by Vir Sanghvi in the Hindustan Times
When my mother phoned on Friday to tell me that Russy Karanjia had died, I was both sad and worried. I was saddened by his passing: I had, after all, grown up before his eyes, and after my father died, in 1971, he was always kind and helpful to my mother and myself.
But the personal relationship does not cloud my perspective on Russy’s role as a transitional figure in the transformation of the Indian media. Born into a prosperous Parsi family, he was the star reporter at The Times of India when it was British-owned. He left when the paper chose Frank Moraes to be its first Indian editor (Russy wanted the job) and started Blitz during World War II as a pro-war effort weekly tabloid. But I was worried about whether in death he would get the recognition and respect that he deserved. For most of this century, Russy had been out of action, felled by a stroke from which his mind never quite recovered. Blitz, the publication he founded, died many years ago. And a whole new generation of journalists had no idea who he was.
I needn’t have worried. On Saturday, I was pleased to note that nearly every newspaper front-paged his passing and there were generous and well-written obituaries with tributes from the likes of Sudheendra Kulkarni and V Gangadhar (both of whom wrote for Blitz).
Even so, it’s hard to explain to a new generation why Russy Karanjia was such an epochal figure in Indian journalism. I do not claim to be objective about him. My father wrote for Blitz for over a decade from the mid-50s (after he was expelled from the CPI) to the late 1960s. Russy was a close family friend. And till the end, I called him ‘Uncle Russy’.
But the personal relationship does not cloud my perspective on Russy’s role as a transitional figure in the transformation of the Indian media. Born into a prosperous Parsi family, he was the star reporter at The Times of India when it was British-owned. He left when the paper chose Frank Moraes to be its first Indian editor (Russy wanted the job) and started Blitz during World War II as a pro-war effort weekly tabloid. As the war wound down, Blitz changed track, identifying itself closely with the Freedom Movement, much to the annoyance of the Brits who had regarded Russy as their man.
Most great Indian newspapers (including this one) are proudest of their roles during the Independence struggle, but Blitz’s moment of glory came later. In an era when the national press was controlled by British companies and jute barons (Jawaharlal Nehru called it the jhoot press), Blitz represented an alternative view of India.
Despite his own rather pucca persona (like a good Parsi, Russy only spoke English, though I suspect he may have known a few words of Gujarati), Karanjia identified Blitz with a Nehruvian vision of development. In today’s context, we may regard such a stance as pro-Congress, but in the 1950s and 1960s, Indian politics was much more complicated.
In Russy’s worldview, the Congress was a slothful, corrupt party, dominated by crooks and ‘reactionaries’ (a popular word in that era), such as Morarji Desai (referred to by Blitz as Morar-‘gin’ because of his love of Prohibition or simply as Morar-‘zeher’), Atulya Ghosh, SK Patil, and Sanjeeva Reddy.
According to Blitz, Nehru was a brilliant idealist, struggling to help the poor and to restore Indian pride despite the opposition of these sleazeballs (if Blitz did not coin the term ‘Syndicate’, it certainly popularised it). Russy was, therefore, anti-Congress and pro-Nehru — as bizarre as it may sound today. According to Blitz, Nehru was a brilliant idealist, struggling to help the poor and to restore Indian pride despite the opposition of these sleazeballs (if Blitz did not coin the term ‘Syndicate’, it certainly popularised it). Russy was, therefore, anti-Congress and pro-Nehru — as bizarre as it may sound today.
He identified himself completely with Nehru’s view of non-alignment and Panchsheel, flying off to interview Egypt’s GA Nasser, Yugoslavia’s Marshall Tito and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. In an era when Indian journalists were content to reproduce press releases, he was the one high-flyer, the only editor who could sit down and talk to world leaders on an equal basis. (If you look at pictures of Russy with world leaders in the 1960s, it’s often difficult to tell which one is the interviewer and which the interviewee, such was Karanjia’s confidence.)
Obviously, there was a logical inconsistency in his position: how could you love Nehru and hate the Congress? And Russy made his situation worse by throwing the full weight of Blitz behind Krishna Menon, hailing him as a great statesman. Like Russy, my father was a Krishna Menon fan in the 60s. And I have many memories of Menon coming home, drinking endless cups of tea and playing with me. (Well, “playing” is an exaggeration: he would wrap the crook of his walking stick around my young neck, pull me towards him and attempt to be friendly — I was both bewildered and terrified.)
