On our infrequent trips to Kolkata during the summer holidays as a child, I would frequently run into Diptosh Majumdar, a colleague and friend of my maternal uncle. Both were young journalists in those days, and I was the impressionable kid, scampering around the house to beat the boredom that only summer holidays can impose on you.
Which is why, meeting Dipotshda was always something I looked forward to. A story-teller par excellence, his stories brought home the magic of journalism. He would provide a heady ringside view of how magical and rewarding the profession could be. Those were days when TV channels were still black & white and he was one of the leading reporters of The Statesman, Kolkata, an influential paper those days. As a youngster, I never understood what he did, but the profession seemed so special.
I would meet him again when he and his wife Rinku moved to Delhi, living out of a small barsati near Defence colony before shifting to better quarters in South Extension. Those were days when I was still in college and a bit undecided on where I was headed. Again, his stories would enthrall, not so much about what he saw, but the way he approached journalism.
On Sunday morning, his heart finally succumbed to the aggressive chemotherapy that was administered to him to contain the acute lukaemia that was rapidly spreading. The outpouring of anguish by generations of journalists revealed how many lives he had touched in his years in the profession. Journalism, as we knew it, has changed irrevocably. It has become far more professional, the 'breaking news' culture pervading newsrooms while social media has hastened the flow of information horizontally. Journalists are far more competitive and cut-throat than ever before, driven by technology but at the peril of losing out on core skills.
But Diptoshda, 57, was a constant reminder of those core skills that make journalism such a magical profession. It was all about telling good stories. It was also about being a good human being. Diptoshda, as we all know, was both. To many of us Diptoshda was the proverbial mentor. He was kind, always full of ideas and encouragement and a leader who always led from the front, gently.
As a friend told me yesterday, she was touched at how sensitively he dealt with her when she was facing a difficult time professionally. He told her about American essayist and Time magazine editor Nancy Gibbs and a quote he shared with her: "If you want to humble an empire it makes sense to maim its cathedrals."
That was the quintessential Diptoshda, making sense of the changing world for us youngsters, dipping into his vast knowledge as a reporter and giving tips that could make up a handbook of journalism for many of us.
He would regale me with stories: how to build sources, how to study the subjects you cover, how to interpret subtle moves in politics, how to write a story. These are memories that I shall carry with me as long as I live. Once, when we were colleagues in the political bureau of The Indian Express, Delhi, he told me how he worked on a bureaucrat to scoop the West Bengal government budget. He studied the bureaucrat's patterns, followed his interests, did some reading up and finally chatted him up. A few days before the budget, the man happily handed over the document with a request to adhere to the "70-30 formula". Which meant, report 70% correctly and 30% incorrectly to protect the source. Another story was about an outstation assignment when the telegraph and 'trunk dialing' were the only means to send stories back. Having quickly finished reporting his story, he quietly sabotaged the lone phone in the place to ensure no one else had the scoop. Only his disarming smile could allow him to get away with such things.
It was in The Indian Express when he walked in one day complaining of pain in his left arm. He was immediately scolded by Manini Chatterjee, his old colleague from The Telegraph and then with us, and I was promptly tasked to take him to a nearby hospital. Diptoshda took a few minutes off to smoke a quick cigarette as I went to fetch the car. At the emergency services the doctor took me aside and told me he had already suffered a heart attack and was probably going to get another one! And I couldn't help and wonder how the man was smoking just a few minutes ago. It was his way of trying to cock a snook at what fate probably had in store for him. A few years later, a near-fatal car accident put him and his wife in hospital for several months. Once again, sitting by his bedside, I would be regaled with stories even as his body was wracked with pain.
Few people in Delhi knew what a great theatre enthusiast he was. Once, while covering the 1999 general elections he visited Pune, where I was stationed as city reporter for The Indian Express. He invited me for dinner and told me about his long association with Pune. He had often travelled to the city as a part of a theatre group performing in the various drama festivals across the country. Performing in the historic Bal Gandharva he had essayed several roles while greedily watching the stalwarts perform on the same stage.
In DNA, a paper where we worked together again, we would share the same table, working for over a year across the table. He would have his stories and gentle advice as the national affairs editor, while a gaggle of young reporters would crowd around him to get their weekly dose of long-accumulated wisdom. He would occasionally throw in samosas and sweets as an added bonus. Will we ever see such leadership in our newsrooms again? I doubt that as journalism across the world tries to reinvent itself to new realities. Besides being the intrepid reporter, Diptoshda was also a fabulous cook, a theatre aficionado and one of the finest human beings I have had the good fortune to meet.
His last assignment, telecast by NewsX on the day he passed away as a tribute to him, shows a man with cancer already growing inside him, walks through Delhi trying to make sense of the elections. Everyone across political parties readily spoke to him, sharing insights freely. That was him. Always welcome to everyone, no matter what their political ideologies were.
I shall miss you a lot Diptoshda. I am sure you are already looking for your next story, wherever you are.
(Saikat Datta is editor, national security, Hindustan Times.)