I First met him in 1980. Sanjay Gandhi was back in power ruling the country on behalf of his mother. I had stood behind them in their days of political adversity, helped to bring out Maneka Gandhi’s
and edited Indira Gandhi’s
without asking for remuneration. They felt they owed me something in return for what I had done for them.
Sanjay, who was a friend of KK Birla, came to see me and offered me, on a platter, the choice of an ambassadorship or the job of the editor of the Hindustan Times with a nomination to Rajya Sabha. I accepted the latter. A few days later I was summoned by Birla, proprietor of the Hindustan Times, and was offered a contract of three years as the editor of the paper.
I recall the meeting well. He was a little diffident and not sure whether I was the right man to edit his paper. He gave me a typed copy of the policy he wished me to pursue. I read through four or five paragraphs. They were vague generalisations of the aims of his paper, not anything specific. I nodded my head in acceptance. He escorted me to my car. We shook hands and parted.
My first impression was that he was a very courteous man. More so after the boorish manner in which I was booted out of my job by the Jains, whose Illustrated Weekly of India I had edited for nine long years.
A week or so later I was picked up by the manager of the Hindustan Times, taken to the multi-storeyed building on Kasturba Gandhi Marg to meet senior members of the staff. I was shown my room and introduced to my personal secretary, Lachhmandass, who is with me to this day. Thus began my three-year association with Krishna Kumar Birla.
He would send for me at least once whenever he was in Delhi. It was always the same pattern. I was shown the waiting room till my turn came. He sat in the corner of his sofa with the files he had to see. On the rectangular table in front was a small picture of Goddess Lakshmi, a calculator and a telephone. He would offer me a cup of coffee.
At the first of the three meetings he asked me how I was coping with the job. I told him that the paper was grossly over-staffed and would do better if it shed those who had little to do. I also told him that as a national daily, it should have more Muslims on the staff. (There were hardly any at the time.) He agreed to take any Muslim I suggested but was reluctant to sack anyone. By then he had been informed that I often went back to my office after dinner and was there till midnight to see the outlay of next morning’s paper and that no one inserted news items not cleared by me. Without informing me, he raised my salary. His friends called him Babu, I always referred to him as Annadata behind his back. He was a generous employer.
At times I ran into his other visitors. One time as I was coming in, he was seeing off BD Goenka, who started praising me. I cut him short: “Birlaji, don’t believe a word he says.” He called me raand ka bhaand — the widow’s drum-beater — referring to my loyalty to Indira Gandhi.
An aspect I found very endearing was his attachment to an old monkey who had made his garden its home. No sooner Birla stepped out, the aged monkey would walk up to him to have its head patted and be fed with goodies cooked in shudh home-made ghee.
A generous man
Having enjoyed his hospitality (he served no liquor) I asked him over to lunch at my flat to meet a Sardar with whom he had business. I was sent a list of instructions by his secretary. The food must be strictly vegetarian, no onions or garlic or roast vegetables. He came, was utterly at ease, talking to my wife and me. He maintained his distance from the Sardarji guest. As he was leaving, he took a good look at the antique Ganapati I have in an alcove alongside my entrance door. I told him it had become an object of veneration for my visitors. Some put flowers around it, some even left coins.
“Then I must also make an offering,” he said taking out his wallet. I was curious to know what a Birla would offer to the God of auspicious beginnings. He put a silver chavanni — a four-anna piece. I understood why Birlas were the wealthiest family in the country.
When my three-year tenure was about to expire, I went to see him to ask whether he meant to renew it. “I didn’t realise you have done three years. I will let you know later.” A few days later he sent for me. He looked dejected and said, “I think I will try him [NC Menon] out. But I would like you to continue writing your weekly Saturday column if you want.” I had no doubt that Mrs Gandhi, who was by then displeased with my continuing association with Maneka, was behind it.
Menon wanted to drop my column. It did not appear for a year. Naresh Mohan, who was the manager, came to see me. He told me that Birla had overruled Menon’s decision and I should resume writing it — at enhanced rates. I have been doing so ever since.
My association with Birla continued after my retirement from his paper. He often wrote, commenting on my column. When I wrote about Nirad Chaudhari, living in Oxford and being in dire financial straits, he wrote to me offering Niradbabu any amount he needed, in any currency, for the rest of his life. Nirad refused to accept his bounty. When I was going in for an eye surgery, he advised me to have it in London and offered to defray all expenses of travel and treatment. I was overwhelmed as he owed me nothing. I had it done in Delhi.
He was three years younger than me and was in much better health. I expected he would outlast me by many years. That was not be.
His wife had died a few weeks earlier. I wrote to him a letter of condolence. He wrote back thanking me and saying what a grievous blow her departure had been. So it turned out to be. He was unable to bear her loss and lost the will to live. I have yet to meet a man who despite his enormous wealth remained kind and humble, every inch a thorough gentleman. Such men are rare. They are the pride of the nation.