“All I want to do is nothing,” declared veteran journalist M.C. Sampath, calling it a day after 51 long years of service at The Hindu in Chennai. “I want to retire in the real sense,” the 75-year-old said, clasping his palms and leaning backward on his cushy office chair.
Mr. Sampath, fondly “MCS” to colleagues, is not one of those who unleash an “Oh, in those days …” story at every chance. The seasoned professional, who retired as a Senior Associate Editor on Wednesday, would always speak to colleagues way junior to him with a rare camaraderie.
After over five decades of service without a break, the longest period served by any journalist at The Hindu, MCS is unaffected by the remarkable accomplishment. On Tuesday, after the daily editorial meeting at noon and a special farewell lunch, he agreed — rather reluctantly — to speak for a few minutes. “What do you want me to tell you? There is nothing, really,” he said, catching a few moments of the India-Sri Lanka match on television.
“This is no achievement, unless you happen to think surviving time and change is a big deal. I was given a job and I thought I must do it responsibly. That's all,” he said, even as colleagues kept walking into his office one after the other to say goodbye. Though he was set to officially retire in 1996, the organisation did not want to lose him. So, MCS went on to become The Hindu's long-standing asset.
It was soon after his B.A. (Hons.) in Economics at the Madras Christian College that he “slipped into journalism”. “I was trained in shorthand and typewriting even as a student. I was looking for a job and my father, a school teacher and The Hindu's news agent in Chengalpattu, felt I should try for a job here.”
For a few years from 1956, MCS contributed news from Chengalpattu as a stringer, and was recruited as a full-time employee in 1961. “I remember my first day at work in 1961. It was the day Queen Elizabeth came to Madras. I stood near the arts college [now Quaid-E-Millath Government College for Women] here and saw her,” he recalls with moderate excitement.
The initial few years were spent in the news bureau covering routine beats such as the General Hospital and Central Station. In 1964, he was given the task of covering religious discourses. “Most of your Ramayanam, Mahabharatam lectures would get over late in the evening, around 9.30. I would take the train from Egmore to Chengalpattu and reach home only around midnight. That late train was called thirudan vandi (thieves' train).”
Those were also his “veshti days”. “It didn't matter, it went well with my beat,” he said with a laugh. MCS has a vivid memory of having closely worked with The Hindu's publisher then, Kasturi Gopalan. “He took special interest in the religious columns and would clear each of my copies with his red pencil.”
In 1972, MCS got back to news reporting, focussing largely on Tamil Nadu politics. He covered crucial developments, including the split in the Legislature Party of the DMK following the break away by M.G. Ramachandran in 1972. He also began writing editorials on politics in 1982. Until his retirement on Wednesday, MCS was part of the daily editorial meeting and would often anchor the meetings in the absence of editors.
In the evenings, one would often spot MCS in the corridor leading to the editorial section. Carrying a proof of the edit page and his pencil, he would quietly make his way to a corner near the Op-Ed page desk, to meticulously proof-read the editorials appearing the next day. Just the sight of this senior colleague brought in a great sense of reassurance and comfort to others. Often in a half sleeve shirt, and wearing his shell-framed glasses, MCS is a picture of endearing simplicity that reflected in his understated ways, the ivory shade hair colour only adding to the charm.
MCS headed The Hindu's book review section and is known for his prompt follow-ups to chase forgetful colleagues to complete their book reviews. “Hope you remember,” he would say, with his trademark mischievous smile.
On having worked with three generations of editors and several journalists, and having seen major changes in the organisation and the profession itself, MCS said, “It's all in the game. To me, this was a job and I had to do it. If I told you that I was here because I believed in the social cause of journalism, it would be dishonest on my part.”