But there’s no doubt that all of them — Russy, my father, Dilip Kumar, KA Abbas, Rajni Patel and the other Menon groupies — got it badly wrong. I can understand why Menon appealed to them. They were smarting from a post-colonial hangover, and because many of them were former communists, they admired someone like Menon who could tell the ‘imperialist’ West where to get off. But they were too charitable about Menon’s foolishness at the UN (his 11-hour-long speeches on Kashmir, for instance) and much too forgiving of his failures as defence minister.
Nevertheless, they remained loyal. Even when the Congress sidelined Menon, they helped with his 1967 election campaign (Menon lost from Bombay) and pitched the poll as a battle between the forces of reaction (for instance, SK Patil, who lost to George Fernandes, a great Blitz hero in the 60s) and those who wanted to preserve Nehru’s legacy.
By the time Indira Gandhi split the Congress in 1969, Russy’s position had acquired a certain post-facto legitimacy. Like Blitz, Mrs Gandhi also took the line that the Nehruvian Congress was wonderful but that the Syndicate consisted of corrupt reactionaries. Naturally, Russy became Mrs Gandhi’s favourite journalist (though, because he had been a friend of her father’s, he never had to suck up to Sanjay as the likes of Khushwant Singh later did), and Blitz became India’s largest-selling weekly (3 lakh copies and later, a Hindi edition that outsold the English version even though Russy himself was unable to read it).
And, of course, he was a classy guy: witty, sophisticated, charming and able to laugh at himself. He also had a heart of gold. His biggest rival DF Karaka of Current found himself out of a job after selling his weekly. Others would have gloated. Russy gave him a column. My own sense of Blitz is that it epitomised a certain Nehruvian view of the world. Its heyday came in the 1960s, when it struggled to fight for that view in the post-Nehru era. By the 70s, with Mrs Gandhi in power, it was pretty much the voice of the establishment. And in the 80s, with Rajiv in office, Russy continued to be South Block’s favourite journalist.
By the 90s, it was all over. As the Indian media transformed themselves, as the newspapers got slicker, and as television arrived, Blitz began to seem like an anachronism. The issues that had so exercised Russy two decades ago, became irrelevances. He struggled to find a new identity, new writers — for a couple of years I wrote a weekly column for Blitz out of some sentimental desire to keep a family association alive — and groped for new causes.
Eventually, I think he lost it completely, even embracing the BJP (when it was out of power, to be fair) in his search for a new raison d’etre. Nothing worked. It was not that Russy was not a great editor. It was that he was an editor for his times. And those times had gone.
It’s difficult now to comprehend quite why Blitz was so important in its heyday. While other newspapers were dull and boring, Blitz was bright and energetic. While the press was uniformly respectful of the rich and powerful, Blitz was deliberately iconoclastic and irreverent (“Patnaik, get out!” about Biju Patnaik was a typical headline). Blitz had no respect for world leaders.
I still remember a column by my father attacking Britain for supporting Pakistan in the 1965 war. A picture of Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister, was captioned matter-of-factly, “Wilson: hypocrite and humbug”.
It went out of its way to expose scams (often at great cost; in the 1960s, it paid the then enormous sum of Rs 3 lakh as compensation for defaming the Thakersey industrial family). While Indian newspaper prose was somnambulistic in its dullness, Blitz captured the energy of the best British tabloid writing.
None of this would have been possible without Russy. Till the end of his career, he was gutsy, daring, driven by passion and entirely supportive of his journalists. Because he owned the paper, he had no bosses. Because Blitz’s economics were subscription-driven, he didn’t give a damn about advertisers.
And, of course, he was a classy guy: witty, sophisticated, charming and able to laugh at himself. He also had a heart of gold. His biggest rival DF Karaka of Current found himself out of a job after selling his weekly. Others would have gloated. Russy gave him a column.
At a personal level, I will miss him enormously. As far as Indian journalism is concerned, an important part of its history died on Friday. And we’re all poorer for the loss.