Most Indian journalists in their memoirs have been kind and gentle to their bosses, colleagues and profession. The 89-year old Madhav Krishna Bhaskar (‘MKB’ to his friends) Nair is no exception. One of the pioneers of Indian business journalism, long associated with The Economic Times, Nair does not claim to be the Woodward-Bernstein type of journalist. For that he needed as editor, a Benjamin Bradlee, who would have been chucked out of his job by the management in less than two hours.
Today, Nair is labelled as belonging to the ‘old school’ of journalism. That meant hardworking, courteous, thoroughly professional, ignorant of PR strategy and incapable of chicanery.
Fortunately, in the early days of business journalism he was backed by the management which however denied him the highest post of editor because he lacked a degree from the London School of Economics or a doctorate from an Indian university!
The path to senior posts in financial journalism was through the dingy corridors of Free Press Journal (FPJ) where he learnt everything about the profession under an irascible boss, S. Sadanand, a teaching assignment at Ethiopia where a chance encounter led to an ‘exclusive’ interview with the Emperor and a stint with the short-lived daily ‘Aaj Ka Newsday’. The FPJ was a patriotic daily, it opened up contacts with Congress leaders V.K. Krishna Menon, S.K. Patil, Jawaharlal Nehru and others. The paper’s cartoonist Bal Thackeray (no firebrand then) often dropped in at the Nair home for ‘Idli, chutney and sambar’. VKK came home for lunch one day, insisted on his routine, long bath, nibbled at ‘avial’ and ‘pachadi’, maintaining a stony silence all the time. The dynamic city of Bombay and its cosmopolitan population contributed to Nair’s education.
At The Economic Times, Nair was a hit and was rewarded with the Resident Editor’s job of the Calcutta edition.
Interviewing leaders such as Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, he was not afraid to ask inconvenient questions but ensured fair reporting. Back in Bombay, he worked on special trade supplements and was often deputed to cover international conferences. An UNCTAD meet at Nairobi led to a major scoop when the ‘ET’ published details of Indian contributions to a Common Fund even before they were presented to Parliament.
The air was thick with rumours, did Nair have a ‘mole’ in the PMO? Well, John Le Carre was just becoming popular! Nair’s simple style and language makes the book a delight. Rightly, the focus was on people (J. R. D. Tata, Varghese Kurien, T. N. Shanbag of ‘Strand Book Stall’) who made news because that was the crux of good journalism. His wide contacts helped him to produce a portrait gallery ranging from the humble to the mighty.
Nair also distinguished himself as a journalism teacher in several institutions. For some weeks, he was my teacher at the Times of India Trainee programme. O, he was so unlike journalists portrayed on the Hindi screen!
(V. Gangadhar is a journalist based in Mumbai)