16 March 2015

Vinod Mehta and CP Kuruvilla : Like George Harrison and Guitar George

When the demise of celebrated editor Vinod Mehta made it to the front pages of leading newspapers, I could not but help think of how just a few weeks earlier, CP Kuruvilla had passed away quietly in Ernakulam. On Valentine's Day.
The two editors are a study in contrast for journalists of the 1980s vintage. Mehta was all over the place: writing books, attending cocktail dinners, loudly discussing gossip, fighting newspaper owners, hiring glamorous reporters and being glam himself.
Maybe it was natural the Lucknow Boy, being from the city of Nawabs,
The Ernakulam Boy, whose voice barely rose above whispers, is a study in contrast.
Not that "Kuru" as he was known, was not sung after his passing though it was among those who knew him up close. His love of anonymity was his claim to fame as these obituary tributes in The Telegraph , Business Standard and Firstpost would testify.
Both Mehta and Kuru loved their liquor, as the legend goes. But at least one of them was not drunk on fame.
I call it the contrast between George Harrison and Guitar George.
George Harrison was the lead guitarist of The Beatles, and attained world fame, for his music, for his love affairs and his long association with the Hare Krishna cult.
Guitar George is a figure familiar only to those who listened carefully to Dire Straits' rock classic, Sultans of Swing.  and its lyrics 

Check out Guitar George, he knows-all the chords
Mind he's strictly rhythm he doesn't want to make them cry or sing
They said an old guitar is all he can afford
When he gets up under the lights to play his thing

Kuru, for me, was the Guitar George of Indian journalism. He knew all the chords -- as in knowing every story there was to be known. He kept track of gossip and published the ones that made people sit up. While discussing his brainchild, the famous backchat column "None Of Our Business"  he once told me: "If somebody doesn't lose sleep over your story, it is not journalism." Or something to that effect.
The wicked grin in place, a strange mix of adventure and affection, he would tell us reporters what to do, raise his eyebrows in occasional appreciation, and watch us like a mother would watch a toddler -- in silent appreciation or admonition, as the case maybe.
When Arif Mohammed Khan sued me for an election campaign story -- alleging defamation because I quoted his rival saying that Khan had used money power, I received a teleprinter message, terse and funny.
"Congratulations. You have arrived. ....has sued you. For only ...."
I was ready to apologise (in my eagerness to keep the publishers out of unwanted controversy), but I was backed to the hilt.
Kuru would back his reporters like hell. But would not take any nonsense. Journalists who love their bylines got a strange mixed bag from him. If he found the story original, even if you had filed it with a "Staff Correspondent" tag, you would see it displayed well with a byline the next day.
The opposite was also true: a hyped story will get buried, or worse, spiked (killed)  -- as we say in the profession.
S.C. Anantharaman, my bureau chief in Business Standard, where Kuru was my deputy editor, called me after his passing. Ailing, weak but still keen to discuss Kuru, he showed me clippings from the good old days. These were about Reliance Industries under the influential Dhirubhai Ambani facing trouble over unauthorised sale of shares overseas. "You sure of the facts?" is all Kuru asked him. The story went on to rock parliament at the height of the much talked about Ambani-Govt nexus of those days.

Ananth also told me how Kuru once published a story on a high court verdict against Kolkata's celebrated industrialist Rama Prasad Goenka. Kuru put it on the front page of Business Standard. All the publisher could suggest was. "You could have put it on the inside page." He was zealously guarding his editorial independence.
And then there is the famous story about how the censor during Indira Gandhi's Emergency rule ordered a story taken off from the front page, and Kuru replaced it with the following lines from Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

But, strangely, Ananth told me about how, when being interviewed for the Business Standard job, Kuru developed cold feet to ask for a salary of Rs 600 per month!
"How can I possibly do that?" Ananth recalls him asking in Malayalam. This was in stark contrast to his pleading for higher salaries for those who worked under him.
His phenomenal memory for stories ("That story is old, it appeared on page 7, column 3 of  xxx  last week") would keep reporters from fooling him.
But, as I recall, when I filed a story about ANZ Grindlays bank desperately borrowing money to cover a big  amount in the now infamous Harshad Mehta scandal  I found my story as the lead the next morning.
 "Is it on Page 1?" I asked Kuru (the then Calcutta paper did not arrive in Delhi until afternoon, those days). "What do you mean?," he said. "It is the lead"
I as a reporter did not know how big the story was. He could smell it.
A lot more can be said about him. But for me, he was Guitar George.
I wonder if he would have given me a byline on this obituary. I  would not mind getting a call from him. "What is this story?" he might say. "I am not dead yet."


Prof. Aloke Kumar said...

Oh! I loved this man .... Guitar George ....
Aloke Kumar

BK Chowla, said...

I always saw Viond Mehta as a Puccka confgressi