Food is great when it is mild in taste, says well-known newsreader-turned-publisher Tejeshwar Singh
“I was the one who announced the Emergency on Doordarshan.” In that booming voice, when Tejeshwar Singh declares this, he, despite that gentle smile, brings alive the lurking trepidations of those dark days of the 1970s. Soon after this, he recollects, “I decided I would not continue doing it. So I quit Doordarshan. Though three years later, I returned and the relationship continued till 2003.”
Well, we are at Ano Tai, the Chinese restaurant at Jaypee Vasant Continental in New Delhi, on a two-pronged agenda. First, this beautiful restaurant with an old world feel has just revamped its menu. And second, Singh, having handed over his shares at Sage India Publications to its mother company in England some time back, has not actually hung up his boots. He is now involved in working out an efficient distribution network for supply of books across the country in consultation with distributors. And also, he heads a committee formed by Mumbai-based Marg Publications, once headed by Mulk Raj Anand, to “modernise and professionalise” the 60-year-old publisher of prestigious art-related journals with funds from Sir Dorabji Tata Trust.
With a friendly Chef Li Peng all enthused about the new menu, Singh does a smart thing. He hands over the reigns to him. “You are the boss, you choose what we should try. Don’t give us a lot of dishes. And yes, I love prawns.” He leaves the rest to the chef. “Should I make it a little hot? People here usually prefer it,” asks the chef, to which Singh swears by his preference for food with “a mild taste”.
Sipping a glass of French wine, Singh is now all keyed up for candid banter. Obviously, you want to take it from the beginning. His news reading days, the modelling stint, the publishing days and of course, life after Sage.
Stroking his beard, Singh remarks, “It was amazing. We became stars by just reading news on Doordarshan. We were mobbed on the streets.” He sees his modelling stint as a fall-out of this. “I did a few assignments like Dinesh Suitings and a complete failure of a product called Marmite,” he laughs.
Much later, in 1981, he was able to see himself on TV at home. “When Doordarshan, for the first time, did a live telecast of Wimbledon men’s singles final in 1981, I told my wife, it is time we buy it. Let’s see the match. So, a tiny black and white TV came home.”
By now, Peng is dishing out starters. First arrives diced chicken with dry red chillies and wild peppercorns, and then follow prawns with spring onions. From the look of it, you can make out how yummy they are. And as expected, Singh comments, “Very tasty.” Enough stimulation to carry on the conversation!
Though Singh was fresh from Oxford University when he joined DD in 1974, he was no novice to news reading. “During my college days, I used to read news for AIR’s overseas section. Even while at Oxford, I had done news reading for BBC Radio for about nine months,” he recalls.
Getting down to talking about book distribution, he says, “A very good writer, Makarand Paranjpe used to complain about inadequate distribution of his books by Sage. Now, he has a publishing house. I met him the other day and he says, ‘Distribution is real tough.’ So one big issue for publishers today is the distribution network.” Sage, he proudly states, “is the only publishing house with a direct mailing list of thousands of names.”
While the chat continues, the plates are changed to serve the main course. Chef Li packs in some noodles and rice with ginger flavoured baby corn and zucchini, pomfret cooked in a mildly spiced sauce, light steamed chicken with mushrooms — a good mix of food with “a mild taste” as per Singh’s request. Over morsels of chicken and pomfret, he reels back to the time when his daughters were about six years old.
“It seems I had cooked something really nice when they were of that age. They still ask me to cook it, but I don’t quite remember what it was,” he relates, lacing it with his trademark smile. But he thinks he must have cooked something French. “I love French food. It is light. I try cooking it sometimes, but if you don’t get the same ingredients here, they don’t quite turn out the way you would like them to,” he says, counting on his fingertips the names of the few restaurants in Delhi that serve French food.
Even as desserts like toffee banana and date pancakes vie for his attention, Singh decides to skip them, for it is time to rush for a meeting with the distributors.SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY