutha? (Is it finished?)” If I were to say I needed more time, he would say: “Alright, take three more minutes!”. But, the Mainstream office assistant, whose name I now forget, would already be standing in front of my desk waiting to take my article and rush back. C.N.C. was a man of subtle humour and soft voice. Simple and austere living, and high thinking. Calm, quiet and serene. A man of rare intellectual ability and integrity. And a perfect working partner for a man like Nikhil, who was an extrovert and a “talker” whereas C.N.C. was self-effacing to the point of being almost invisible.

Mainstream’s first 50 years have by no means been “easy and smooth”. Journalism is now a full-fledged industry in India today, just as it is in other parts of the world. It is also highly competitive. No publication can survive on the patronage of its readers alone. Newspapers need the oxygen of cash through advertisements to breathe and stay alive. For journals like Mainstream, which are “serious” in content compared to the hundreds that pander to the film buffs, existence is a perennial adventure. Mainstream, is still there because it has not compromised with the lofty principles that its founder laid down. Sumit has safeguarded a prestigious legacy with the same dedication and commitment his father had displayed. He has the good wishes of all those who have watched Mainstream’s progress with great interest. May Mainstream’s second 50 years be equally absorbing and stimulating.

The author, a veteran journalist, who worked in several dailies including The Statesman, Deccan Herald and Deccan Chronicle, was associated with Mainstream for sometime.

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