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A nose for Mr Suraiya

india Updated: Aug 06, 2011 23:07 IST
Karan Thapar

You know him as Jug but his real name is Jagdish Suraiya. Jug is a moniker conferred by his elder sister, Hemu, after the Archies comic character Jughead Jones. But Bunny definitely seems to be his wife’s actual name.

We’ve only met infrequently, the last time being outside the Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square, yet I’ve got to know Jug fairly intimately through his autobiographical reflections, the clumsily named JS & The Times of My Life: A Worm’s-Eye View of Indian Journalism (Tranquebar Press, Rs 495), which I’ve just finished reading.

However, don’t let the long-winded title put you off. It’s the only jarring thing about the book. What follows is a hoot. Like his columns, this is a collection of delightful anecdotes. And if you’ll forgive my presumptuousness, I see a lot of similarity in Jug’s style and my own! Sweet to taste, easy to eat and, although you often want more, what you’ve swallowed isn’t hard to digest.

Jug reveals the history of the Junior Statesman and the politics and turmoil of The Times of India not by weighty analysis and ponderous description but by gripping stories. No doubt they touch on the big issues of the day. But, more beguilingly, they re-introduce us to people we know in a deliciously fresh light. For instance, you encounter MJ Akbar, reminiscent more of Oliver Twist than the ferocious intellectual editor he grew up to be. “Please, Sir, can I submit a story for publication?” At the time he was in class 11!

Just paragraphs later you come across the young Shashi Tharoor, presented as the author of a World War 2 RAF fighter pilot called Reginald Bellows who shoots down German Messerschmitts over the English Channel. These were Shashi’s Biggles days! Skip a hundred pages and you’ll find Gautam Adhikari, known as Kaku, and discover he was the editor who got Samir Jain to give the Times staff Marutis, which almost didn’t happen because Sanjaya Baru, now editor of the Business Standard, was adamant on an Ambassador.

The book also provides confirmation of stories I always thought were apocryphal. Chapter 17 has Dileep Padgaonkar claiming as Editor of TOI “I have the second most important job in the country.” Of the Jains, who own the TOI, and whom Jug calls ‘The Family’, he writes (Chapter 19), “...making money was the first priority… spirituality — or is-spirituality, as the preferred pronunciation seemed to be — was a secondary concern.” But what Jug doesn’t explain is why they entertain in their bedroom (Chapter 21).

The real surprise is that Jug’s book shows that the Jug we don’t know is a better writer than the one we do. There are just a few glimpses of this other Jug and you have to keep your eyes peeled or you could easily miss them. But when you discover his description of the view from House No. 90 in Gurgaon (page 290) or of Belchi in Bihar (page 128) you can’t help feel he’s wasted in a daily paper.

No doubt humour is Jug’s métier. But unless I’m dreadfully mistaken, recognition of this talent has constrained the full development of his literary skills. His audience expects he will make them laugh and he readily does. But Jug can also express deeper, more moving sentiments. He can capture poignant truths in factual descriptions. He can hear sounds and see sights that our more pedestrian senses would miss. This is another world and it lies beyond the narrow confines of satire, paradox and wit.

Perhaps this other Jug is the real Jagdish? He’s certainly not his sister Hemu’s favourite comic character.

The views expressed by the author are personal