The quantum leap was actually from ‘Bobby’ to ‘Aparisim’ rather than the other way round,” explains the baritone voice that belongs to the new editor of Time International over the phone from his New York office. “I was Bobby right from the beginning until my father named me Aparisim when I turned seven. He wanted to name me Helmut after some German footballer. But my mum put her foot down,” the disembodied voice tells me after wisecracking about it being a “really slow news week in India if there’s that much interest in some random desi dude in New York.”
The thing is, the 46-year-old shiny-pated, French-bearded Bobby Ghosh is actually not just a ‘random desi dude’. Last week, he became the editor of Time magazine’s international edition, comprising three geographical regions — Asia, Europe-Middle East and Australia — becoming the first non-American to take on that role. “I don’t think the Time guys sat around a table and said, ‘Okay, let’s now get an Indian!’” He also discounts any ‘Indian-ness’ that he carries with him to his new job. “But yes, there is a difference of perception, of a worldview.” He cites the example of how there’s been a lot of handwringing in America these days about the Arab Spring. “There’s much talk about how there can’t be democracy in a region that has problems of illiteracy and poverty. But I bring a different idea to the table when I say, “Guys, I come from India. I’m more optimistic coming from where I’m coming.”
Ghosh still considers the port city of Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh as the place he “comes from” — his father, a former merchant navy officer, still lives there. It was here in the mid-80s that he started his career with The Deccan Chronicle, moving to Business Standard in Kolkata and BusinessWorld in Mumbai and Delhi later. “I have been extremely fortunate. Even before I joined journalism, I knew that this is what I wanted to do. Tintin was an early inspiration,” says Ghosh, a veteran reporter from places such as Iraq (where he was five years as Time Baghdad bureau chief), Palestine and Kashmir. In fact, when he was managing Time International in-between editors, Time ran a cover story on Tintin pegged on Steven Spielberg’s film on the comic book character. “I was very proud of that.”
Ghosh recollects his ‘fortune cookie’ luck when he was in BusinessWorld. “I was visiting our Bombay office and chewing the fat with my then boss Sanjoy Narayan (who happens to now be the editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times). While chatting, a copy of the Far Eastern Economic weekly landed on Sanjoy’s desk and while flipping through it, he showed me an ad in the magazine for an editor’s job. ‘It sounds like a job for you,’ Sanjoy had said, tore the ad and handed it to me. I returned to Delhi, forgot about everything until the cleaning lady took out the scrap which my wife later asked me about. A couple of days later, I applied for the job.” He was off to Hong Kong in 1995,
As luck would (again) have it, Ghosh’s boss was the business editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, Adi Ignatius (currently editor-in-chief of the Harvard Business Review). He was moving to Time where the magazine asked him whether there were any editors he could hire. “The Time offices were two floors above us in Hong Kong. Adi must have told them that he knew someone who works hard — and is cheap. So there I was, probably the cheapest hire for Time, someone they got from two floors below,” says Ghosh with a laugh.
But Fortune — in this case, not the magazine — favours the talented. Joining Time in 1998, the 31-year-old Ghosh made the transition from a business journalist to a full-blown writer at a publication that puts writing at its core. “This was the big leap. Time is an internationalist publication catering to internationalist readers who are not only interested in their own backyard.” The internationalist from Vizag had found his place under the sun.
With a managerial-cum-editorial role and now at the helm of Time International, does he think he’ll miss the fix of reportage? “Last year was wonderful as Time editor-at-large. This essentially meant travelling and writing from various parts of the world. It was also about me getting out of my comfort zone (ironically, writing from conflict zones) and writing stories on Sachin Tendulkar and Lionel Messi, which was great fun,” says Ghosh after returning from a television studio discussion about the bombings in Iraq earlier in the day that marks the 10th anniversary of the American invasion. “But since the last 15 years, (this) is what I wanted to do. Sure, it will mean sending people to write stories that I would have earlier written. It will mean being behind a desk. But American publications have a great tradition of not only having writers work there way up to top managerial positions but also having managers return to the field as writers. That’s definitely something I would like to do after a few years.”
Ghosh audibly winces at the comparison made between him and another ‘desi dude’ in American journalism, Fareed Zakaria. “That’s like speaking about Manchester United and Mohun Bagan in one sentence,” he exclaims. “But yes, I think Fareed too brings a different perspective, an awareness of the world outside the traditional American worldview.” A worldview from the other end of the spectrum that Ghosh could have brought into Indian journalism had he — if rumours are to be believed — accepted the job of editor of India Today magazine. “I wasn’t offered the job. We were just talking and that led to all these rumours.”
The Mohun Bagan-supporting Tintin fan has come a long way from Vizag and as the editor of Time International, he has the world as his backyard. Ghosh ends the interview with an advice: “Don’t throw away scraps of paper your boss gives you”. And follows it up with an observation by e-mail. “It now occurs to me that we could have done a Skype interview. Oh well.” Purely by luck, however, the writer-editor has already described his office as being “festooned with football scarves from around the world (I collect one from every country I visit)” and with a view of “Radio City Music Hall and 6th Avenue”.