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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 1

The Centenarian Alvas

Tuesday 25 December 2007, by G.S. Bhargava

The Alvas—Joachim and Violet—were a unique couple. They are the first husband and wife team, I had come across, who were both gifted journalists. Nearly forty years later, we have T.N. and Sevanti Ninan, both colleagues in the Hindustan Times in the 1970s. Like the Ninans, the Alvas too were from different linguistic communities. Joachim was a Mangalorean, while Violet a Gujarati. Sevanti is a Bengali speaking daughter of an Andhra cadre IAS officer settled in Hyderabad, while TN is from Kerala. (I would jocularly claim Sevanti to be an Andhra-ite.)

Parliament has celebrated the Alvas’ centenarian status—Joachim being the senior spouse by three years—by having their portraits unveiled in the Central Hall in the first week of December. Joachim had been a Congress member of the Lok Sabha from Mangalore for three terms, 1952-57, 1957-62, 1962-67 besides a five-year term (1947-52) in the provisional parliament. In addition, he was in the Rajya Sabha as a veteran member from 1968-74. Violet was a Rajya Sabha member who held important positions as the Minister of State for Home Affairs and Deputy Chairman of the House.

I have a special reason to rejoice at the event because I owed my introduction to journalism to Joachim in 1945. On the basis of articles I had contributed to Forum, while being a student, he called me over from Vizianagaram. Forum, was a highly popular English weekly being edited by him from Bombay. Vizianagaram, especially in 1945, was a one-horse town in north Andhra Pradesh. He asked me to join his editorial team on a princely salary of R 100.

Instead of worrying about managing on such a paltry income, with a widowed mother and two brothers to support, while keeping body and soul together in Bombay, I felt elated at the prospect of being a journalist. But Joachim was not insensitive to my plight. He tried to help me in finding accommodation in Matunga, the “Mecca of Madrasis”.

He had two commandments for me, the first not to ‘sir’ him but to call him Mr Alva; secondly, to tuck the shirt in the trousers.

Living up to be a ‘journalist’ was no child’s play. Writing emotional articles on patriotic and anti-imperialist themes was like chalk to the cheese of catering to the needs of the prestigious magazine. Violet was a great help in the matter. She put me in touch with the librarian of the unique Royal Asiatic Society, a veritable treasure house of books. It was a stone’s throw from the Forum office and was normally open till 8 pm.

Some of the cover page articles I had done remain etched in my mind. They include one on the national postal strike, which lasted about two weeks. There was ample historical background in the library, from the origin of the postal system and its growth and travails in England, where also they had a strike. Another was on the Travancore sisters, Padmini and Ragini, with ‘mouth-watering’ pictures sent by a correspondent it made a beautiful cover page. Joachim would usually either set the topic or amend one suggested by Violet and but rarely made major changes in the copy, which was invariably anonymous.

A few months later both Joachim and I seemed to have mutually got tired of each other. So we parted on a petty issue like making personal calls on the office telephone. I went away to Madras to become the correspondent of a Telugu daily Janmabhoomi, launched by Dr Pattabhi Sitaramayya from Vijayawada. Soon after Madras was shaken by a sensational incident. Justice Buyers, puisne judge of the Madras High Court, panicked when a group of students surrounded his car, shouting: “Vande Mataram, Quit India!” He took out his pistol and shot one of the demonstrators dead on the spot. As soon as the news broke, Joachim sent me a longish telegram asking for a full story with pictures.

The police promptly cordoned off the students and escorted the judge home. But that was not the end of the matter, only the beginning. Indian officials like the Commissioner of Police, Patro, and a High Court judge, Justice P.V. Rajamannar, got formal prosecution launched against the erring senior judge. The Chief Justice, also a European, resisted. It became a conflict between the departing Europeans and Indians with a growing sense of national pride. Ultimately, of course, Justice Buyers was packed off to where he came from. Before then the Indian official top brass—both police and judicial—made him sweat. (Incidentally, one does know why the institution of puisne judge between the Chief Justice and the judges has been done away with.)

As my luck would have it, both Patro and Justice Rajamannar being Telugus interaction with them became pally. I got the full dope from them and an enterprising photographer led me into the Madras Club, an exclusively European habitat, where he clicked a photo of Buyers going on his morning walk. The story with the pictures pleased Joachim. He called me back and I was too keen to do so.

With the advent of independence, Joachim branched off into active politics. First he was elected to the provisional parliament in 1947-52, followed by three of stints of Lok Sabha membership. He had also a term of Rajya Sabha membership. He passed away in July 1979, when I was the Principal Information Officer (PIO) to the Morarji Desai Government. My last act of homage was to lay a wreath at the electric crematorium for him.

Violet too rose from membership of the Bombay Legislative Council to become the Minister of State, Home Affairs and Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. She predeceased Joachim by nearly a decade. The eldest of the two sons of the Alvas, Niranjan, is a lawyer. He is Margaret Alva’s husband. The second son, Chittaranjan, and daughter-in law, Padma, are both journalists.

The author, a veteran journalist, is a former Principal Information Officer (PIO) of the Government of India’s Press Information Bureau (PIB).

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