I was working out of my news editor’s cabin at The Indian Express one Saturday afternoon when I felt a tall presence looming behind me. I turned round and was startled to see a giant of a man standing there — with a gentle but confused smile.
“I was looking for the news editor,’’ he said. I would have expected that six-foot-four-inch hulk to have a baritone, at the least. But his voice was soft, almost inaudible. “Gentle Giant,’’ is what I immediately dubbed him.
However, it was not just Jyotirmoy Dey’s voice that was gentle. As I later discovered, through a friendship forged over notes, tip-offs shared (mostly his, with me) and cups of tea/coffee, ‘J’ Dey was truly a bhadralok.
At the time, I was a special correspondent in charge of no particular bureau. Yet Dey brought me his stories before he passed them on to the desk. I cleaned up his writing for which he was grateful. I, on my part, learnt a lot about crime and the police through his stories. And during our chats, about the world of poachers and forests (he was an environment reporter earlier).
When I quit The Indian Express to join Outlook, it was Dey I called every time to check facts on any particular story (it was the decade of gang wars and extra-judicial killings in Bombay).
Dey was very generous with his tip-offs. The best from him then was the information that gold shops were mushrooming all along the Kerala coast in the 90s. Yet, if you wanted to buy jewellery for your daughter’s wedding you would not find much variety in those stores. As we investigated, I discovered that those shops were a front for the underworld then poaching on Malabar Muslims. Those shops were sort of gold exchanges for criminals, led largely by the Dawood gang.
At the time, that story seemed fantastic. But, a few years later, things fell into place: many of the most recent recruits to the world of crime and terrorism then seemed to be coming from Kerala. Today, undeniably, there are many Malayalee Muslims surfacing as part of terror and crime networks across India.
That’s how rooted Dey was to the ground. So when I offered him a job after I joined the Hindustan Times as its chief of bureau in Bombay, more than a decade ago, he politely turned it down. “My sources are all small, insignificant cops and unknown underworld men. Unlike the top cops, they are not sophisticated enough to get the Delhi edition of the Hindustan Times. If they can’t lay their hands on my newspaper easily early mornings, my sources will soon dry up. So ask me again when you launch in Bombay. I might then be willing to join.’’
We asked. This time Dey readily agreed. At the time of his joining HT, his aunt was ill and he did not even have enough money to meet her hospital bills. I remember thinking to myself then that he had to be one of the most honest crime reporters in the country. Because, before Dey, I had met many who, despite coming from small towns, had managed diamond-studded Rolex watches in five years, were able to throw birthday bashes at top hotels and were always loaded.
I do not think Dey changed much even after he quit HT and joined Mid-day again. He was still riding just a motorbike and lived at the same address he had for years. No flashy cars or jewellery. Still the same modesty and fount of information he always was whenever I ran into him now and then.
Which is why I hope Maharashtra home minister RR Patil is not just mindlessly parroting the same old piece he totes out to the media every time the city erupts into something like J Dey’s senseless killing on Saturday. “We will get to the bottom of this and we will not tolerate any criminal activities. We will deal ruthlessly with the killers.’’ Where have I heard that before? And how many times?
This time, though, for Dey’s sake, I hope Patil, Maharashtra’s most ineffectual home minister so far, really pulls it off.