Journalists may be paid to find fault with the world and to keep their ears glued to the grapevine in their beats; but on occasions when, say, they step out for a quick smoke or a cup of tea, they invariably chat about their own colleagues and bosses. How they are sick and tired of working in the organisation, how the bosses are unfair and biased, how a particular colleague doesn't move his little finger but pretends to do all the work — these are just a sample of what they talk about. However, the moment the last drop of tea goes down the throat, everything is forgotten and they all dutifully return to their work stations, where unfinished or unedited stories await them.
Only that Jug Suraiya has decided to note down these grievances and gossip. His memoirs happen to be a record of the ‘office politics' — something we all like to be a part of, without actually being a part of it — that pervaded the corridors of India's two best-known papers north of the Vindhyas, The Statesman and The Times of India.
If you are the kind who looks forward to the tea-breaks, no matter how much you love your work — the idea being to tune in to the gossip — this book is for you. And who wouldn't like to partake of such cathartic pleasure? At the same time, the book also records the journey of a man who, from having no idea what he was going to do for a living, went on to become one of India's best-known columnists after training under the legendary Desmond Doig of Junior Statesman.
Also, it provides an insider's account of life in newspapers in those days — when the air during edit meetings was “turgid with debate and tobacco smoke” and when “even the fug of nicotine fumes couldn't obscure the sparkle of the discourse”, and when you had larger-than-life edit-writers, such as Lindsay Emerson and Niranjan Mazumdar of The Statesman.
The book has its own quota of humour. Savour this anecdote Jug narrates. The editor asked Niranjan — who had just returned with Lindsay from their regular three-hour session at the Amber bar in Calcutta — what he was going to say in the edit.
“I haven't the faintest idea,” said Niranjan.
“Well, if you don't have the faintest idea of what you're going to write, who does,” the editor asked.
“My typewriter,” Niranjan said, and turned out a flawless editorial in just 15 minutes!
It's curiosity about what Jug Suraiya is going to come up with next that makes you turn the pages — though your interest does tend to sag on occasions when he meanders off to describe his non-office life, which seems inconsequential when you are watching, through Jug's eyes, the happenings inside the editorial rooms of the two newspapers. Fortunately, such moments pass quickly, because Jug himself is ever eager to get back to office politics.
There are, as one should expect, countless anecdotes from his long stint in The Times of India and about its enigmatic proprietor Samir Jain — the tone always catty. What is even more enigmatic is that Jug continues to write for the paper.
But that's typically Jug prose. If you take the cattiness out of the writing and take Bunny (his wife, who features in nearly all his writings) out of the book, JS & The Times of My Life would read like a 340-page lifeless editorial on the life of a man who almost took to painting houses for a living.