24 June 2015

Memories of Praful Bidwai: A spirit of the 60s

In the early 1980s, when I started out in the profession at The Times of India's newsroom in its headquarters in Mumbai (then Bombay), there was an unwritten caste system. Apart from the news desk that edited and made pages, there were reporters who did stories (usually on city, culture, traffic, crime etc) and there slightly exalted correspondents (who covered government affairs). Beyond these in the white-painted steel-and-glass cabins sat the senior editors, then humbly described as "assistant editors"-- the tribe that usually wrote opinion pieces and "leader comments" as the official editorial comments of the newspaper were called.
The reporters were usually the locally educated foot-and-mouth journalists who hung out on their beats.
The "assistant editors" more often than not, were educated overseas, usually in the UK, and not too well informed on how things really worked on the ground in India. They sat with the editor-in-chief in long meetings and wrote brief pieces.
Praful Bidwai was an exception in more ways than one, though his credentials were substantial 

Officially, as an IIT dropout (from what I understand), he did not hold an official degree, but in the Indian mind, the dropout status from IIT was high enough. He had been involved in leftist student politics and like many of that era, journalism was a close proxy to further his ideals. But he did not fit into any party or even group as such, as I found out later.
He broke one rule of the newsroom by being an active reporter, his most famous one being on the harmful nuclear radiation in Tarapur.  The story caused a furore across India, and can be seen as the forerunner for the protests that ultimately happened over the Koodankulam project in Tamil Nadu.
What I remember at a personal level was that he was a senior one could talk to and look up to. Friendly and compassionate, he had an informal style and was very approachable. He encouraged story ideas on all themes and rarely came across as a firebrand except in his stories and writings.
Leftism was in fashion then everywhere, and he was a product of the 1960s/70s middle class politics -- the kind in which its members felt themselves not to be "aam aadmi" but of a privileged background in a poor country that had lots more poor people that needed help. This elitist leftism had many shades: from people who joined CPM or Naxalite groups to softer variations that simply joined NGOs that helped the underprivileged. 
Praful later moved to Delhi where I already was and had responsibilities beyond the armchair journalism that was in fashion earlier. I was now in The Economic Times, across the newsroom floor, and nearly joined the TOI because Praful encouraged me -- but the Bennett, Coleman and Co's bureaucracy ensured that I did not!
In 1988, he suffered multiple injuries in a horrible car crash and was bed-ridden for months. I remember visiting him at AIIMS and lending him cassettes of classical music (Bhimsen Joshi duly returned) and discovering his other side.  This happened even as The Times of India sponsored Bruce Springsteen in a "Concert for Human Rights" tour, which I skipped to visit Praful  in the hospital. (Inside story: employees got the passes too late, and we felt bad!).
We lost touch as I moved to economic and corporate reporting far away from Praful's pet themes (or maybe on the wrong side, from his point of view). But I kept bumping into him now and then. I last saw him a few months ago and we decided that we should discuss the world in the light of the Internet and social media. Alas, that never happened.
Looking back, given his talent I feel Praful, if he had traded his trademark Gandhi glasses and rugged beard and kurta for blue suits and ties, could have easily been in a General Electric or IBM, doing great stuff for a great lifestyle. But he was of a different idealistic generation that represented the spirit of the 1960s.  In post-modern "non-judgemental" terms, his politics was just a choice. But in another view, it represented a selfless spirit. As a journalist, his Frontline column's title kind of said a lot about what he stood for, with its title, "Beyond the obvious"