The Hindustan Times has changed radically in the 42 years since I first walked in as a proofreader. We’ve gone from messy carbon offsetting, which would cover our clothes and hands in black, to bromides and finally computers.
With computers, one person could now do the job of a lino operator, reporter, proofreader, sub-editor and researcher.
But all the changes have also contributed to the alienation of the average worker. Everyone has a kind of cubicle to themselves. People hardly talk to each other now.
The Hindustan Times office used to be a very noisy, lively place when I joined. Everything is so peaceful today. Good or bad, who can say. It just takes some getting used to.
Earlier, there was real action in the newsroom, where journalists and nonjournalists jostled to finish the job. They would argue, tempers would flare.
I still remember the night one of our sub-editors asked a compositor to change a headline three times. The compositor was enraged, called the sub incompetent and slapped him. B.G. Verghese, the then editor, tried his best to bring Jha to book but failed because of strong union pressure. Sharma couldn’t bear the insult and resigned. Verghese helped him get a job with another newspaper.
I have worked for about a dozen editors. Some of them came and went without leaving an impact. But there were some whom it is not easy to forget. S. Mulgaokar was a man of many moods, and foul-mouthed. His pet word was ‘bugger’. Whatever he wrote, wrong or right, he would never let anybody change it.
To add insult to injury, he would make it the style of the paper. He once misspelt Bharatiya Jana Sangh (now the BJP) in a headline. When someone pointed this out to him, he insisted the Hindustan Times would follow his spelling from then on.
Ajit Bhattacharji was a gentleman par excellence. He wouldn’t hurt even a fly. On budget day, he would be in the newsroom to see the edition through. Most of the headlines on page one would be his. This he would do every year, religiously.
B. G. Verghese was, to my mind, the best editor we ever had. Highly conscientious, he was courteous to a fault. Every day, he would come in at 9 a.m. and leave at 9 p.m.
He would gracefully accept his fault, even to his most junior colleague. If you wrote to him, he would reply the same day. At times he would go to the press, sit in the proof room and read every word that went into the paper.
He instituted awards for best headline, best story, best interview and the best page one. Each winner would get Rs 75 — a big amount in those days, a bottle of Old Monk rum cost just Rs 45. Mr Verghese set some very high standards in the profession.
He sent a note to the HT desk not to print anything about his son who had topped the CBSE exams that year. When the desk protested, he amended his note: “Take only what the news agencies say. But no Hindustan Times correspondent should interview him or write anything about him. No picture of him either.”
On the flip side, he was ignorant of the point system that goes into the making of a headline.
And his spelling was poor: He could not differentiate between fare and fair! Years later, he admitted all this in an article he wrote for Vidura, the journal of the Press Institute of India. We realised only in 1975 that working for a newspaper can also be a nightmare.
After the declaration of Emergency, smiles and laughter vanished from the face of the average journalist in the office, especially at the desk. At 10 every evening, a sinister voice from the Press Information Bureau (PIB) would ask for the chief sub. The chief sub would pick up the phone, hands trembling. There would be an eerie silence on the desk. The PIB man, with apparent politeness, would take all the details about the chief-sub and then tell him: “You will not take the picture of the demonstration before the Coffee House today.
The picture of Sanjay Gandhi with Lalit1 Maken will go on Page One. No picture of Ghatshila mishap, please.” These instructions had to be followed, or else! One night Mr T. N. Nair, the acting chief sub-editor, did not carry out the PIB instructions.
The result: He was taken off the desk. He was in the doghouse after that. He was denied a promotion even when his juniors were made news editors. He had to go to court, fight his case for 14 years. Nair retired a broken man. Like any organisation, the Hindustan Times has also had its share of stars and non-performers.
Legendary photographer Kishore Parekh was HT’s contribution to Indian journalism. Parekh heralded a new era in photo-journalism and changed the way the work of a photographer was perceived.
Seema Mehtani was a clerk in a sister publication of HT. After the magazine ceased publication, she was made a sub-editor.
Once, she was doing a story sent by a state correspondent. He had written, “All is well that ends well”. She subbed it as: “All is well that ends into the well.” It appeared like this in the next morning paper. She was asked to quit.
On balance, HT today is more organised, more professional. It has better language, crisper headlines. We have fewer mistakes.
Earlier, HT did not practice competitive journalism. Perhaps because there was no one to compete with.